Saturday, November 10, 2007

Africa's Warrior Queens: Gender Roles, Political Leadership and Societal Development

Africa's Warrior Queens

Gender Roles, Political Leadership and Societal Development

by Abayomi Azikiwe, Editor
Pan-African News Wire

One major recurrent feature of African history is the existence of women rulers throughout various regions of the continent. Since the period of ancient dynastic Egypt, there have been notable women who have led monarchical societies and exercised political, economic as well as military power.

It is also of great significance that there were women rulers of highly developed African societies who led anti-slavery and anti-colonial resistance to the onslaught of European imperialism. Questions related to whether the women may have only represented the ruling groups within the society or whether they were more compassionate and egalitarian in their style of leadership, does not necessarily distract from their important place in history that distinguishes this social phenomena from other societies in Europe and Asia.

According to the web site "African Women Warriors" located at

"Matriarchal warrior tribes and matrilineal tribal descent are a continuing theme in African history and in some cases survived into modern times. One of the great African warrior queens of the ancient world was Majaji, who led the Lovedu tribe which was part of the Kushite Empire during the Kushite's centuries long war with Rome. The empire ended in 350 AD when the Kushite stronghold of Meroe fell to repeated Roman assaults. Majaji led her warriors in battle armed with a shield and spear and is believed to have died on the walls of Meroe.

"The Egyptian warrior queens included Ahotep, the 7 Cleopatras and Arsinoe II & III, all of who descended from the royal house of Kush. They ruled Egypt and led her army and navy through Roman times. A succession of Ethiopian Queens and military leaders known as Candace were also descended from the Kush. The first Candace, leading an army mounted on war elephants, turned back Alexander's invasion of Ethiopia in 332 BC. In 30 BC Candace Amanirenas defeated an invasion by Patronius, the Roman governor of Egypt and sacked the city of Cyrene.

"In 937 AD Judith, Queen of the Falash, attacked Axum, sacred capital of Ethiopia, killing all the inhabitants including the descendants of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba."

In this essay five women will be noted for their leadership roles in African history during very important periods of social transformation within the societies they came out of and took over either through inheritance or political struggle.

Hatshepsut: A Ruler in Ancient Egypt

Hatshepsut is often considered the first woman ruler of ancient Egypt. She was born during the 15th century BC, the daughter of Tuthmose I and Ashmes, who were of royal lineage. She was one of three children who survived the childhood deaths of her brothers.

Even though her father Tuthmose I had a son by a commoner Moutnofrit, Tuthmose II, Hatshepsut ruled as a result of her political acumen and personal capability. Tuthmose II died early of cancer after claiming authority for three or four years. Hatshepsut was able to garner enough support among the key elements within Eygptian society to take control as pharaoh. Her rule lasted approximately 15 years. Her death is reported to have occurred in 1458 BC.

In an article by David Bediz entitled "The Story of Hatshepsut" he states that:

"Although there were no wars during her reign, she proved her sovereignty by ordering expeditions to the land of Punt, in present-day Somalia, in search of the ivory, animals, spices, gold and aromatic trees that Egyptians coveted. These expeditions are well documented in the hieroglyphic inscriptions on the walls of her temple. With these inscriptions are included incised representations of the journey, including humorous images of the Puntites and their queen, at whom the Egyptians no doubt looked while restraining a giggle; the queen has folds of fat hanging over her knees and elbows, her back is crooked and she has an acquiline nose. To the short, thin Egyptians she was probably quite a sight."

During Hatshepsut's rule she constructed many monuments and works of art unrivaled by any other queen to come in Egypt. She erected an enormous temple in the Valley of the Kings near a large plateau at Deir-el-Bahri just adjacent to the Nile River from Thebes.

