The Big Read: Samory Touré: The West African empire builder
Friday, September 12, 2008
Samory Touré (circa 1830-1900), was a West African empire builder and fighter against French colonialism. Born into the Touré clan in the Beyla region of present-day Guinea, he became a soldier in the local conflicts that ravaged the area around the middle of the 19th century and soon began to exploit the situation to his own ends.
By 1870 he had forged a large private army, with which he eventually conquered an area reaching from the Fouta Djallon (Futa Jallon) in the west to the Ashanti country of present-day Ghana in the east. Establishing his capital at Bissandougou in what is now the Côte d'Ivoire, he tried at first to hold off the encroaching French by diplomacy and negotiations but later waged a brilliant, although ultimately unsuccessful, guerrilla war against them. Captured by the French in 1898, Samory Touré died two years later in exile in Gabon. He was the great-grandfather of Sékou Touré, the first president of modern Guinea.
Born c. 1830 in Manyambaladugu (in what is now southeastern Guinea), the son of Dyula traders, Samori grew up in a West Africa being transformed by growing contacts with the Europeans. European trade made some African trading states rich, while growing access to firearms changed traditional West African patterns of warfare. Early in his life, Ture, converted to Islam.
In 1848, Samori's mother was captured in the course of war by Séré-Burlay, of the Cissé clan. After arranging his mother's freedom, Samori engaged himself to the service of the Cissés where he learned the handling of arms. According to tradition, he remained "seven years, seven months, seven days" before fleeing with his mother.
He then joined the Bérété army, the enemies of the Cissé, for two years before rejoining his people, the Kamara. Named Kélétigui ("war chief") at Dyala in 1861, Samori took an oath to protect his people against both the Bérété and the Cissé. He created a professional army and placed close relations, notably his brothers and his childhood friends, in positions of command.
Expansion through the Sudan
In 1864, El Hadj Umar Tall, the founder of the aggressive Toucouleur Empire that dominated the Upper Niger River, died. As the Toucouleur state lost its grip on power, generals and local rulers vied to create states of their own.
By 1867, Samori was a full-fledged war chief, with an army of his own centered on Sanankoro in the Guinea Highlands, on the Upper Milo, a Niger tributary. Samori understood that he needed to accomplish two things: to create an efficient, loyal fighting force equipped with modern firearms, and to build a stable state of his own.
By 1876 Samori was able to import breech-loading rifles through the British colony of Sierra Leone. He conquered the Buré gold mining district (now on the border between Mali and Guinea) to bolster his financial situation. By 1878 he was strong enough to proclaim himself faama (military leader) of his own Wassoulou Empire. He made Bissandugu his capital and began political and commercial exchanges with the neighboring Toucouleur.
In 1879, after numerous struggles, Samori was able to secure control of the key Dyula trading center of Kankan, on the upper Milo River. Kankan was a center for the trade in kola nuts, and was well sited to dominate the trade routes in all directions. By 1881, Wassoulou extended through Guinea and Mali, from what is now Sierra Leone to northern Côte d'Ivoire.
Samori conserved most organizations and traditions of conquered peoples, though he forced local animist populations to convert to Islam and in 1884 took the title of Almany, commander of believers. This same year, he also besieged and took the city of Falaba, then capital of Solimana.
While Samori conquered the numerous small tribal states around him, he also moved to secure his diplomatic position. He opened regular contacts with the British in Sierra Leone, and built a working relationship with the Fulbe (Fula) jihad state of Fouta Djallon.
Samori sold slaves to Futa Jallon in exchange for cattle, horses, and, most importantly, French rifles.
First battles with the French
The French began to expand aggressively in West Africa in the late 1870s, pushing eastward from Senegal in an attempt to reach the upper reaches of the Nile in what is now Sudan. They also sought to drive southeast to link up with their bases in Côte d'Ivoire. These moves put them directly into conflict with Samori.
In February 1882, a French expedition attacked one of Samori's armies besieging Keniera. Samori was able to drive the French off, but he was alarmed at the discipline and firepower of the European military.
Samori tried to deal with the French in several ways. First, he expanded southwestward to secure a line of communication with Liberia. In January 1885 he sent an embassy to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, offering to put his kingdom under British protection. The British were not interested in confronting the French at this time, but they did allow Samori to buy large numbers of modern repeating rifles.
When an 1885 French expedition under Col. A. V. A. Combes attempted to seize the Buré gold fields, Samori counterattacked. Dividing his army into three mobile columns he worked his way around the French lines of communication and forced them to withdraw in haste.
War and defeat
By 1887, Samori had a disciplined army of 30,000 - 35,000 infantry, organized into platoons and companies on the European model, and 3,000 cavalry, in regular squadrons of 50 each. However, the French were determined not to give Samori time to consolidate his position. Exploiting the rebellions of several of Samori's animist subject tribes, the French continued to expand into his westernmost holdings, forcing Samori to sign several treaties ceding territory to them between 1886 and 1889.
In March 1891, a French force under Col. Archinard launched a direct attack on Kankan. Knowing his fortifications could not stop French artillery, Samori began a war of maneuver. Despite victories against isolated French columns (for example at Dabadugu in September 1891), Samori 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 Samori's capital of Bissandugu. In another blow, the British stopped selling breech loaders to Samori in accordance with the Brussels convention of 1890.
Samori moved his entire base of operations eastward, toward the Bandama and Comoe. He instituted a scorched earth policy, devastating each area before he evacuated it. Though this maneuver cut Samori off from his last source of modern weapons, Liberia, it also delayed French pursuit.
