MEET THE GREAT BAI BUREH OF SIERRA LEONE
Bai Bureh was born in 1840 in Kasseh, a village near Port Loko in Northern Sierra Leone. His first name, Bai, means Chief in the Temne language. Bureh’s father was an important Loko war-chief and his mother was a Temne trader from Makeni.When Bureh was a young man his father sent him to the small village of Gbendembu in northern Sierra Leone, where he was trained to become a warrior. During his training at the village, he showed that he was a formidable warrior and was given the nickname of Kebalai which translates as ‘one who doesn’t tire of war’. When Kebalai returned to his home village, he was crowned ruler of Kasseh. During the 1860s and 1870s, Bureh had become the top warrior of Port Loko and the entire Northern Sierra Leone. He successfully fought and won wars against other villagers and tribal leaders who were against his plan to establish correct Islamic and indigenous practices throughout Northern Sierra Leone. In 1882, Bureh fought against the Susu people from French Guinea (now Guinea) who invaded Kambia, a town in northern Sierra Leone. Bai Bureh’s fighters defeated the Susu, pushed them back into French Guinea and returned the land to the local Kambia people. After winning several major wars, his popularity spread. The people of the north felt they had found a warrior who would defend their land. In 1886, Bai Bureh was crowned as the chief of Northern Sierra Leone. Rebellion As a ruler, Bureh never wanted to cooperate with the British who were living in the capital city of Freetown. Bai Bureh refused to recognise a peace treaty the British had negotiated with the Limba without his participation; and on one occasion, his warrior fighters raided the British troops across the border into French Guinea. On January 1, 1893, the British colonials instituted a hut tax in Sierra Leone and throughout British-controlled Africa. The tax could be paid in either money, grain, stock or labor. Many Sierra Leoneans had to work as laborers to pay the tax. The Hut Tax enabled the British to build roads, towns, railways and other infrastructure amenities in British-controlled Sierra Leone. Bai Bureh refused to recognise the hut tax that the British had imposed. He did not believe the Sierra Leonean people had a duty to pay taxes to foreigners and he wanted all British to return to Britain and let the Sierra Leoneans solve their own problems. After refusing to pay his taxes on several occasions, the British issued a warrant to arrest Bureh. When the British Governor to Sierra Leone, Sir Frederic Cardew, offered one hundred pounds as a reward for his capture, Bai Bureh reciprocated by offering the higher sum of five hundred pounds for the capture of the governor. In 1898, Bureh declared war on British in Sierra Leone. The war later became known as the Hut Tax War of 1898. Most of Bureh’s fighters came from several temne and Loko villages under his command, but other fighters came from Limba, Kissi and Kuranko villages, sent to his aid. Bai Bureh’s men not only killed the British soldiers but also killed dozens of Creoles who were living in Northern Sierra Leone because it was thought by the indigenous people of Sierra Leone that they supported the British. One of the most notable Creole people who was killed by Bai Bureh’s warriors was a trader John “Johnny” Taylor, who was killed in his house in Northern Sierra Leone. Bai Bureh had the advantage over the vastly more powerful British for several months of the war. By 19 February 1898, Bai Bureh’s forces had completely severed the British line of communication between Freetown and Port Loko. They blocked the road and the river from Freetown. Despite their arrest warrant, the British forces failed to defeat Bureh and his supporters. Hundreds of British troops were killed, and hundreds of Bureh’s fighters also died during the war. Surrendered and exile Bai Bureh finally surrendered on November 11, 1898, when he was tracked down in swampy, thickly vegetated countryside by a small patrolling party of the newly organised West African Regiment in Port Loko. His Temne and Loko warriors fought for a while, but they did not evade the troops for long. Bai Bureh was taken under guard to Freetown, where crowds gathered around his quarters day and night to gain a glimpse of him. Bai Bureh was treated as a political prisoner and was given limited freedom. The British sent Bai Bureh in exile to the Gold Coast (now Ghana), along with the powerful Sherbro chief Kpana Lewis and the powerful Mende chief Nyagua. Both Kpana Lewis and Nyagua died in exile but Bai Bureh was brought back to Sierra Leone in 1905, reinstating him as the Chief of Kasseh. Bai Bureh died in 1908. The legacy of Bai Bureh The significance of Bai Bureh’s war against the British is not a matter of whether he won or lost the war but that a man who had none of what could be called formal military training was able to show that for a significant number of months he was able to take on the British who were very proud of their great military successes across the globe. The British troops were led by officers trained at the finest military academies where war is studied in the same way that one studies a subject at university. The fact that Bai Bureh was not executed after his capture has led some historians to claim that this was in admiration for his prowess as an adversary to the British. The tactics employed by Bai Bureh in his fight against the British are very much the forerunner of tactics employed by guerilla armies worldwide. At the time these tactics were very revolutionary and he “succeeded” for the good reason he had expert knowledge of the terrain across which the war took place. Bai Bureh had pursued the war not just with sound military brain but also a sense of humour. When Governor Cardew had offered the princely sum of 100 pounds as a reward for his capture, Bai Bureh had reciprocated by offering the even more staggering sum of five hundred pounds for the capture of the Governor. There is a very large Statue of Bai Bureh in central Freetown. He is pictured on several Sierra Leonean paper bills. A Sierra Leonean professional football club called the Bai Bureh Warriors from Port Loko is named after him. Former Peace Corps volunteer Gary Schulze and his colleague William Hart discovered the only known photograph of Bai Bureh for sale on eBay in August 2012. The photo was put on display in the Sierra Leone National Museum in 2013.