top of page

Africa During the Scramble: The Black Napoleon

By Gary Oswald

Samori Ture

The African Polities of the late 19th century threw up more than their fair share of brilliant military leaders and commanders, a consequence of constant warfare, but the pick of the bunch was almost certainly Samori Ture. Samori fought the French Empire throughout Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso and the Côte d'Ivoire for 16 years of bitter warfare. Few other African rulers put up such prolonged and effective resistance to European imperialism and few rulers anywhere achieved so much with such limited resources. Samori was born into peasantry in an area with no centralised state and so did not inherit either an empire or the infrastructure to build one. Instead, he built his forces from scratch, and in fact he arguably built three different armies from scratch given how much his military and citizenship evolved during the years.

Samori came to age during a period of religious warfare in West Africa. The 19th century had began with Usman dan Fodio leading his Jihads against the pagan and non practicing Muslim rulers of Northern Nigeria. Dan Fodio was one of the 'great men' of history, both a religious and social reformer and a political and military leader who created what was the largest state in sub-Saharan Africa at the time, and his writings and deeds would inspire new Islamic jihadists throughout Africa over the next century. The Mahdi in Sudan emerged from that background as did the Mullah in Somalia, the various Jihadists in Senegal, the founders of the Massina, Toucouleur and Adamawa Empires and dozens more minor Fulani leaders. As a result West Africa by the 1850s, was full of state building and holy wars, as empires rose and fell from Senegal to Chad. It was the kind of chaos that proved a ladder to a smart and effective leader.

Samori was born in modern day Guinea, in the area of Konya. His family farmed Kola nuts which were sold as a stimulant and water flavourer to the Islamic scholars of Mali, who then imported them to North Africa and the Middle East. His ancestors had been Muslim merchants from the Sahel who had settled in Guinea to organise this trade and became known as the Dyula, the general name for Islamic immigrants into the pagan lands of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Côte d'Ivoire. Traditionally, their big trade was with Timbuktu and the other Sahel cities. Kola nuts and slaves went north and cloth, salt, pottery and horses came south. But as the Sahel trade declined, the Dyula opened a second trade line to the south, selling their slaves to Europeans on the coast in return for knives, kettles, clothes and, in particular, old firearms. Like elsewhere in West Africa, guns and gunpowder became increasingly common and so increasingly necessary as polities without them had short life expectancies.

It was in the 1830s that the Jihad arrived in Konya. Inspired by Dan Fodio, Seku Amadu had created his own Jihadist state in South Mali, and inspired by Amadu, Mori-Ule Sise set out to create his own in Guinea. Sise and his sons would set up the first centralized Kingdom that the region had ever seen. But by the 1860s the local pagans, who had been faced with the prospect of death or forced conversion by the Sise family, began to organise in turn against them and in Samori they found a leader capable of standing against the Jihadists.

The Ture family were ethnically Dyula but were religiously pagans, they had abandoned Islam several generations back and had become farmers and cattle herders rather than traders. They were therefore targets of the Jihad and Sise forces captured Samori's mother as a slave in a raid on their farms in 1848. Samori offered himself in her place and became a mamluk, a slave soldier, in Sise's army. For seven years he fought for the Sise, converting to Islam and learning both how to use firearms and how to lead. And then, once his seven years of service was over, he joined their enemies and tore the Sise Kingdom to the ground.

Samori's great early advantage was that in a time of bitter and seemingly endless holy wars between pagans and muslims, he preached religious tolerance. He respected the pagan faith and the islamic faith equally and did not preach nor demand conversions, both faiths would be welcome in his empire. Instead he offered conquest and the peace and prosperity of a united state which controlled the entire trading routes of the Dyula, both north and south, and so could guarantee the safe movement of kola nuts and slaves alike. In West Africa in 1860, that was a potent message and Samori soon attracted thousands of followers and so was able to quickly expand. In 1876 he captured the Buré gold mines, vastly increasing his income and in 1881 he took the key religious and trading city of Kankan. By 1878, 23 years after leaving the Sise with no followers of his own, he declared himself Emperor of the Wassoulou having entirely united the Wassoulou area (containing parts of modern Mali, Guinea and the Côte d'Ivoire) for the first time in history.

