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Innovation and Change in Mende Chieftaincy 1880–1896

  • Kenneth C. Wylie

This article deals with the evolution of centralized chieftainship in response to changing conditions in a part of Sierra Leone where such organized political controls had not previously been necessary. The transformation which characterized the last decades of the nineteenth century in the Mende chiefdoms of what is now Kailahun District was largely a response to war and invasion.

Prior to the 1880s, ‘Upper-Mendeland’ had been little more than a loose conglomeration of petty chiefdoms made up of groups of tiny self-sufficient villages, united only by loose kinship ties and in common defence in time of danger. Increasing military pressures from within and from without forced these autonomous groups, depending on secret societies and kinship ties for social control, to give way to larger and better-organized chiefdoms with powerful leaders, tributary towns, and in some cases the beginnings of genuine administrative structures. Some of these transformed chiefdoms, such as Luawa and Dia, underwent decisive innovation in remarkably short periods of time. Powerful war-leaders were able to forge strong central controls over their military organizations, and in turn over the political units which they dominated. In some cases these innovations approached those of a bureaucratized state.

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1 Rodney, Walter, ‘A reconsideration of the Mane invasions of Sierra Leone’, J. Afr. Hist. VIII, no. 2 (1967), 236. In this article Dr Rodney indicates that Mende subgroups were giving their headmen increasing power to make war for purposes of defence as well as for slave-raids, though this is not stated explicitly.

2 Malcolm, J. M., ‘Mende warfare’, Sierra Leone Studies, XXX (01, 1939), 47.

3 Hargreaves, John D., Prelude to the Partition of West Africa (London, 1963), 244–6.

4 Little, Kenneth, The Mende of Sierra Leone (London, 1951), 2532.

5 From the testimony of Vandi Gbongwema (Buigardi of the ‘white beard’). Vandi was a former section chief, a T.A. member (retired for many years), and a policeman and medical aid in the 'twenties, 'thirties and 'forties. In 1965 he was in his eighties. Notes such as this were gathered in the field, often with tape-recorder. Henceforth such citations will be listed as ‘Field Notes, Luawa, Vandi Gbongwema’, etc.

6 Malcolm, , ‘Mende Warfare’, 47.

7 Ibid. 48–52.

8 Field Notes. Malema, Senesi Kpakpaso, 1966. Senesi was a Section Chief in the ‘twenties and ’thirties, and has long been a member of the T. A. (now the N. A.) in Dia. At the time of the interviews he was past ninety, acording to my best estimates, and the best informed and most coherent informant in the chiefdom. He is a descendant of KpakPaso of Dia, a war-chief in the late nineteenth century, mentioned above.

9 Mair, Lucy, Primitive Government (Baltimore, 1964), 61106.

10 None of the sources on Poro, including Warren's, H. G.Secret SocietiesSierra Leone Studies, Part III (1920), 8, or Fyfe's, ChristopherA History of Sierra Leone (Oxford, 1962), or Little's, KennethThe Mende (London, 1951) have been able to show that Poro exercised a ‘state-building’ function. Oral tradition which often refers to Poro, does not, significantly, attribute change to Poro or other secret societies.

11 Fairly elaborate organizations did exist under ‘warrior-chiefs’ in the coastal regions of Sierra Leone in the early sixteenth century, dating at least from the first Mane invasions, (Rodney, , ‘Reconsideration of the Mane invasions’, J. Afr. Hist. VIII, no. 2 (1967), and Kup, Peter, A History of Sierra Leone, 1400–1787 (Cambridge, 1961), 128–9, 140–8). This type of rule certainly did not penetrate as far as Luawa until the nineteenth century, though the area was most probably Mende speaking from the early eighteenth century.

12 Hollins, N. C., ‘A short history of Luawa chiefdom’, Sierra Leone Studies, XIV (1929), 10.

13 Field Notes, Luawa, Brima Jonny (1966). Brima was ill and therefore was interviewed only a few times, though he knew a great deal about Kailundu. He was once a section chief. He was about eighty-five at the time of the interview.

14 Field Notes, Luawa, Jombu Belu (1966). Jombu was the only surviving son of Kailundu. He served in the army from 1913 to 1920 and saw action in Tanganyika in the First World War. He was a chiefdom councillor and a policeman from 1921 to 1940, when he retired.

15 The details of Kailundu's birth are not entirely clear, and the tradition which is well known in Luawa agrees only in certain facts which I have given above. Hollins, op. cit., generally agrees with the traditions. The name of Kailundu's mother is also the subject of some dispute.

16 Jombu Belu (1966) and Brimah Jonny (1966). Both of these informants produced testimony about the wars with remarkable agreement as to details and continuity.

