Battle of Kansala
The Battle of Kansala or Final Battle (Mandinka: Tourban Kello) or Siege of Kansla was a military engagement between forces of the Kaabu Empire and the Imamate of Futa Jallon. The battle resulted in the end of the Mandinka hegemony began by the Mali Empire on Africa’s Atlantic coast.
|Battle of Kansala|
Imamate of Futa Jallon|
Manding Mori (Mandinka Muslim) states
|Commanders and leaders|
|Mansaba Janke Wali||
Alfa Molo Balde|
|Casualties and losses|
|2,000 dead||8,000 dead|
The Kaabu Empire, which began as an outpost of the Mali Empire in what is now Guinea-Bissau, had imposed Mandinka rule through military and economic dominance over much of Upper Guinea. In 1537, Kaabu broke completely away from the Mali Empire under its own line of rulers called the mansaba (great king). They expanded aggressively into neighboring Wolof, Serer and Fula territories. By 1705, Kaabu was the uncontested power in the region. It had made use of the slave-hungry Portuguese traders along Kaabu’s coast, as well as the adventurous and warlike spirit of its own Nyancho aristocracy, to feed that hunger. As time passed, Kaabu grew more and more decadent in their treatment of non-Mandinka subjects, especially the Fula. Tired of their oppression by pagan overlords, the Muslim Fula rallied under the banner of the Imamate of Futa Jallon to end Kaabu’s dominance. Fula attacks based out of Futa Jallon became routine after 1790. One such assault resulted in the death of Mansaba Yangi Sayon in 1849. Around this time, the Fula inside Kaabu rose up against the Mandinka along with a hosts of Mandinka Mori (Muslim Mandinka) and marched on Kansala, with a general from Futa Jallon, Alfa Molo Balde at their head.
The army of Kaabu was usually more than a match for any of its neighbors. It had a strong cavalry culture inherited from the Mali Empire. It also utilized guns bought from coastal traders in return for slaves, of which Kaabu never had a short supply. The spear, sword, shield, bow and arrows were never fully replaced, however. Kaabu’s greatest disadvantage was a lack of reliable manpower due to a recent civil war between three contenders for the throne. Mansaba Janke Waali of the Sanneh won this contest with no small amount of bloodshed. There was still dissension within Kaabu, and those warriors who had not perished against Mansaba Janke Waali sanneh were loath to heed his call now that the Fula were marching on Kansala. According to legend, Janke Waali made three predictions: (1)a war would break out between Kaabu and the Fula, (2) the fortress at Kansala would be renamed Turban Hecatombe (End of Life) and (3) he would be the last King of Kaabu. When Alfa Molo arrived at the wooden city walls, Janke Waali could only muster some two to five thousand defenders. He would not have been able to bring his cavalry to bear in a siege situation, and the muskets in his possession were inaccurate at all but close range. Mansaba Janke Waali knew the attack was coming and gathered a defense force from his remaining loyal provinces of Pacana, Jimara, Tumana, Kantora and Sankolla. He had an immense amount of gunpowder in Kansala and plethora of warriors raised in the Nyancho ethos that dying in battle was the only acceptable death. As characterized in the Mandinka epic of Kelefa Sanneh, a legendary nyancho warrior…
“The nyancho hold three things in horror: wealth, feebleness, and to die old."
Futa Jallon forcesEdit
The Imamate of Futa Jallon was a Muslim theocratic Fula-dominated state similar to the Imamate of Futa Toro in what is today Senegal. In September 1865, the Turban Kelo or Kansala War broke out. Futa Jallon found common cause with its brethren in Kaabu against both the enslavement of Fula and their abuse by traditionalist Mandinka rulers. The Kingdom of Futa Jallon contributed around twenty-five thousand soldiers. This was augmented by warriors from Bundu and some of the Muslim Mandinka states on Kaabu’s periphery. After two years of campaigning, Alfa Molo arrived at the gates of Kansala with approximately 12,000 troops.
Alfa Molo’s forces surrounded Kansala’s fortress for a month or three months, depending on the source. Neither side would fire a shot (both sides were armed with muskets at this point). According to legend, Abdu Khudus, a prominent marabout from Timbo, told Alfa Yaya that whichever side fired first would lose the battle. Within the Mandinka ranks, a resident marabout named Foday Barika Drammeh told Mansaba Waali the same. The nyancho were infuriated by the mere presence of the Fula and believed to not attack was cowardice. On May 13, someone (reportedly on the Mandinka side) fired the fateful shot that started the battled. The story is likely apocryphal and meant to highlight the hubris and arrogance associated with Nyancho aristocrats.
For eleven days, the Fula, who could not bring their cavalry to bear against the fortress walls, were kept at bay. In fact, the only cavalry casualty of the battle may have been a Mandinka named Faramba (General) Tamba of Kapentu whom marched out of Kansala with only his walking stick to drive the “haughty” Fula away. He was trampled to death by a Fula horseman. The Mandinka accounts are of the opinion that Fula took many casualties with hundreds of their infantry being decapitated as they tried to scale the wall with ladders. They didn’t succeed at entering the city until Mansaba Waali, convinced that the sheer number of enemies was insurmountable, ordered the gates open. At this point, Mandinka women began committing suicide by jumping down wells to avoid slavery. Mansaba Waali ordered his sons to set fire to Kansala’s seven gunpowder stores once the city was full of the enemy. Six were successfully ignited, killing all the Mandinka defenders and around 8,000 of the Alfa Yaya’s army.
The fall of Kansala marked the end of the Kaabu Empire. The Fula army had surrounded Kansala so thoroughly that the neighboring towns could not be warned of the invasion. They were only made aware by the sound of Kansala’s gunpowder stores exploding. Kaabu’s territory was divided up into two tributaries owing allegiance to Futa Jallon. Alfa Molo’s victory is considered pyrrhic in that most of his army died on the walls of Kansala or in its explosion. All in all, only 4,000 troops returned from Kaabu. Alfa Molo went on to govern the region he had conquered and made his capital at Labé. It became more or less autonomous of Futa Jallon while maintaining close ties to Timbo. Both his realm and a severely weakened Futa Jallon would fall to French rule after the Battle of Pore-Daka in 1896.
- Forrest, page 69
- Vigh, page 41
- Iliffe, page 52
- Sonko-Godwin, page14
- Bowman, page 59
- Forrest, Joshua (2003). Lineages of State Fragility: rural Civil society in Guinea-Bissau. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press. pp. 312 pages. ISBN 0-8214-1490-9.
- Vigh, Henrik (2006). Navigating Terrains of War: Youth and Soldiering in Guinea-Bissau. New York City: Berghahn Books. pp. 258 pages. ISBN 1-84545-149-X.
- Sonko-Godwin, Patience (1988). Ethnic Groups of the Senegambia: A Brief History. Banjul, Gambia: Sunrise Publishers. pp. 65 pages. ISBN 9983-86-000-7.
- Bowman, Joye (1997). Ominous Transition: commerce and Colonial Expansion in the Senegambia and guinea, 1857-1919. London: Avebury. pp. 198 pages. ISBN 1-85972-154-0.
- Iliffe, John (2005). Honour in African History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 404 Pages. ISBN 0-521-83785-5.