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Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Battle of Sankandi: critical analysis of colonialism in The Gambia

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The colonial past of The Gambia, as well as the repercussions it has had on the indigenous people, has drawn the attention of a good number of authors not excluding Janet Badjan-Young in her play entitled The Battle of Sankandi. This play, which explores a remarkable crisis that occurred in 1900 between two neighbouring villages, Sankandi and Jattaba, was performed at the Alliance Franco-Gambienne on 25th May, 2002.

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«In 1900, two Gambian villages- Sankandi and Jaataba, lying 137 and 139 km respectively along the south bank of the River Gambia, took up arms against each other. The root cause of this woeful misunderstanding between these two predominantly Mandinka-speaking people of Kiang was brought about by the issue of land. 

However, due to a mishandling of this delicate matter, by both villages and by the colonial administration; tension mounted in the area. This sadly led to violent and bloody confrontations between the two villages and, of course, with the colonial authority seated in Bathurst (re-named Banjul).

Consequently, in 1901, Sankandi was completely razed to the ground while its Brave Warriors who preferred to stay behind and fight rather than flee, were either lynched, hanged, shot or burnt alive by the colonial forces ».

It is with the desire to heal up these wounds that Janet Badjan-Young wrote this play. The British administration, unable to manage the conflict between the two villages, added petrol to fire instead. This attitude led to an unprecedented butchery. Sankandi was completely destroyed. But how did that come about? Who were behind the carnage? These are the burning questions Janet Badjan-Young has tried to provide answers to in this play. 

The story begins with the commemoration of the creation of the city of Bathurst (now Banjul) through singing and dancing. This city is considered by its inhabitants as a place of refuge for all the ethnic groups of the country. This is so because, peace and harmony reign in this “Smiling city: Our City in the Sun”. Some kilometres away from this beautiful Sun City, sharing boundaries with the Casamance, are the villages of Sankandi and Jattaba, which had has a blissful existence.  

«Two lovely villages sitting close to each other like twins. Each sharing the same sunlight, the same moon, the same rainfall.  […] In response the seedlings grew and multiplied. There was enough food for Sankandi and Jattaba. It was not unusual for the women in Sankandi to help the women in Jattaba to harvest their rice. There was fellowship among them. And respect for each other ».

These two villages lacked nothing. Food was in abundance. