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How Nuimi changed the trajectory of the Soninke marabout wars in Kombo:Destination Sabiji and in July 1855

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In the beginning

A long long time ago, the people of Nuimi would cross the river Gambia on to the banks of Kombo to ask for the hand of a Kombo princess in the person of Adama Bojang of Brikama. A union between royal houses was not uncommon in our distant past. Why the royal house of the Sonko in Nuimi did that is unknown to me at least for now based on my research. But many ruling families in our region have encouraged marriage between them for many reasons.

1.  For security reasons. You are likely to be left alone by a neighboring kingdom if you marry into their ruling family.

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2.  It allows access to information.  The Wolof have aptly described it as follows: kula oopalay mboka, munoh ko jhow (You cannot back bite someone who has more family members than you because it is very likely that the person to whom you are talking to, may be related to the person you are backbiting).

This is partly why late Chief Tamba Jammeh was one of the most popular chiefs during his time. He married across ethnic lines; he was from a multi ethnic family but above all, had a son in the heart of the colonial administration in the person of Sheriff Jammeh who was a close confidant of the Governor.  And so Tamba was privy to most things than other chiefs.

This information gathering would also be used against Nuimi by the king of Saloum by giving a daughter to the Sònko in order to know their fighting secrets which unfortunately backfired but not before many lives were lost due to a surprise attack. The Sonko patriarch, Koli Tengella died shortly afterwards. Nuimi at the time was a vassal of Saloum.

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3. It improves social standing in the region.  Marrying into well to do families boosts the goodwill of a family and adds value. In those days and even today, who you marry and the family you marry into can improve one’s social standing.

4. You are most likely going to get assistance in the event of an external aggression because intermarriages build unwritten alliances that could be activated within short notice.


The year 1794 mentioned below is my own date after careful review of the events and how power is ascended to in our societies. Because of the many princes waiting in line for the throne and because in Nuimi power is rotated between the Jammeh, Manneh and Sonko clans, quite often the person in line is usually very old. And so, I estimated that the average age of a king at the time of coronation to be about 40 years.  In fact, an earlier Sonko King called Demba Koto Sonko was said to have lived 115 years. He was hacked to death by strangulation by the Princes of Nuimi who felt that many of them were dying before becoming king because of his longevity.

Therefore, if 40 years is an average, and because Demba Sonko Junior, became king in 1834, then based on this assumption, Demba Sonko Junior would have been born in 1794.

It’s a boy, it’s a boy! Enter the year 1794

The drums were beaten and so was the jung-jung (drum of the king) to announce the arrival of a Prince of the Sonko. The people would have gathered in celebration and messengers sent to Kombo Brikama, and specifically to their Bojang In-Laws informing them of the news of the birth of their grandchild.

On the 7th day, the people would have gathered to give this prince a name and dance into the night n celebration. The baby would be called Demba Adama Sonko; his middle name would be his mother’s in order to differentiate him from perhaps a plethora of princes called Demba which is common in our region.  Adding a mother’s name helps differentiate children. It is very likely that this new baby was named after an earlier Sonko King also called Demba Koto Sonko, the man reputed to have killed a lion with a knife although it would later be discovered but not spoken about that the lion was killed by his servant but he took the credit. Demba Koto Sonko was said to be the first Sonko Prince if you believe in the Tengella ancestry and not that of Amari.

A second Sonko palace coup in the Sonko clan would be led by Burungai Sonko when he forced the people of Nuimi to coronate him thereby denying his brother Birang Sira Sonko the throne. Birang, in defeat, would leave Nuimi and while crossing the river, would throw his jujus in the water and that area is said to have rough waves even to this day because of the jujus. Burungai would rule Nuimi from February 1823 to June 12 1833.

Demba Adama Sonko became king: February 1834 to 1862

Fate would have it that junior Demba became king of Nuimi after the death of Burungai Sonko but because it coincided with the month of Ramadan, his official coronation was postponed and hence the six-month gap between him and Burungai. In February of 1834, Mansa Demba Sonko was crowned king of Nuimi and of course, your guess is as good as mine that the Bojangs of Brikama would have been in the nick of things.

