The Empire of Kaabu Origins

Monday, June 9, 2008
Its rulers were ordained into office by the king of Manding, but as the Manding Empire declined during the 15th century the Kaabu Empire became autonomous. 

Among the "estern Mandinka who inhabit Senegambia, the Kaabu empier was second only to Manding in glory and importance and its ruling dynasty, who bore the title of Nyanchos, were better known, more respected and more jealous of their heritage than any other of the western Mandinka dynasties. In the days of the empire Mandinka civilisation reached a very high point. This period saw the introduction of the famous kora musical instrument and the perfection of older Manding instruments like the Balafon, Kontingo and the Bolombato still used by Senegambia griots, important masquerade dances like the Kankurang, the Maano and the Tintirinya are all said to have originated from Kaabu.

The heart land of Kaabu lay in the hinterland of modern Guinea-Bissau and the are of the Upper Casamance River in Modern Senegal. It stretched from the Gambia River in the north to the borders of Futa Jallon in the Repoublic of Guinea in the south. The Gambia River traced Kaabu’s eastern Boundary, though its influence extended across the river into the Mandinka ruled areas of Tenda and Niokolokoba. Kantora, Tumana and Jimara, across the river from Wuli in the Gambia were all part of the Kaabu Empire. Other  Kaabu states were Sama, Sankola and Wuropina. Kaabu was once the centre of trade from the Senegambia interior to the south bank of the Gambia River, as Wuli had been for the North Bank.

The Kaabu Empire was founded as a result of Mandinka migrations from Manding during the reign of Mansa Sunjatta Keita. The leader of that migration was Tiramang Traore.

Tiramang Traore

Mandina oral tradition related that Tiramang Traore came "West" in order to exert reprisals against the Burba Jolof. Burba Jolof, it was said, had seized some horses belonging to Mansa Sunjatta Keita and had issued an insulting challenge to the king of Manding which could not be ignored. Tiramang Traore was chosen to lead the military mission against Jolof because Sunjatta admired his courage and loyalty. Tiramang was said to have regarded war as sport and was willing to fight "anywhere at anytime".

Tiramang conquered Jolof, sent the Burba Jolof’s head back to Mansa Sunjatta, crossed the Gambia River southwards as far as the kingdom of Damantang situated in what is now the regon of Casamance in Southern Senegal.

Prior to the coming of Tiramang a number of Mandinka migrants had already settled in the Kassa region and had intermarried with the original inhabitants such as the Konyajis, Mansuankas and Fulas. The Mandinka new comers first settled among the Konyajis, then gradually moved west conquering the indigenous groups and constantly pushing them back towards the Gambia and its Atlantic Coast.

The  Manding immigrants still retained important aspects of their culture, such as language, but many of them adopted important indigenous cultural features such as the use of maternal rather than paternal surnames for their children and the inheritance of kingship through the female line. The descendants of these immigrants became known by local surnames such as Sane and Mane.

According to oral tradition, the Sanes were a prominent Mandinka famil who were either ruling in Damantang or were very influential there when Tiramang arrived. Tiramang is said to have settled at Damantang, where he married a daughter of the Sane family and had several children by her. Tiramang together with the Sanes drove back or subjugated the indigenous people and establish Mandinka ascendancy. At this point in the formation of the Kaabu Empire Tiramang was recalled to Manding by Mansa Sunjatta but died on his way home in the Upper River Division of The Gambia. However, he left behind him in Kaabu children claiming descent from him and the Sane family. These together with the Manes, a sub-branch of the same family were the maternal ancestors of the Nyancho ruling class.

The Kaabu Nyanchos

As the ruling classes of the empire of Kaabu, the Nyanchos claimed Tiramang as paternal ancestor but much more importantly they also claimed as supernatural maternal ancestry. According to oral tradition, the creation of the Nyanchos as a class of men and women with special qualities of power and bravery came through the marriage of a Sane with a mysterious woman named Balaba, whom the Sanes found by accident. It was Balabas descendants, reckoned along the maternal line, who came to be known as the elite warrior class of Kaabu, the Nyanchos and it was Balaba’s descendants only who were eligible to become legitimate rulers of Kaabu.