As his empire grew, his professional organised army grew too. By 1878 he had 15,000 men who could train all year around without having to be called in and out to attend to the harvest, something only made possible by the sheer size and wealth of the empire but something that meant his armies were far more disciplined and organised than any other in the region. He also aimed to break old family alliances and religious divides by forming regiments of randomly selected recruits who were under the command of one of Samori's trusted elite (often his family) and then allocated to one of the Empire's provinces far from their homeland. This way the bonds of loyalty were to the Army itself, in the manner of the Roman Legion, rather than to their own people.

This army would then be reinforced by a reserve of conscripted farmers, who would never serve more than 6 months in a year so as to prevent food shortages, detachments sent by the Empire's allied vassal states (which numbered only two or three at this time) and the Cavalry, which was largely volunteer and came from the wealthy merchant elites who owned their own horses and guns. These forces would be, combined, around the same size as the regular army, another 15,000 men.

Samori relied primarily on his infantry, unlike the cavalry armies which Dan Fodio and Omar Saidou Tall had fought their Jihads with. Horses weren't bred in Guinea and tended to die from diseases, the average life span of a horse in his army was only 6 months, and so had to regularly be bought from Northern Kingdoms like the Mossi. As such he only ever had small cavalry forces, less than 2,000 at any one time, which were used primarily for raids and harassing fleeing armies. This supply would become harder to access as time went on. By the 1890s, as the war with the French heated up, any private citizen with a Horse would quickly find themselves conscripted and the horse requisitioned.

In Samori's capital he had two more organisations. There was an intelligence service, where wandering traders, the main benefiters of the Wassoulou Empire which existed essentially to protect trade routes, would report to Samori on potential problems and activities of other states. And there was a core of gunsmiths who worked on copying and producing guns based on the newest models that he could buy from his suppliers in Monrovia and Freetown (and then later the Kong and Ashanti once the UK had tried to cut off gun sales to independent Africans in accordance with the Brussels Treaty of 1890) in return for ivory and gold. The gunsmiths made about twelve guns a week and every soldier in Samori's Army would have at least one gun, though the stock of repeating rifles likely never got above 5,000 and was saved for the elite regular army. The quality of guns made would gradually improve but in 1878 they were mostly producing muskets with better guns needing to be imported. However, Samori's forces were at least self sufficient in terms of powder and bullets, which put him ahead of the likes of Msiri (ruler of Katanga in the southern Congo), who had to also import ammo.

Here, however was a flaw in Samori's System. He protected his supply of modern rifles and controlled their circulation, the guns came through him and weren't shared with his enemies. Few other West African states were as well armed. But because his soldiers were often the armies of the polities he conquered, this meant they were generally unfamiliar with them, they often hadn't used rifles of this kind before being recruited into his army. And so their rifle tactics were basic compared to that of the French, they lacked the ability to properly co-ordinate their fire and their marksmanship was often sloppy, though it improved drastically as the war with France wore on.

There was also one other major flaw. Samori had expanded so quickly based on religious tolerance and ethnic unity. But as he expanded North, he captured lands which were primarily Islamic and primarily ethnically different. So in order to integrate these new areas, such as Kankan, Samori began leaning more heavily into his own Islamic faith. He attempted to adapt the Islamic state structure of Futa Jallon, the Imamate he had allied with, and introduced more and more Islamic clerics into his government though not, crucially, into the Army. In 1880 he would even mandate Islam as a state religion, though his own dad remained pagan.

