I only recently got a peek at what Americans call ‘Princess Culture’ and sort of connected why the little girls all wanted pink frocks that look like 17th century designs, like to wear tiaras and some of them demand that they get every toy they like. This behaviour seems to be a mirror of the ideology which so many little girls and their parents have been fed through Disney feature films and storybooks. But, this is extremely different from the concepts of royalty that we grew up with in Jamaica.
Although we are no longer a British colony, we’re still constitutional subjects of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and many citizens are fans of the pomp and circumstance that unfolds during state visits by members of the British Royal family. So, we appreciate the political post of ‘princess’ that a woman can hold: as the daughter or granddaughter of a king/queen (like Princess Margaret), or as the wife of a prince (like Princess Diana). In our minds, a princess is never a vain, pampered, sheltered snob with no work experience. Instead, we commonly refer to young females of noble (admirable and dignified) character as ‘Princess’ – based on our matriarchal society and the influence of Rastafari culture.
We have our own local (non-European) female royals in the roles of Beauty Queens, Festival Queens and Dancehall Queens, as well as Rastafari Empresses, Maroon Chieftainesses and Kumina Queens – all of whom are held to higher standards and honoured by the public for what they symbolise. In fact, any woman who dresses modestly, walks confidently and celebrates her natural beauty will often be greeted, “Good morning, Empress!” or “Greetings, Princess” by both men and women in the street; making it no surprise that both 2Face Idibia’s “African Queen” and Tarrus Riley’s “She’s Royal” have been big hits in Jamaica for years.
In contrast to our constitutional monarchy, we have the great legacy of an African Queen, Nanny of the Maroons, who is our national heroine. Queen Nanny was an Ashanti royal who was brought to Jamaica (sold into slavery), but she escaped from the plantation into the mountains before she freed other enslaved Africans and formed her own militant ‘nation’ within the nation. Queen Nanny’s leadership and superior military strategies were so imposing and unmatched, that the English soldiers and government were never able to defeat her. Instead, they sought alliance with the Maroons, offered peace treaties to them and gave the Maroon settlements political autonomy.
The legend of our Warrior Queen has inspired millions of Jamaican girls to be like Nanny – a powerful woman who leads, nurtures and fights for her people. She was my favourite national hero! It is in this tradition of honouring feminine nobility, that I call my daughter ‘Princess’. Not the Disney princess that waits for her prince to come rescue her from vane boredom, but a “warrior princess” like so many who have gone before us. Although I grew up admiring the leadership and strength of our Queen Nanny, I have also learnt of other Warrior Queens and Princesses who serve as powerful role models for young, black girls and women of today. Some of the militant royals that I want my daughter to emulate are:
- Yaa Asantewaa, the Queen Mother of the Ashanti empire (part of modern-day Ghana) who led the War of the Golden Stool against the British colonisers. When she saw the men of her empire whimpering at the threats of the invaders, she declared that she would defend her people to the death.
- Nzinga Mbande, Queen of the Ndongo & Matamba kingdoms of Angola, led a 30-year war against the Portuguese who were trying to colonise her people and expand the slave trade. She was never defeated in any of her military missions – even though her armies and weaponry were ‘inferior’ to that of the Europeans.
- Amanirenas, was Queen Mother of the Meroetic kingdom of Kush. When the Romans invaded her neighbours and decided to tax her people, she led her armies into war against them. After 5 years of battling against the Romans, Amanirenas defeated them and forced them to withdraw the tax which had threatened the Kushite kingdom.
- Taitu Betul, the Empress of the Ethiopian empire, founded the city of Addis Ababa and was a military strategist who initiated the War of Adwa when she discovered Italy’s plot to colonise Ethiopia. She led her own battalion alongside her husband, Emperor Menelik II, and the Imperial Army, defeating the Italians.
- Hatshepshut, Pharaoh of the 18th dynasty of Ancient Egypt, came to power after her husband died and she reigned for 20 years. Not interested in invading other territories, she maintained peace during her reign and focused on securing economic prosperity for Egypt. She built and restored many monuments throughout both Egyptian kingdoms and is considered one of the most successful Pharaohs in history.
- Amina Sukhera, was the Hausa Queen of Zazzau (part of present-day Nigeria) for 34 years. She was a fierce warrior who led the military in battles and expanded her kingdom by claiming other neighbouring territories. Her innovation led to the introduction of metal armour to her military forces, since her kingdom was known for excellent metalwork.
- Elizabeth Bagaaya, the Princess Royal of the Toro Kingdom in Uganda, is a lawyer (the first East African woman to be accepted to the English Bar), and a Diplomat (at the United Nations). During her youth, she worked as a Model and Actress, paving the way for many black women in these industries. Today, she serves Uganda as their High Commissioner to Nigeria.
So, when you hear me call my little girl, “Princess” please remember these great African women: true royals who were fearless in the execution of their duties. Our little, black girls need to be fed the stories of black women who were models of leadership, courage, dignity, intelligence, diplomacy, entrepreneurship, compassion and beauty. These are the qualities of a princess – a woman of authority who earns respect and exudes an uncommon beauty – not like the ones you see in the fairytales.
Didan Ashanta is a natural living enthusiast who blogs at DidanAshanta.com. A native of Jamaica, she currently lives in Tokyo with her husband and 1-year-old daughter.