Much of West African history was shaped by powerful empires that rose and fell between A.D. 400 and 1600. These empires, with names like Ghana, Mali, and Songhay, established caravan routes that brought new peoples and the religion of Islam to the areas of West Africa. Over the centuries that followed, Africans settled and developed their own culture, until European slave ships landed to begin bartering for human cargo.
Caravan to the Gambia
The Mandinko were typical of such West African cultures. Mandinka warriors, probably on horseback, arrived at the Gambia River from their Mali homeland to the north in the 1300s. They eventually established some 20 small Mandinka kingdoms north and south of the river. Further migrations of the Mandinko into the Gambia area resulted in a stable population of about 90,000 people, who lived in large enclosed farming villages.
Traditional Mandinka society was organized in a caste system. A member of one caste was not permitted to marry someone of another caste. The Mandinko recognized three castes. The highest consisted of "freeborn" farmers who worked the land. The middle caste was composed of "artisans" like blacksmiths and leather workers along with the "praise-singers." These individuals (also known as griots were the keepers of the Mandinka oral history and family genealogies. The lowest caste was made up of slaves.
Many ancient West African people held slaves. Generally, slaves were people who had been captured in war or were being punished for serious crimes like murder, adultery, or witchcraft. The children of slaves were born slaves.
But members of the slave caste could gain some rights after living in a Mandinka village for two or more generations. They could not be sold to anyone outside the village. They could not be killed by their owners without a trial. They were also given land to farm which made it possible for them to buy their freedom.
The Mandinka concept of land ownership was quite different from that of western societies. In the Mandinka kingdoms, individuals could not buy, sell, or "own" plots of land. But land could be occupied and used by a group like a family or clan.
The founding family of a village had the right to occupy the best land. "Strangers," those families who came afterward, received progressively poorer land to farm. This system worked well as long as good farm land was plentiful. But, as the population grew, increasing numbers of people began to resent the privileged status of the founding families.
Every capable person in a village was expected to work. The senior male member of each extended family organized and directed the work for the day. Men and women had different work responsibilities. For example, the men cleared new land and cultivated millet (a grain like wheat) while the women were in charge of rice growing. The children spent the day driving small wild animals away from the crops.
Mandinka villages separated themselves into male and female age groups. These age groups stayed together like a club for most of a person’s lifetime. They could be called upon to work on community projects like repairing the village enclosure wall. A farmer who had lots of new land to clear could call upon the young men’s age group to spend a day helping him. Sometimes, work parties would divide into two teams and, with much singing and chanting, compete to see which one could finish in the quickest time.
Marriage was a long and complicated process among the Mandinko. Women married early, sometimes as young as 13. Men, however, usually did not marry until their mid or even late 20s. A girl was often betrothed to a man at birth. When she was old enough to marry, her intended husband would make a payment to her family, usually in the form of a certain number of goats and other gifts. The couple would then be considered married, although the wife continued to spend most of her time working in her father’s household. A husband could not take his bride to live with him until he had negotiated a second payment with his wife’s family. This payment system might take ten years to complete. The Mandinko practiced polygamy, so a man could end up with four or more wives at one time, depending on his wealth.
For a long time, most Mandinko practiced a form of religion known as animism. This involves the belief in the existence of spirits in natural objects like sacred trees. But growing numbers of Mandinko converted to Islam. Muslim Mandinko lived in separate villages and studied the holy book of Islam, the Koran.
Political power in the Mandinka kingdoms originated in the villages. The eldest man of the founding family of a village became its leader (alkalo). In Muslim villages, the religious leader (alimamo) shared some of the leadership responsibilities with the alkalo. The alkalo governed along with a council composed of other village elders from the freeborn caste. The alkalo and village council assigned land for families to use, recruited age groups for work projects, and settled disputes.
Each village had a platform where public affairs were debated and trials were held. During a trial, the alkalo acted as the judge. Both sides in a dispute presented evidence, witnesses were cross-examined, and the alkalo made the decision, which almost always reflected the consensus of the village.