Queen Mantatisi (1781-1836): Commander of the Batlokoa (The Wild Cat People) of Southern Africa

Perhaps one of the most well-known and feared women military leaders during the early 19th century was Mantatisi who was born the daughter of Chief Mothaba of the Basia in the Harrismith District of the later Orange Free State. She became the wife of Mokotjo, the chief of the neighboring Batlokoa. Mokotjo died while their son Sekonyela was still to young to take over control of the chieftiancy. As a result Mantatisi assumed control and acted as regent for Sekonyela.

Reports claim that Mantatisi was a tall attractive woman who bore her husband four sons altogether. After her husband's death a series of military encroachments by the AmaHlubi clans who were fleeing their homes in neighboring Natal. According to historians of the region, Mantatisi commanded the Batlokoa into the Caledon Valley where they drove out the more peaceful Sotho clans living in the area. Her troops seized the crops and cattle of the people they attacked leaving a trail of destruction and devastation.

Her reign of military conquest extended as far as central modern day Botswana. At the height of her military and political power her army was estimated to contain forty thousand fighters. However, she eventually suffered a series of defeats beginning in Bechuanaland in January of 1823. Peter Becker describes the developments during this period when he states that:

"Meanwhile Mantatisi was approaching with forty thousand men, women and children. It was January 1823, the time of the year crops were ripening and food was usually plentiful. But the Wild Cat People were compelled to live frugally, for so great had been the chaos brought about by lifaqane in general and the plundering of Mantatisi, Mpangazita and Matiwane in particular that entire tribes had vanished from their settlements even before they had tilled their fields in preparation for planting. Indeed, the Central Plateau swarmed with hunger-stricken stragglers and small, detached parties of bandits. Apart from roots, bulbs and berries, there was little food to be found in the veld, certainly not enough to feed so large a horde as that of Mantatisi."

Nonetheless, the most prosperous of the Bechuana chiefs, Makaba of the Bangwaketsi, made a firm decision not to surrender to Mantatisi without a struggle. The same above-mentioned author, Peter Becker, continues by saying that:

"Meanwhile, the old Chief had decided not to surrender to Mantatisi without a fight. He called up every available warrior, garrisoned every pass leading to his capital, and with the guile for which he was famous, prepared traps into which he planned to lead his aggressors.

"Since her flight from the Harrismith District Mantatisi had managed to brush aside all opposition in the teritories she traversed, but now in the stifling bushveld of Bechuanaland she was to come face to face with a foe whose fighting forces were as numerous and also better fed than those of the Wild Cat People. The vanguard of Manatisi's army strode into ambuscades; large groups of men topped headlong into concealed pitfalls and met their death beneath volleys of barbed javelins. A battle broke out, in the course of which hundreds of the invaders were massacred. Before the situation could develop into a rout Mantatisi suddenly disengaged her armies and retreated with her hordes to the east. Thus Makaba became the first Sotho chief to repulse the formidable Wild Cat Army, and to this day he is spoken of as the 'Man of Conquest.'"

After Mantatisi's son Sekonyele reached maturity he took control of the Batlokoa social structures and military. Eventually they would be conquered by the Basotho King Mosheshoe I. In the work known as "Chronicles of Basutoland: A Running Commentary on the Events of the Years 1830-1902 by the French Protestant Missionaries in Southern Africa," a correspondence from church operatives in Basutoland stated the following in regard to the fate of the Batlokoa under Sekonyela the son of Mantatisi:

"There is no doubt that Moshoeshoe would have preferred to win his old adversary to his side but Sekonyela is irreconcilable as well as dangerous. With the British about to retire from the Sovereignty, Moshoeshoe is faced with the prospect of the inevitable alliance between Sekonyela and the Boers. Before it is too late, Sekonyela must be destroyed. Fortunately, the latter chooses this very moment to goad Moshoeshoe to retaliation and thus plays into his hands, once again, but for the last time.

