Thursday, September 27, 2007

The War of Barra

The King is Dead - Long live the King

It was the year 1823. The King of Barra, Kollimanka Manneh, had just died, and there was much mourning and crying and beating of chests, as these things go. After all the necessary ceremonies had been performed and the old King buried, a new King was crowned. His name was Burungai Sonko, and unbeknownst to him at the time he would be the first of the Gambian Kings to lose an armed conflict (a War, as it later came to be known, though it hardly justifies the term) against the British. Before we get to the exciting bits, though, we need to lay a bit of background.

All About Niumi

Currently, Niumi (of which Barra is a part) is a small town located on the North Bank of the River Gambia. At the beginning of the 19th century, however, it extended some 40 miles and was quite powerful and respected, for several reasons:

1) It was situated at a very advantageous point ('between land and water routes') which allowed it to become an important trading centre in groundnuts, salt, etc.

2) When the slave trade started, it benefited a great deal, by both taxing traders passing through its territory, and also acting as middleman and slave broker for the trade's different parties.

All in all, Niumi was doing quite well.

But then the British Came...

At first it was OK. When the British decided to settle Bathurst, Kollimanka Manneh (yes, Old King Kollimanka, whose death was our starting point) let them quarry stones from Dog Island, which belonged to Niumi, and for which kindness Niumi expected renumeration, which they didn't get. There were dark mutterings about how stingy the British were.

Then Bathurst (the Banjul you know and love) was completed (in 1816), and the river's mouth sealed off to slave traders by an armed British presence. Left with no choice, Niumi had to continue their trade in slaves overland. And then, not content to stop at that insult, the British started collecting tax on the ships which passed through these waters, money which had previously belonged to the Kingdom of Niumi, lowering it from 20 to 5 pounds (so ship owners had more of an incentive to pay to them). There were even darker mutterings, and pressure started to build on Kollimanka to do something.

But Kollimanka was peaceful, and Kollimanka was old (and, perhaps, Kollimanka was a coward, as some people whispered to each other). Whatever the reason, Kollimanka thought pursuing an avenue of diplomacy and placation would be far more in Niumi's interest than going to war with a power as mighty as the British.

Then in 1823 Kollimanka died. His replacement, Burungai Sonko, had walked amongst the courtiers and the people when he was one of them, and had heard and seen what the King had not been able to hear and see (or chose to ignore): that the people were growing increasingly resentful of the British. Resentment was breeding anger and, since they could not take their anger out on the British, they had started to blame the King who, after all, was the one supposed to be in charge of preserving the Kingdom's dignity, which people felt was being lost. So right from the beginning, Burungai took a strong anti-Bitish stance. It paid off: he earned himself a great number of loyal supporters. Here at last was the King the people deserved, one whose strength and leadership qualities would drive the British out, put them in their place, maybe even cause the slave routes to be re-opened.

In 1827, the British sent a delegation to King Burungai, 'asking' for permission to build a fort at Barra Point and also - just to show his friendship and goodwill towards Britain - could the King also sign this piece of paper giving away all of the River Gambia to the British? Tell you what, old chap, we'll throw in an annual payment. What - that huge man-of-war we have parked opposite your palace? Oh that's nothing, we travel around with that all the time, why would we threaten you - you're our friend. Right?

After that, of course, the King signed the agreement, and gave away the river and all its creeks, inlets, bends, etc. In 1827 the British built a fort at Barra Point, for 'strategic purposes'.

Now you've gone and given away our land to the British, what about us, eh?

Poor Burungai was in a quandary. Soon enough, the agreement he had made was known all over Niumi, and the ensuing mutterings were so dark the sun itself couldn't illuminate them. Though they didn't tell him to his face, he could see it in people's eyes when he went out for walks - it was the way they had looked at old King Kollimang. He knew he had to do something - and soon - or lose all the support he had managed build up since his coronation. Maybe even face a rebellion.

So in 1831 he sent out a message to the British annulling the agreement he had signed, declaring that the River Gambia was the people of Niumi's natural birthright, and had always been and would always be. The British, experts in agreements, took the message to mean that the King of Niumi was no longer interested in receiving annual payment for the river from them, so they cancelled the payment and went right on honoring the other terms of the agreement, including treating the river as their natural property and continuing to collect taxes on it.

In the face of such blatant contempt, the mutterings reached a crescendo. The King could pretend to be deaf no more.

Two Men walk into a Bar....

On the night of August 21st 1831, two men walked into a bar. They demanded to be served, and started a war when they were refused.