Within most Mandinka kingdoms, the leader of an important family could become the king (mansa). Different families took turns choosing the mansa. The mansa had the right to collect taxes in the form of food, livestock, and labor from all the villages of his kingdom. He also collected fees from traders traveling through his lands. Mansas often became wealthy investing in cattle, slaves, and mercenary soldiers.
The Mandinka kings, however, were not absolute rulers. They had to share the taxes they collected with the village leaders. Major decisions, such as a declaration of war, had to be approved by a council made up of elders from the leading families in the kingdom. During wartime (which was frequent), the council appointed a temporary general to head the army.
By 1800, the privileges of the ruling families had led to widespread dissatisfaction among the Mandinka people. Almost everyone hated and feared the tax collectors and soldiers of the mansas. Moreover, hostility intensified between Muslim and non-Muslim Mandinko. These conflicts weakened the power of the mansas as well as the privileged ruling families. By this time, the Europeans had entered the area. They, too, helped to undermine the old Mandinka order.
Europeans in the Gambia
In 1455, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to enter the Gambia River. They were looking for gold. Instead they found slaves—war captives that the Mandinka mansas were anxious to sell, especially for firearms.
By the 1600s, the Portuguese, Spanish, and English were fully engaged in the transatlantic slave trade. The region around the Gambia River became one of the earliest sources of West African slaves. They were taken to the mines of Mexico and the sugar plantations of the Caribbean. About 5,000 slaves a year were shipped to America from the Gambia during the 17th and 18th centuries. Mandinka mansas grew rich by raiding neighboring kingdoms and taking captives to be sold as slaves. They also collected customs duties from the European slave traders.
In 1808, the British outlawed the slave trade. About 10 years after that, they established a naval base at the mouth of the Gambia River to intercept slave ships and free their human cargo. As a result of the British naval patrols, slave trading declined sharply in the Gambia area. The Mandinka mansas lost revenues, which further weakened their political power.
The Gambian Jihad
By the early 1800s, the Mandinka people were divided both politically and religiously. Two Mandinka societies existed. At the top were the mansas and ruling families. They controlled the land, collected the taxes, and followed the old animist religion. Below them were large numbers of poor farming families and landless artisans. They were excluded from holding political office. Many of these people had converted to Islam. The leaders of this underclass were the marabouts, Muslim holy men and scholars who taught a fundamentalist form of Islam.
At about the same time that Americans were embroiled in a civil war that forever changed our country, the people along the Gambia also experienced their own fateful civil war. In 1861, the British, seeking to punish "outrages" against white traders by the mansa of Baddibu, devastated his kingdom. But, in doing this, the British upset the balance of power in the area. They inadvertently set off a holy war (jihad) that swept all the Mandinka kingdoms and beyond. Mandinka marabouts led a series of jihads against the animist Mandinka ruling families. The fighting between the two Mandinka factions continued for another 30 years.
The most important change coming out of this war was the permanent establishment of Islam. Today, over 90 percent of the people of the Gambia and neighboring Senegal are Muslims. Another change was the destruction of the old Mandinka ruling family system. But the Muslims weren’t able to replace the old system with a new political order.
By 1901, the British and French had subdued the exhausted Mandinka factions and imposed colonial rule over the region. The Gambia remained a British possession until it was granted independence in 1965.
For Discussion and Writing
- What is a caste system? What do you think its purposes are?
- Describe slavery in Mandinka society both before and after the Europeans came to the Gambia region of West Africa.
- What were some of the issues that caused the Gambian jihad or civil war in the 1860s through 1900? How was this conflict resolved?
A C T I V I T Y
In his book Roots, Alex Haley traced his family’s origins back to Africa. According to Haley, his ancestor Kunta Kinte was born about 1750 in one of the Mandinka kingdoms along the Gambia River in West Africa. Haley related that Kunta, then in his teens, was captured by white and black slave raiders near his home and then transported to America.
How do you think the life of Kunta Kinte would have been different if he had never been taken as a slave to America? Write a brief story of Kunta Kinte’s life in Africa from 1750 to 1800.