Bai Bureh was a ruler, military strategist, and Muslim cleric who led the Temne and Loko uprising against British rule in Northern Sierra Leone.
Early life and rule pre-rebellion
Bai Bureh was born on the 15th of February 1840 in Kasseh, a village near Port Loko in Northern Sierra Leone. His father was a Muslim cleric and an important Loko war-chief while his mother was a Temne trader from Makeni.
Bureh was a devout Muslim of the Suffi tradition of Sunni Islam, and he also held on to his strong African traditions and values.
When he was a young man, his father sent him to Gbendembu, there he was trained to become a warrior.
All through his training at the village, he revealed that he was a formidable warrior and was given the nickname “Kebalai”, which means as ‘one who doesn’t tire of war’. When Kebalai returned to his home village, he was crowned ruler of Kasseh.
Between the 1860s and 1870s, Bureh had become the top warrior of Port Loko and the entire Northern Sierra Leone.
He fought and won wars against other villagers alongside tribal leaders who stood against his plan to establish correct Islamic and indigenous practices throughout Northern Sierra Leone.
Bureh fought against the Susu people from French Guinea in 1882 who invaded Kambia – a town in northern Sierra Leone. His fighters defeated the Susu and pushed them back into French Guinea and returned the land to the owners. After winning several major wars, his popularity spread and the people of the north felt they had found a warrior who would defend their land.
He was crowned the chief of Northern Sierra Leone in 1886.
As a ruler, he never collaborated with the British who were living in Freetown. Neither did he recognize the peace treaty the British had negotiated with the Limba without his participation.
However, on the 1st of January 1893, the British colonials instituted a hut tax in Sierra Leone and throughout British-controlled Africa. The tax could be paid in grain, money, stock or labor. Many Sierra Leoneans had to work as laborers to pay the tax as the tax enabled the British to build roads, towns, railways and other infrastructural amenities in British-controlled Sierra Leone.
Bureh refused to recognize the hut tax that the British had imposed as he did not believe the Sierra Leonean people had a duty to pay taxes to foreigners. He wanted the British to leave and allow Sierra Leoneans to solve their problems.
However, the British issued a warrant to arrest Bureh after he refused to pay his taxes on several occasions. The British Governor to Sierra Leone, Frederic Cardew, offered one hundred pounds as a reward for his capture. But as expected, the ruler reciprocated by offering the higher sum of five hundred pounds for the arrest of the governor.
In 1898, Bureh declared war on the British in Sierra Leone. The war later became the Hut Tax War of 1898.
Most of Bureh’s fighters came from several Temne and Loko villages under his command. But other fighters who came from Limba, Kissi, and Kuranko villages were sent to his aid.
Bai Bureh’s men did not only kill the British soldiers but also killed dozens of Creoles who were living in Northern Sierra Leone because they thought that the Creoles supported the British.
Bureh had the advantage over the powerful British for several months of the war. By 19 February 1898, his forces had completely severed the British line of communication between Freetown and Port Loko.
They blocked the river and road from Freetown. Despite this, the British forces failed to defeat Bureh and his supporters.
Surrendered and exile
Bai Bureh finally surrendered on the 11th of November 1898, when he was tracked down in swampy, thickly vegetated countryside by a small patrolling party of the newly organized West African Regiment in Port Loko. Although his warriors fought for a while, they did not evade the troops for long.
He was taken under guard to Freetown, where crowds gathered around his quarters day and night to gain a glimpse of him. Bureh was treated as a political prisoner and was given limited freedom.
The British sent Bai Bureh on exile to the Gold Coast which is now Ghana, along with the powerful Sherbro chief Kpana Lewis and the powerful Mende chief Nyagua. They both died in exile but Bureh was brought back to Sierra Leone in 1905 and reinstated as the Chief of Kasseh.
He died on the 24th of August 1908.
The legacy of Bai Bureh
The significance of his war against the British is not a matter of whether he won or lost the war but that a man who had no formal military training was able to take on the British – who are very proud of their great military successes across the globe – for months. The tactics he used in his fight against the British are mostly employed by guerilla armies worldwide.
There is a very large Statue of Bai Bureh in central Freetown and pictured on several Sierra Leonean paper bills. A Sierra Leonean professional football club from port Loko was named after him. “The Bai Bureh Warriors”
Ex Peace Corps volunteer Gary Schulze and his colleague William Hart discovered the only known photograph of him for sale on eBay in August 2012.
The photo was put on display in the Sierra Leone National Museum in 2013.