10 Greatest African Queens of All Time
Although Africa has for centuries operated under patriarchy, there have been several women who broke those systems and traditions to prove that they were just as efficient as the men were.
These women existed in various eras, from ancient to colonial Africa, but they all had one thing in common: they showed courage and gave their people hope in times of uncertainties. They also challenged the authorities of their oppressors and fought until they couldn’t anymore. They however differed in their styles of ruling and personalities. Some of them were compassionate whereas others exhibited a certain degree of ruthlessness.
Today, many of their achievements are still recognized and being celebrated. While there are many more exceptional female rulers, here are 10 of Africa’s most popular female rulers and how they helped shape Africa’s history:
Makeda – The Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia)
The Queen of Sheba is truly one of the most unique female monarchs in African history. Her existence has long since been debated with some believing her story to be a legend. However, popular ancient texts point towards her existence.
In the Hebrew Bible, she was described as the powerful queen who visited King Solomon and was impressed with his great depth of wisdom. She is also mentioned in the Holy Quran, as well as Ethiopia’s “Kebra Nagast”, a 14th century epic that tells the tale of the rise of the Ethiopian Empire.
In Arabic history, she is known as Bilqis whereas in Ethiopia, she is known as Queen Makeda. In the “Kebra Nagast”, she defeated the serpent king Awre after he caused disturbances in the Kingdom of Axum located in northern Ethiopia.
However, Makeda is most popularly known for her encounter with King Solomon in Jerusalem, According to the “Kebra Nagast”, Solomon was blown away by her beauty and intelligence. He deceived her into sleeping with her and by the time of her return to Ethiopia, she was pregnant with his child. Makeda birthed Menelik, who later became emperor and started the Solomonic Dynasty that ruled for thousands of years, ending with the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
Some historians believe that Makeda brought back the Ark of the Covenant from Jerusalem when she returned home, and it was also through her that future Nubian and other East African rulers were born. In contemporary times, she continues to be a notable figure in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and has inspired several literary pieces and artworks.
Empress Kandake Amanirenas (Sudan)
Empress Kandake Amanirenas was a powerful queen who ruled in the Kingdom of Kush (located in modern-day Sudan). She was one of many Kandakes to have ruled in ancient Africa and her name Kandake (or Candace) meant “great woman.” During that time, Kandakes were seen as wives of God or the gods.
The queen probably goes down as one of the fiercest and most determined rulers to have ever reigned in Africa. Kandake is best known for defending her kingdom against Roman incursions, especially as the latter empire expanded in North Africa. While in a battle against the Romans in the south of Egypt, Kandake lost her husband Teriteqas, leaving her and their son Akinidad to lead the Kushites to war against the Romans. She was victorious in 24BC in Syene but her fortune quickly reversed when a new Roman governor called Gaius Petronius arrived in Egypt.
The Romans retaliated by invading Kush and Kandake lost an eye while defending her home and people. Petronius described her as “One Eye Kandace.” Eventually, the Kushites were defeated by the Romans. The empress remained determined to fight back; however, her people could not defeat their enemies as they would have liked to and she even lost Akinidad in one of the battles.
The two sides eventually met to discuss the terms of a treaty. According to the treaty, their conflict had ended in a stalemate, so there was no victor. Though it might not have been what she really wanted, Kandake had successfully managed to protect her people from Roman oppression and did not have to give up most of her kingdom’s lands to the Romans. She also avoided having to pay any heavy fines to the Romans.
Queen Hatshepsut (Egypt)
Queen Hatshepsut is one of the few female pharaohs that ruled in Ancient Egypt, but she is regarded as one of the most successful female rulers whose long reign saw many developments in Egypt.
Hatshepsut was the daughter of Pharaoh Thutmose I and Queen Ahmose. She married her half-brother Thutmose II when she was a teenager. In the later years, Thutmose II became pharaoh but he died not too long after. Hatshepsut then became regent and ruled for her stepson Thutmose III until he reached an appropriate age to take over. However, she decided to crown herself pharaoh seven years into her reign. While it’s not too clear why she did that, it’s likely she had wanted to quell the rising tensions that came up following the death of her husband.
Though her claim to power might have been questionable, Hatshepsut proved to be an excellent ruler. She oversaw huge construction projects throughout Egypt. Among some of her architectural feats were two 100 foot obelisks. During that time, the obelisks were the tallest in the world. Her most notable construction project was her mortuary temple located at Deir el-Bahri. Hatshepsut built the temple to prove to the people that she was very much a god just like her male predecessors. The monument still exists in 21st-century Egypt in the city of Thebes. It is also home to about 100 statues of the famous queen.