The two men were Mandinka, inhabitants of Niumi. The bar was of British proprietorship, and was located at Fort Bullen. The men were armed with machetes, cutlasses, and at least one gun. When the barkeeper refused to serve them, one of them fired a shot straight at him. To his surprise - and the barkeeper's lasting relief - he missed. Having gotten so far only through an excess of bravado and a burning desire to impress their fellow Niumians, the two men turned and fled into the night, back to the safety of their homes.

But their actions had not gone unnoticed - the sound of the shot had carried clear across the water, to Bathurst, where the authorities began wondering what the hell was going on. The war had begun.

The First Attack

What wild tale did the two men tell, when they got home? It was a time of great Anti-British feeling, and it would have been easy to come up with a story about being attacked by an unprovoked group of British on the Beach, whilst out taking a night stroll. The story would have contained just the right amount of courage ("we tried fighting them off - yes, the shot you heard") and the better part of valor ("there were too many of them - in the end we fled") to tap into the raw nerve that was British resentment. With the rabble roused, anyone who dared to doubt the story out loud would have been branded a traitor, one of them, making everyone go with it.

Perhaps this is how it happened, perhaps in another way. In any case, something similar to this must have happened, because the next day, when the British sent a delegation of thirty soldiers and a few civilians to ask that the men be handed over, they found a large armed group at Barra Point waiting to give them their answer.

The British had expected to be able to scare Barra into handing over the culprits, with thirty soldiers. A costly underestimation: within a few hours of landing 23 British soldiers were dead, and the rest had fled in a very undignified fashion back to Bathurst.

To Our Enemies We Say Only: Barra Shall Prevail!

The people of Niumi were ecstatic! They had driven the British - the almighty, un-defeatable British - back in a battle, inflicting great harm on them and making them run away like the cowards they really were.

Meanwhile, back in Bathurst, there was a great deal of activity (not to mention consternation). Fearing that Niumi would follow through their victory with an attack on the island, the Governor sent out messages asking for help, to Goree and Sierra Leone. The French responded immediately,. sending a man-of-war in the command of one Commander Louvel, a lieutenant of the french army.

Upon his arrival, Louvel built a barricade against attack from across the river, and it was at one end of this barricade that he temporarily set up a command post. Then, on 15th September, he attacked.

The Battle For Barra Point

This time, of course, there were more than 30 British soldiers - the British had learnt a bitter lesson underestimating the Niumians, and would not do it again. The new attack force consisted of both local militia from Bathurst, soldiers from the West Indies regiment, and French soldiers from Goree.

But the people of Niumi had not been complacent in their victory - they knew the British well enough to know that they would be back, and with a larger force this time. They were ready for them. They had dug deep trenches, from within which they fought back, defending Barra Point so fiercely that again the British force fled, back to Bathurst.

Back In Bathurst...

There was great consternation, in Bathurst. The Governor renewed his pleas for help and this time, no time was wasted in answering him. In a rare show of cooperation, the French put aside their bickering with the British, and the French Governor himself came to Bathurst, accompanied by an armed force. About three weeks later, the British reinforcement arrived from Sierra Leone. The British and French gathered all their forces, coming together to discuss battle strategies, in preparation for a final, decisive battle.

The last battle started on 19th November, and lasted for about three weeks, with the combined French/British attack force gradually moving inland, as they conquered one target after another. starting with Barra Point. Midway through the war, even more reinforcements arrived from Sierra Leone. To add to Niumi's problems Baddibu decided to use the opportunity to attack from the rear, as all Niumi's resources were concentrated on defending against the British.

This sapped away what little morale the Niumians had left, and on 7th December they surrendered unconditionally to the British, bringing an end to the first (though not the last) of the battles fought by local leaders against colonial authority.


A History of The Gambia, AD 1000 to 1965, by Dawda Faal
Leaders of the Senegambia Region, by Patience Sonko-Godwin


  1. i loved reading this's precisely the kind of detail i thrive on when it comes to gambian history..I'm curious as to the source.

    BTW I also perused the great blog and it struck me that you're another (gambian) sci-fi fan!...unless i'm mistaken & the hyperion (my fav sci-fi book) u listed is in referral to the original Keats poem. Anyways the clincher for me was the mention of the Fremen as (fictionally at least) analogous to the Mourides..and i had amsimilar epiphany when i read dune some a few yrs back! Anyways keep up the good work...its great reading a good in fact excellent gambian blog. This one is mos def headed for my firefox bookmark toolbar! u've made my day.

    ps: enough gushing lol ....i havent quite introduced myself..i'm a fellow Gambian as well..baboucar sanyang.

  2. Glad you liked it - the sources are listed at the bottom. There are other Gambian scifi fans then- what a nice surprise that was to read :-) Unfortunately you didn't leave any contact details - drop me a line with your email address, at amrangaye [at] gmail [dot] com.

  3. oh yea...well am on facebook...i believe i've just added u..unless i got the wrong guy