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The Rise and Fall of the Wassoulou (Mandinka) Empire, West Africa

The Wassoulou Empire was an African Empire that existed between 1294 and 1315 AH (1878-1898 CE) in modern Mali, Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire and Sierra Leone.

The story of the rise and fall of the Wassoulou state is also the story of the rise and fall of its first and only ruler, a remarkable man named Samori Touré. Born to a Dyula Mandé family in the town of Mayambaladugu, in the year 1245 AH (1830 CE), he was the son of a fairly well-to-do merchant. Touré grew up in an African world that had long been aware of the European presence. Slave trading on the coasts had been going on for generations, though Europeans were yet to penetrate too far inland, and many still relied on their protectorates for extracting the wealth of Africa. Touré’s father probably had significant relationships with a variety of Europeans, both officials and civilians, as a merchant, and as a result, Touré had a familiarity with their ways of life, and particularly, their ways of bureaucracy, organization, and martial tradition, since many of the outposts and expeditions in the area would have been armed and defended by troops brought in from overseas.

In 1264 AH (1848 CE), an event happened that would change his life forever. At the time, Mayambaladugu and most of the surrounding Mandé and Fulani groups had just been subjugated by the authority of the Tocouleur Empire, often as client chiefdoms or states, and these vassal entities continued to fight intermittent wars with one another, often for loot, including slaves, and access to natural resources that could buy guns and equipment from Europeans, or influence at the new Tocouleur court. When he was eighteen, a man and probably taking some responsibility in his family’s mercantile business, his mother was seized in one of these raids by the powerful Cissé, another Mandé group. Determined to get her back, Samori Touré traveled deep into Cissé territory, to confront a man tradition names Séré-Burlay. In return for his mother’s safety, he struck an agreement with his mother’s captor: he would serve the Cissé as a warrior, so long as she remained safe. It is unkown how long Touré served in this capacity, though some traditions say for more than seven years, but however long he did, he was most likely an experienced veteran by the time he ended his service to the Cissé by escaping with his mother.

Seeking safety from the roused and potentially vengeful Cissé, Touré traveled to the towns of the Bérété Mandé, a group who had been longtime rivals of his former masters. There, again, he became a warrior, though now he began to rise through the ranks, charismatic and brave as he was, and with an extensive knowledge of his enemies and years of combat experience under his belt. By 1280 AH (1864 CE), he had a significant amount of men under his command, and was fighting for the Bérété somewhere along one of the Niger’s tributaries, probably the Milo River.

A final note on Touré’s early life, before the founding of the Wassoulou Empire is discussed: Touré was not born a Muslim, but converted sometime as a young man, possibly during his time with the Cissé, but it is impossible to be sure. Even African sources disagree on the exact dates, or how/why he converted. Regardless, by 1280 AH (1864 CE), he was a devout Sunni Muslim, and possibly a member of a Sufi brotherhood.

In 1280 AH (1864 CE), the Tocouleur Empire, which had conquered and subsumed the Mandé and Fulani states of Touré’s youth the year his mother had been kidnapped, collapsed. El Hadj Omar Tal, the Fulani founder and only ruler of the Tocouleur state, died, and though his heirs managed to hold onto some of the territory, their subjects proved entirely too powerful and eager for the potential spoils left by the great man’s death for their control. Dozens of factions broke off, and the region dissolved into chaos. As mentioned above, Touré was on what was probably the Milo River, and, as the Empire disintegrated around him, Touré took advantage of the situation to accomplish two things. The first was the testing of his warriors in serious battle. Trained with his own version of European military standards, adapted from the experiences and memories of his youth, and armed with firearms and the skill to use them, Touré was eager to see if his own theories about war would hold up in a conflict so much larger and more intense than the small-scale strife of his youth. The second goal was the creation of a new Sunni Muslim state, with Touré as the ruler.

Touré quickly won victories. His men were well-disciplined, and, as the war progressed, more and more heavily armed. In addition to captured weapons and a variety of improvised and locally-manufactured equipment, Touré also began to deal with the British in Sierra Leone, where they refused to offer him status as a full protectorate kingdom, but agreed to supply him with weapons in exchange for a promise not to deal with other colonial powers, particularly the French. Though the British did not supply him with heavy weapons or artillery, they did provide breach-loading weapons, and the know-how to repair them, as well as an enormous supply of ammunition. So armed and now with a veteran army at his back, Touré seized the Buré gold mines, on the Malian border, and with the hard currency and extensive territory his victories had won him, proclaimed himself Faama (Emir, roughly), of a new Wassoulou Empire, named after region on the modern Guinea-Mali border. The capitol was moved to the large town of Bissandugu in 1294 AH (1878 CE).

