The Barra War Begins – 1831

Fort BullenImage: Fort Bullen at Barra Point

In Social Studies class we were taught that “two drunken Mandinka soldiers mistakenly fired their guns” and so triggered the Barra War. Well, from the earlier post we highlighted a few crucial preludes as to the general mood in Niumi regarding the Europeans and the fact that “immediately after the treaty[of the Ceded Mile] was signed he[Burunghai] and his people saw cannon brought over to Barra Point and soldiers posted there, their worst suspicions were at once aroused.”

It is quite understandable that given the circumstances, the people were wary of European presence in their territory and suddenly putting up a military installation confirmed their suspicions. The British acknowledged as much;

The battery was intended as a protection against the French and the guns were pointed seaward. But those guns could soon be slewed round and made to point to Burunghai Sonko’s own village. To the native mind this was obviously the real purpose of the battery and the feeling arose that Burunghai has opened the door to the invader. His people therefore began to murmur against the sale of their birthright for a mess of pottage. Burunghai began to realize that he would have to do something to regain his waning popularity.

It is worth noting that at this point, Barra (the town) was uninhabited “except a small village nearby [Barra Point], which was peopled by a few settlers from Bathurst. An attempt to induce the pensioners of the West India Regiments to settle there failed owing to the greater attractions of Bathurst. The troops who were stationed to guard the guns were housed in mud huts.” The people of Essau, which was the residence of the king, were at the time settled in the old town; Suu Koto. This is significant for later reference.

Mansa Burunghai resorted back to being hostile towards the Europeans and not only that, he encouraged the Niuminkas to do likewise. Traders who came to trade in Niumi from Bathurst were ill-treated, so much so that “the Lieutenant-Governor decided, with the approval of the home government, to suspend payment of Burunghai Sonko’s annual subsidy in 1830.” This apparently did not seem to help matters much, a year later the “two drunken Mandinka soldiers” scenario unfolded.

On  the night of August 21, 1831 two men came from Essau to the small settlement that had grown up near Fort Bullen. They were armed with cutlasses and muskets and, if they had not been drinking very freely, at any rate were in a very truculent mood. After having picked a quarrel with some of the settlers, they went on to Fort Bullen. They entered the fort canteen at eight o’clock at night and demanded to be served with rum. When the canteen keeper refused to serve them, one of them discharged his gun at him but missed him. After this, both men made off in the direction of Essau.

From earlier accounts we’ve established that such actions from the natives always engendered a response from the colonial government, this case was no exception. The incident was reported to the commanding officer and he fired the alarm gun. This alerted the authorities in Bathurst and the following morning “a party of thirty (30) soldiers was sent over to Barra point. They were accompanied by a number of the local inhabitants and the captains and crews of some merchant vessels which were in harbor.”

It would be safe to assume that by this time, those in local authority in Essau would have been alerted as to what transpired during the night.When the party landed, they marched on to Essau to demand that the culprits be surrendered. Protocol and convention would demand that emissaries be sent to make such demands of surrender rather than have such a large company of people, thirty soldiers included, march on enemy territory to make demands. Such a move implied other intentions from the perspective of the locals. With tensions already high with Burunghai and his people on one side and the British and their settlers on the other side, coupled with fact that the natives were by now, familiar with how forcefully the British respond to any perceived attacks on their subjects, the Niuminkas were prepared for a showdown.

The party arrived to find the village of Essau was surrounded by a strong double stockade. Orders were given for the party to fire into the village. A large armed party, which greatly outnumbered the British, issued out of the stockade and, taking cover in the growing corn and long grass, poured a heavy fire on their opponents. The ill-organized party had perforce to beat a very hasty retreat on Fort Bullen. They were closely pursued and lost several of their number on the way. When they turned to make a stand at the fort, they found they were hopelessly outnumbered and therefore decided to take to their boats. Many were cut off and killed [in the hasty embarkation]. The enemy waded into the water and inflicted more casualties before the boats could get away. Altogether, twenty three (23) soldiers and a number of civilians were killed in this lamentable affair. One of the latter was a merchant captain. Believing that he was the governor, the Mandingoes decapitated him and placed his head in triumph on a pole.

It appears the people of Niumi finally got to vent all the pent up anger and frustration they felt towards the Europeans for so long. Judging by the ferocity, it seemed the people were determined to cut down every last remaining European in their territory. Even the Europeans were convinced of that;

When the returning party reached Bathurst, the place was thrown into the greatest possible confusion. It was believed that the people of Barra would follow up their success by crossing the river and attacking Bathurst and the people of Kombo would join forces with them. The French at Albreda were warned that they were in danger and they and their movable property were brought to Bathurst. A merchant vessel was detained for any possible emergency. Urgent appeals for help were sent to the British authorities in Sierra Leone and to the French authorities at Goree and St. Louis

Such an embarrassing episode could not be left to history, appeals for help will be heeded to and another showdown was in the making, this time with reinforcements from St. Louis, Goree and Sierra Leone. But the people of Niumi would be prepared for another battle which they were certain will come.

To Be continued

Works Cited

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



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