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Warriors and Rulers: the roles of African women in African society

Leaders and Rulers: the roles of African women in African society

The following is a non-comprehensive list of African women who have led nations. Some of the queens listed were outstanding rulers; some were not, but most came into power by their own right or by their inheritance. In other words, they did not owe their power to being consorts of male rulers.

It is not our intention to ignore the contributions of female consorts to male kings. African consort queens, like their Asian and European counterparts, sometimes wielded political power which exceeded that of actual sovereigns. But since there are many web pages about famous queen consorts and queen mothers, such as Nandi of the Zulu, we will not to duplicate the information here. The queens of Egypt are also well documented in print and on the web, hence we will skip Egypt's queens in this article.

West Africa

Queen Amina ruled the Hausa state of Zazzau (in modern Nigeria) in the 14th century. Accounts differ on whether she inherited the throne from her father or her mother. It is generally agreed she ascended the throne after her brother's death. She was a strong warrior and acquired a reputation as an undefeated conqueror. According to legend, when she took a new territory, she forced the conquered chieftain to share her bed for one night before executing him.1

Queen Nzinga of Matamba reigned for 36 years in 17th century Angola. She built a strong army and fought several wars against the Portuguese.1 According to a Dutch ally, she enjoyed fighting, dressed like a man, and even in her old age was as nimble as a young man.2

In Benin, Queen Ahangbe (or Tassin Hangbe) was co-sovereign with her twin brother Akaba from the late 17th century to the early eighteenth century.3 Shortly after Akaba's death, Ahangbe was deposed amidst allegations of scandalous behavior. Her younger brother became King Agaja, one of the greatest Dahomean sovereigns.4

On Ibn Battuta's West African trip of 1352-1353, the North African writer recorded the power struggle between Emperor Sulaiman of Mali and his chief wife, Qasa. Qasa was accused of plotting to dethrone the emperor in favor of her brother.5 Qasa herself was of royal blood, the daughter of Sulaiman's paternal uncle. Ibn Battuta wrote, "the queen is his partner in the kingship, following the custom of the blacks. Her name is mentioned in the pulpit".6 [Having one's name read in the pulpit during Muslim services in the mosque is an honor due only to an actual sovereign, not a mere consort.]

Northeast Africa

The Christian New Testament mentions a Candace, Queen of Ethiopia, who reigned in the 1st century A.D.

And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise and go toward the south, unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went, and behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for worship, was returning, and sitting in his chariot reading Esaias the prophet.

Acts 8:26-28

The Candace was one of the Kushite sovereign queens who ruled from Meroe (in modern Sudan), of which there were at least four.7 'Candace' is the Romanized form of Kandake or Kentake, the title of the Kushite sovereign queens.

East Africa

Nehanda was one of modern Zimbabwe's most influential religious leaders. Originally a woman called Nyakasikana, she became the medium to the ancestral Shona spirit Mbuya (Grandmother) Nehanda. As Nehanda, she led a war against invading Europeans in 1896. Nehanda won a series of battles but she was eventually captured and executed.

  1. Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, p. 2
  2. Stanley B. Alpern, Amazons of Black Sparta: The Women Warriors of Dahomey, p. 2
  3. Alpern, p. 23
  4. Alpern, p. 23
  5. Said Hamdun and Noel King, ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 56
  6. Said Hamdun and Noel King,, ibn Battuta in Black Africa, p. 55
  7. Basil Davidson, The Lost Cities of Africa, pp. 39-40