As Britain mourns her beloved queen, the former colonies of the Western world, parts of Africa, India must remember their erased queens.
Artist impression of Queen Amanirenas, the African queen who defeated the Roman army.
The demise of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom has sparked a novel interest in the relevance of monarchy in today’s society. However, one other aspect to look at this event is to understand why the death of a British monarch still matters and why history has not been kinder to the other noteworthy queens of the past.
The knowledge of our history is mired with the stories of bravery and valour of the kings and queens residing in pristine stone castles or lavish palaces of the West. Our vantage point of contact with these monarchs has been only through their attempts to colonise and subjugate our lands and population. There is another reason as to why the imperial monarchs still remain relevant in our collective consciousness as opposed to our own historical figures, the reason in the still existing neo-colonial paradigm. Our histories are not yet liberated.
Therefore, while the world mourns and attempts to place meaning to the demise of the British Queen, let us take a moment’s time to remember some of our own. We, in the 'decolonised' yet 'developing' world, have a huge rich history of courageous queens who have navigated and manoeuvred through foreign subjugation.
THE AFRICAN QUEENS
The inspiration of this article comes from the highly significant LinkedIn post of Dr. Belinda Kendall regarding her profiling of important queens from African History. She talks about the need to develop a historical insight into the tales of bravery of these women and how we need to bring back the erased history of the Queens from our cultural past as once colonised states.
The Queen Zningha of Ndongo , the Queen of the Mbundu people is a significant figure in African History and needs to be acknowledged more for her courage against the Portuguese invaders. As a princess she was sent to diplomatically negotiate with the Portuguese regarding the trade within their region. However, seeing the precarious situation that they were in, Nzingha persuaded the King (her brother) to order a forced conversion of Christianity in the Kingdom. As controversial as the decision may be, it was an attempt to forge an alliance with the Portuguese so as to put a halt on their colonial ambitions. However, Nzingha soon found herself at the throne of the kingdom after her brother committed suicide amidst the rising Portuguese aggression. She thus applied her political and strategic prowess to end the Portuguese slave trade within the kingdom by forging alliances with the rival states and the European Powers as well, i.e. the Dutch. She even formed a military organisation from the Portuguese trained African soldiers and the runaway slaves. She used guerrilla warfare techniques against the Portuguese and this would continue to be a part of her legacy for years to come.
The Queen Tiye of Egypt is known for her clever and sharp sense of politics and strategic affairs. She was the grandmother to the famous Egyptian emperor Tutenkhamun. She is considered to be one of the most powerful and divine figures of Ancient Egypt history. She acquired the same stature as her husband the ruler Amenhotep III and is known to have stood beside him as his equal during their rule of Egypt. The reason for ehr respect and stature within the Egyptian court was her immense diplomatic and communication skills that were used primarily in negotiating effectively with the foreign powers. According to the Amarna Letters, she was regarded with deep respect by her husband and the other subsequent rulers of the Kingdom. As the wife of King Amenhotep III, she became the first Queen to have her name etched on the official acts and declarations of the Kingdom. Egypt became one of the most powerful and culturally powerful kingdoms during her reign.
As quoted by Dr. Belinda in her post, Queen Amanirenas also known as the 'one-eyed queen' dealt directly with the Roman invasion and even defeated the Romans trying to conquer the kingdom of Nubi through Ta-seti by assuming the fierce command of her kingdom’s army. She is even referred to as the 'conqueror of Romans' because of her tales of defeating Romans on the battlefield. She led an army of about 30,000 soldiers who were highly trained in the art of warcraft to launch a surprise attack on the Roman armed forces. She gained the title of the “one-eyed queen” during her battle with the Romans wherein she was brutally wounded and eventually blinded in one eye. The credit for the brave stories of other women like queen Amnirenas goes to the cultural practice of teaching the art of archery to both women and men alike in the Nubian culture. It has been popularly believed that the conflict with the Romans eventually ended in a peace treaty and the Roman army finally receded only because of the consistent resistance by Queen Amanirenas.