In 1882, the two great expanding forces of West Africa, the Wassoulou and the French, clashed for the first time when a Wassoulou army defeated a much smaller French raiding party aimed at a town they'd recently captured. Despite losing, the French put up a fight that spooked Samori to the extent that he ordered his armies to avoid combat with the French in the future. However in 1883 both empires sent forces towards the village of Bamako, the modern Capital of Mali, though both were unaware of the other. Bamako was technically under the control of the Toucouleur, the largest of the remaining Jihadist Empires in Mali, but the Toucouleur were in decline, and had little actual presence in the region. Their Sultan was beset by rebellions and had signed numerous peace treaties with the French (all of which the latter would break) to try and delay the inevitable. Bamako was small but well positioned for a fort to be built that would control trade with Upper Mali. Both the French and Samori aimed to do so, despite this being a clear breach of France's recent treaty with the Toucouleur sultan.

Ahmadu Tall, Toucoleur Sultan, as portrayed by the French

France got there first and so defended Bamako when Samori's army attacked it, meaning the Wassoulou Empire had, entirely against the wishes of its Emperor, gone to war with France. While the disciplined musketeers of Samori's army came close to capturing Bamako, defeating a French column at the first battle of Woyowoyanko, they ultimately were unable to and were forced to retreat. Conflict would persist for three more years, with Samori personally leading forces in a multi pronged attack in 1885 which successfully defended the Bure gold fields by cutting off the French supply lines. This was an impressive campaign and the French took note.

The following year, in 1886, a peace was agreed between the Wassoulou and France. Samori would give up any attempt to campaign north of the Niger in the area around Bamako but would not have to give up any of his Wassoulou land, which was seen as something of a coup for him.

However the French had a surprise in store. Realising the dangers of this new Empire, they had sought to weaken them by supplying tons of new Europeans rifles to Tieba Traoré of the Kénédougou Kingdom, in the very South East of Mali, which they logically deduced would be Samori's next target if he could not push north of the Niger. This was a masterstroke. An eighteen month failed siege of Sikasso, the Kénédougou capital, starting in 1887 was a disaster for the Wassoulou army. Traoré's defenders, being able to return rapid rifle fire from fortified walls, inflicted massive casualties. More than that they killed many of Samori's best generals and his veteran professional soldiers which gravely damaged the cohesion of the force. Shorn of its experienced men, the Army was much less effective, though they were replaced, number wise, by new call ups of farmer conscripts.

As a result of this bloodshed, suddenly rebels sprung up all over the Wassoulou region, as Samori's Empire collapsed on itself. The new Pagan conscripts, who had already been increasingly worried by Samori's pivot towards Islamic law, mutinied and the French took advantage to force two new treaties on the Wassoulou, moving the border increasingly South. Having forced Samori out of Mali entirely, the French then tried to move in and capture Sikasso themselves, as it was now in the French Sudan. Ironically enough, they were also repulsed, having armed the defenders a tad too well.

It took Samori two years to reconquer the majority of his Empire, though some provinces were lost forever, and he had to publicly restate his belief in freedom of religion to win over the rebelling pagans once more. More than that, his surviving army after that bloodshed was much smaller than the 30,000 he'd been able to muster for the first war with the French and, as a result of the mutinies, he'd never again rely on his non professional soldiers. But he had learned a lot about French tactics, had improved his guns and had recruited deserters from French and British colonial armies to act as trainers for his professional core. This second Wassoulou army would be smaller and more mobile, without the conscript reserves, geared not for long sieges but for a defensive war against the inevitable French attack.

In 1890, the French smashed the fading Toucouleur Empire, using artillery to break open their fortresses as if they were made of paper. Samori had been considering an alliance with the Toucouleur but they had proved themselves barely more than a speed bump against French cannons. A Bambara revolt, which had caught the French without their artillery, had been more successful. The French had only won by pressganging thousands of captured Toucouleur soldiers and sending them to their deaths against the Bambara before moving in themselves against a weakened enemy. But it was clear that the French had strengthened their local forces during the years in which Samori's empire had been torn apart by civil war.

