Long before – and during – European colonization of Africa, ancient kingdoms and empires flourished for centuries on the continent. Some were led by women, including female warriors who led armies against invading European powers to defend their people from conquest and slavery.
Even though black women have been at the forefront of impressive feats in combat, their stories are often ignored. The following African warrior queens and all-female armies are among those who fought for freedom from colonial occupation.
1. Queen Amanirenas, around 40 BC.
Queen Amanirenas ruled the kingdom of Kush from 40 BC to 10 BC, in the Nubian region, now Sudan. When Roman Emperor Augustus conquered neighboring Egypt in 30 BC – with plans to invade Kush next – Amanirenas launched a surprise attack on the Romans.
Leading an army of 30,000 men from the front lines, Amanirenas successfully captured three cities under Roman rule. But it wasn’t long before Rome retaliated, invading Kush, destroying the Kingdom’s capital and selling thousands into slavery. After years of fierce fighting and heavy losses on both sides, negotiations to end the war began in 24 BC, culminating in a peace treaty five years after the fighting began.
Although hostilities ended in stalemate, Queen Amanirenas – unlike many of her neighbors – was victorious in resisting Rome’s conquest, never ceding large tracts of territory or paying taxes to the empire. Amanirenas is known throughout the Nile Valley and beyond as the Nubian queen who conquered the Romans.
2. Queen Nzinga Mbande (circa 1583-1663)
A shrewd politician and skilled military strategist, Queen Nzinga Mbande was the leader of the Mbundu people in what is now Angola.
With the growing demand for slave labor, Portugal had established a colony near the lands of Mbundu to develop the slave trade. Nzinga became queen in 1626 after her brother, the former king, committed suicide in the face of increasing Portuguese encroachment. But before becoming queen, at her brother’s request, Nzinga met with the Portuguese to negotiate peace.
A skilled negotiator, she formed a strategic alliance with Portugal in 1622. Faced with attacks from rival African aggressors seeking to capture people for the slave trade, Nzinga’s pact with the Portuguese allowed her to fight enemy tribes to enslave the Portugal in exchange for arms and an agreement that the Portuguese would cease slave raids on the Mbundu people.
But by the time she became queen in 1626, Portugal had severed her end of the bargain. Nzinga refused to surrender to the Portuguese without a fight. In 1627 she formed a temporary alliance with the Dutch – an enemy of the Portuguese – and led an army against them.
Through his leadership, Nzinga successfully repelled Portuguese forces for decades, personally leading his troops into battle even into their 60s. Despite multiple attempts by the Portuguese to capture Nzinga, they never succeeded. She passed away peacefully at the age of 80, after a long life defending her people against colonial rule.
Queen Nanny (c.1685-c.1750)
Queen Nanny was the leader of the Jamaican Maroons, a community of formerly enslaved Africans who fought the British for their freedom.
As a child, Nanny was kidnapped in Ghana and enslaved in Jamaica. She escaped, joining other former slaves who sought refuge in the Blue Mountain area of the island. By 1720, through her exceptional leadership and military skill, she had become chief of the Maroon colony. That year, she began training her people in guerrilla warfare.
Queen Nanny led the Maroons in dozens of successful battles, freeing over 800 slaves. His cunning strategies enabled the Maroons to surprise the heavily armed British and decimate their numbers.
In 1740, the British were forced to sign a peace treaty with the Maroons, guaranteeing their freedom. In 1975, the Jamaican government declared Queen Nanny a national hero and awarded her the title “Right Excellent” for her strength and courage. His portrait appears on the Jamaican $500 bill.
The Amazons of Dahomey (1600s-1890s)
Named after the race of female warriors in Greek mythology, the Dahomey Amazons were an all-female military regiment in the Kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin.
Apparently gathered in the mid to late 1600s, the Amazons were known for their indifference to pain and ferocity in battle, as well as their great socio-political influence over their kingdom. To protect and enrich their own empire, there were times when the Amazons cooperated with European colonialists, selling enemies captured in regional skirmishes in exchange for arms and goods.
In the mid-1800s, they numbered between 1,000 and 6,000 women. When the French invaded Dahomey in 1892, the Amazons put up aggressive resistance. Afterwards, the French soldiers noted their “incredible courage and daring” in battle, as cited by the African American Registry, an online consortium of black history educators.
Fierce fighting between the Amazons and the Europeans continued, but the female African warriors were eventually outnumbered and outgunned, and within a few years were largely wiped out.
While the Amazons were certainly powerful fighters, Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, says it’s important to look beyond the shock value of their status as female warriors. when considering the legacy of the Amazons in history.
“The most important characteristic of the Amazons was not that they could kill like men,” says Wantchekon, from Benin. “They were also ordinary people with normal lives, as well as highly respected cultural and political leaders in their communities.”
There is a widespread misconception that gender equity is a Western value, adds Wantchekon, when in fact European colonization undermined women’s rights in Benin, where the French dismantled the Amazons and banned women’s education and political leadership.
“When we push back against this misconception and embrace the culture of gender equality that flourished in Benin and similar places before colonization,” adds Wantchekon, “it is a way of embracing the legacy of this exceptional group. of African women leaders that Europe has tried so hard to erase.
Yaa Asantewaa (circa 1840-1921)
Yaa Asantewaa was the queen of the prosperous Ashanti Empire, also called Asante, in present-day Ghana. As queen, she was the official protector of the empire’s most sacred object, the golden stool. Made of solid gold and believed to house the soul of the nation, the stool represented the royal and divine throne of the empire. When British troops invaded in 1886 and demanded possession of the sacred object, Asantewaa refused. Instead, she led an army against them.
“I will appeal to my fellows. We will fight the white men. We will fight until the last of us falls on the battlefields,” said Yaa Asantewaa.
For months from 1900, Asantewaa troops besieged the occupying British forces, which nearly collapsed. It was only after the British brought in several thousand additional troops and pounds of artillery that they were able to defeat Asantewaa’s army. Asantewaa – who fought alongside her people to the very end – was captured and exiled to Seychelles until her death in 1921. Her bravery and resilience despite impossible odds made her one of the most famous warrior queens in history to date.