Warrior Queens and The Historical Record The plight of the African woman today, is totally inconsistent with the historical record. It belies the major part that the African woman played in the struggle against colonial rule and slavery. It negates her role as “Queen Mother”, General and Chief. A part she played heroically through-out Africa’s history. Gary K. Bush writes; “ She toils in dreary, largely unpaid and un-fulfilling tasks, responsible for most of the farming, marketing and commerce of rural Africa, in addition to their child-bearing and child-rearing responsibilities. Many more sit in desperation in refugee camps where they have been driven or shelter in the bush, trying to avoid the conflicts around them. In large tracts of Africa they are without a voice; without power; and the first victims of the civil conflicts which have beset warring African states. They are victims of rape, murder, virtual slavery as well as suffering from the diseases which debilitate African populations.” This picture is the aftermath, of conquest, slavery, exploitation, colonial domination and miss-education. The Euro/Arab colonization and its policies of diminishing the African in general, has fallen with a deafening thud, particularly on the African woman. However; the following is only a partial example of the pre-colonial part African Women played. Gary K. Bush writes in (The Forgotten History of African Women ) ……“One of the earliest of the powerful African queens, whose history did survive the passage of time, was Makeda, The Queen of Sheba. Born in Ethiopia she was one of the many Black women of antiquity, who were legendary for their beauty and power. Amongst these were the Queens of Ethiopia (also known as Nubia, Kush, Axum and Sheba.) One thousand years before Christ, Ethiopia was ruled by a line of virgin queens. The one whose story has survived into our time was known as Makeda, “the Queen of Sheba.” Her remarkable tradition was recorded in the Kebar Nagast, or the Glory of Kings, and the Bible. The Bible tells us of the infatuation of King Solomon with this African queen (1 Kings 10). She bore a child to Solomon, his first-born, called Menelik. Menelik and the Queen returned to Ethiopia with the blessing of Solomon and founded the dynasty which lasted until the mid-20th century”. Further he states; “The royal women of Ancient Egypt wielded immense power. The Kemetic women (Kemet was the African name for Egypt) of the 18th dynasty wielded military as well as political power,” starting with: Ahhotep I, She was such an important figure in the early New Kingdom, that she is considered to have been a pivotal figure in the founding of the eighteenth dynasty. She had a long and influential life and ruled as regent after the death of her father. She enabled her two sons (Kamose and Ahmose I) to unite Egypt after the Hyskos occupation. She was instrumental in driving the Hyskos invaders out of Egypt. She lived until the age of ninety and was buried beside Kamose at Thebes. “She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters, she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.” Weapons and jewelry found in the tomb of Ahhotep I include an axe depicting Ahmose I striking down a Hyskos soldier, and flies in honor for the queen in her role against the Hyskos. She was considered a warrior Queen and was presented with the Order of Valor. She was honored with a stela, commissioned by Ahmose I in the temple of Amun-Re that praises her military accomplishments. .
Another was Hatshepsut who actually ruled as Pharaoh over all of Egypt. Hatshepsut held the throne for over 20 years, building magnificent temples and sending a famous naval expedition to trade with Somalia.
Two other women ruled as pharaohs in their own right: Sobekneferu who ruled Egypt for 4 years and Twosret. Queen Twosret (Tawosret, Tausret) was the last known ruler and the final Pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty. She is recorded in Manetho’s Epitome as a certain Thuoris, who in Homer is called Polybus, husband of Alcandara, and in whose time Troy was taken. She was said to have ruled Egypt for seven years, but this figure included the nearly six year reign of Siptah, her predecessor. Consequently, her sole independent reign would have lasted for slightly more than one full year from 1191 to 1190 BC. Her royal name, Sitre Meryamun, means “Daughter of Re, beloved of Amun.” After the Romans conquered Egypt they set out to expand their empire. Augustus sent troops to the south of Egypt to invade the Kingdom of the Meroites (Ethiopia) in 322 B.C., However they came face to face with the warrior-Queen Candace. Her full name and title was Amnirense qore li kdwe li (“Ameniras, Qore and Kandake”) Candace was one of the greatest generals of the ancient world. This formidable black queen was world famous as a military tactician and field commander. Augustus could not entertain even the possibility of having his world fame and unbroken chain of victories marred by risking a defeat, at last, by a woman. He halted his armies at the borders of Ethiopia and did not invade. He refused to meet the waiting black armies with their Queen in personal command. He granted an audience to the representatives of Candace at the island of Samos and negotiated a peace deal with the Meroites, including a neutral buffer zone. This was the first recorded instance in the entire history of Africa when diplomats representing a Black African ruler, independent of Egypt, travelled to Europe to achieve a diplomatic resolution.
