Long before—and during— the European colonization of Africa, ancient kingdoms and empires thrived for centuries on the continent. Some were headed by women, including female warriors who led armies against invading European powers to defend their people from conquest and enslavement.
Even though Black women have been at the forefront of impressive exploits in combat, their stories are often overlooked. The following African female warrior queens and all-female armies are among those who fought for freedom from colonial occupation.
1. Queen Amanirenas, circa 40 B.C.
Queen Amanirenas ruled the Kingdom of Kush from 40 B.C. to 10 B.C., in the Nubian region, now modern-day Sudan. When Roman emperor Augustus conquered neighboring Egypt in 30 B.C.—with plans to next invade Kush—Amanirenas launched a surprise attack on the Romans.
Leading an army of 30,000 from the frontlines, Amanirenas successfully captured three Roman-ruled cities. But it wasn’t long before Rome retaliated, invading Kush, destroying the Kingdom’s capital and selling thousands into slavery. After years of bitter fighting and significant casualties on both sides, negotiations to end the war began in 24 B.C., culminating in a peace treaty five years after the fighting first began.
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 (c. 1583-1663)
An adept politician and skilled military strategist, Queen Nzinga Mbande was the ruler of the Mbundu people in what is now Angola.
With the growing demand for slave labor, Portugal had established a colony near Mbundu land to expand the slave trade. Nzinga became queen in 1626 after her brother, the former king, committed suicide in the face of rising Portuguese encroachment. But before she became queen, at her brother’s request, Nzinga met with the Portuguese to negotiate peace.
An adept negotiator, she formed a strategic alliance with Portugal in 1622. Facing attacks from rival African aggressors looking to capture people for the slave trade, Nzinga’s pact with the Portuguese allowed her to fight enemy tribes to enslave for Portugal in exchange for weapons 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 broken its side of the deal. Nzinga refused to give in 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 her leadership, Nzinga successfully held off the Portuguese forces for decades, personally leading her troops into battle—even while in her sixties. Despite multiple attempts by the Portuguese to capture Nzinga, they never succeeded. She died peacefully in her 80s, after a long life of defending her people from 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 from Ghana and enslaved in Jamaica. She escaped, joining other formerly enslaved people who sought refuge in the island’s Blue Mountain region. By 1720, thanks to her exceptional leadership and military skills, she'd become head of the Maroon settlement. That year she began to train her people in guerilla warfare.
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Queen Nanny led the Maroons into dozens of successful battles, freeing over 800 enslaved people. Her clever strategies allowed the Maroons to catch the heavily armed British by surprise and decimate their numbers.
By 1740, the British were forced to sign a peace treaty with the Maroons, guaranteeing their freedom. In 1975, the government of Jamaica declared Queen Nanny a National Heroine and awarded her the title of “Right Excellent” for her strength and courage. Her portrait appears on the $500 Jamaican dollar bill.
The Dahomey Amazons (1600s-1890s)
Named after the race of women warriors from Greek mythology, the Dahomey Amazons were an all-female military regiment in the Kingdom of Dahomey, now present-day Benin.
Reportedly assembled in the mid-to-late 1600s, the Amazons were known for their indifference to pain and fierceness in battle, as well as having great socio-political influence over their kingdom. To protect and enrich their own empire, there were periods when the Amazons cooperated with European colonialists, selling captured enemies from regional scuffles in exchange for weaponry and goods.
By the mid-1800s, they numbered between 1,000 to 6,000 women. When the French invaded Dahomey in 1892, the Amazons put up an aggressive resistance. Afterward, the French soldiers noted their “incredible courage and audacity” in combat, as cited by the African American Registry, an online consortium of Black history educators.
Fierce battling between the Amazons and Europeans continued, but the African female warriors were eventually outnumbered and outgunned and, within a few years, they were largely wiped-out.
While the Amazons were certainly powerful fighters, Leonard Wantchekon, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, argues it's important to look beyond the shock value of their female warrior status when considering the Amazons’ legacy in history.
“The most important feature of the Amazons was not that they could kill like men,” says Wantchekon, a Benin native. “They were also regular people with regular lives, as well as well-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 was a detriment to women’s rights in Benin, where the French disassembled the Amazons and banned female education and political leadership.
“When we push back against this misconception and embrace the culture of gender equality that was thriving in Benin and places like it before colonization,” Wantchekon adds, “it is a way to embrace the legacy of this exceptional group of African female leaders that European history tried so hard to erase.”
Yaa Asantewaa (c. 1840-1921)
Yaa Asantewaa was queen of the prosperous Ashanti Empire, also called Asante, in now modern-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 shall call upon my fellow women. We will fight the white men. We will fight until the last of us falls in the battlefields,” Yaa Asantewaa famously said.
For months, starting in 1900, Asantewaa’s troops laid siege to the British occupying forces, who very nearly collapsed. Only after the British brought in several thousand additional troops and pounds of artillery were they able to defeat Asantewaa’s army. Asantewaa—who fought alongside her people until the very end—was captured and exiled to the Seychelles until her death in 1921. Her bravery and resistance in spite of the impossible odds have made her one of history’s most famous warrior queens to this day.