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The Umbrella vs the Crown

In the course of writing Women Warriors, I wrote a lot of variations on the sentence “inherited the throne/crown” . (Or in several instances, “seized the throne/crown”. Because transfer of power is often not a bloodless event.) Eventually it dawned on me that while throne and crown can be actual objects, they are also metaphors for rule. Literally snatching a crown from someone’s hand is not the same as snatching a kingdom. We all know this. But knowing it in our heads is different from knowing it: the metaphor is deeply coded into our brains and our language.

Once I actively thought about throne and crown as metaphors for rule, I realized that they are inherently western metaphors at that. Not all polities* invest the authority of their rulers in crown or throne. The most important piece of royal regalia in the Ashante kingdom (in modern Ghana) was the Golden Stool–a throne-like symbol so revered that it sat on a stool of its own beside the Ashante king. An umbrella was the symbol of royal authority in a huge portion of the world that includes the Middle East, Egypt and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, Persia, South and Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Korea. It appeared as a royal emblem as early as ancient Egypt and as late as nineteenth century West Africa. In some steppe and desert based cultures, the royal symbol was a horsehair whisk. I am sure there are other examples.

Conflating these symbols with thrones and crowns is a problem. If we describe an Ashante stool as a throne, we disguise essential differences between the cultures of say, nineteenth century England and nineteenth century Ashante. At the same time, the words we use in English to describe such symbols reduce their royal and sometimes mystical authority by giving them the names of common, even lowly, household objects. The Incident of the Flyswatter, which set off France’s decades-long attempt to conquer North Africa and hence the complex and difficult relationship between modern France and its Muslim citizens, is rendered trivial, even comic, by the way French newspapers described the Algerian royal regalia.

I have no answers. Only a growing awareness that writing global history is laden with booby traps.

*To use a more general term than kingdom, which is laden with linguistic assumptions of its own.

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