The story of Balaba in Kaabu history is akin to the story of Ndyadyane Ndyaye in the Wollof Empire. In both cases we find a powerful ruling class caliming descent from the world of the spirits and combining religious and political duties.

According to one main version of the traditions, Balaba was a mystery woman who lived in a cave in a forest near village Mampetion for far from Kunkandi in Fulladu who came out of her cave only at nights. One night a hunter found the cave and, thinking it was a porcupine den, lay in wait nearby until dawn, when he saw a woman appear and go into the cave Frightened, he went away but came back the next day to witness the same thing. He went to the ruler, a Sane and reported the incident. A witness was sent with the hunter who came back and told the same story to the ruler. A second witness was sent with the hunter who came back reporting the same story making the king believe the story of the mystery woman.

This time the king called on the smiths to consult their fetish in order to find a way to capture the cave dweller. The smiths advised the king to give out-charity and to play the drums near the cave on a Thursday night when on that day they played until dawn, the woman appeared, dressed in white, with a white pagne over her head and holding a calabash spoon in her band. She sat down outside the cave and allowed the griots to take her away to the Mansa.

The mystery woman, Balaba, was taken to Medina in Wuropina where she was placed in a house all by herself. A young Sane "manp-saringo" secretly went to sleep with Balaba at night until she became pregnant. Balaba’s union with Tiramang’s descent resulted in four daughters: Kootalama, Nyani, Birani, and Balaba. The mystery of Balaba’s origins evoked many legends about her. Some peolple said that she had been captured as a baby and brought up by a jinn who passed supernatural powers on her. These people believed that Balaba had passed those same supernatural powers on to her daughters and their descendants.

According to the traditions, Balaba’s first daughter was given to the Mandinka ruler of Jimara, a Sane, the second daughter went to the ruler of Sama, another Sane, and t he third went to the ruler of Pachana, a member of the Mane family. It was from these three original Nyancho houses that the rulership of the Kaabu Empire was rotated. The four daughter of Balaba was given to the Wollof ruler of Saloum at Kahone. All the sons and daughters born of these four women were called Nyanchos in Kaabu and Guelewar in Sine-Saloum. It was the children of Nyancho women, not Nyancho men, who became automatic Nyanchos. They were regarded as the only ones to inherit all the supernatural attributes of Balaba and they alone could become emperors of Kaabu.

Balaba was supposed to have bequeathed certain supernatural qualities to the Nyancho ruling families which no other Mandinka families were believed to possess. The Nyanchos were considered to be part spirit and part human who had nothing to do with Islam but  practised their indegnous religions through the Jalang. Their hallmark was bravery and they fought continuously to prove their  courage. Death to them in battle was better than defeat or the unthinkable label of ‘coward’. A Nyancho would often kill himself rather than face the prospect of slavery, torture, or any other  form of humiliation, especially at the hands of those he considered his inferiors.

The Koringos

In addition to the Nyanchos, there was also a second type  of ruling family in Kaabu. These families notably the Sanyangs and Sonkos bore the title Koringo and followed beneath the Nyanchos in the ruling hierarchy of Kaabu. Koringos were noble families who were eligible to rule in the individual states of Kaabu but not eligible to become emperor. The Koringo group came from two main sources. One group consisted of powerful Mandinka families who had been allied one way or another to the ruling families of Sane and Mane, mostly through marriage. The second group to fill the Koringo class was the children of Nyancho men by non-Nyancho women.

Even the descendants of the emperor became Koringo unless their mother was also a Nyuancho so that even some Sanes and Manes became Koringos.

A child born of a Nyancho mother only was considered just as much a Nyancho as the child born of a Nyancho mother and father. The only difference was that the double parentage gave one claim to a ‘purer’ line of birth

In Koringo families the title was hereditary for both male and female, with inheritance passing along the paternal line. A Koringo, of course, could never become a Nyancho. But like anyone else his child can aspire to become one if, by being an outstanding ruler or warrior, he can attract a Nyancho woman to himself.

Some Nyanchos who had no opportunity of becoming rulers as well as some Koringos who were not content with being mere sub-rulers, moved out of the empire and founded their own states. This desire to found new states was largely responsible for the growth of smaller Mandinka states in the Senegambia area most especially along the Gambia River.

