As a Black man and an African historian, I have found that one of the most inspiring aspects in the annals of humankind is the outstanding role of African women and their contributions to history. In this brief article, we highlight and pay tribute to some of the greatest of these women.
Queen Ahmose-Nefertari (circa 1570-1530 B.C.) was an active participant, along with her husband King Ahmose, in the final defeat and ejection from Africa of the hated Hyksos invaders and occupiers. As such, she was regarded as a national hero and one of the outstanding figures in African history. Indeed, she was a co-founder of the glorious 18th dynasty of Kmt — called “The greatest royal family that ever mounted a throne.”
Ahmose-Nefertari was born a royal heiress to the thone and became one of Kmt’s most beloved and audacious women. After her husband’s brilliant reign, she ruled the land with her son, King Amenhotep I.
It would not be inaccurate to say that Ahmose-Nefertari was venerated, a practice that continued for more than 600 years after her death. To her memory was attached a special priesthood, who recited in her honor a prayer only used in addressing the pantheon of the most powerful deities in the land. Ahmose-Nefertari was titled “God’s Wife of Amen” and held a position as a priestess in the national religious center. It is interesting too that the surviving portraits of Ahmose-Nefertari are all painted Black — a sign further illustrating her great prominence.
Dahia al-Kahina, in what is now Algeria, at the end of the seventh century was especially active in the North African resistance to the Arab invasions of Africa. Around the year 690, she took personal command of the African armies. Under her vigilant direction and leadership, the Arab legions were forced to retreat, regroup and reassess their strategy and tactics for the invasion of North Africa. The Arabs were intent on occupying Africa, however, and as the military situation of the Africans deteriorated, the determed Kahina instituted a scorched earth policy of destruction. Her posture was that she would rather see the destruction of the land rather than cede it to invaders. Sadly, the effects of the devastation can still be seen today in the North African countryside.
Based on tradition, Dahia al-Kahina eventually took her own life rather than accept defeat at the hands of the Arabs. Her sons went on to help lead the Moorish invasion of Spain. But with the death of this bold African woman ended what was perhaps the most determined and inspiring chapter in the effort to preserve Africa for the Africans.
Nzingha, also known as Ann Nzingha, is the great national figure of precolonical Angola. The extraordinary scholar John Henrik Clarke referenced her as the “greatest military strategist that ever confronted the armed forces of Portugal.” Nzingha was born in Central Africa around 1582 and her brilliance was recognized early on. The fact that she was a woman was not an impediment to her ability to lead. Toward the middle of her life, she became increasingly aggressive in her desire to maintain the power and dignity of the people of Central Africa. Indeed, her military campaigns kept the Portuguese in Africa at bay for more than four decades. Her goal was the final and complete eradication of the Portuguese capture and enslavement of African people.
Nzingha sent ambassadors and representatives throughout West and Central Africa with the goal of building a massive coalition of Africans to eject the Portuguese.
Nzingha died fighting for her people in 1663 at the ripe old age of 81.
The 20-year reign of the outstanding female monarch Makare Hatshepsut, beginning about 1500 B.C., occurred near the pinnacle of Ancient Egypt. This time period is a golden age in the long history of African people. It was a period marked by tremendous internal stability and a time of great international prestige.
One of Hatshepsut’s grandest accomplishments was a splendid expedition to the African land of Punt — regarded by the Kamites as “God’s land.” The land of Punt was in the Horn of Africa, probably encompassing part of Somalia, Eritrea and even Yemen across the Red Sea in the Arabian Peninsula. A journey to Punt was perhaps the greatest of achievements for the monarchs of Kmt.
Eti was the queen of Punt at the beginning of the 15 century B.C. The products of Punt included ebony, frankincense and myrrh. Eti, a large heavy-set woman, was famously depicted in a procession with Perehu, the king of Punt, on the walls of Makare Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri. The original depiction is now located in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.
Princess Neferure was the daughter of Hatshepsut. Neferure was raised by the steward Senenmut. Several block statues of Senenmut exist with the head of Princess Neferure emerging from the block. Neferure has the titles: “King’s Daughter” and “God’s Wife.”
Makare Hatshepsut’s royal titles included: King of the North and South, Son of the Sun, The Heru of Gold, Bestower of Years, Goddess of Risings, Conqueror of all Lands, Lady of both Lands, Vivifier of Years, Chief Spouse of Amen, the Mighty One.
Makare Hatshepsut was one of the mightiest of African women.
During the 10th century B.C. we hear of the deeds of Makeda — a near-legendary African woman. This queen had the qualities of an outstanding ruler and seems to have governed over a prosperous land encompassing parts of both East Africa and Southwest Asia. In the Quran, she is known as Bilqis, in the great epic of Ethiopia called the Kebra Negast, she is called Makeda, and in the Bible and in the popular imagination of the Western world she is known as the Queen of Sheba. These texts show an unmistakable image of a well-developed land characterized by the elevated overall posture of women. And Makeda was not an isolated phenomenon. Either their deeds or inheritance or both enabled such Black women to stand out singularly and individually.
Queen Tiye was the beloved wife of King Nebmare Amenhotep III, the mother of King Amenhotep IV (who as Akhenaten is one of the most significant figures in all of human history) and the mother or grandmother of Tutankhamen—perhaps the most famous king to emerge from the ancient world.