17 Fyfe, , Hist. Sierra Leone, 541–5.

18 Jombu Belu (1966). See also Fyfe, , Hist. Sierra Leone, 488–9, 541.

19 Jombu Belu (1966) and Brimah Jonny (1966). It is interesting that most of the statements attributed to heroes such as Kailundu are repeated verbatim, usually without noticeable difference in the text, no matter which informant tells the story. These testimonies therefore border on being what Vansina calls ‘fixed texts’ in his book Oral Tradition (Chicago, 1965).

20 Brirnah Jonny (1966).

21 Hollins, , ‘Mende law’, Sierra Leone Studies, XII (1928), 25.

22 For a discussion of the definitions some anthropologists give to the term ‘government’ see Mair, Lucy, Primitive Government, 1619; and Fortes, M. and Evans-Pritchard, E. E., African Political Systems (London, 1964), 123. On Samori see Legassick, Martin, ‘Firearms, horses and Samorian army organization, 1870–1898’, J. Afr. Hist. VII, no. 1 (1966), 96.

23 Vandi Gbongwema (1965) and Senesi Kpakpaso, (1966). Blacksmiths belonged to cults which gave them prestige and power. They were considered ‘magicians’ of a kind, because of their skill in smelting and working iron. This is typical of many African peoples.

24 Senesi Kpakpaso (1965), Mende names were later found with ease for ‘offices’ later added by the British. Treatment of this in various sources is rather different. See Fyfe's, Hist. Sierra Leone, 543,Little's, The Mende, 176–77, and Protectorate Ordinances, 20/1896, 11/1897, 15/1897.

25 Hollins, , ‘Mende Law’, 26.

26 This information is not definitive. Several informants were willing to talk generally about Poro, so long as their names were not used in reference to the society. None of the published comments on Poro really explain its influence in the governmental structure.

27 Jombu Belu (1966).

28 This does not contradict my earlier statement about Poro, for the term ‘supervise’ meant only to go through formal motions of calling meetings and presiding in name. Today the role of an Ndormahei is apparently much more important in supervising activities.

29 This information on prerogatives and rights came from many extensive interviews with Brimah Jonny and Senesi Kpakpaso of Luawa and Dia respectively, and from Paramount Chief Jibao Gaima of Dia, who is also steeped in the traditions of his office.

30 This ‘right’ was much abused by some chiefs, indicating that it might have been the result of military power, not customary practice.

31 No informant would even discuss sanctions used by Poro. Little says nothing about the death-penalty in Poro in any of his articles, or in his book The Mende. Alldridge, , in The Sherbro and its Hinterland (London, 1901), 124–8, states that the Kaimahun branch of Poro was absolute, and for chiefs only, who could arrange anything. There is no way of checking on Allidridge's sources.

32 ‘Shake-hand’ gifts rarely exceeded 4 or 5 shillings in value when British coins came into use. Most fees were, of course, paid in produce (Jibao Gaima (1966)).

33 Oaths were sworn upon strong medicine, usually in secret, though for litigation public oaths were not rare. They were binding, as they are today.

34 Senesi Kpakpaso (1966) and Jombu Belu (1966). Information gathered in both chiefdoms (Dia and Luawa) on taxes agrees in most details. It was only in quantity and kind of tribute that there was any real difference.

35 Senesi Kpakpaso (1966).

36 Vandi Gbongwema (1966) and Brimah Jonny (1966). Such subordinate chiefs continued to exercise the same functions and powers as did the Ndormahei himself in the larger chiefdom. The British later systematized this fluid structure, giving ‘greater’ chiefs permanent titles and alloting new titles to ‘lesser’ chiefs and subchiefs.

37 Jibao, Gaima, Dia (1966), and Sierra Leone Archives, Colonial Reports, 1887–1912, Annual Reports for 1896–87, no. 208, J. C. Gore Colonial Secretary, 19–20.

38 Jombu Belu (1966).

39 Vandi Gbongwema (1966). For more information see the Rev. Clarke, W. R. E., ‘The foundation of the Luawa chiefdom’, Sierra Leone Studies, no. 8 (1957), 245.

40 Jibao Gaima (1965) and Pambu, Boakari, Malema (1966), presently paramount chief of Malema chiefdom.

41 Informants. For another view of Poro by an early British official, see Wallis, B. C., ‘Poro of the Mende’, Journal of the African Society (1905). This article is full of speculation, like others in the period, which often reflect the prejudices of their writers as much as they do the actual conditions they purport to describe.

42 Field Notes, Luawa, Brimah Komo (1966).

43 There was a remarkable similarity between the systems used by Kailundu, Dawa, Nyagua and Panibu, among others. Further study of this might reveal the covert hand of Poro, though this writer prefers to think it was the natural outcome of ancient Mende social traditions working their way into the evolving political structure.

44 Informants in Luawa, Dia and Malema, cited throughout this article, were fairly consistent in their descriptions of the powers, rights, prerogatives and methods of the military chiefs. Kailundu was outstanding, in that he was more successful than most.

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