The Question of the Queen Mother

Speaking of the linguistic booby traps that await the unwary in the pursuit of global history, as I believe we were, I offer you the example of the Queen Mother.

In English, the term “Queen Mother” generally refers to the widow of a king* who is the mother of a reigning monarch. The term has been in use since the sixteenth century, but for most of us, the courtesy title is inextricably linked with one woman: Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002), the widow of King George VI of Great Britain and the mother of Elizabeth II.

Portrait of the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, by Richard Stone. Stone placed this portrait in the public domain on his website: “Since The Queen Mother had been such a support to me in my career, it seemed appropriate to place the portrait in the public domain, as a token of my appreciation.”

That’s all clear enough in theory, though occasionally convoluted in practice.

Things change dramatically when we move our attention to the Asante and Swazi nations of West Africa, where the position that is translated into English as Queen Mother was something entirely different. In these states, the Queen Mother was very seldom the king’s mother. The women who held this role were from a generation senior to the reigning king and not always related to him. Holding joint sovereignty with the king, the Queen Mother had her own royal court, council, and army. She served as the king’s chief advisor, was equal to the king in the ruling hierarchy, and played a critical role in choosing the next king.

The best known of these was the Asante Queen Mother Yaa Asantewaa of Edweso, who ruled from 1887 to 1900 and led her soldiers in rebellion against the British in the War of the Golden Stool in 1900-1901. A different vision of Queen Mother indeed.

*Also known as a dowager queen. The title distinguishes dowager queens from current queen consorts. It is not used to describe the mother of a ruling monarch who was not previously a queen consort: the most obvious example of this was Queen Victoria’s mother, who was the Queen’s mother, but not the Queen Mother. Got it?

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