From ancient times through the 19th century, women battled colonialists to maintain their power and prevent enslavement of their people. However, looking at the heroic roles of African women in history, it is hard to explain how they fell from glory. Many years ago, women were leaders and not mere followers looking for a voice. Even though Black women have been at the forefront of impressive exploits in combat, their stories are often overlooked.
Here are some of the formidable African female warriors that were a force to reckon with
- Queen Amanirenas
She ruled the kingdom of Kush between 40 B.C and 10 B.C in the nubian region of present-day Sudan. Amanirenas is one of the most famous kandakes, because of her role leading Kushite armies against the Romans in a war that lasted five years, from 27 BC to 22 BC. After an initial victory when the Kushites attacked Roman Egypt, they were driven out of Egypt by Gaius Petronius and the Romans established a new frontier at Hiere Sycaminos (Maharraqa).
Leading an army of nearly 30,000 soldiers equipped with swords, bows, and arrows, Queen Amanirenas launched a surprise attack. With her son by her side, the queen led the army from the front. The operation was successful, and she managed to capture the Roman-occupied cities. However, the war was not over yet. After the queen’s victory, her army celebrated by defacing many statues of Emperor Augustus, the leader of the Roman army, as a testament to their victory. As a result, the Romans retailiated by invading Kush, destroying its old capital, and selling thousands into slavery. Determined, the queen fought tooth and nail throughout the battles, during which she was blinded in one eye by Roman soldiers, landing her another title as “the one-eyed queen.”
Although the hostilities ended in a stalemate, Queen Amanirenas—unlike many of her neighbors—was victorious in resisting conquest by Rome, never ceding large swaths of territory or paying taxes to the empire. Amanirenas is remembered throughout the Nile Valley and beyond as the Nubian queen who conquered the Romans.
2. Queen Nzinga Mbande
She was Queen of the Ambundu Kingdoms of Ndongo (1624–1663) and Matamba (1631–1663), located in present-day northern Angola. Born into the ruling family of Ndongo, Nzinga received military and political training as a child, and she demonstrated an aptitude for defusing political crises as an ambassador to the Portuguese Empire. She later assumed power over Ndongo after the death of her father and brother, who both served as kings, and would go on to conquer Matamba. She ruled during a period of rapid growth in the African slave trade and encroachment of the Portuguese Empire into Southwest Africa, in attempts to control the slave trade.
Nzinga realized that, to remain viable, Ndongo had to reposition itself as an intermediary rather than a supply zone in the slave trade. To achieve this, she allied Ndongo with Portugal, simultaneously acquiring a partner in its fight against its African enemies and ending Portuguese slave raiding in the kingdom. Ana Nzinga’s baptism, with the Portuguese colonial governor serving as godfather, sealed this relationship. By 1626, however, Portugal had betrayed Ndongo, and Nzinga was forced to flee with her people further west, where they founded a new state at Matamba, well beyond the reach of the Portuguese.
To bolster Matamba’s martial power, Nzinga offered sanctuary to runaway slaves and Portuguese-trained African soldiers and adopted a form of military organization known as kilombo, in which youths renounced family ties and were raised communally in militias. She also fomented rebellion within Ndongo itself, which was now governed indirectly by the Portuguese through a puppet ruler. Nzinga found an ally in the Netherlands, which seized Luanda for its own mercantile purposes in 1641. Their combined forces were insufficient to drive the Portuguese out of Angola, however, and after Luanda was reclaimed by the Portuguese, Nzinga was again forced to retreat to Matamba.
3. Queen Nanny
She was an 18th-century leader of the Jamaican Maroons. She led a community of formerly enslaved Africans called the Windward Maroons. In the early 18th century, under the leadership of Nanny, the Windward Maroons fought a guerrilla war over many years against British authorities in the Colony of Jamaica in what became known as the First Maroon War.
The British colonial administration became embarrassed and threatened by the successes of the Maroons. Plantation owners who were losing slaves and having equipment and crops burned by Maroon raiders demanded that colonial authorities act. Hunting parties, made up of British regular army soldiers, militiamen, and mercenaries (many from the free black community), scoured the Jamaican jungles.
Nanny’s life and accomplishments have been recognized by the Government of Jamaica and she has been honored as a National Hero and awarded the title of “Right Excellent”.
4. The Dahomey Amazons
They were a Fon all-female military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey which existed until 1904. They were so named by Western observers and historians due to their similarity to the mythical Amazons of ancient Anatolia and the Black Sea. This unusual emergence of an all-female military regiment was the result of Dahomey's male population facing high casualties in frequent warfare with neighboring West African states, as well as Dahomey being forced to annually give male slaves to the Oyo Empire. The lack of men likely led the kings of Dahomey to recruit women into the army.
From the time of King Ghezo, Dahomey became increasingly warmongering. He placed great importance on the army, increasing its budget and formalizing its structure from ceremonial to a stern military. Ghezo recruited both men and women, soldiers, from foreign captives, though women soldiers were also recruited from free Dahomean women, some enrolled as young as 8 years old. Some women in Fon society became soldiers voluntarily, while others were involuntarily enrolled if their husbands or fathers complained to the king about their behavior. Membership among the Mino was supposed to hone any aggressive character traits for war. During their membership, they were not allowed to have children or be part of married life (though they were legally married to the king) and many of them were virgins.
The Amazons participated in one major battle: Cotonou, where thousands of Dahomey (including many Amazons) charged the French lines and engaged the defenders in hand-to-hand combat. Despite the compliments given to them by the Europeans, the Amazons were decisively crushed, with several hundred Dahomey troops being gunned down while reportedly 129 Dahomey were killed in melee combat within the French lines. By the end of the Second Franco-Dahomean War, special units of the Amazons were being assigned specifically to target French officers. After several battles, the French prevailed and put an end to the independent Dahomean kingdom. French soldiers, particularly of the French Foreign Legion, were impressed by the boldness of the Amazons and later wrote about their "incredible courage and audacity" in combat.
5. Yaa Asantewaa
Yaa Asantewaa was an influential Ashanti queen at the beginning of the twentieth century who remains a powerful symbol today. She was a skilled farmer before ascending to the title Queen Mother in the 1880s. It is believed that she was chosen for this title due to the matrilineal aspect of the Ashanti culture and that her elder brother Nana Akwasi Afrane Okpase, who was a powerful ruler at the time, appointed her to the role.
In 1896, the Ashanti peoples began to rebel against the British presence in their lands and the British attempted to construct the “Gold Coast” colony. To retaliate, the British captured and exiled Asantehene Prempeh I, King of the Ashanti, and Asantewaa’s grandson Kofi Tene, who was also a powerful leader. The British removed the king and other Ashanti leaders to the Seychelles Islands in an effort to acquire the Golden Stool.
Ghanaians will ever be grateful to Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the Asante Warrior Queen Mother, whose activism and military tactics contributed to the liberation of her people and country. Her roles in Ghana spurred nationalist ideals in other parts of the West African sub-region, which resulted in many of the countries gaining their independence.
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