Hatshepsut also expanded Egypt’s trade markets by famously ordering for an expedition to the land of Punt, which was a busy trading hub located at the Horn of Africa in the east. Because of its strategic position and closeness to the Red Sea and other Arab traders, it had a wide range of exotic goods. Egyptian traders were able to trade their wares for those unique resources.
The Egyptian pharaoh also had a keen interest in trees. It wasn’t unusual for Ancient Egyptians to revere trees, especially since they were symbols of rebirth, nourishment, and rejuvenation. Many other Egyptian goddesses like Isis were also associated with trees. Hatshepsut was a skilled arborist and knew how to take care of trees. Under Hatshepsut’s reign, Egypt saw a lot of development.
Read More: 8 Most Famous Female Rulers of Ancient Egypt
Queen Amina of Zaria (Nigeria)
Following up on brave warrior queens of West Africa is the Nigerian Queen Amina of Zaria. Her bravery and military conquests earned her the proclamation “Amina, Yaw Bakra rana ta san”, which means “a woman capable as a man.”
She grew up in 16th-century Nigeria in the city-state of Zauzau (now called Zaria). Today, that area serves as the capital of Nigeria’s Kaduna State. As a young child, Amina was fascinated with war and as she grew older, she had the physique and strength to match that interest. At 16, she was crowned “magajiya” or princess and she was required to assume several responsibilities in preparation for her eventual ascension to the throne.
However, Amina’s real interest was in learning how to fight with weapons. She finally got her chance when her brother Karama became king after the death of their father. The two siblings spent their time practicing together and eventually, she became the commander of a 20,000 man army. She spent many years winning several battles with her army.
When Karama died, Amina was crowned queen and she longed to expand her empire. Her first mission as queen was to embark on a military campaign. She conquered territories and protected them by building fortresses and walls around those cities. Many of such cities exist in modern-day Nigeria.
Like many other powerful African queens throughout history, she was extremely intelligent and strong. She defended her land but she was also very heartless. Amina had multiple lovers in the areas that she captured, and whenever she successfully conquered a territory, she would sleep with them. To prevent them from bragging, she killed them the following morning. She never got married nor had any children.
Amina’s legacy inspired the creators of the popular Western television show “Xena: Warrior Princess.”
Queen Ranavalona (Madagascar)
Unlike some of the queens on this list, Queen Ranavalona was a tyrant, but she had her reasons and her rule helped Madagascar resist European rule and preserve most of its culture. She played a crucial role in Madagascar’s history.
Ranavalona’s life was interesting right from the start. She was never in line for the throne. She was a commoner who was adopted into the royal family after her father had warned the future King Andrianampoinimerina of a threat to his life. The young girl was also betrothed to the king’s son Radama and when he succeeded his father, Ranavalona became queen.
Unfortunately, Radama died in 1828 before the couple could have any children. Following his death, Ranavolana sensed that her seat on the throne was under threat. Because she didn’t have children, her nephew, Prince Rakotobe, was next in line. However, according to the rules of the kingdom, any child that she had, even after the death of her husband, was automatically next in line to assume the throne.
Since it was too late for her to bring forth an heir, Ranavolana assembled men from her village who helped seize the coup just as the news of her husband’s death was spreading. She also killed Rakotobe and starved his mother to death. The coup was a success and in August that same year, she was crowned Queen of Madagascar. At her coronation, she reportedly declared: “Never say she is only a feeble and ignorant woman, how can she rule such a vast empire? I will rule here, to the good fortune of my people and the glory of my name! I will worship no gods but those of my ancestors. The ocean shall be the boundary of my realm, and I will not cede the thickness of one hair of my real.”
The newly-installed queen upheld her words. She reversed all of Radama’s reforms and policies, which caused the French to retaliate but she resisted their attacks. The kingdom went back to its traditional way of life and she rejected all forms of foreign influence. Anybody suspected of plotting against her was made to eat a poisonous fruit called tagena, which induced vomiting. In some other cases, they were forced to eat three pieces of chicken skin and regurgitate it back to prove their innocence. In extreme cases, her enemies had their limbs amputated. She even reportedly forced one of her lovers to eat a tagena.
Despite her disdain for French and other European influences, she allowed a French man called Jean Laborde into her court. He was rumored to have fathered her son Rakoto. Laborde was an intelligent man, who was very knowledgeable and excelled in various subjects such as engineering and ammunition. He fashioned weapons for her troops and oversaw the construction of a palace for Ranavalona.