"Moshoeshoe, a man of peace, for the first time in this record appears in the unusual role of a fighting general and at once reveals himself a master. Now at last he is free to deal with his traditional enemy, an enemy whom he has spared for years. Unfortunately, this meant the end of the Batlokoa tribe as such and their crushing defeat will simultaneously rid Moshoeshoe of their presence and clear the field for further penetration by their common foe, the insatiable land-devouring Boer.

"Moshoeshoe...gentle and humane by nature, has seen his power grow from year to year, and he may be described to-day as stronger and, at the same time, more influential and wealthy than any other chief in Southern Africa."

Women in the Anti-Colonial Struggle

Queen Nzinga(1583-1663 AD) of Ndongo and Matamba: Fought to Halt Portuguese Colonialism

Nzinga was born in 1583 AD in the area now known as Angola in the southwest region of the African continent. She was reported to have first become involved in politics as an ambassador for her brother in negotiations with the Portuguese colonialists. The Portuguese had set up a slave fortress at Ambaca that was built on the land of the Ndongo kingdom.

Her negotiations with Portuguese Governor Joao Correia de Sousa was initially successful in that he agreed to her terms for resolving their differences. The purpose of the negotiation was to seek the withdrawal of the Portuguese colonialists from their land and the return of the Ndongo people who had been captured and enslaved.

Although she converted to Christianity during this period in order to consolidate the treaty with Portugal, it was reported in later years that she was highly critical and condemnatory of European Christians and their motives in Africa. Despite the signing of a treaty with Portugal, the Europeans never honored its terms. Consequently war would erupt after she assumed control of Ndongo around 1624.

The battles between the Ndongo and the Portuguese would continue for decades. Queen Nzinga launched attacks against the Portuguese occupation of Ambaca. She was eventually forced to flee to the east in 1627 and re-occupy the island of Kidonga where she had been ousted by the Portuguese in 1624. By 1631 she had taken over the neighboring kingdom of Matamba in her continuing efforts to battle the encroachment of the Portuguese into the interior of this region.

Queen Nzinga would later form an alliance with the Kongo people who worked in conjunction with the Dutch West India Company. Even in 1644 she attacked the Portuguese again and defeated them at Ngoleme. However, by 1646, with the capture of her sister, she was defeated at Kavanga. Her sister was able to secretly correspond with Queen Nzinga revealing the war plans of the Portuguese. When this was discovered by the colonialists her sister was reported drowned by the Portuguese military in the Kwanza River.

As a result of her alliance with the Netherlands, reinforcements were sent to Queen Nzinga's army. She would route the Portuguese and seize their capital at Masangano in 1647. Despite a Portuguese retaliation causing Queen Nzinga to flee, her retreat led to other battles well into the 1650s. Even into her sixties, Queen Nzinga would continue attacks on the Portuguese fortresses leading her own troops in battle. She would eventually sign a peace treaty with the Portuguese in 1657.

In her later years she would devote her time to re-integrating former slaves back into African society. She died peacefully at the age of eighty on December 17, 1663 in Matamba. In modern Angolan political life, Queen Nzinga is remembered for her enormous military and diplomatic skills. A major street in Luanda, the capital of Angola, is named after her. A statue of her is located at Kinaxixi at a massive square. Angolan women view the area as ideal for marriage and many couples exchange vows there on Thursdays and Fridays.

Mbuya Nehanda (Charwe Nyakasikana)(1862-1898): Spirit Mediums & the Anti-Colonial Revolt in Mashonaland (Zimbabwe)

The struggle in Zimbabwe goes back for over 100 years to reclaim the land and culture of the Mashona and Ndebele peoples whose populations constitute the majority of Africans living in this region of sub-continent. One of the key figures in sparking an anti-colonial revolt during the last decade of the 19th century, was Mbuya Nehanda who in all likelihood had accumulated some status and clout prior to the 1896-97 rebellion in Mashonaland.

