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Great Africans

(ca. 1813-1879)

Sengbe Pieh was a Mende farmer whose extraordinary
courage in resisting slavery earned him a lasting
place in the histories of  Sierra Leone and the United

Sengbe was captured in his rice farm in January, 1839
and ultimately sold to a Spanish slave trader near
modern Sulima. He was then transported across the
Atlantic to Havana, Cuba and sold at an auction, along
with forty-eight other Sierra Leoneans, to a Spanish
sugar planter named Jose Ruiz. The Spaniard placed his
slaves aboard a ship called the Amistad for a short
trip to his plantation, but on the third day at sea,
Sengbe pulled a loose spike from the deck and broke
his chains and those of his fellow slaves. He
discovered cane knives in the cargo hold, armed his
men, mostly Mende, and led them onto the deck. They
killed the captain and drove the crew overboard, and
then Sengbe ordered their would-be master to sail the
Amistad back to Sierra Leone. The Spaniard tried to
trick the Africans by turning the ship toward Cuba at
night, but a storm drove the Amistad northeast along
the coast of the United States. Sengbe and his men
were captured by the United States Navy off Long
Island, New York, and charged with murder and piracy,
but a dedicated group of American abolitionists came
immediately to their defence.

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    The Americans formed the "Amistad Committee" which
recruited prominent lawyers to argue for the captured
Mendes who were finally freed when former President
John Quincy Adams argued their case before the United
States Supreme Court.

Sengbe Pieh, also known as James
Cinque in the United States, became a celebrity in the

free Northern States, and thousands of people bought
his portrait and paid to see him speak on the evils of
slavery. Sengbe returned with his men to Sierra Leone
in January, 1842 together with the first of many
American missionaries to come to these shores. In the
United States the Amistad Committee, originally set up
for the defence of Sengbe and his fellow Mendes,
continued to fight for an end to slavery and, after
emancipation, set up hundreds of schools and colleges
for the newly freed slaves.

Today, Sengbe's picture hangs in some public buildings
and black colleges in the United States, and no
history book on the American slavery era is complete
without an account of his courageous deeds. Although
still largely unknown in his own country, Sengbe Pieh
deserves to be recognised as one of the most famous
and influential Sierra Leoneans who ever lived.

(ca. 1790-1880)

Foday Tarawaly was a brilliant Soso scholar who
founded an Islamic University near Kambia in the

He was born in the Morea Soso country in what is now
the Republic of Guinea, where he underwent a thorough
Islamic education from an early age. Foday
distinguished himself as a student, gaining a
reputation as a scholar of unusual ability. In the
1820s, Foday and his elder brother, Brima Kondito,
travelled south into what is now Gbinle-Dixing
Chiefdom in Northwestern Sierra Leone. The ruling
Sankoh family gave Brima the small town of Gbinle on
the Great Scarcies River, but Brima wished to settle
farther south and left Gbinle to his younger brother.

Foday established an Islamic school at Gbinle, over
which he presided for the next fifty years. By the
mid-1800s it had become an institution which amazed
outside observers. When Edward Wilmot Blyden visited
Gbinle in 1872, he was astounded at the sight of a
large and well-run university in the Sierra Leone
interior, fifty miles from Freetown. He described
Tarawaly as the "presiding genius" and Gbinle as "a
sort of university town, devoted altogether to the
cultivation of Islamic learning". There were several
hundred young men and some female students in
residence, and Tarawaly looked forward to the
continued growth and prosperity of his university,
having trained three of his sons as master scholars
who could carry on after his death.

But Foday Tarawaly's dreams of continued success for
Gbinle were not to come true. Internal strife in the
area between the Soso and Temne led to the destruction
of his university in 1875. The great man became a
roving scholar and continued his work, though on a
much smaller scale, until his death at a very advanced
age. Foday Tarawaly's life reminds us that education
and intellectual achievement are, by no means, new to
Sierra Leone.

(ca. 1825-1890)

Alimamy Rassin was a great king who devoted his life
to making peace among his fellow rulers.

He was born of a Fula father and a Temne mother in
Mafonda, now Sanda Magbolonto Chiefdom. When his
father returned to Senegal, Rassin was adopted by
Alimamy Amadu, ruler of Mafonda, and given the best
Muslim education available in his day. Rassin was an
amazingly gifted student, and his intellectual
achievements made him famous throughout northern
Sierra Leone while still a young boy. When his Fula
family came from Senegal to claim him, Chief Amadu,
who now regarded Rassin as his son and heir, refused
to give him up.

When Alimamy Amadu died in 1845, the people of Mafonda
chose Rassin as their ruler. But Rassin was a modest
man and refused to be crowned officially for several

From the outset of his rule, Alimamy Rassin made clear
his hatred of war and all forms of violence. He set up
a fund for the promotion of peace to be replenished
from fines levied in the chief's court. He mediated
successfully in political disputes in the Sanda
Tendaren, Tonko Limba, Yoni, and Bombali Temne
countries, occasionally sending his sons on official
peace missions. When the Mandinka army of Samori Toure
reached Mafonda in 1885, after occupying many parts of
northern Sierra Leone, the invaders were so impressed
by Rassin's wise rule that they chose to withdraw and
leave Mafonda in peace. The British administration in
Freetown was equally impressed with Alimamy Rassin's
rule and offered him a large annual stipend to
continue with his efforts to establish peace among the
interior rulers. But Rassin rejected the offer,
arguing that it was unethical to accept payment for
the promotion of peace. He ruled wisely for the
benefit of his people and not for political favours
from the British. Alimamy Rassin died in 18909, six
years before the chiefs lost their independence to
British rule.