The queen spent most of her reign resisting European powers and persecuted several European Christian missionaries. In 1849, she foiled a planned attack against Madagascar orchestrated by the French and British and mounted 21 heads on the shores of the island to dissuade others from invading. She also uncovered and put an end to a conspiracy led by Rakoto, Laborde, and another French man. Only Laborde and Rakota survived.
Ranavalona died in 1861 and the kingdom fell into the hands of weak rulers. Finally, Madagascar became a French colony in 1896. Perhaps, Ranavalona’s resistance could be the reason why Madagascar didn’t lose most of its traditional artifacts and artworks to the French during that period.
Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa (Ghana)
In March 1900, the Queen Mother of Ejisu, a town in the Ashanti Kingdom, Yaa Asantewaa, led her people in the War of the Golden Stool. It was the last in a series of wars fought between the Ashantis and the British. Although the Ashantis lost the war and the Queen Mother was exiled for the rest of her life to the island of Seychelles, Yaa Asantewaa is recognized for showing bravery in the midst of fear.
Prior to the war, relations between the British and Ashantis were strained after years of fighting over who should control the coastal regions of the Gold Coast (now present-day Ghana). In the 1890s, then-governor, a British, named Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson, insisted that he sit on the Golden Stool, which was a divine artifact and symbol that the Ashantis revered. To make things worse, Hodgson also commanded that the stool be searched for and brought to him.
This order incensed the Ashantis and when the elders (rulers of the kingdom) sat to discuss what had happened, Yaa Asantewaa was shocked to see how scared her people were at the thought of entering into another war with the British. She reminded them of past rulers who the British and other Europeans had feared and volunteered to lead her people to fight against them.
At the start of the war, it appeared the Ashantis had the upper hand but the tables turned and they lost to the British. Yaa Asantewaa was exiled to the Seychelles, where she lived until her death in 1921. Her remains were brought back by her formerly-exiled grandson King Prempeh I when he was allowed to return home.
Despite her loss, Yaa Asantewaa and the Ashantis protected the Golden Stool from the British, who eventually found it buried in a forest twenty years later. It lost its relevance to the Ashantis when workers stole the gold ornaments that adorned the stool.
Today, she is recognized as one of the bravest Ghanaians who challenged British rule and united her people. A girls’ school in the former capital of the Ashanti Kingdom, Kumasi, was named after her by Ghana’s first president Dr. Kwame Nkrumah. Till date only the monarch and its trusted advisors know where the Golden Stool is located.
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Queen Nzinga (Angola)
About two centuries before Ranavalona’s reign, another queen also fought hard against the Europeans, particularly the Portuguese. Her name was Queen Nzinga and her excellent diplomacy skills, strength, and bravery helped put Angola on the road to independence.
Nzinga was born in 1583 in the Kingdom of Matamba and Ndongo. Her father was the king of the Ndongo and when he died, her brother, Mbandi, succeeded him. But Mbandi was an evil ruler and he murdered Nzinga’s son, causing her and her husband to flee from the kingdom.
Mbandi later sought the assistance of his sister in negotiating with the Portuguese after a conflict. This event is what Nzinga is perhaps best known for.
The Portuguese had arranged the meeting with only one chair in the room, as a power play. Upon realizing their plan to make her feel inferior, she ordered one of her maids to bend on all four limbs to form a chair on which she sat.
The princess managed to sit at eye level with the Portuguese governor as they negotiated the terms of the treaty. The Portuguese agreed to hand power back to Mbandi and also set a limit on the number of slaves they could take away.
On the other hand, Nzinga strategically agreed to be baptized and she adopted the name Dona Anna de Souza.
In 1633, Mbandi died and she took over as queen. Some historians believe Nzinga had a hand in her brother’s death.
Aside from her position, she was also appointed Governor of Luanda. In 1626, the treaty with the Portuguese was broken and fighting resumed. The Portuguese, in retaliation, installed a new chief, one of Nzinga’s family members called Philip.
Nzinga refused to back down and decided to get help from allies, including some neighboring Africans, as well as the Dutch. Her campaign began smoothly and she managed to force the Portuguese to retreat in 1641. But the Portuguese returned with more troops and overwhelmed her. She was forced to enter into negotiations with the colonizers where she accepted Philip as the new king of the Ndongo. She continued to be recognized as queen of the Matamba and managed to keep that kingdom relatively free from European influence.
