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Queen Modjadji

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Queens around the world – Queen Modjadji

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20 June 2024
Intrepid. Determined. Courageous.
balobedu queen surrounded by women

The incredible reign of Queen Modjadji will grace our screens from Sunday 14 July on Mzansi Magic, bringing with it a powerful tale of royal command and glory. Her tale has never been told like this before, but it promises so much of the turmoil that comes with running a kingdom … or should that be queendom? After all, there have been so many incredible women who have reigned, it’s really a word we should be using as well. Along with Queen Modjadji, South Africa also has the powerful stories of Queen Nandi, Queen Bessie, and Queen Ntombazi.

Intrepid. Determined. Courageous. These words are often used to describe these queens and many others from around the world and across time. Embroiled in family feuds, clashing clans, and struggles for power, they had need of all these qualities. From the Native American Queen Alliquippa, Ancient Egypt’s Nefertiti, and the Queen of Sheba to Tonga’s Sālote Tupou, England’s Elizabeths, Russia’s Catherine, China’s Empress Wu Zetia, and Amina, Queen of Zazzau, these women have displayed fire and fortitude in societies that often forced them to the margins of power and history. While we wait impatiently for Queen Modjadji to start, let’s learn about some awesome queens.

Cura Ocllo, Inca Empire

Monarchies are so passé in South America, but once upon a time it was home to mighty empires, like the Inca. One of their most famous queens was Cura Ocllo, a woman whose life was besieged by constant warfare, from feuding brothers to feuding empires. Cura Ocllo became queen consort (like Camilla) when she married her brother (not like Camilla). Incest was pretty much a way of life with royalty everywhere in the olden days; so were family feuds, leading the Incas to ask the Spanish for aid. Bad move. Not only were the Spanish after power and gold, but the conquistador Gonzalo Pizarro decided he wanted Cura Ocllo for himself, which led to more fighting, both between the Spanish and the Incas, as well as ongoing clashes between the Incas. As a result, Cura Ocllo was subjected to rape and torture from all sides, as she fought for her empire. Today her statue stands in Ollantaytambo (a town in Peru) as a symbol of her courage.

Queen Ranavalona I, Madagascar

Also known as the Mad Queen, the female Caligula, and Bloody Mary of Madagascar, Ranavalona I was the first queen of Madagascar. She reigned for 33 years, trying to protect her country’s independence, particularly by cutting ties with the British and French (although she wasn’t opposed to French fashion, weapons, or lovers). She became queen after marrying Prince Radama, who became king after his father’s death. There was not much love lost between them, especially after her husband killed several of her relatives. However, she titted his tat. When he died, she amassed supporters, killed many of her husband’s relatives, and declared herself queen. Today she is remembered with a sense of ambiguity. She was a brutal leader who did not hesitate to poison, torture, kill, starve, or enslave, but she also toughened economic policies and kept foreign invasion at bay, something her successors failed to do. A mere three and half decades after her death, Madagascar was colonised by the French.

Juana I, Queen of Castile and León, and Queen of Aragon

Here we have another mad queen (Juana was also known as Juana the Mad) … but dig a little deeper and you’ll find there was plenty of precedent for her not being okay. Let’s start with her husband, Philip of Flanders, a real player whose constant affairs sent Juana into a tailspin. To make matters worse, she unexpectedly became heir to her father’s kingdom … because her older siblings and their children died. Not only did she have to deal with her husband’s wayward ways, lose family, deal with being almost-constantly pregnant, and think about her queendom, but her mother fell ill and died … which meant she inherited her mother’s queendom as well. It’s no wonder Juana was struggling to cope. Failing to acknowledge this physical and emotional context – and since her father and husband did anything and everything they could to wrest her power for themselves – she was imprisoned in a convent for 46 years, until her death. Who wouldn’t go mad after all that?

Queen Lili‘uokalani, Hawaiʻi

Lili‘uokalani ascended to the throne in 1891, after the death of her brother, King Kalākaua. She was Hawai‘i’s last monarch and reigned over the Kingdom of Hawai‘i until the monarchy was overthrown by the United States and absorbed into the country as a territory, eventually becoming the 50th state. Her brother had lost much of the monarch’s grip on the kingdom, but Lili‘uokalani fought to regain it and attain sovereignty. Education and music were two of her great passions, inciting her to establish the Lili‘uokalani Educational Society. She also rewrote the constitution, a move which annoyed American businessmen, so they staged a coup and overthrew her. While under house arrest, she wrote protest songs, one of which became a beloved national song. Lili‘uokalani fought for Hawaiian autonomy to the end of her days.

Yaa Asantewaa of the Asante Empire

Appointed Queen Mother of Ejisu by her older brother, Yaa Asantewaa was a significant influence on the Asante Empire, advising the king, as well as being responsible for looking after the Golden Stool (the royal throne of the Asante). She became a key figure in what became known as the War of the Golden Stool. It also took its name after her, often being referred to as the Yaa Asantewaa War of Independence. The queen became a symbol of courage, compelling her people to resist colonisation. She was eventually captured and exiled to the Seychelles where she stayed for 25 years, until her death in 1921. Her vision of independence was realised in 1957, when the Asante protectorate gained independence as part of Ghana.

Dame Te Atairangikaahu

Te Atairangikaahu was not the Queen of New Zealand. Technically that was Queen Elizabeth II, until her death in 2022. This is because New Zealand is still a constitutional monarchy and only three-time winner of the Rugby World Cup. 😜 But Te Atairangikaahu was a Māori queen for 40 years, the first woman chosen to lead the Māori king movement (known as the Kīngitanga). During her reign (the longest of any Māori monarch), she promoted and upheld Māori culture, language, and rights.

Empress Suiko, Japan

Let’s take it all the way back to the sixth century, to Japan: the country with the world’s oldest monarchy. Suiko was the nation’s first and longest-ruling empress – although some argue that the third-century, somewhat-mythical Shamaness-Queen Himiko, who reigned in the third century, was not only Japan’s first female monarch, but its first ruler. But Suiko was great in her own right. Like many women on this list, she was passionate about art, culture, education, and economic stability. She established a constitution that included the need for fair governance as well as ethical principles for the ruling class. Suiko reigned until her death in the seventh century and was succeeded by her nephew. After Suiko, several female monarchs followed through the years … until the 19th century, when female emperors were no longer allowed … something that holds true to this day. What’s more, if a female member of the imperial family marries a “commoner”, she renounces her royalty.  Naruhito is the current Emperor of Japan. His brother, nephew, and uncle are next in line for the Chrysanthemum Throne … unless the law reverts, allowing Naruhito’s daughter – Aiko, Princess Toshi – to ascend instead.

Watch the Rain Queen, Queen Modjadji, ascend to the throne in Queen Modjadji starting on Sunday 14 July at 20:00 on Mzansi Magic. Join the conversation on Facebook, X, Instagram, and TikTok using #QueenModjadjiMzansi.