In 1891, against the orders of both Paris and Dakar, the French army invaded Wassoulou land from the North. This time the Wassoulou avoided large scale encounters and fought an effective guerrilla war in the mountains and valleys along the river Milo, isolating and picking off small units of French men and burning supplies before the French could get there. The army had better guns now, and had trained with them more, and so no longer needed the overwhelming numbers they'd matched against the French in the first war, they could instead fight in small commando units.

With the French Army being massacred, the Bambara rebels rose up once more behind French lines and a wave of yellow fever in Senegal prevented reinforcements coming from there. The French, outfought, retreated in disgrace after several months before their entire position in West Africa unravelled. But they had left behind two small fortress posts, which the Wassoulou, who had no artillery, could not destroy and were not willing to siege after their experience at Sikasso. Samori was smart enough to realise this made his current empire indefensible. In 1892 a new French army sent to reinforce those forts from Conakry, in the South of Guinea, would drive him out of his current capital but the Emperor had already prepared to move his government East.

From 1892 onwards, the Wassoulou fought on all fronts. At any one time they would have four or five armies in the field, some either holding off the French or, if that was impossible, covering their retreat by scorching the earth, and the others pushing East and South for new territory for them to retreat to. The more territory Samori conquered from enemies he could defeat in pitched battle, the more he could give up against the French, buying time with land he was buying with blood. In 1896, Samori controlled about as much land as he had in 1886, but remarkably none of it was the same land.

Original Map by Wikimedia user 'REY DE LA ATLANTIDA' showing the two Empires of Samori Ture. Image shared under the CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

The post 1892 Wassoulou Empire was thus a mobile one, one that constantly won and gave up territory as Samori and around 150,000 of his followers (most of them civilians) regularly moved into new land and set up new Capitals. Instead of the centralised Empire he'd first built where he'd been able to rely on shared ethnicity to build bonds, what emerged post 1892, when Samori and his men were foreign conquerors, was a much more feudal set up. Samori merely accepted vassalage from the new Kingdoms he conquered, with their existing ruling hierarchy left intact, rather than integrating their land directly.

What Samori cared about was not so much land as supply lines and roads. He needed places to move, access to gold and ivory to buy weapons and sources for guns and horses. From 1892 until 1898, France and Samori would fight a war of manoeuvre. France tried primarily to cut him off from his supply lines, attacking from the Atlantic coast to prevent the flow of guns from Sierra Leone in 1893 for instance, and the Wassoulou, now no longer based in Wassoulou, would respond by trying to either reopen them or build new ones. Often Samori would be forced to pick which supply line was more important to him. In 1898 he halted a march north against the French position in modern day Burkina Faso where he had hoped to open up a supply in horses in order to instead push west where he could more easily acquire rifles.

In an attempt to open supplies with Kumasi and Accra to compensate for being cut off from Freetown and Monrovia, Samori pushed hard against the French position in the east of the modern Côte d'Ivoire in 1893. This area was less fortified than Mali and Senegal, as it was both seen as distant enough to be safe from attacks by the Wassoulou and far newer as a colony. There, he recruited many new fighters and guides from existing anti colonial rebels within the colony, set up his new headquarters in Dabakala and forced the local French garrison to withdraw. Throughout 1894 and 1895 the French would attempt to dislodge him from this area and would fail in multiple attacks. Samori's new smaller professional army had once again proven its worth, though the victories came at a cost in casualties that made them somewhat pyrrhic.

And Samori also found himself newly at odds with the very Dyala trading cities that had once been his base of power. Most famously, he burned down the great city of Kong, the largest Dyala City, after their leaders, who had been supplying Samori's Army, agreed a deal to become a French protectorate instead but this conflict had not come out of nowhere. The Wassoulou's scorched earth fighting, while denying resources to the French, had damaged the very trading lines the Empire had been largely formed to protect.

