Samori Toure was the great statesman who created the Mandinka Empire and he put up a very prolonged battle against the French. Although he eventually lost and was deported, he is that one African leader who gave the French a very hard time and I revel in sharing the history of Samori with Africa. The Mandinka Empire and the great leadership of Samori deserve unparalleled recognition and mention.
Samori was born in circa 1830, being the son of Dyula traders. Samori converted to Islam in early life and much of his political career was based on the Islam ideals. In 1848 Samori’s mother was captured by the Cisse army. By joining the Cisse army, Samori arranged for the release of his mother. He became a great general with the Cisse army before fleeing with his mother to join the Berete, the enemies of the Cisse. After two years, Samori deserted the Berete and began to unite his people thus the work of creating the great but short-lived Mandinka Empire had begun for him.
By 1867, Samori was now a full-fledged army commander in his own right. He wanted to build an efficient and transparent state that was founded on the ideals of trade and Islam. For him this would ensure a stable state in the Western Sudan (Ancient West Africa). Being born into a family of Dyula traders, Samori had a flair for trade and by 1876 had already engaged in trade with Freetown for firearms and ammunition, in exchange with slaves. Bolstering his sound financial situation were the Boure gold fields that he had conquered. By 1878 his empire was now very big and formidable, with admirable transparency. The Mandinka Empire, also known as the Wassoulou Empire was now solid. He established his capital at Bissandugu.
Samori is renowned in the history circles for his efficient military organization. His army was well furnished with European firearms (considering there were a few Afriacn states with these). His army was divided into the infantry wing under the sofa and a strong cavalry force. Samori had a very huge standing army that was fed through the royal fields. By 1887, Samori could field 30,000 to 35,000 infantry and about 3,000 cavalry. Infantry were divided into units of 10 to 20 men known as a “se” or “kulu”. Cavalry were divided into bands of 50 horsemen called a “sere”. This is why he was able to withstand the fury if the French colonialists for so long.
Samori ensured unity in his state by allowing Islam to co-exist with traditionalism peacefully. He also assumed the title of ‘Al mamy’ which means ‘Commander of the faith.’ This fostered a great sense of unity and patriotism in the Mandinka people as they had a worthy cause to fight for whenever faced with fiery adversaries.
War with the French ultimately led to Samori’s downfall and the demise of the Mandinka/Wassoulou Empire. However, he did not go down without putting up a fight. Samori first had a confrontation with the French in 1882 but it was not until 1898 that they finally captured him and deported him to Gabon.
In March 1891, a French force under Colonel Louis Archinard launched a direct attack on Kankan. Knowing his fortifications could not stop French artillery, Touré began a war of manoeuvre. Despite victories against isolated French columns (for example at Dabadugu in September 1891), Ture failed to push the French from the core of his kingdom. In June 1892, Col. Archinard’s replacement, Humbert, leading a small, well-supplied force of picked men, captured Ture’s capital of Bissandugu. In another blow, the British had stopped selling breech loaders to Ture in accordance with the Brussels Convention of 1890. Ture shifted his base of operations eastward, toward the Bandama and Comoe River. He instituted a scorched earth policy, devastating each area before he evacuated it. Though this manoeuvre cut Ture off from Sierra Leone and Liberia, his last sources of modern weapons, it also delayed French pursuit.
The fall of other resistance armies, particularly Babemba Traoré at Sikasso, permitted the French colonial army to launch a concentrated assault against Touré. He was captured 29 September 1898 by the French captain Henri Gouraud and was exiled to Gabon.
Samori was a victim of African disunity at a time when European encroachment was rife and colonisation was taking place. However it is important to note his legacy in launching a spirited campaign against the French. Although his diplomatic efforts were futile he must be credited for such efforts.
Some historians have said that Samori is the Napoleon of Africa but that is not an apt description of him. It shows that we are bowing down to European supremacy, when Samori was the model for much of the resistance to colonial rule that was to follow.
Sekou Toure, the first president of Guinea, is the great-grandson of Samori Toure, leader of the Mandinka Empire.
Such African excellence is worth celebrating.
Header image credit - Christine Allen