Tiye is one of the most interesting figures in history, even in the realm of love and romance. Amenhotep III and Tiye married while quite young and shared one of the great love affairs of the ages. The colossal statue of Amenhotep III and Tiye found at the temple of Medinet Habu is Luxor, Egypt demonstates a degree of love and respect that probably has no equal.
That Tiye was of great ability and powerful influence is proved by association with her husband in all of his ceremonial records. She was such an integral part of Africa affairs that in more than one instance foreign sovereigns appealed to her directly in matters of international importance.
The surviving depictions of Tiye show her with distinct African features. And these depictions are numerous, found now in museums in New York City, Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Indeed, there are probably more depictions of Queen Tiye than any African woman from ancient times.
PERPETUA AND FELICITY
It was in 180 C.E. that the first known Christian martyrs of Africa were executed. One of the most famous and most outstanding acts of martyrdom, however, occurred in the year 203 C.E. and centers around two young incredibly brave African women–Perpetua and Felicity. The account of their deaths, known as “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity,” was so inspiring and popular in the early centuries that it was read during liturgies.
In the year 203 C.E., Perpetua made the decision to become a Christian, although she knew it could mean her death. Her father was frantic with worry and tried to talk her out of her decision. His motivation is understandable for at 22 years of age, this well-educated, high-spirited woman had every reason to want to live–including an infant son whom she was still nursing.
Perpetua was arrested with four others, including Felicity, another African woman. Perpetua was baptized before being taken to prison–a prison that was so crowded with people that the heat was suffocating. For Felicity it was even worse as she suffered from the stifling heat, overcrowding, and rough handling while she was eight months pregnant.
The officers of the prison began to recognize the power, faith, strength and leadership of Perpetua and the warden himself became a believer. There was a feast the day before the public spectacle so that the crowd could see the martyrs and make fun of them. But the martyrs turned this all around by laughing at the crowd for not being Christians and exhorting them to follow their example.
Bears, leopards, and wild boars attacked the men while the women were stripped to face a wild cow. When the assembled crowd, however, saw the two African young women, one of whom had obviously just given birth, milk running from her breasts, they were horrified and ashamed, and the two women were removed from the arena and clothed again. In spite of everything, however, Perpetua and Felicity were thrown roughly and brutally back into the arena. Regardless of her own pain and suffering though, Perpetua, filled with compassion and still thinking of others, went to help Felicity to her feet. The two then stood side-by-side, dignity intact, heads raised high as all of the martyrs assembled in the arena had their throats cut.
Neithhotep, circa 3200 BCE, is credited as the first queen of Kmt (ancient Egypt), cofounder of the First Dynasty, and the earliest African queen whose name is known. You could even say that she reigns as a kind of godmother of Kmt—the greatest nation in the ancient world.
Neithhotep means the goddess “Neith is Satisfied.” Neithhotep’s dynastic marriage to King Narmer represents the start of the Early Dynastic Period of Kmt and the unification of the Two Lands of Lower and Upper Kmt. Neithhotep’s name was found in several locations, particularly at ancient Naqada and in the general vicinity at the site of the royal tombs in Umm el-Qaab. Her titles were “Foremost of Women” and “Consort of the Two Ladies.” Both were titles given to queens during the First Dynasty of Kmt.
The woman named Hypatia was a notable scholar, teacher and intellectual born around 360 CE and died in March 415 CE. She is regarded as the world’s first outstanding woman in mathematics and one of the most interesting personalities from the world of antiquity. In addition to mathematics, she also taught philosophy and astronomy.
Hypatia lived during the time of the Roman domination of Egypt and was killed by a mob fanatical Christians on the streets of Alexandria. Mathematics has a long and distinquished tradition in Africa and she is said to have belonged to the mathematical tradition passed down to the Greeks of the Academy of Athens. Hypatia was the daughter of the man named Theon, the last known mathematician associated with the Museum of Alexandria.
The great African woman called Amina Sukhera was a princess of Zazzau (now Zaria), in what is now northern Nigeria. She was born near the year 1533 and died about the year 1610. The Arabic name Amina means truthful, trustworthy and honest. Amina Sukhera was a fierce warrior. According to tradition, as a child, Amina’s grandmother once caught her holding a dagger. As an adult, Amina refused to marry, and helped Zazzau (Zaria) become a focal point for trade and commercial activity. She also expanded its territory. The introduction of kola nuts into cultivation in the area is attributed to Amina. A statue at Amina at the National Arts Theatre in Lagos, Nigeria, honors her, and numerous educational institutions bear her name.
LUZIA: THE FIRST AFRICAN-AMERICAN
Luzia is the name for the skeleton of a prehistoric woman found in a cave in Brazil, South America. Some archaeologists believe she may have been part of the first wave of immigrants to journey from Africa to South America. Nicknamed Luzia (her name pays homage to the famous African fossil “Lucy,” who lived 3.4 million years ago), the 11,500 year-old skeleton was found in Lapa Vermelha, Brazil, in 1975. The skull itself was buried under more than forty feet of mineral deposits and debris—separated from the rest of the skeleton—but in surprisingly good condition. There were no other human remains at the site. So we can say that the woman dubbed Luzia was an African woman in the Americas long before the advent of enslavement.