Queen Nzinga died in 1663 and is remembered as one of the most confident African rulers to resist European domination. She has been credited with building foundations for abolishing slave trade in Angola. Her life and principles the country’s fight for independence some three hundred years later. The Angolan government erected a statue of Queen Nzinga in the capital city of Luanda.
Queen Muhumuza (Rwanda/Uganda)
Not much is known about Queen Muhumuza’s early life. In the 1800s, she married the Rwandan King Kigeli IV. In 1895, Kigeli died but their son who was heir to the throne was prevented from succeeding him. When that happened, Muhumuza challenged not only the Rwandan kingmakers, but also the European colonialists. Eventually, she decided to leave Rwanda and settle in Uganda. But she was arrested and sentenced to spend the rest of her life in prison by the British.
Muhumuza was known for her spiritual powers and many believed she was a descendant or reincarnation of the great spiritual Queen Nyabingi. She was also known for challenging colonial authorities and clashed especially with the Belgians, British, and the Germans. Muhumuza also advocated strongly for women’s rights, which were suppressed in the policies that the colonial governments introduced.
Today, Muhumuza is not only known for resisting colonial rule. She also plays a crucial role in the establishment of the Rastafarian movement, which traces its origins back to Queen Nyabingi. She earned the name Rutatiina-Mireego, which means “one who never fears bows and arrows.”
Queen Cleopatra (Egypt)
No list of African queens in history is complete without mentioning Queen Cleopatra VII Thea Philopater, the last ruler under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. She reigned between 50-31 BC and although it wasn’t an exceptionally long rule, she found herself right in the middle of one the major turning points in world history.
Cleopatra was well-educated and fluent in a number of languages, including Egyptian, Greek, Ethiopian, Latin, Arabic among others. This skill made her excel in liaising with other foreign rulers. She also capitalized on Rome’s growing power in the Mediterranean to help solidify her rule over her sibling with whom, until then, she’d been co-ruling Egypt. Although her activities in Rome would end up backfiring, it did catapult her to fame.
She was regarded as an influencer of her time. During that period, her influence was so strong that she managed to have romantic relationships with two of the world’s most powerful men: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
As Caesar’s mistress, she spent a considerable amount of time in Rome, where she introduced the Romans to new clothing and hairstyles. She also wrote a book on improving one’s appearance and wrote about how to cure male baldness and dandruff. Cleopatra used her beauty and charm to assist in foreign talks and negotiations, which helped her promote Egypt, bringing in more development.
The Egyptian queen also brought more stability to the throne, which had been shaky during and after the reign of her father Ptolemy XII. She managed to get rid of her siblings to become the sole ruler, which brought about some relative calm.
Even though Cleopatra was of Greek heritage, she was born in Egypt. She decided to embrace Egyptian culture and adopted it as hers. Cleopatra learned how to speak Egyptian so she could interact with her subjects. Under her leadership, the Egyptian economy flourished and so did its culture.
Queen Nandi (South Africa)
Most people when asked of what they know of the Southern African Zulu tribe would probably mention the legendary warrior-king Shaka Zulu. But before Shaka, there was his mother Queen Nandi, and she was an instrumental figure in the king’s life.
She was born Nandi Ndlovukazi kaBhebe in the 1760s. Not much is known of her childhood except that her father was one of the minor chiefs in the Bhebhe tribe. Nandi’s “fall from grace” occurred in 1787 when she encountered some warriors on her way home with friends. It was there that she met Senzangakhona Kajama, who was the king of the Zulus. They had an affair which resulted in her getting pregnant. But when Nandi told her people what had happened, they rejected her claims and insisted she’d been bitten by the “ishaka” beetle, an insect that disrupted menstrual cycles and caused bloating.
However, months later, they realized she’d been speaking the truth when she gave birth to a boy. She named her son Shaka after the beetle. After initially denying that he was the father of her son, Senzangakhoma finally married Nandi as his third wife. But their marriage was frowned upon since they were related.
Life was miserable for both Nandi and Shaki and they fled their village to live with another clan. It was there that the leader of the new clan trained Shaka to become a powerful warrior. Nandi also imparted important values to help her son become a responsible leader.
When Senzangakhona died, Nandi and Shaka returned home and he became the king of the Zulu tribe. Queen Nandi became his personal advisor. She was the only woman in Shaka’s life and her son rewarded her by making her a goddess. He also built an army of women in Nandi’s honor. They ruled together for 12 years, and in that period, they fought against slave traders and expanded their kingdom.
Queen Nandi died of dysentery in 1827. Shaka was reportedly so shaken up by his mother’s death that he ordered anyone who refused to mourn his mother to be put to death.
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