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Samori Toure and the rise of Mandinka


The establishment of Mandinka as an empire is an interesting history of a pure African entity that emerged as a result of both situational and agent factors. The context out of which the state emerged was characterized by internal challenges.

The fragmented state units smaller to control trade, the conflicts resulting from traditional beliefs and the rise of Islam, the desire for a unified state to engage in trade and agricultural activities for survival provided impetus for stronger empire.
The agent factor refers to the capabilities of individual personalities like Samori Toure whose legacy in state building and war is commendable in the history of Western Sudan. He is one of the most remarkable and controversial on the nineteenth century African resistance leaders against forces of imperialism.

Mandinka was established by conquest and diplomacy in isolation from the European factor. It is argued that one glaring achievement which cannot be taken away from Samori is his state building genius which gave birth to a vast empire.
Between 1870 and 1898 Samori established not one, but two empires which were
exceptionally well-organized.

Samori Toure and the rise of Mandinka Empire

  • His personal background provide a motivation which explain his humble beginning from the ‘grasses’ to political ‘glory’. He rose from a peasant background without any trace to monarchical roots. Born in 1830 in a disadvantaged peasant family.
  • During his youth, he became a long distance trader among the Dyula and gained familiarity with the market towns, realized the importance of controlling trade routes, the value of fire arms, horses and cattle. This exposure provided useful orientation for Samori Toure who became aware of the importance of trade and state security with the defense of modern arms.
  • Samori’s political fortunes were born of unfortunate circumstances in 1853 when he surrendered his military service to the Sise army in an attempt to rescue his mother who had been captured by a Dyula clan.
  • While he served in the Sise army under Sere Baleyi Samori is said to have distinguished himself as part of the Cavalry. In 1857, he broke off the Sise army and became a warlord. It was therefore his extraordinary strength in character and leadership credibility that enabled, Samori Toure to own a large army which later became a force of conquest and a force to reckon in Western Sudan.
  • The existence of several independent smaller state units that were weaker and fragmented provided a political environment that made it easier for Samori to defeat them one by one and conquer the entire region.
  • These autonomous but weak states had mutual jealousies predatory upon each other for power included Sikasso, Kankan, Odienhe and others.
  • It is argued that in the early nineteenth century, several Dyula clans were established as new states in the region of Samori’s homeland.
  • These smaller states were always engaging in conflicts against each other and with nearby traditionalists.
  • Dyula traders were active in trade as their source of livelihood and had hopes for an empire that would ensure security to their long distance trade.
  • Samori established networks with this group of traders laying a foundation for unity when he became a trader by joining the Dyula long distance trade and the Tijaniyya Brotherhood. By the 18th century this class of Muslims of the Dyula Mandinka had established themselves within the empire. These elements had a unifying impact among the small states of Western Sudan.
  • Most of these state were under the rule of traditionalist some more conservative and others receptive to the pervasive spread of Islam in a period of Islamic revolutions.
  • The strength of traditionalist in the region should not be underestimated given that a group of Muslims that made attempts to revolt against their rule was not always triumphant.
  • At the same time people under the rule of these traditionalist had their grievances against the ruling aristocrats which made it easier for the Islamic revolutionist to make inroads converting people to Islam.
  • It is noteworthy that Samori Toure was encouraged by the existence of smaller Mandinka states and supported by common people because of his common man appeal and forming alliance with the Dyula traders to build an empire.
  • The Mandinka people had been traditionalist in religion but with the impact of the revivalist Islam under the leadership of Mori Ule and after the establishment of the Sise Kingdom many were converted to Islam.
  • Jihads in Massina were influential in changing traditionalist attitudes who were involved in trade which required control of trade routes and access to firearms.
  • Groups involved in trade had chances of acquiring firearms and were poised to seize power.

The influence of Islam in Mandinka

  • Realizing to pervasive influence of Islam during the period in Western Sudan, by 1850 Samori had been converted to become a Muslim.
  • Samori abandoned the traditional beliefs which his family professed and converted to Islam having been influenced by the teachings of the great Islamic leader, Al-Hajj Umar and then joined the Umar Tijaniyya brotherhood.
  • In the 1880s, with his power apparently secure, he began to be identified more closely with Islam.
  • Although his motives were mixed political and religious, the underlying motives was to destroy the traditional ruling elite so as to establish a stable and united political order where both Islam and trade could flourish.
  • Samori strongly held that God had specifically gave him power to spread the Islamic faith. Although an opposite view is that Samori converted to Islam for the purpose of attracting followers and mobilizing support. However it is argued that, Samori was genuinely converted to Islam doing all he could to spread Tijaniyya Islam.
  • His honest commitment to the Islamic faith is evident given his open denunciation of the traditional ‘pagan’ title ‘Faama’ in 1884. Preferring to be called by the Islamic title ‘Almami’ a title of authority among the Muslim rulers of Futa Jallom.
  • State building required leadership capacity and in Samori Toure the Mandinka people found a soldier whose personal charisma and leadership qualities contributed immensely to empire building.
  • Samori’s military skills contributed to the rise and the building up of his empire. He served many years in the Sise army building his skills, giving experience to his soldiers and offering his service to traditionalist gradually gaining support and popularity in the late 1850s.
  • His experience, especially after he broke away from the Sise army and became an independent warlord in 1857 and build up his power base enabled him to mobilize a Jihad army for conquest. Samori was able to build his own army by friendship networks and trade relations.
  • Proving his mantle, Samori fought and defeated the Sise army becoming a commander on the basis of merit.
  • The outcome of this victory was that he further attracted more followers from the Mandinka who joined his Jihad army and later conquered state one at a time.
  • Young men from diverse ethnic groups captured as prisoners of war were conscripted into Samori’s army. He acquired modern military equipment from Sierra Leon which increased the effectiveness and efficiency of his army which began to conquer neighbouring Mandinka states absorbing them into the larger Mandinka Empire.