Burunghai Sonko and the Build Up to the Barra War

Image: Mansa Maranta Sonko; sitting left flanked by Governor Llewelyn 1891

In 1823, in anticipation of a war with France, which was a real possibility at that time, Alexander Grant tested the largest guns on Bathurst and realized that the range was not sufficient to reach across the river. The French were already present in Albreda and their activities there coupled with the unfriendly attitude of the people of Niumi led to the fear that the French might obtain more territory on the north bank. As a result, that same year, Burunghai Sonko was approached by the British who sought to erect a battery (gun mount) on the shore opposite Bathurst at Barra point but Mansa Burunghai refused.

In 1826, the British suspected that Burunghai may be considering granting more territory to the French, acting Governor Keneth Macauley of Sierra Leone was in the river Gambia around this time as was Commodore Charles Bullen and his man-of-war H.M.S Maidstone. The British thought, with so much military power on display it will be a good time to engage the king in negotiations to change his earlier position and grant them the land they sought. It worked; Burunghai Sonko and his delegation agreed to meet the Governor in Bathurst and a deal was hatched. From the terms listed, one can rightly conclude that the King was unaware of what he was signing away, later events will confirm that.

Burunghai Sonko, after the meeting with the colonial government agreed to cede to the British government for an annual payment; “the full, entire, free and unlimited right, title and sovereignty and possession of the River Gambia.” Not only that, the terms stated that he would grant the British; “all right to demand “customs” or other payments from British or other vessels entering the river, and (with the exception of the French factory at Albreda) the whole of the right bank of the river for one geographical mile inland commencing at Bunyadu (Jinnack) creek on the west and extending to Jokadu Creek on the east.” This is what became known as the Ceded Mile.

Considering that just a couple of years earlier Burunghai was unwilling to even allow the British to mount a battery at Barra point, it beats the imagination how he will, all of a sudden relinquish almost all of his territory, his rights and sovereignty to the British. The simple answer being that he was not fully aware of what he was signing away due to limitations in literacy, misinterpretation by the translator or deception even, akin to the ‘small print’ argument. Immediately after the signing, “Commodore Bullen conveyed a couple of canons over to Barra point and formal possession was taken of the ceded territory, a military guard was placed over the two canons and the site was named Fort Bullen.”

Mansa Burunghai came on the throne after Mansa Kollimanka Manneh passed away, in 1823 according to colonial records. According to oral tradition, Birang Sirah was supposed to ascend the throne but there was a wave of dissatisfaction towards the Europeans (British and French) among the people of Niumi at the time. Burunghai rode on that anti-European wave to ascend the throne. The reason why in some quarters they call him Fang Tolloh Mansa.

Since the commencement of European activity on the river Gambia, the people of Niumi through their kings received customs (duties) from ships plying the river, and owing to the European settlement on James Island (now Kunta Kinteh Island) and Albreda, further customs were paid. When the settlement at James Island was abandoned for the new settlement at Bathurst, the royalties went to the king of Kombo. This was not well received according to the colonial records. Worse, when construction started on Bathurst, the stones were quarried from Dog Island on the Niumi side of the river, Mansa Kollimanka agreed to the British quarrying stone from the site, expected payment but received none, which further exacerbated the ill feeling. “The general feeling of the people of Barra clearly was that Kollimanka Mane had been far too weak in his dealings with the Europeans and that he had let his people down. According to Niumi tradition, kingship passed to another family, which lived within a mile of Barra point at Essau. Burunghai Sonko, the new king soon proved to be a very unpleasant neighbor”

“One of his first quarrels was to pick a fight with the French resident at Albreda, because that officer’s government did not give a satisfactory present on his accession. The result was that the Resident took refuge in Bathurst and the factory at Albreda was closed down for several months.”

This anti-European stance was seen to be done to appease those people of Niumi who opposed his ascension to the throne, the quarrel with the French at Albreda was one such move to reassure his subjects it will not be business as usual. The British sensed this hostility and were poised to send a message that they will not be hindered.

“In 1826, the combined effects of the arrival of the British man-of-war and the cupidity aroused by the promise of an annual payment to himself induced Burunghai Sonko to sign the Ceded Mile Treaty. When immediately after the treaty was signed he and his people saw cannon brought over to Barra Point and soldiers posted there, their worst suspicions were at once aroused.”

The series of ensuing events will culminate in what became known as the Barra War.

To be continued….

Note: Barra is used to generally refer to the territory of Niumi. The two terms are used interchangeably.

Works Cited

Gray, J. (1940). History of The Gambia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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