Manga Sewa was a great Yalunka King who chose a
glorious death over a humiliating life under foreign

He was the ruler of Solimana, a prosperous state whose
capital, Falaba, was on the rich trading routes
leading to the coast. Falaba is now in the Sulima
Chiefdom of the Koinadugu District. In February, 1884
the vast Mandinka army of Samori Toure swept down into
north-east Sierra Leone bent on conquest. N'fa Ali,
Samori's general, destroyed many villages in the
Yalunka Kingdom and ultimately laid siege to the
capital. Falaba was a fortress town, surrounded by a
great wall of cotton trees forming an almost
impenetrable war fence. The Mandinka could not enter
the town, but the defenders were short of food as many
citizens had taken refuge inside the walls.

The Yalunka held out for five months and, in the end,
were reduced to eating rats and the boiled leather of
their sandals and mats. Sewa finally sent his younger
brother, Dugu, on a secret mission to obtain aid from
the Koranko, but Dugu was captured and executed on a
nearby hill in full view of his country-men. Some say
that Manga Sewa lost heart and declared his intention
to surrender, but that his son, Sewa Saio, insulted
him so bitterly that he chose to take his own life.
But others tell a different story. They say that Manga
Sewa had a magical war gown called muunka-tinya
"waste of ammunition" because no bullet could pierce
it. The King could not be destroyed and would not
surrender, and his people were ashamed to submit to
the enemy so long as their great leader continued to
fight. In this version, Manga Sewa took his own life
to give his starving followers a chance to flee or

Nigerians in the sitting room

(ca. 1845-1896)

Kai Londo was a great warrior, and from boyhood was
trained systematically in the art of warfare. During
the 1880s Kai joined with  the famous Mende warrior,
Ndawa, in a series of military campaigns against Chief
Benya of Small Bo but Kail Londo fell out with Ndawa
over the treatment of his men and the division of
spoils. Ndawa took revenge on Kai Londo by leading a
large army into the heart of Luawa country, and the
Kissi elders met and called upon Kai to lead the men
of Luawa and "defend the land". After a series of
preliminary skirmishes designed to test and confuse
the enemy, Kai Londo led his forces in a punishing
dawn attack on Ndawa's camp, defeating the Mende

The Kissi elders then called upon Kai Londo to become
the supreme ruler of Luawa, and they held a ceremony
in which the new King was presented with a handful of
Luawa's soil in a piece of white country cloth. Kai
Londo immediately set about improving and expanding
the Luawa State. He built new roads and fortified
towns and established a new capital at Kailahun or
"Kai's Town". He conquered surrounding states in what
is now Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, bringing
them under his direct control; and his rule was so
wise that some foreign chiefs willingly joined the
Luawa state as vassals of Kai Londo.

In 1890, a British travelling official described Kai
as "powerful and a mighty man of war,
but...understanding what was for the lasting interest
of his people...a chief who was never spoken of except
in highest terms". Kai Londo died of a sudden illness
in 1896, soon after a great military victory. He was
among the last of Sierra Leone's great and thoroughly
independent warrior kings.

(ca. 1855-1936)

Foamansa Matturi was the ruler of Jaiama Nimikoro, in
the Kono country. His fighting abilities and astute
diplomacy helped bring  stability to a region that was
continually the target of invasions from both its
neighbours and Samori Toure's Sofa warriors. He was
the fifth ruler of Jaiama.

For years, the region was unstable because of frequent
attacks by its neighbours. Many of the people living
in Jaiama were forced to flee in the wake of such
raids, and hide in caves in the Nimini hills before
migrating secretly northwards towards Koranko country.

Jaiama then was one of the regions controlled by the
great Mende ruler, Nyagua. When Ndawa, a professional
warrior, attacked the territories of Nyagua's father
in the Upper Mende region, Nyagua called for
assistance from his Kono vassals. Matturi responded
swiftly by mobilising his Kono warriors on behalf of
Nyagua. He was put in charge of all the fighting
forces, and he carried out his task effectively,
returning with spoils of victory for Nyagua. Nyagua
rewarded Matturi by giving him all of Southern Kono
and by promising to protect the region from enemy

With peace and stability in the region, those who had
fled returned and Matturi urged his people to re-build
the town. This move towards reconstruction was
abruptly interrupted when Samori Toure's Sofa warriors
attacked Kono in 1893 and occupied Tecuyama and
Levuma. Matturi immediately informed Nyagua who, in
turn, reported to the Governor that his country had
been invaded. However, by the time the British sent in
their troops to repel the invaders, Matturi with the
assistance of Nyagua had already succeeded in driving
the Sofa warriors from Kono.

Matturi's military success in defeating Samori Toure's
warriors greatly enhanced his reputation both among
his subjects and the Freetown-based Colony Government.
Thus, then the Protectorate was declared in 1896,
Foamansa Matturi was crowned the first Paramount Chief
of Jaiama Nimikoro.

During his rule, Foamansa Matturi initiated several
development projects in his chiefdom, and the British
authorities commended him for embarking on a road
construction project linking Jaiama to the other main
towns in the Kono District. Foamansa Matturi died at a
ripe old age in 1936