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Asante

The Asante went from being a tributary state, to a confederation of states, and ultimately a centralized hierarchical kingdom. Beginning as a tributary state of Denkyira, the foremost Akan power during the 16th century, the Asante Kingdom grew out of a confederation of Akan-speaking states led by Osei Tutu, the first Asantehene. Using Kumasi as the central base and an alliance with the lower coastal Akan states for trade, Osei Tutu challenged and eventually defeated the Denkyira in 1701.

Realizing the weakness of a loose confederation of Akan states, Osei Tutu strengthened centralization of the surrounding Akan groups and expanded the powers judiciary system within the centralized government. Thus, this loose confederation of small city-states grew into a kingdom or empire looking to expand its borders. Newly conquered areas had the option of joining the empire or becoming tributary states.

Osei Tutu was the fourth ruler in Asante royal history, succeeding his uncle Obiri Yeoba. The Asante comprise the largest contingent of the Akan or Twi-speaking peoples. Akan societies are matrilineal, with a person belonging to the clan of his mother. Inheritance, succession and status are lineally determined. Osei Tutu belonged to the Oyoko clan.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, previous migrations of clan groups resulted in the development of a number of Akan states within a thirty mile radius of modern-day Kumasi, Ghana. The dense concentration of states in this limited area was primarily due to the region being a known source of gold and kola; two important trade routes - one from Jenne and Timbuktu in the western Sudan and the other from Hausaland - entered the area. These states were all dominated by the Denkyira. In the middle of the seventeenth century the last of the clan groups, the Oyoko clan, arrived.

Exploiting the clans' mutual hatred for their oppressor, Osei Tutu and his friend, priest and counselor Okomfo Anokye succeeded in merging these states into the Asante Union. This was a carefully orchestrated political and cultural process, which was implemented in successive stages.

First, the union was spiritually brought into being through the Golden Stool, invoked by Okomfo Anokye, and explained as the embodiment of the soul of the Asante Union. The ruler - in essence the religious and political leader - and the occupant of the stool was to be known as the Asantehene and to be subsequently selected from the lineage of Osei Tutu and Obiri Yeoba.

Second, Kumasi was chosen as the capital of the Asante Union, and Osei Tutu was now both the Kumasihene and the Asantehene. The Odwira Festival was inaugurated. Established as an annual and common celebration, and attended by all member states, this served as a unifying force for the nation.

Third, Osei Tutu, assisted by Okomfo Anokye, developed a new constitution for the Union. The Asantahene, who was also the Kumasihene, was at its head, with the kings of the states of the union forming the Confederacy or Union Council.

Fourth, as one of the key objectives for forming the Asante Union was to overthrow the Denkyira, Osei Tutu placed strong emphasis on the military organization of the Union. Supposedly borrowing the military organization from the Akwamu, Osei Tutu honed the Union army into an effective and efficient fighting unit.

With the Asante Union firmly established and its military organization in place, Osei Tutu embraced on wars of expansion and revenge.

After avenging his uncle's death at the hands of the Dormaa and bringing some recalcitrant states into line, Osei Tutu focused on the Denkyira. In 1701, the absolute defeat of the Denkyira and their abettors, the people of Akyem, brought the Asante to the attention of the Europeans on the coast for the first time. The victory broke the Denkyira hold on the trade path to the coast and cleared the way for the Asante to increase trade with the Europeans.

Osei Tutu and his adviser, Okomfo Anokye, forged the Asante Union from a number of different clan groups who submerged their old rivalries and hatred for the common good - the overthrow of their common oppressor, the Denkyira. Skillfully utilizing a combination of spiritual dogma and political skill, and ably supported by military prowess, Osei Tutu tripled the size of the small kingdom of Kumasi which he had inherited from his uncle Obiri Yeoba and laid the foundation for the Asante Empire in the process.

In 1717, Osei Tutu was killed in a war against the Akyem.