Another great queen was the North African Berber Queen; Dihya. She was a Berber queen, a religious and military leader who led indigenous resistance to Arab expansion in Northwest Africa (the region then known as Numidia, known as eastern Algeria today). She was born in the early 7th century and died around the end of the 7th century. She was Jewish. She was famous because, in her youth, she had freed her people from a tyrant by agreeing to marry him and then murdering him on their wedding night. Dihya succeeded Kusaila as the war leader of the Berber tribes in the 680s and opposed the encroaching Arab armies of the Umayyad Dynasty. Hasan ibn al-Nu’man marched from Egypt and captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage and other cities. Standing in the way of his conquest of all of North Africa was Dihya. He marched into Numidia. Their armies met near Meskiana in the present-day province of Oum el-Bouaghi, Algeria. She defeated Hasan so soundly that he fled and retired to Cyrenaica (Libya) for four or five years before giving up his quest for North African hegemony.
Amina, the Queen of Zaria (1588-1589). She was queen of Zazzua, a part of Nigeria now known as Zaria where matrilineal equality allowed women to rule as well as men. She was born around 1533 during the reign of Sarkin (king) Zazzau Nohir; she was probably his granddaughter. Zazzua was one of a number of Hausa city-states which dominated the trans-Saharan trade after the collapse of the Songhai Empire to the west. Its wealth was due to trade of mainly leather goods, cloth, kola, salt, horses and imported metals. At the age of sixteen, Amina became the heir apparent (Magajiya) to her mother, Bakwa of Turunku, the ruling queen of Zazzua. Although her mother’s reign was known for peace and prosperity, Amina decided to immerse herself in military skills from the warriors. Queen Bakwa died around 1566 and the reign of Zazzua passed to her younger brother Karama. At this time Amina emerged as the leading warrior of Zazzua cavalry. Her military achievements brought her great wealth and power. When Karama died after a ten-year rule, Amina became queen of Zazzua. She set off on her first military expedition three months after coming to power and continued fighting until her death. In her thirty-four year reign, she expanded the domain of Zazzua to its largest size ever. Her main focus, however, was not on annexation of neighbouring lands, but on forcing local rulers to accept vassal status and permitting Hausa traders safe passage. She is credited with popularizing the earthen city wall fortifications, which became characteristic of Hausa city-states since then. She ordered building of a defensive wall around each military camp that she established. Later, towns grew within these protective walls, many of which are still in existence. They’re known as “ganuwar Amina”, or Amina’s walls. She is mostly remembered as “Amina, Yar Bakwa ta san rana,” meaning “Amina, daughter of Nikatau, a woman as capable as a man. With the arrival of colonialism the struggle took a different turn. When the British conquered and subjugated Ghana they captured the Asantahene, the paramount king of the Ashanti The counter attack against the imposition of colonial rule was led by Yaa Asantewa the Queen Mother of Ejisu. Her fight against British colonialists is a story that is a key feature of the history of Ghana. She stiffened the resolve of the chiefs who feared to attack the British. One evening the chiefs held a secret meeting at Kumasi. Yaa Asantewa was at the meeting. The chiefs were discussing how they should make war on the white men and force them to bring back the Asantehene. Yaa Asantewa noticed that some of the chiefs were afraid. Some said that there should be no war. They suggested that they be delegated to go to beg the Governor to bring back the Asantehene King Prempeh. Then Yaa Asantewa stood up and spoke. This was what she said: “Now I have seen that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our king. If it were in the brave days of, the days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opolu Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see thier king taken away without firing a shot. No white man could have dared to speak to chief of the Ashanti in the way the Governor spoke to you chiefs this morning. Is it true that the bravery of the Ashanti is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this, if you the men of Ashanti will not go forward, then we will. We the women will. I shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight till the last of us falls in the battlefields.” This speech stirred up the men who took an oath to fight the white men until they released the Asantehene. For months the Ashanti, led by Yaa Asantewa, fought very bravely and kept the white men in their fort. Finally, British reinforcements totaling 1,400 soldiers arrived at Kumasi. Yaa Asantewa and other leaders were captured and sent into exile. Yaa Asantewa’s war was the last of the major wars in Africa led by a woman. Another anti-colonial anti-slavery fighter was Mbande Zinga (Nzinga) the sister and adviser of the king of Ngola (today Angola). She served as his representative in negotiating treaties with the colonial Portuguese. She became queen when her brother died in 1624 and appointed women, including her two sisters Kifunji and Mukumbu, to all government offices. She was a member of the ethnic Jagas a militant group that formed a human shield against the Portuguese slave traders. As a visionary political leader, competent, and self-sacrificing she was completely devoted to the resistance movement. She formed alliances with other foreign powers, pitting them against one another to free Angola, of European influence. When the Portuguese broke the peace treaty she led her largely female army against them inflicting terrible casualties while also conquering nearby kingdoms, in an attempt to build a strong enough confederation to drive the Portuguese out of Africa. She accepted a truce and then agreed to a peace treaty in 1635. She continued to rule her people and lived to be 81. When Angola became an independent nation in 1975 a street in Luanda was named in her honor.