Samori Ture's Empire had always been to some extent an Army with a state attached. It existed to mobilise and support the soldiers needed to protect trade lines and so the main function of the state had always been supporting the Army. But the Empire he had run prior to 1892 also had economic and religious functions, albeit often taken wholesale from conquered cities. The mobile Empire was just a band of armed men without any real state behind it. Taxation was replaced by plundering. As the French closed in, the Army's demands increased in terms of food and bodies and Samori lost the genuine popular support he had once enjoyed.

Samori also failed to match the French diplomatically in other ways. Having secured control of Cote D'Ivoire he moved into Northern Ghana in 1895. There he tried to build an alliance with the Ashanti Confederacy but in 1896 the Ashanti would be conquered by the British, before any formal arrangement could be reached. He also tried to arrange an alliance with the British themselves, even offering to become a protectorate of theirs, but the British refused to talk and the Wassoulou actually ended up skirmishing with British soldiers before pulling his forces out of Ghana.

British hostility was largely because Samori Ture was a massive slave trader, it was the one commodity he could always rely on being able to obtain easily, no matter where he was and he owned multiple slave plantations which supplied him and his forces with food. One of the consequences of his mobile empire was the formation of 'liberty villages' of escaped slaves in the areas he abandoned. The French, who made only limited effort to end slave trading done by their puppet kings in the region and actively paid their African troops in free choice of prisoners of war, didn't have much moral high ground but the Brits cared a lot more about keeping them friendly then they did an army of refugees, like the Wassoulou. Samori would prove unable to secure any major alliances, though at least his recruiting abilities meant that the 6,000 soldiers he'd had left after his victories over the French in 1895 soon became 12,000 as the defeated troops of other African polities sought him out.

And defeated polities were not hard to find. The French were able to come at him from every side, because they had conquered around him in all directions. Dahomey had fallen in 1892, the Upper Mali became French in 1893, the Mossi Kingdoms and Futa Jallon both fell in 1896 and even Kénédougou finally surrendered in 1897 after the third siege of Sikasso. The lack of remaining neutral Kingdoms meant Samori had no one to trade with, no new land to conquer and was facing an undistracted enemy, who could focus their entire forces on the one African King still resisting.

Samori destroyed a French Column in 1897, in what was one of his most celebrated victories and proof that his army was now able to stand up and win a pitched battle on equal terms, but it was only one of four columns to enter his country and in June 1898 the other columns won a major battle at Doué. This was not the first time the Wassoulou army had lost to the French but it was the most decisive, around half of their remaining forces had been pinned down and routed. This was a blow to morale that their soldiers never recovered from. For the first time since the Pagan mutinies, Samori's army, once again made of mostly new recruits rather than loyal veterans, turned on him. Many surrendered, many others deserted and, this time, the French were not going to give Samori time to recover the way they had after the disastrous siege of Sikasso. For the first time in the war, they kept advancing during the wet season rather than returning to camp and managed to drive him out of his new capital and into the Highlands.

In September 1898, Samori and his last remaining troops were finally captured by a small French force and he was taken, as a prisoner, to Gabon where he died of pneumonia. He was the last serious opponent to French rule in West Africa, though further East, in Chad, Rabih and the Wadai would hold on for another few years. He was also their most persistent and effective opponent, certainly the one who won the most individual battles and thus the most respect.

But was he ever actually close to winning the war? Not really. The very nature of this war, where the French could supply their positions from Europe, but Samori had to struggle to obtain materials, meant the Europeans could dictate when and where fighting happened to a much greater extent than the Wassoulou, who needed to protect their trade caravans, could. On a strategic level, Samori was almost always on the defensive and so his victories were always only limited.

The lack of effective artillery also meant he could only ever retreat not counter attack. When the French took land, they held it. If you avoid the self inflicted and needless disasters of the siege of Sikasso and the pagan mutinies, then he can probably put up a better defence in 1892 but any attempt to go after French forts would result in a disaster that makes Sikasso look minor. If he'd been given more time, if a crisis at home had meant France couldn't attack in 1892 for instance, then, it's possible he would have been able to forge something that could match the French. Certainly each army he produced was better and more efficient than the previous, but, while the Wassoulou gunsmiths were good, they were small scale and they didn't have any artillery to try and imitate.