Nineteen years later, trouble would brew in the land of his uncles between the Bojang of Brikama and the Marabout of Gunjur in 1853 which would spill over to involve other settlements in Kombo.

In July 1855, after an attack on Sabiji by the Marabouts and destroying the town, the colonial government, with the support of French troops from Senegal and the assistance from the king of Barra who was no other than Demba Adama Sonko launched an attack in August 1855 and reclaimed Sabiji. The Marabout retreated and for nearly another 19 years, the Soninke houses of kombo would enjoy some relative peace.

It is my position that the Marabout would not have launched an attack in both 1874 and 1875 had Demba Adama Sonko been alive and king. His death exposed his uncles; the Soninke rulers of Kombo. He saved his uncles at least temporarily for many years.

Some things to know about Demba Adama Sonko

1.   He recruited a 700 strong Sarahule mercenary army in Nuimi to keep the peace under their leader Ansumana Jaju who later went rogue and had to be moved out of Nuimi with his men to Fatatenda in Wuli for an onward journey to his country with elements of the Bambara. Some of the Bambara moved to kombo and Bathurst.  Present day Fajara is said to be named after a Bambara called Faa Jarra, hence Fajara.

2.  When the Marabouts revolted in Nuimi and Baddibu, his grave was desecrated.

“The Soninkes still felt bitter about the Muslims because Ama Ba (Maba) had the body of the late king of Baara dug up, cut into pieces and scattered around” Gamble p26

In my opinion, his grave was desecrated because of his stance against the Marabouts and even though the Marabout wars in Nuimi started after his death, memory of his involvement in Kombo especially Sabiji and the resultant arms embargo which denied the Marabout access to arms and ammunition must have been very fresh in their minds.

3. When the Marabout were dislodged from Sabiji in August of 1855 and an embargo on arms and ammunition was instituted, it greatly crippled the Marabouts. 

4. In fact, at the request of the Marabouts, they sent an emissary to Demba Adama Sonko to mediate between them and the British Government in order to ease the arms embargo. Demba Adama Sonko was a strategist and ensured that the marabouts were denied access to weapons which reduced their raids on Soninke settlements in Kombo.  Colonel O’connor invited the Marabout leaders to Barthust to discuss terms upon which he was prepared on their behalf to arrange peace with the Soninke.

Why the Marabout decided to approach Demba Adama Sonko to mediate defies every aspect of military science and the art of negotiation.  Demba Adama Sonko was involved in the war and was also a nephew to the party that the Marabout were fighting.  Certainly, he was not going to be neutral. Perhaps that was why the Colonial Government ended up being the negotiator. Perhaps also because Demba Adama Sonko was half Kombonka, he was more trusted to mediate in this tripartite arrangement. Nephews almost always were trusted and it was better that a half Kombonka mediated in a Kombonka palaver.

“August 17 1856, the chiefs (Marabout) signed a convention whereby they mutually promised to use their best endeavors to maintain peace and to the best of their ability to compel all Marabout villages to observe the terms of the convention.  The Soninke chiefs were then invited to Bathurst and nine days later signed a convention in the like terms”(Gray 296).

Mansa Demba Sonko saved his uncles and from 1856 up to 1874, no major setbacks were inflicted on the Soninke rulers of Kombo. In 1875, Tumani Bojang Junior would surrender to Foday Sillah and convert to Islam in Lamin, making Sillah the King of all of Kombo with its capital at Gunjur.

With the powers vested in me as Kaabu’s Regional Governor responsible for Kombo, I hereby decree that the people of Kombo should erect a monument particularly in Brikama, in appreciation of the great efforts of their nephew in maintaining peace and for his diplomatic, military and negotiating skills.

Baring nding mu nung kono tiyo letti (A nephew is like cilia, when pulled, it brings forth tears. It’s a term of endearment).

References for further reading.

1. Oral Traditions from the Gambia narrated by Unus Jatta, January 7, 1975.

2. The North Bank of the Gambia: Places, People and Population by David P. Gamble, 1999

3. A History of the Gambia by J. M. Gray

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