On May 19, 2018, actress Meghan Markle wed Prince Harry, the Prince of Wales, amid fanfare and gossip. Markle, showcased for Black women the possibility of a fairytale happy ending told to them as children.
Quickly being addressed as princess from the announcement of the engagement, gave a sense of pride and boastfulness of royal representation. Even though Markle’s presence within the royal family was new for the then current time, Black women have royal connections throughout history as queens and rulers of nations, where they were the norm and not the exception.
Beginning within biblical times, the Queen of Sheba (Ethiopia) is mentioned in both the Old and New Testament. Given different names such as the Queen of Saba, Makeda, and Queen Bilquis in Arabic text, she is described as wise with a harmonious and prosperous rule during her reign in Ethiopia and Yemen.
The Queen of Sheba’s story spans the texts of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic, each elaborating on her story as a generous ruler gifted in commerce and trade. Her story when discussed in Christian texts details her interaction with King Solomon to test his wisdom with three riddles and the later relationship resulting in a son, Menelik I.
Her reign also speaks about her battle against King Axum because of his terrorizing of the northern Ethiopian kingdom. Her victory led to tales of her strength. Also, according to historical records she and her son Menelik returned the Ark of the Covenant to Axum; crediting her with the lineage of the East African and Nubian kings being established.
Makeda’s reign is rooted in religious texts and historical accounts as tales of her rule showed her abilities and the care she showed when concerning her people. Her protection and economic mindset helped to sustain her country and its citizens. Who she was included more than her relationship — a detail shown with other Black queens through history and the unique qualities that made them memorable and influential.
Continuing in the vein of famous queens, Queen Nefertiti ruled Egypt alongside her husband, Pharaoh Akhenaton from 1353-1336 BCE. She birthed six daughters during their marriage, with two of her daughters eventually becoming queens of Egypt. During her reign, Egypt had a cultural shift in religion from polytheism to monotheism, specifically the Sun God, Aton.
Queen Nefertiti’s influence went further with her role as High Priestess towards the Sun God, Aton, acting as a direct line to the deity for worshippers. Also, images depicting her body shape, clothing in the finest of linens, and even images of her surrounding her husband’s sarcophagus depict her in battle, conquering enemies or driving a chariot. Such imagery spoke to a reverence and admiration about her, showcasing a duality of her femininity as well as her strength.
Respect towards Nefertiti was also shown with acting as queen regnant to her husband or acting as co-ruler. He valued and honored her opinion in political matters concerning Egypt. Just as her opinion held importance during her husband’s reign, it only increased after her husband’s death in 1334 or 1336 BC.
After her husband’s demise, Nefertiti took action to regain the favor of the Egyptian public along with ensuring the success of her family. Nefertiti moved the capital back to Thebes, increasing favor from the public and Egyptian priests. Along with reinstating the Egyptian old Gods, Nefertiti raised her children, including her daughter, Ankhesenamun along with her stepson and future emperor Tutankhamun in these beliefs to avoid further strife or separation.
During her reign, Nefertiti changed her name to Neferneferuaten and spread this to how she was depicted in imagery as well. The famous Bust of Nefertiti, located in Berlin’s Neues Museum, showing her with her unique headdress-a tall, straight-edged flat top blue crown, was the last image showing her distinctly as a woman. It is reported she commanded that no more images be made of her as a woman—but only as a ruler as researched in the book, When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt by author, Kara Cooney.
Nefertiti (Neferneferuaten) ruled strategically, knowing what moves to make for the good of her people and country as well as conducting herself to appease other rulers; when to lower her eyes or make eye contact, seemingly fitting in to stand amongst other women rulers.
To quote the statement from Cooney’s book, “More than any other Egyptian queen, it is Nefertiti who represents the epitome of true, successful female power.”
Being the first woman to hold such power in Egypt is seen also with Queen Yargoje of Zamfara, a state in northwestern Nigeria. Queen Yargoje ruled from 1310-1350, Yargoje was the eldest daughter of the fifth king of Zamfara, King Dakka, and despite her royal family tree, she blazed a path of her own accomplishments.
During her 40 year reign, Yargoje was responsible for strategic moves benefitting her state, such as moving the kingdom capital from Dutsi to Kuyambana, reasoning being explained by Hajara Sadiq, formerly of the History Bureau of Gusau, “There was also the foresight of getting a greener environment with fertile land and fertile soil. The new city was located at the confluence of two rivers.”
Along with this move, Yargoje also became the head of the Bori cult, a pre-Islamic way of worship. Holding both titles of such importance was attributed to her courage along with tales of her possible connection to earlier kings who formed Hausaland (collection of states formed by the Hausa people in northern Nigeria), claiming women must have ruled during that time.
Nevertheless, Queen Yargoje made influential strides during her reign throughout history making firsts with the appointment of all female chiefs, a move never seen in the kingdom. Along with strides in gender representation, there were also technological advancements.
As further explained by Sadiq, “She also encouraged science and technology. Archaeological excavations revealed a highly organized society with relative advancement in technology. In fact, the Yargoje lamp which she used for council meetings is a beautiful piece of indigenous technology.” The ruins of her castle are still visible in Kuyambana village, reflecting her efforts and imprint upon her state of Zamfara.
Each of these African queens left an impression that surpasses their individual reigns and remains a part of history. Their stories are reflections of who they were as individuals and to their countries, showcasing each of their unique strengths.