And the Empire he formed was young and fragile, while Samori was in his late 60s when captured. There weren't really many institutions beyond his own charisma and genius. His death would have been a crisis point that might well have shattered everything he built and so encouraged French invasion even if he had held on while alive.

I don't wish to whitewash and idealise Samori Ture. He was a state builder of rare skill and adaptability and so an interesting character but, like most state builders, he was also a slaver and a brutal warlord, who in the words of Tacticus, 'took a desert and called it peace'. All his brilliance really did was drag out a losing fight for years after his Empire ceased to exist anywhere but paper and the battlefield. The Wassoulou Empire was conquered in 1892, what had fought on for another six years was more of a free Wassoulou Army in exile. Samori did what Behanzin of Dahomey (the subject of the next article in this series) had tried to do at around the same time but with much more success.

The real Wassoulou Empire, the pre 1892 one, is certainly the one that has the best chance of emerging as a stable state without the French, in a no scramble or limited scramble scenario, but the mobile Empire post 1892 is the one I'd really like to see stories set in. A refugee Army, setting themselves up as foreign rulers over an area about the size of their original land but 100 miles to the East and bringing with them their own slaves and farmers as well as the ones in this new land, is a fascinating setting. One brimming with potential stories of culture clash and rebellion. The six years of that empire in our reality was defined by the endless war with the French, but if French attacks were stopped thanks to troubles at home, great power rivalry or simply losing enough men to call it off, then the mobile Empire would have to grapple with what it was in peace time and the feelings of the newly conquered peoples. And that's a story that I'd find fascinating.

President Ahmed Sekou Toure. Photo taken by William Firaneck.

There is one coda to this story. In the aftermath of the Empire's flight and destruction, Samori's daughters and grandsons lived on as relatively poor farmers and butchers back in the area of Guinea where he'd first emerged from. In 1922, Samori's great grandson, Ahmed Sekou Toure, would be born. He would be educated in the local Islamic schools and then in the French colonial education in Kankan and Conakry. However he would be expelled for leading student protests and while he would get a job in the Colonial postal service, he found himself unable to progress due to a combination of his reputation as a trouble maker and French racism.

Ahmed would turn to trade unionism and communism. In 1952 he became leader of the Democratic Party of Guinea, and in 1953 he led a 71-day general strike across French Guinea. When in 1958, the French Territories in West Africa voted on staying with France, Democratic Party of Guinea campaigned for a 'no' vote, a vote for independence. And that campaign was successful. Guinea became the only part of French Africa to vote for independence, with Ahmed Toure as their first leader. In reaction, and as a warning to other French-speaking territories, the French set out to make sure the new country would not be a success. They destroyed industrial equipment, unscrewed lightbulbs, removed plans for sewage pipelines in Conakry, and even burned medicines rather than leave them for the Guineans. They would also spread fake currency, intercept food imports, call in bank debts, fund rebels and generally do everything they could to destabilise the new country in an economic war as vicious as the military one they'd waged against Samori.

Ahmed would take control of a country shook by this economic devastation and would rule it as a dictator, shutting down democracy and carrying out bloody purges and human rights abuses, in particular the widespread torture and murder of political dissidents. He also ran it as a communist and so dispossessed the existing village chiefs and shut down the market traders and rich merchants who his great grandfather had built his empire around. Ironically, despite being a Marxist, Ahmed also was a far more devout Muslim than Samori and so led the forceful conversion of the remaining pagans, that Samori had tried to avoid, thanks to a strong educational program. In every way Ahmed was a revolutionary who remade Guinea on a far greater level than Samori, someone innately conservative about social changes, ever had.

Samori Ture and Ahmed Toure were very different people, who lived in very different times, but there is something poetic about the way that both the last and first independent rulers within French West Africa came from the same family. What the capture of Samori began, the campaign of his great grandson ended.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' Anthology.


bottom of page