We’ve heard much about the Soninke-Marabout wars that took place during the colonial era. More likely than not, we’ve been taught that they were religious wars aimed at forced conversions into Islam. The political component thereof is hardly ever mentioned, a closer look reveals more than just religious zealots ready to kill their kinfolk just to force them to embrace Islam.
Two European powers; the French and the British were in often bloody competition for the river Gambia. French style of administrating her colonies has not been pleasant for the natives of their various colonies as numerous accounts hold. At some point, France proposed to Britain to trade her posts on the river Gambia to the French in exchange for the French posts along the Ivory Coast; this got the natives of The Gambia very restless. The prospect of becoming French subjects got them on their feet and they demonstrated against it vehemently.
In a petition signed by “headmen of Mandingo, Jollof and Serahuli towns in the Kombo”; the following declaration was made by the petitioners: “We do not desire to say anything against our French neighbor, but we may be permitted to remark that from our experience of neighboring colonies we infinitely prefer to remain as we are.” (Gray, 1940, p. 441)
Other petitioners of the colonial administration were the various merchant houses of Bathurst and native kings. Tomani Bojang, king of Kombo wrote to the Queen of England at the time; “I now beg that should you desire to transfer your settlements to another person, I would rather you return my territory back to me as an act of friendship.” (Gray, 1940, pp. 437-438)
These events shed light on the attitudes of some natives towards the colonial powers, especially France. Writing on the breakout of the hostilities between native faction, hitherto known as the Soninke-Marabout War, Gray wrote; “There is evidence to show that the demonstrations were repercussions of the pan-Islamic movement, which had caused the French much trouble in Algeria in 1847 and 1848, and that emissaries from the Mediterranean coast had arrived in the Senegal and the Gambia to preach Jehad, or holy war, against all non-Islamic communities.” (Gray, 1940, p. 388)
It has already been noted that natives of The Gambia were averse to French rule and that there were various demonstrations against such a prospect. In Algeria, France had a very notorious reputation for the system it administered in that country which culminated in the Algerian war of 1954-1962 that “brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the Fourth Republic, returned de Gaulle to power, and came close to provoking a civil war on French soil. More than a million Muslim Algerians died in the conflict and as many European settlers were driven into exile.” (Horne, 1977)
Local accounts also state similar defiance by the Marabouts against the colonial forces. In one such account rendered in oral tradition, Foday Kaba; the most enduring of the Marabout warriors engaged the French in battle when a fugitive from the French in Senegal took refuge with him that the French requested he release to them and Foday Kaba refused. His response was that “I will not release a Muslim into the custody of a kaffir (non-Muslim) authority.” Is it then safe to say that the resistance of the Marabout was in fact due to their refusal to submit to an authority that did not recognize/submit to the authority of their God?
There is some evidence that may support that theory. When the fighting first broke out, it started with a raid on a village followed by retaliatory raids from the other side. Here is one curious profile of the fighters; “The fighting between the two factions was of a very desultory nature and most of it was undertaken by persons who were Serahulis, Sereres and Jolas and had no interest at all in the religious differences of the two factions and were just mercenaries ready to sell their trade guns to the highest bidder.” (Gray, 1940, p. 388)
The battle in which Suling Jatta, king of Kombo lost his life was triggered by his signing of a treaty in 1853 “whereby a strip of land, which included Sabiji was added to British Kombo upon Colonel O’Connor undertaking to put an end to the disturbances in the district. At the time of the signing of this treaty it was, however, very apparent that the great majority of the inhabitants of Sabiji were opposed to it.” (Gray, 1940) In an apparent pre-emptive move, “Colonel O’Connor moved a body of troops to Jeshwang within 12 hours of the signing of the treaty”. Trouble however was not averted and in the ensuing confrontation “the Alkali and leading Marabouts were taken prisoner and lodged in Bathurst Jail.” (Gray, 1940). The Marabouts of Gunjur (Foday Kaba’s base) eventually attacked Busumbala, which at the time was the King’s base. Suling Jatta was killed in that attack on June 24, 1855.
By all indications thus far, the parameters of the war may have shifted or are hard to define but it clearly was not entirely a campaign to impose Islam on the natives at all costs. There were political implications as well.
This is by no means an attempt to disregard the tragic loss of lives or the atrocities that may have been caused by the campaigns which lasted from 1850-1887 and even into the early 1900s. In so many aspects it was a campaign to resist the imposition of foreign authority on those natives who sided with the Marabouts. Some of the so called jihadist Marabouts were in fact aligned with either French or British authority or both, with the exception of Foday Kaba and Foday Sillah.
The war was not one long drawn out campaign but a series of periods of intense campaign and then followed by a lull in warfare only for another one to be triggered few years down the line. Those triggers, all have political implications as well. The profiles of the most notable marabouts will reveal as much.