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GHANA STUDIES / Volume 3 ISSN 1536-5514 / E-ISSN 2333-7168© 2000 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 153 LONG LIVE THE QUEEN! THE YAA ASANTEWAA CENTENARY AND THE POLITICS OF HISTORY LYNDA R. DAY Introduction At a meeting of Asante chiefs in Kumasi on March 28, 1900, the British governor demanded the right to sit on the Golden Stool, symbol of Asante unity. Yaa Asantewaa, the female ruler of Ejisu, rose to exhort the assembled chiefs to resist this affront and went on to lead a six month war of resistance . Though the war ended with the queenmother captured and taken into exile where she died, Yaa Asantewaa has become a national symbol of bravery and pride. And not only is she a national figure in Ghana, she has enough international renown to rank her 20th in the BBC’s Focus on Africa program call-in competition to determine the African of the millennium, an honor ultimately granted to Kwame Nkrumah. The year 2000, the centenary of her struggle to preserve Asante sovereignty , marked a new threshold in defining the legacy of the Ejisu queenmother . The centenary provided an opportunity for her public persona to be recognized, examined, and placed in the context of Asante history and by extension, the history of Ghana as a whole. The interpretation of Yaa Asantewaa’s place in history has varied in each historical epoch. In the early days of British colonial rule and while she was still alive in the Seychelles as a political prisoner, the grand colonial narrative defined her as a dangerous subversive. No statues were allowed to be erected in her honor. The man who betrayed her to the British forces was rewarded with the Ejisu stool and an impressive carved throne shipped to Ejisu by Queen Victoria herself . During the decades when colonial rule was ascendant, derisive songs were sung about her emphasizing how she had lost the war and run away to hide. Independence from colonial rule and the African liberation struggles of the 1960s, however, supported the narrative of Yaa Asantewaa as 154 Ghana Studies • volume 3 • 2000 anti-colonial resister. The 1960 opening of girls’ secondary school named after her was an important mark of a newfound respect for Ejisu queenmother . But many of those who commented recently on the current fascination with Nana Yaa Asantewaa acknowledged that for much of the previous century, little attention had been paid to her. Indeed, since most of the facts surrounding her life are sketchy and many of the events which made her famous are disputed or shrouded in myth, why has the Ejisu queenmother generated so much admiration? What shared or re-created memory of the queenmother has raised her to such a high level of recognition and acclaim? It is certainly true that under her supervision, an Asante army surrounded the English fort and the Governor ’s party and cut them off from relief supplies or reinforcements for six months. But one re-telling of her role describes her as sitting on a shrouded horse in front of the fort with her face partly smeared with blood and clay, carrying a rifle in one hand and a chopping knife in the other, insulting the soldiers within the fort and challenging them to come out and fight. Others have suggested that as the designated Asante sahene (war leader) she directed the conduct of the campaign from afar and that she probably never went near the fort.1 Whatever the exact details may be of what she did in the war, the Yaa Asantewaa story has become a text which a wide variety of political actors interpret for their own purposes. This historical figure has come to represent many things to many people. She may be seen variously as an anti-colonial guerilla fighter, a role model for Black Women everywhere, a conservative royalist attempting to restore an outmoded imperial system, an African feminist, an antagonist to global capitalist expansion, a Ghanaian heroine, an Asante nationalist par excellence. By the centenary year, the Yaa Asantewaa legacy had crossed so many boundaries that the commemorative had become a vehicle for furthering a wide range...


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