Nonetheless, the fall of other resistance armies, particularly Babemba Traoré at Sikasso, permitted the colonial army to launch a concentrated assault against Touré. He was captured 29 September, 1898 by French Commandant Gouraud and exiled to Gabon.
Samori died in captivity on June 2, 1900, following a bout of pneumonia.
Massa Makan Diabaté's play Une hyène à jeun (A Hyena with an Empty Stomach, 1988) dramatizes Samori Ture's signing of the 1886 Treaty of Kéniéba-Koura, which granted the left bank of the Niger to France.
Samory Toure, King of the Sudan (1830-1900)
The ascendance of Samory Toure began when his native Bissandugu was attacked and his mother taken captive. After a persuasive appeal, Samory was allowed to take her place, but later escaped and joined the army of King Bitike Souane of Torona. Following a quick rise through the ranks of Bitike's army, Samory returned to Bissandugu where he was soon installed as king and defied French wicked exploits in Africa by launching a conquest to unify West Africa into a single state. During the eigthteen year conflict with France, Samory continully frustrated the Europeans with his military strategy and tactics. This astute millitary prowess brought him respect world wide.
West Africa to the 1870s
From the 17th to the 19th century in sub-Saharan West Africa-from the Sénégal River estuary in the west to Cameroon in the east and as far south as Angola-political and economic life was dominated by the demands of the European-controlled Atlantic slave trade.
By the late 18th century the scale of this trade had reached unprecedented heights, with up to 100,000 captives exported every year. The wars that generated this traffic in captives dominated life in the interior. States with standing armies became more centralized and more powerful, dominating smaller, village-based communities. For the most part, European presence was confined to coastal fortresses, which were fortified against European rivals rather than local Africans. Coastal African rulers tolerated the European presence because the European fortresses provided useful trading links that strengthened their positions against their own African rivals.
Two important developments occurred in 18th-century West Africa that presaged large-scale change in the 19th century. First, by the mid-18th century a rise in Islamic reformist zeal led to several jihads and the establishment of new Islamic states in Fouta Djallon (in what is now Guinea) and Fouta Toro (in Senegal). Second, in the 1780s and 1790s Britain helped freed slaves from Britain and North America establish settlements in the British territory of Sierra Leone. The Islamic states of Fouta Djallon and Fouta Toro served as inspirations for larger 19th-century West African jihads, while the colony of Sierra Leone was symbolic of the emerging abolitionist movement that would eventually bring an end to the Atlantic slave trade.
Jihads and New States in 19th-Century West Africa
West African Islamic reformist ideas of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were spread by Fulani peoples, who had played a prominent role in the earlier jihads of Fouta Djallon and Futa Toro. The Fulani-largely Muslim cattle herders who lived in the savanna lands from Senegal to Cameroon-typically lived in peace among farming populations.
However, in the Hausa region of what is now northern Nigeria the Fulani became estranged from what they regarded as the corrupt rule of the nominally Muslim Hausa aristocracy. They particularly resented the Hausa's heavy taxation of their cattle. The Fulani were therefore very receptive to the reformist teachings of Muslim scholar Usuman dan Fodio, who had begun his preaching as a young man in the 1770s in the Hausa city-state of Gobir.
By the early 1800s Usuman had accumulated a considerable following. In 1804 the ruler of Gobir sent his cavalry to capture or kill Usuman, but the force was defeated by his followers. This military action sparked a spontaneous revolutionary movement among Fulani and other oppressed Muslims across the whole of Hausaland. Within four years most of the Hausa city-states had fallen to the jihad. After Usuman's death in 1817 his brother Abdullahi and son Muhammad Bello united the Hausa states into a single Islamic empire, with its capital at Sokoto.
This brought an end to centuries of rivalry and clashes between the states. By the time of Muhammad Bello's death in 1837 this Sokoto Caliphate stretched across the whole of northern Nigeria and was the largest West African state since 16th-century Songhai. Islam and Sharia (Islamic law) made up the unifying elements in what was otherwise a federation of semiautonomous emirates. Literacy became widespread and, with an end to inter-state Hausa wars, trade flourished. Those who benefited least were the Hausa peasantry, who had in effect changed one oppressive master for another.
Fulani pastoralists tried to extend the jihad into Bornu, but they were resisted by Muhammad al-Kanemi, a religious and military leader from Kanem. Although the state lost control of its eastern Hausa provinces, Bornu retained its independence under a new dynasty set up by al-Kanemi's son Umar.
West of Sokoto, Usuman dan Fodio's revolution inspired further Fulani-led jihads and political change. On the upper Niger River, a jihad was led by Umar Tal, a Muslim preacher from Fouta Toro. In the Fouta Djallon region, he built up an army and equipped it with firearms, bought in exchange for captives on the coast. From 1855 to 1862 Umar's army captured the Bambara states of Kaarta and Ségou, and the Fulani state of Macina. He thus created what was known as the Tukolor Empire, which stretched from Fouta Djallon to Tombouctou. Following Umar's death in 1864, Tukolor was weakened by internal revolts and was conquered by the French in 1893.
South of Tukolor, in what is now Guinea, military leader Samory Touré conquered and united the states of the Dyula people in the 1860s, creating the powerful Mandinka state. Unlike some of his contemporary state-builders, Samory was not a religious preacher and Mandinka was not a reformist state as such. Nevertheless, he used Islam to unite the nation, promoting Muslim education and basing his rule upon the Sharia. Samory's professional army was the real strength of what had become a Mandinka empire by the 1880s. As such it provided one of the major forces of resistance to French conquest in the final decades of the century.