Queen Nandi of the Zulu tribe is considered to be one of the most influential and respected figures in the history of Zululand. She is known to have dealt with severe challenges in her personal life but emerged victorious in the end. Once exiled from her own Kingdom, she returned with her son who reclaimed the throne of Zululand. She was accorded the title of Queen Mother by her Son after ascending the Zulu throne. She is renowned for her diplomatic and moderation skills that helped in counselling the King through his political career. As opposed to direct violence, Queen Nandi always counselled for Political compromise and diplomatic skills.
Queen Amina is also often referred to as the warrior queen and she was the first woman to become a queen in the male dominated society of Zaria. She, during her reign, commanded the army of 20,000 men in Nigeria. She trained militarily with the Zazzau cavalry from a very young age, something quite uncommon for a young woman during those days. She even emerged as the leader of the Zazzau cavalry in the first ever such incident. After ascending to the throne as the first female ruler of her kingdom, she displayed her conquering abilities by expanding her territory to nearby kingdoms of Nupe, Kano and Katsina. The competition for trade routes characterised the context of her reign and Queen Amina navigated the challenges in a commendable way which resulted in Zaria becoming a significant trading centre of the time. This added to the prosperity of her kingdom. During her rule, she also built a fortress around the city so as to protect the citizens from foreign attacks.
THE QUEENS OF INDIA
While briefly discussing these significant female figures of African history, it also brings into context the need to understand the historical accounts of our own Queens. The ethnocentric and colonial conditioning has led us to divert our attention to the Western History and it becomes even more important to remember these strong female figures in order to efficiently decolonise our conditioned perceptions as well.
Rani Avanti Bai
The Queen of Ramgarh, Rani Avanti Bai assumed the monarchy in unforeseen circumstances, the story of a lot of female monarchs of the time. The British administration who were aiming to increase their hold on the Indian Kingdoms at the time, declared her husband the King Vikramaditya Singh as unfit to rule the Kingdom and disregarded the claims of her sons to the throne as well. As per the Doctrine of Lapse at the time, the British could take control of the princely states if the ruler remained unfit to rule. This threatened the Lodhi rule in Ramgarh and hence the queen found herself in direct combat with the British East India Company. Rani Avanti Bai is especially famous for sustaining through the guerilla warfare technique against the British for an extended period of time and contributed immensely to the 1857 Revolt of independence.
Rani Ahilyabai Holkar
Rani Ahilyabai ascended to the throne of the Maratha Malwa Kingdom in the 18th century. She became one of the most influential women of her time and even commissioned the establishment of cultural architecture and temples around her kingdom. After the demise of her son, she filled the power vacuum in the Kingdom by becoming the ruler and led her people through the struggle against foreign invaders and conquerors. She was a visionary politician as well because she pinpointed the intentions of the then newly established British East India Company into Indian society. She even attempted to warn the other Kingdoms of dealing with the British traders with scrutiny and care.
Rani Abakka Chowta
Another significant name in the Indian Historical account is that of Rani Abakka Chowta, also called the warrior queen. The Queen of Ullal is credited with dealing with the Portugueses' dominance during the 16th century. As a princess, she was effectively trained in archery, sword fighting, military and diplomatic strategy as well and hence she was well equipped to face the European threat in the form of the Portuguese. She even refused to give into the demands of the Portuguese to pay taxes. During her first battle against the Portuguese, she killed the army general along with other 40 Portuguese soldiers and forced them to flee the Kingdom.
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi
A woman respected by all her counterparts, for her vision and progressive decision making, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi -The Queen of Travancore is a figure that needs to be acknowledged significantly. She stood out for her encouraging feminist ideals and attempts to provide education to women in order to create a gener-equal society. She elevated many other female achievers and academicians while giving them a seat at her Legislative council. She is also credited with improving the condition of the Women’s College in Trivandrum and affiliating it with the University of Madras as one of the most significant colleges for science and technology. Therefore, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi worked primarily towards the upliftment of the women within her society and attempted to enhance the education infrastructure to become more inclusive.
There are many more such stories from the History of our societies which demand our attention. There is a need to bring these into our collective memory so as to acknowledge and amplify their tales of valour. These are the queens we should bow down to!