Rebellions were led by women in Central Africa as well. One of the most revered is Nehanda Mbuya (grandmother) of Zimbabwe. When the English invaded Zimbabwe in 1896 and Cecil Rhodes began confiscating land and cattle, Nehanda and other Shona leaders declared war. Nehanda (1862-1898) was a priestess of the MaShona nation of Zimbabwe. She became a military leader of her people when the British invaded her country. She led a number of successful attacks on the English but was eventually captured and executed. She is one of the most important personalities in the modern history of Zimbabwe. She is still referred to as Mbuya (Grandmother) Nehanda by Zimbabwean patriots. The Baul nation of the Ivory Coast reveres a female founder: the Ashanti princess Abla Pokou, She led her people fleeing across the river from Ghana into Ivory Coast to carve out a territory for their settlement. Kaipkir was the warrior leader of the Herero tribe of southwest Africa. In the 18th century. She led her people in battles against British slave traders. She had a standing force of armed women who would attack the slave traders and force them to give up their captives.There are records of Herero women fighting German soldiers as late as 1919.
Nandi (Nandi kaBhebhe eLangeni) was the warrior mother of Shaka Zulu., the famed leader of the Zulu in South Africa. She battled slave traders as well and trained her son to be a warrior. When he became King he established an all-female regiment which often fought in the front lines of his army.
Mantatisi was the warrior queen of the baTlokwas (the once famous 40,000- to 50,000-strong Sotho tribe). In the early 1800s, Queen Mantatisi became the first woman to rule as chieftainess over her people. She fought to preserve her tribal lands during the wars between Shaka Zulu and Matiwane. She succeeded in protecting the baTlokwas heritage although her son, who became King when she died, was eventually defeated by Mahweshwe.
A contemporary was Dzugudini. She was a grand-daughter of “the famous ruler Monomatapa,”. She was the founding Rain Queen of the Lovedu. Her royal father was angry that she bore a child out of wedlock and drove her South to live among the Basotho. In the early 1800s, a leadership crisis was resolved by accession of the first Mujaji, a Rain Queen with both political and ceremonial power. She had no military, but even the Zulu king Shaka paid her tribute because of her rain power. Her successors have less authority, but still preside over womanhood initiations and other important rituals.
Madam Yoko (Mammy Yoko) was a leader of the Mende of Sierra Leone. She ruled and led the army of the fourteen tribes of the Kpa Mende Confederacy, the largest tribal group in 19th century Sierra Leone. At that time at least 15% of all the tribes in Sierra Leone were led by women, today approximately 9% have women rulers. Her birth name was Soma, which she changed to Yoko after her Sande (womenâ€™s secret society) initiation She was born around 1849 in the Gbo Chiefdom. She used her leadership of the Sande to augment her political contacts. In 1878 Yoko became the chief of Senehun and was recognized as the Queen by the British.
Menen Leben Amede was Empress of Ethopia. She commanded her own army and acted as regent for her son Ali Alulus. She was wounded and captured in a battle in 1847 but was ransomed by her son and continued to rule until 1853.
Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh was a leader of the Dahomey Amazons under King Gezo. In 1851 she led an army of 6,000 women against the Egba fortress of Abeokuta. Because the Amazons were armed with spears, bows and swords while the Egba had European cannons only about 1,200 survived the extended battle. In 1892 King Behanzin of Dahomey (now Benin) took up arms against the French colonists over trading rights. He led his army of 12,000 troops, including 2,000 Amazons trained by Seh-Dong-Hong-Beh into battle. Despite the fact that the Dahomey army was armed only with rifles while, the French had machine guns and cannons, the Amazons attacked when the French troops attempted a river crossing, inflicting heavy casualties. They engaged in hand to hand combat with the survivors eventually forcing the French army to retreat. Days later the French found a bridge, crossed the river and defeated the Dahomey army after fierce fighting. The Amazons burned fields, villages and cities rather than let them fall to the French but it merely delayed Dahomey being absorbed as a French colony
In the late 19th century Mukaya, the leader of the Luba people of central Africa whose nation stretched along the rain forest from Zaire to northern Zambia, led her warriors in battle against enemy tribes and rival factions. Initially she fought alongside her brother Kasongo Kalambo, after he was killed in battle she assumed sole control of the empire and the army.