Nehanda was considered a powerful spirit medium who dedicated her life to the preservation of traditional African culture. During the late 19th century in the hills around Mazoe, Zimbabwe, there resided numerous sub-chiefs including the Wata and Chidamba. In the area, according to the Anglican Church maps after 1888, there was a village called Nehandas.

The historical sources on Zimbabwe say that the original Nehanda was a child of Mutota who was the initial Monomatapa (ruler) who resided in the escarpment North of Sipolilo in the early 15th century. Mutota was the founder of the Mutapa state and also had a son called Matope. Nehanda in 15th century Mutapa became so powerful that it was believed that her spirit lived in other humans over the generations. Even 500 years later it was taught that the spirit of the original Nehanda occupied Nehanda Charwe Nyakasikana as the woman incarnation of the oracle Nyamhika Nehanda.

Nehanda and her spirit companion Kaguvi were cited as the important figures in the First Chimurenga during 1896-97. Kaguvi was considered the spirit husband of the former great Shona medium Nehanda and this consequent historical connection influenced Mbuya Nehanda to teach the philosophy of resistance to British imperialism. This important role of Kaguvi and Nehanda can never be minimized in assessing anti-colonial history in Zimbabwe.

The resistance fighters and their supporters in Mashonaland believed that both Kaguvi and Nehanda were the voices of God, also known as Mwari. They both preached that the origins of problems within the homeland resulted from the settlements established by the British which sought to encroach on greater portions of land occupied and utilized by the African people. According to Kaguvi and Nehanda, Mwari had decreed that the Europeans be driven from the country.

As a result of Nehanda's role in the First Chimurenga, an arrest warrant was put out for her capture. Kaguvi and Nehanda were charged with the murder of a puppet African police officer and a British colonial agent. They were both sentenced to hang in 1898. At the hanging it required three attempts before Nehanda died. Her last words before death were reported to have been that: "My bones will rise again."

During the imprisonment of Nehanda and Kaguvi, the Europeans attempted to have both of them converted to Christianity. Even though Kaguvi was reported to have converted, Nehanda emphatically refused to accept what she considered as the belief system of the colonialists.

Yaa Asantewaa (1850-1920): State Building and the 1900 Asante War of Resistance Against British Imperialism

The west Africa nation of Ghana is considered historically the fountainhead of the anti-colonial struggle in Africa and the Diaspora. This is the direct result of the triumph of Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, the first Prime Minister and later President of the First Republic of Ghana during the 1950s and 1960s. Nkrumah's Convention People's Party (CPP) led the years-long battle for national independence that reached fruition on March 6, 1957.

Yet over a half-century earlier a great African warrior Queen Yaa Asantewaa has been recognized by historians as a major contributor to the efforts by African people to prevent the consolidation of British imperialism in what was then known as the Gold Coast (today Ghana). Yaa Asantewaa was born into the royal Asona clan of Edweso and in 1887 when the female stool of Edweso was vacated, Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese, who was then Edwesohene, utilized his traditional authority to place Yaa Asantewaa as successor to Nana Ampobin I as Edwesohemaa.

After her appointment to the position of the Edwesohene she performed her functions very effectively. Later when her brother died in 1894, Yaa Asantewaa used her prerogative as Queen-mother to select her grandson to take over the position vacated by his uncle. In 1896 she reached an agreement with the British and signed a Treaty of Protection. At the same time she worked between 1896-1900 to resist European commercial and mining agents who sought to encroach further into the territory of the Edweso.

Yaa Asantewaa opposed both the European commercial agents and their allies among the neighboring people of Kokofu. She eventually challenged the efforts of the colonialists in the British courts established in Kumasi after the deportation of the Asantehene in 1896. The British sought to prevent any effective resistance to their growing colonial rule in the area. They would impose taxation and alien rule on the people which caused great consternation and outrage among the Asante.