Asante was one of the few African states able to offer serious resistance to European colonizers. Between 1826 and 1896, Britain fought four wars against the Asante kings (the Anglo-Asante Wars). But the most famous symbol of Asante resistance to the British was the famous Asante queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa.

Yaa Asantewaa in battle dress


Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1840 – 17 October 1921) was appointed Queen Mother of Ejisu, a state in the Asante Confederacy, by her brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpese, the Ejisuhene (ruler of Ejisu). She is known in history as the leader of the Asante rebellion against British colonialism in 1900, known as the War of the Golden Stool.

During her brother's reign, Yaa Asantewaa saw the Asante Confederacy go through a series of events that threatened their future, including civil war from 1883–1888. When her brother died in 1894, Yaa Asantewaa used her prerogative as Queen Mother to nominate her own grandson as Ejisuhene. When her grandson was sent into exile to the Seychelles, along with the King of Asante Prempeh I and other members of the Asante government in 1896, Yaa Asantewaa became regent of the Ejisu-Juaben District. After the deportation of Prempeh I, the British governor-general of the Gold Coast, Frederick Hodgson, demanded the Golden Stool (the symbol of the Asante nation). This disrespectful request led to a meeting of the remaining members of the Asante government which was held secretly at Kumasi to discuss how to secure the return of their king. There was a disagreement among the leaders in attendance on how to go about this. Yaa Asantewaa, who was present at this meeting, stood and addressed the members of the council with these famous words:

“Now I see that some of you fear to go forward to fight for our King. If it were in the brave days of Osei Tutu, Okomfo Anokye, and Opoku Ware, chiefs would not sit down to see their king taken away without firing a shot. No European could have dared speak to chiefs of Asante in the way the governor spoke to you this morning. Is it true that the bravery of Asante is no more? I cannot believe it. It cannot be! I must say this: if you the men of Asante 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.”

With this, she took on leadership of the Asante Uprising of 1900, gaining the support of some of the other Asante nobility.

Beginning in March 1900, the rebellion laid siege to the fort at Kumasi where the British had sought refuge. The fort still stands today as the Kumasi Fort and Military Museum. After several months, the Gold Coast governor eventually sent a force of 1,400 to quell the rebellion. In the course of this, Queen Yaa Asantewaa and fifteen of her closest advisers were captured, and they too were sent into exile to the Seychelles. The rebellion represented the final war in the Anglo-Asante series of wars that lasted throughout the nineteenth-century. On 1 January 1902, the British were finally able to accomplish what the Asante army had denied them for almost a century, and the Asante empire was made a protectorate to the British crown. Yaa Asantewaa died in exile on 17 October 1921. Five years after the death of Yaa Asantewaa, on 12 November 1926, Prempeh I and the other remaining members of the exiled Asante court were allowed to return to Asante and given ceremonial control over Kumasi. Prempeh I saw to it that the remains of Yaa Asantewaa (and the other exiled Asante) were returned for a proper royal burial. In 1935 the full role of leader of the Asante people was restored, but limited to purely ceremonial functions.

Yaa Asantewaa remains a much-loved figure in Asante history and the history of Ghana as a whole for the courage she showed in confronting injustice during the colonialism of the British. To highlight the importance of encouraging more female leaders in Ghanaian society, the Yaa Asantewaa Girls' Secondary School was established at Kumasi in 1960 with funds from the Ghana Educational Trust. In 2000, a week-long centenary celebration was held in Ghana to acknowledge the accomplishments of Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa. As part of these celebrations, a museum was dedicated to her at Kwaso in the Ejisu-Juaben District on 3 August 2000. Unfortunately, a fire there on 23 July 2004 destroyed several historical items including her sandals and battle dress seen in the photograph above. The current Queen-mother of Ejisu is Yaa Asantewaa II. A second Yaa Asantewaa festival is to be held from 1-5 August 2006 in Ejisu.

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