African Queens: the true stories of three of the most extraordinary women of the ancient world.
Where are the women?
Until recent times, most women have been excluded from leadership positions, in both politics and in the military. In most cultures (societies), tradition and prejudice blocked women from rising to powerful positions.
In Africa, the role of woman leaders in ancient times has been largely hidden. The facts about their lives were never written down. Instead, their exploits were passed on through storytelling. Many of these accounts have been forgotten or lost.
Fortunately, the stories of three powerful African queens have survived. Here are the true tales of some of the most extraordinary women of the ancient world.
HATSHEPSUT, THE FEMALE PHARAOH
Ancient Egypt was Africa's first great civilization. At the height of its power, Egypt spread north to present-day Syria and south to what is now Sudan. About this time, 3,500 years ago, a royal princess named Hatshepsut (hat-SHEP-soot) became ruler of this vast empire.
Her husband, Pharaoh (King) Thutmose II, had died in his early 30s. His stepson, Thutmose III, was only 6 years old. That left Hatshepsut to become the first female pharaoh of Egypt.
No doubt Hatshepsut captured the throne with the aid of powerful male officials. She disguised herself as a man for paintings and stone carvings. These images included a false beard held on by straps (all pharaohs wore beards).
Hatshepsut's rule, though, was as successful as that of any male pharaoh.
For decades, Egypt had been fighting war after war. But by the time of Hatshepsut's rule, the kingdom was at peace. Hatshepsut ordered that wealth should no longer be used for war, but for new buildings and the arts instead.
"Her Majesty the King" built new temples, winning the support of Egypt's powerful priests. She encouraged trade with other countries, and sent a lucrative (profitable) trading expedition to the coastal kingdom of Punt, which may have been in what is now Ethiopia or Somalia.
Thutmose III, meanwhile, had grown up and become a soldier. After ruling for 22 years, Hatshepsut stepped down, and Thutmose III replaced her. No one knows whether she stepped aside willingly or was forced out.
Thutmose III tried to erase Hatshepsut from history. He ordered her name and face removed from monuments. Hieroglyphs (picture writings) that mentioned her were changed.
But his efforts failed. One hundred years ago, archaeologists (scientists who study past human cultures) rediscovered her life and legacy. And they restored Hatshepsut, the female pharaoh, to her rightful place in history.
QUEEN AMINA, EMPIRE BUILDER
In West Africa the story is still told of the granddaughter of the King of Zaria. The child would sneak into the King's court. The King would pick her up, put her on his lap, and continue with his meetings. in this way, the story goes, young Amina learned the ways of politics and leadership.
Amina grew up to become an impressive warrior. She became Queen of Zaria about 1576 A.D.
At the time, Zaria was part of the once-powerful Songhai Empire. But the empire was falling apart, and Amina decided to take advantage of the situation. She launched a series of wars to expand her kingdom's territory.
According to one account, Queen Amina "made war upon these countries and overcame them entirely so that the people ... paid tribute [money and gifts] to her."
Her military victories gave Amina control of important trade routes. This added to Zaria's wealth and power. Despite her powerful position, Amina refused to marry. She worried that a royal husband might try to take power away from her. Instead, it is said, she took a different husband each night as she led her army in its campaigns. Then in the morning, she had him beheaded.
In addition to her fierce fighting abilities, Amina is remembered as "a builder of towns." Throughout the region, "the walls of Amina" still stand. And there's a saying in the Songhai language when speaking of something wise and respected--"as proud and old as the walls of Amina."
QUEEN NZINGHA, THE WARRIOR QUEEN
Starting in the 1400s, European countries began seizing colonies in Africa. The Europeans wanted gold, ivory--and especially slaves. Portugal established a foothold in southwestern Africa--today's Angola. Nzingha, the Queen of Ndongo, now known as Angola, fought the European colonists her entire life.
Nzingha used every leadership tool in her fight. She proved to be an expert diplomat (negotiator). In one famous episode, she met with the Portuguese colonial governor at his palace. The governor arranged for chairs only for himself and his aides. Rather than stand like a beggar before him, Nzingha signaled a servant. The servant knelt down, hands on the floor, and served as her royal stool.
Nzingha's half brother, Mbandi, was King of Ndongo. He cooperated with the Portuguese, selling his own people into slavery. Nzingha warned him not to do this. When he turned against her, she had him murdered and took the throne for herself.
Nzingha later converted to Christianity. She hoped this would strengthen her ties with Christian Portugal, and so protect her people from the slavers. But in their hunger for slaves, the Portuguese broke their promises to Nzingha. In turn, she declared war on the Portuguese.
Nzingha formed an alliance (partnership) with the Jaga, a people renowned for their fierce, warlike abilities. Nzingha also encouraged escaped slaves of any tribe to join the alliance. About 1630, Nzingha and her allies launched their first attacks against the Portuguese. Nzingha's soldiers waged guerrilla (hit-and-run) warfare--tactics that African armies would copy centuries later.
Nzingha was fighting a losing war, however. At age 60, she continued to fight valiantly. But the Portuguese had more troops and better weapons.
Queen Nzingha died in Ndongo's rocky highlands on December 17, 1663, at age 82. Her homeland remained in Portuguese hands until 1975, when Angola finally won its independence. The Angolan people still celebrate the memory and fighting spirit of Nzingha, their warrior queen. JS
Your Turn WORD MATCH 1. culture A. negotiator 2. pharaoh B. picture writing 3. lucrative C. king 4. hieroglyphs D. profitable 5. diplomat E. society
THINK ABOUT IT
1. What were Hatshepsut's achievements? Why were these achievements unknown for so long?
2. What were the "walls of Amina"?
3. Which ruler do you admire most? Explain.
Students should understand
* Women have led countries since ancient times, overcoming deep-seated prejudice and cultural traditions.
Explain that historically, women have not had as much opportunity as men to lead societies. Ask students to discuss what qualities women like Queen Nzingha must have possessed to become leaders of their nation, despite so many obstacles.
Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt is considered to be the first female leader of a country--at least that we know of. In ancient times, it was men who recorded the official histories. In Africa, knowledge of women's lives is even more obscure because of the lack of a written history. It has only been in recent years that historians and archaeologists have been able to piece together the storY of heroic women like Queen Amina and those of ordinary women as well.
MAKING INFERENCES: Why was it necessary for Queen Hatshepsut to dress in male clothing and wear a beard, even though most of her subjects knew she was female? (Queen Hatshepsut probably posed a threat to men of the ruling classes; she felt she had to dress as a man for political purposes).
A PANEL DISCUSSION: Have students research such famous female leaders as Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Queen Victoria, and Golda Melt. With Queen Harshepsut as moderator, have the students simulate a talk show with these leaders--discussing how each woman came to power and the obstacles each faced. How have the roles of women changed?
SOCIAL STUDIES, GRADES 5-8
* World History: Understand the major characteristics of civilizations in Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa; understand the cultural factors that shaped life in both regions.
* Andronik, Catherine, Hatshepsut, his Majesty, Herself (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2001). Grades 5-8.
* Diouf, Anna Sylviane, Kings and Queens of West Africa (Scholastic, (2001). Grades 5-8.
* Women and Gender in Ancient Egypt http://www.umich.edu/~kelseydb/Exhibits/WomenandGender/title.html
* Ancient Africa http://www.42explore.com/africa.htm