In March of 1900 the British formerly announced to the Asante Chiefs that the leadership of the nation would not be allowed to return and assume their rightful authority. The British demanded that the Golden Stool, which is considered the soul of the people, be surrendered. Wilhelmina J. Donkoh in her article entitled: "Yaa Asantewaa, A Role Model for Womanhood in the New Millennium," points out that:

"This was the environment in which Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the only female present at the gathering in her capacity as the caretaker of the Edweso State rose up and defied British authority by questioning the Governor. She inquired of the Governor, whether he had seen the Asantehene before coming to Kumasi, that since the Asantehene was the traditional custodian of the Stool, he was the appropriate person to disclose its whereabouts. She then turned on her male counterparts who had been stunned into silence, and taunted them about their manhood."

Donkoh in the same above-mentioned article continues by illustrating her direct role in commanding the resistance war of 1900 against the British. She also notes that her actions defied Akan values that call for the woman to be submissive and quiet in public. Consequently, she was not at all concerned about being described as an "obaa Kokonyini" (a female cockerel) or an "obaa sagyefoo" which in essence means a female redeemer in the times of war.

Donkoh relates Yaa Asantewaa's leadership style during the resistance war of the people against the British in 1900:

"From various accounts, Yaa Asantewaa comes across as a 'Mother Courage' figure as well as an astute tactician and able military leader. For example, her taunts challenged some of the men to act. Eyewitness accounts from Edweso indicate that she herself did not physically take up arms to fight. Her role has been described as being mainly inspirational.

"Yet all accounts acknowledge her to be the leader of the resistance supported by some male leaders--Kofi Fofie of Nkonson, Antoa Mensa, Kwame Afrifa of Atwima and Osei Kwadwo Kromo. She was known to have visited the soldiers in the battlefield to ascertain how they were faring. She also gave directions and advice as well as supplied gunpowder."

Donkoh also stresses that Yaa Asantewaa's role was not totally without precedent within her people's history:

"It should be pointed out that in Asante history, there, have been many instances when women have excelled in a public capacity. There is, for example, the case of the Asantehemaa Adoma Akosua, who in 1814, was left in charge of the affairs of the Asante nation while the Asantehene Osei Bonsu went to the coast to visit his troops on the battlefield there.

"In the period, Adoma Akosua received a Dutch embassy with which she discussed trade. There is also the brief diplomatic career Akyaawaa Oyiakwan, a daughter of the Asantehene Osei Kwadwo (1764-77), who headed two different diplomatic missions that successfully negotiated the Maclean treaty in April 1831 with the British and with the Danes at Christianborg Castle in August of the same year.

"In addition, is the example of the Dwabenhemaa Ama Seiwaa who in 1843 took over as chief of the Dwabeii and led her people back to Asante from exile in Akyem Abuakwa in the south east of the Gold Coast after the death of her two sons in succession.

"Indeed, her daughter, Nana Afrakoma Panin and her granddaughter Nana Akua Saponmaa both held the dual offices of Dwabenhemaa and Dwabenhene concurrently. However, the difference between all these examples and the case of Nana Yaa Asantewaa was that the latter took on the might of the technologically superior British."


This brief survey of the role of five African women within their societies during the ancient, pre-colonial and colonial eras illustrate quite clearly that the assumptions around the strict divisions of labor and political power among traditional African nations depart significantly from those in Europe and Asia. The lives, contributions and accomplishments of these women also defy the stereotypical notions of the role of females within traditional African societies prior to the advent of colonialism and national independence.

The political imperatives of the twenty-first century require that further scientific research be conducted into the role of women in African history and societies. This can be done by a more objective approach to the existing data and artifacts available on the pre-colonial period as well as utilizing the vast oral histories within African societies themselves.

Genuine national independence of the continent and the former colonial territories require the total emancipation of all oppressed sections of society. For Africa will never reach its full potential without the complete liberation of women. Consequently, the reconstruction of African history and the role of women within it will make a significant contribution to the realization of a society devoid of all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Abayomi Azikiwe is the editor of the Pan-African News Wire.

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