The next chapter of the Wassoulou Empire was marked by wars of conquest against weaker neighbors, rather than the earlier wars for survival in the cutthroat political climate left behind by the Tocouleur collapse. A major success came in 1297 AH (1881 CE), when Kankan, a major Dyula trading post on the Milo River fell, and the Empire reached its geographical zenith. Smaller states, particularly animist/indigenous African states, fell as well in the same period, and though, like many African rulers, Touré allowed many indigenous civil customs to continue unmolested, he began to style himself with Islamic titles, and likely sought out more formal religious training from Sufi’s and Marabouts, local Sunni leaders, during this period. Finally, he managed to secure alliances, with himself as the power-brokering party, with the Fulani states to the North, where Islam was the state religion.

In 1299 AH (1882 CE), Samori Touré launched a new campaign, this time dispatching his troops South, toward Cote d’Ivoire. There, they besieged the city of Keriera, hoping to use it as the launching point for a campaign as far as the coast. However, another major imperial power was operating to the south, and moving northwards from the Ivory Coast: France. In fact, the first contact between the Wassoulou Empire and the French was a brief engagement outside of Keriera, where a French force drove off Touré’s surprised troops, and then effectively replaced them, occupying the city. Touré, concerned but not desperate, renewed relations with the British and sent new emissaries to Liberia, where he hoped to strike another arms deal. He got what he was looking for in 1300 AH (1882-3 CE), purchasing repeating rifles from the British and Liberians, and setting up a corridor on which to move supplies between the coast and his interior centers of power, should the emerging conflict with the French escalate.

They did escalate. Skirmishes and Wassoulou raiding colored the next few years, and French colonial authorities, disturbed by what they perceived as a grave threat to ventures in the area, dispatched a Colonel Combes with an expeditionary force to take Buré, one of the main sources of cash for Touré and his Empire. However, the force was too small, and Combés was unfamiliar with the terrain and his enemy, and they were soundly defeated by the crack African forces, many of the leaders veterans of decades of campaigning. In Shawwal, 1308 AH (1891 CE), another French force was dispatched, this time to Kankan and lead by Louis Archinárd, another French Colonel. Touré, realizing he could not hold the walls against heavy French artillery, abandoned the city, but took his men into the field, hoping to defeat the French in the open. Though Touré managed to drive a few French columns back in 1308 AH (1891 CE), he was unable to significantly halt their advances, especially as more and more French troops were assigned to the region, transferred for the campaigns organized to destroy Touré and his neighbors. Another blow had come with the signing of the Brussels Conference Act of 1890, in which Europeans agreed to stop selling weapons to African rulers or armies, cutting Touré off from a valuable source of weapons.

In 1309 AH (1892 CE), French Colonel Húmbért attacked, seized and occupied Bissandugu and Buré, though Touré and his troops were, again, in the field, and, though defeated, the Faama was able to keep his troops intact, retreating across the Niger. Along the path of his retreat, Touré burned crops and destroyed as much of the infrastructure as he could, hoping to stall the French and possibly allow African disease to have some weakining effect on the advancing columns, though this strategy only bought a few seasons. The clashes with the French, from the first engagement with Colonel Combés to the seizure of Buré and Touré’s capital at Bissandugu, constitute what is now known as the First and Second Mandingo Wars. The third, and the deciding moment for the Wassoulou Empire, loomed, though it was delayed by the French conflicts with rulers in Mali and back along their tenuous zones of control to the coast.

However, by 1315 AH (1898 CE), Babemba Traoré, the ruler of the collapsing Kénédougou Empire to the North in Mali proper, was defeated by the French, who proceeded to incorporate most of Mali into the expanding territory of French West Africa. Touré, cut off from supplies in Liberia and Sierra Leone, now found himself virtually alone against the French, who moved their victorious armies back toward Wassoulou and the border, preparing for a final offensive, across the Niger and into what had once been the far Eastern edge of Touré’s Empire, now its only remaining area. Within a few months of the outbreak of hostilities in the Third Mandingo War, Touré was captured when a French unit attacked his troops, and was imprisoned. The French quickly moved in to the remaining Wassoulou towns, and formally dissolved the Empire in the ensuing months. Touré remained imprisoned by local French troops until the 23rd of Jumada al-Ula, 1317 CE (29 September 1899), when he was moved to exile in Gabon. He died of pneumonia there, at 70, in Safar, 1318 AH (June 1900 CE), and was buried at the Grand Masjid in Conakry, Guinea. Touré’s great-grandson, Ahmed Sékou Touré, would later become Guinea’s first President, when the country became independent of France more than half a century later.