Bringing African kingdoms into the 20th century

Author: Teni Gogo
Published: 15/08/2023
Flag of the Asante Kingdom

Decolonise education! Decolonise your curriculum! Don’t diversify – decolonise! All popular, and in many ways valid, calls for curricular reform. But all those who are familiar with these calls are no doubt equally familiar with the complications, inconsistency and lack of clarity that can often accompany such demands.

These calls, which are by no means new, are ultimately rooted in a shared desire to move history teaching on from the top-down, Anglo-centric, male-dominated narratives that formed the cornerstones of (what felt like) any and every KS3 curriculum, which often upheld longstanding imperial beliefs around racial hierarchies – whether intended or not! However, the methods and ultimate goal of such calls are not easily defined. For some, it means moving away entirely from ‘superficial’ attempts to broaden the geographical scope of our curricula. For others, it means looking again at existing topics and challenging the lens through which we explore these histories. Then there are those who interpret the call as one that demands a reform of how we teach, addressing the legacies of colonialism in our pedagogy – questioning what types of sources of evidence we prioritise and how we enable students to see the value of various types of communication beyond those privileged in our cultural context. But for many, the call has come to mean some degree of an amalgamation of all the above. So, like I said – complicated.

What I hope to do here is identify just one of many examples that can be incorporated into your teaching of the 20th century in an attempt to respond to some of these calls in a way that is meaningful and memorable for your students.

Mali. Benin. Kongo. Songhay. Oyo. Dahomey. All likely to be familiar kingdoms that you may have already incorporated into your curriculum – I will take a guess and suggest it fits into year 7 or 8? Your students might meet Mansa Musa on his Hajj or feel the success of Askia the Great as he used his own commitment to Islam to unite the Islamic scholars and the local rulers in the Kingdom of Songhay. Or this may all sound entirely new to you! In which case I would highly recommend a variety of resources to help you fill the gaps.

An alternative to defeated African empires

However, assuming that most of us are at least familiar with Mansa Musa, it is likely that we may have also realised that the teaching of African/Black history with a real sense of agency beyond resistance to transatlantic slavery or the US and UK civil rights movements seems to end with the last (or only) African kingdom that we teach. I’d like to propose an alternative!

The alternative is an incredible story centred on an equally incredible woman named Yaa Asantewaa, who was born in 1840 in a village called Besease within the Asante Kingdom, now part of modern-day Ghana. Known as the Kingdom of Gold, the Asante Kingdom had a complicated relationship with many European nations – although the Asante were involved in the trading of enslaved people, they were also a source of gold for Europeans. As a result of their military strength, they were able to withstand colonisation longer than many other kingdoms. From 1824 to 1986, four wars were fought between the British and the Asante. The first was an embarrassing defeat for the British; the second was a stalemate as a result of disease; the third saw the Asante lose as Britain returned with greater firearms. By the fourth war, the Scramble for Africa had begun and Britain was racing to take control of the Asante Kingdom before France and Germany – this left the Asante hanging on to the sliver of power they had left in the little land they had left, BUT with the power of the Golden Stool, which symbolised the soul of the Asante people.

Yaa Asantewaa and her role in resistance to the British occupation of Asante

Anyway, I have digressed – our story is about Yaa Asantewaa, who by 1880 had become the ruling Queen Mother (Asantehemaa). However, after the Fourth Anglo-Asante War their ruling King (Asantehene) had been captured and exiled. In 1900, the British governor, Sir Frederick Hodgson, demanded to sit on the Golden Stool (some accounts say he just wanted it in his possession – so here is a great opportunity to highlight some of the difficulties in constructing historical narratives even in the modern age!). To demand to sit on or possess the stool was a GREAT offence! While the remaining local male rulers sat around and debated on how they might hope to proceed, Yaa Asantewaa – now in her 60s – gave a speech that would rouse any army!

How can a proud and brave people like the Asante sit back and look while the white men took away their king and chiefs and humiliated them with a demand for the Golden Stool. The Golden Stool only means money to the white men; they have searched and dug everywhere for it. I shall not pay one predwan [sum of money] to the governor. If you, the chiefs of Asante, are going to behave like cowards and not fight, you should exchange your loincloths for my undergarments.

And so, with her rallied troops, she went to war against the British! The final Anglo-Asante War, known as the ‘War of the Golden Stool’, ended in 1901 with the fall of the Asante Kingdom and its acquisition into the Gold Coast colony. Yaa Asantewaa was exiled to Seychelles, where she died in 1902. Although the story seems to be a sad ending, if your students are to find themselves back in the Gold Coast later in their year 9 study – say around 1957 – they will see the story is not so bleak!

Kwame Nkrumah and the founding of Ghana

Any account of Ghanaian independence talks of the role of Kwame Nkrumah. Like many KS3 historical narratives, this is an oversimplification and omits the role of many key figures. But this still allows for your students to see the legacy of Yaa Asantewaa. Her role in the War of the Golden Stool became a symbol for power as Nkrumah led the fight for independence in the Gold Coast. Although Yaa Asantewaa may have lost in 1901, with the power of her legacy (and many other factors) Nkrumah was victorious in 1957 and the independent nation of Ghana was born on 6th March.

Now, there are several points worth adding. Some historians argue that the Asante technically won the War of the Golden Stool since the British never actually acquired it. It was hidden in a forest and later reclaimed by the Asante, so that’s another opportunity to explore comparative narratives. You could use music and oral tradition to expand on the narratives of both Asante and the fight for independence in the Gold Coast colony, particularly how the Asante Kingdom worked as a matrilineal society. You might continue the story in Ghana and consider the political controversies surrounding Nkrumah. You could use the schools and statues built in Yaa Asantewaa’s honour to explore ongoing interpretations of her life.

Whatever you choose, hopefully this was a helpful example to show how we might use individual, meaningful and memorable examples to challenge the longstanding imperial legacies within our curriculum in response to calls to ‘decolonise’ – however you choose to interpret it!

Teni Gogo

Teni Gogo trained as a history teacher at the University of Cambridge and has spent much of her career exploring medieval African kingdoms and Black British history. She has written for Teaching History, HarperCollins and the BBC as well as delivering workshops for students and CPD for early career and experienced history teachers. She is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford as an Action Research Fellow for the Empire, Migration and Belonging Project.