Nyanchos and Fulas

Kabbu was surrounded by Fula states and kingdoms, the leading ones being Futa Toro, Bundu, Masina and Futa Jallon. Throughout the centuries the Kaabu states were infiltrated by Fulas who were nomadic pastoralists. The Kaabu region was fertile and well watered and many Fulas had migrated to the Kaabu region even before the Mandinka arrived.

The Fula concentrated in the Upper Casamance, Jimara, Firdu and in the states in the area of modern Guinea-Bissau. Fula population continued to increase in the area and by the mid 19th century it was estimated that they formed the largest single ethnic group in the area. Despite their numbers, however, the Nyancho remained the dominant ruling classes. The Fula who were nomadic lived in widely scattered settlements without any centralised political authority. In contrast the Mandinka were a settle agricultural people with a long tradition of strong political authority under a ruling warrior class.

From the time of Mandinka conquest the Fulas and the Kabunkas had begun with the understanding that as long as the Fulas paid a yearly tribute of one bull per head, they would be left alone. However, when the Nyanchos became strongly entrenched they began to make harsh exaction’s upon the Fulas. Instead of one bull the Nyanchos would now exact ten bulls per head a year. When Nyancho women ‘wanted to chew tobacco, they would sometimes cut the Fulas millet and burn it to get ashes used for chewing tobacco. Tradition has it that when a Nyancho wanted to punish a Fula  one way was to tie straw around him and then set him on fire, and as he danced women and children would clap in time to his movements and sing "Trintirinya; Tirinya; Tintirinya; Tirinya", until he fell or until they poured water on him.

Meanwhile heavily populated Fula areas were getting restive under what they considered Nyancho oppression,. One such area of the empire was Firdu, Alpha Molloh’s state, which was almost entirely Fula with Nyancho ruling families. While Alpha Molloh was growing up, the people of Firdu suffered under Nyancho tyranny. No Fula, for example, could keep a fine horse because if any Mandinka wanted it, he simply took it. The Fula’s fattest cows were liable to seizure at any time. Yet conditioned by centuries of living in fear under Nyancho domination, the Fula perhaps needed external assistance if they were to free themselves from Mandinka oppression.

The people of Firdu under Alpha Baldeh were to find such assistance, and assurance, from the rising power of Islam in the area. Alpha Molloh first received assurance for help against Nyancho oppression from the famous Tukulor Muslim Jihadist Alhaji Omar Taal. Omar Taal was a jihadist who waged wars against pagan rule in the upper Niger and upper Senegal rivers. When he visited the Senegambia he encouraged prominent Muslims like Maba to wage holy wars against pagan rule.

When Alhaji Omar visited Alfa Molloh he was treated with great respect by the hunter and his family. Alhaji Omar listened sympathetically while Alpha Molloh complained about the Mandinkas oppressive rule. Alhaji Omar urged Alpha Molloh to begin a revolution promising victory for him and prophesying kingship for his son if he would wage a holy war against the Nyanchos.

Meanwhile the fula inhabitants of Kaabu watched with interest as raiding parties from Futa Jallon, a powerful Fula empire founded on the southern border of Kaabu in the early 18th century, began raiding in increasing numbers and frequency into the very heart of Kaabu. The Muslim leadership of Futa Jallon had developed the dual ambition of Islamising the Kaabu empire and of substituting Futa Jallon leadership for Kaabu leadership of the Senegambia valley.

In the early 1860’s Futa Jallon armies in a bloody but successful battle defeated the Kaabu armies at Sankolla at the fort of Berekolong. This success encouraged the Kaabu Fulas who, under the leadership of Alfa Molloh Baldeh, were now ready for a major campaign against the Nyancho rulers of Kaabu.

Apart from the Fulas of Kaabu, Alpha Molloh was also able to gain  the support of the powerful Muslim District of Kabada on the southern border of Kiang and Jarra. The pious elders of Kabada had advised Alpha Molloh to ask the ruler of Futa Jallon, the Almamy of Timbo, for help. The Almamy of Timbo was said to contribute 25,000 men in the Fula army. These forces were also joined by those of Bokar Sada, Almamy of Bondu. These forces together with Serahule of Manda were to be led by Alpha Molloh Baldeh against the forces of Janke Wali, the reigning king of Kaabu, to the famous battle of Kansala, a battle still sung to this day by the griots of Senegambia.

Author: DO