It appears that Maba Jahu Bah, like Foday Kaba Dumbuya whom we profiled earlier, did not just wake up to wage a holy war against the Soninki, there was a non-religious trigger. As noted earlier also, once the wars broke out, they take on a life of their own thereby creating a new identity/reason. In our case, the new form is that of the Soninke-Marabout wars.
In 1859 Colonel George Abbas Koolie D’Arcy succeeded Colonel O’Connor as the new governor of The Gambia. At this time, there was a state of “lawlessness” in the upper river that he sought to redress. He was satisfied with the outcome of the efforts of the officers he sent up river to seek redress except in Badibou. “The Soninki king of that district had been approached and had agreed to pay indemnity in cattle, but deliberately delayed payment.” The foot dragging with non-payment continued and the colonial administration decided to take sterner measures. “His country was therefore placed under a blockade. The king and his people continued obdurate and announced that they had not the slightest intention of paying anything further.”
As in typical colonial heavy handedness, the embargo did not work so force was employed to address the defiance. Col. D’Arcy obtained reinforcements from Sierra Leone and sent an expedition aboard “H.M.S Torch to N’Jawara creek with a flag of truce, but the commander returned to report that the recalcitrant were strongly entrenched and refused to hold any communication with the ship.”
On February 16, 1861 the H.M.S Torch and Dover arrived alongside smaller boats to Swarrakunda [sic]. A thirty minute ultimatum to surrender was defied and the ships began bombardment. Three hours later the troops landed and the fighting continued. H.M.S Arrogant and Falcon came with reinforcements and they marched through Baddibu. Saba was taken on February 21, 1861. A peace treaty was signed on February 26 by which the king “agreed to refer all disputes between his people and the British subjects to the governor at Bathurst.”
“Though he [the king] was a Soninke, the marabout subjects had made common cause with him in his resistance to British demands which had led to the punitive expedition. Amongst these marabout supporters was a certain Hamma Ba, commonly known as Maba.” When the British attacked Swarrakunda [sic], he took part in the defense of the place. “This man [Maba], had a farm near Swarrakunda, but on the night of the attack, he came aboard H.M.S Torch to make his submission and to beg Colonel D’Arcy to spare his own village.”
But in typical invading colonizer style, this vulnerability too had to be exploited. “Colonel D’Arcy agreed to do so [spare Maba’s village] on condition that he marched with the troops during subsequent operations.”
After striking this agreement with the British, he proved helpful to them and was influential in arranging the terms of the peace treaty that followed. In the eyes of the British, his engagements in striking that deal were done in self-interest “but he was in many respects a remarkable man.”
Striking a deal with the British at the time of an invasion by the latter did not go down well with the king who was his overlord. That alliance with a strong enemy was a threat to the king’s crown and he would act on that perceived threat.
Maba himself it was believed was a Soninke in his early life and later converted and “embraced all its tenets with all the ultrafervour, which is so often displayed by the convert. He had become an advanced radical in his politics and certainly started his career with one or two ideals.”
When he approached the British to spare his village while the war against the king of Baddibu was in effect, he sensed trouble from the king because the king saw his move “as an act of treachery.” Subsequent to that bad blood, “he fled to Bathurst. He had a real desire for the friendship of the British government. Colonel D’Arcy offered him land in British Kombo, but he eventually patched up some sort of reconciliation with his overlord and returned to his own country.”
Judging by the king’s feeling of betrayal and treachery from Maba, this reconciliatory move was seen by observers as insincere. They were right. “Soon after Maba’s return, the king sent one of his sons to assassinate him.” That assassin son unfortunately would disclose his plans to his host “who promptly informed Maba. The tables were speedily turned. The king’s son was murdered whilst he was still sleeping off his carouse and Maba raised the standard of revolt.”
Maba quickly raised an army, took the king’s camp “completely by surprise”, and overran Baddibu. “The king had been wounded, captured and put to death. Every Soninki village was in flames and practically the whole of the Soninke population had fled the country. Maba preached a real Jehad and the fighting was conducted with all the fanaticism of such a war. About 600 men and a few women and children were rescued by Bathurst traders and conveyed to Tendaba.”
It seems Maba has finally answered his calling to make a name for himself in history as one of the prominent figures in what became known as the Soninke-Marbout wars. His campaigns will primarily take place in Baddibu, Jokadou and the lower reaches of Niumi as far as Essau. He would venture afield into Sine Saloum in French territory.
As already mentioned, the failed assassination attempt triggered his rise against the king of Badibou, after killing the king it is reasonable to assume that what subsequently followed was an attempt to neutralize the region to assert his authority over any remaining loyalists to the deposed king. But the war will take on a new life and on its course will leave a lot of death and misery in its wake.
“Though Maba’s meteoric career was comparatively short and his end was violent, that short period of power had a very lasting effect upon the political history of The Gambia inasmuch as it resulted in the destruction of the old system of hereditary chieftainships.”
To be continued….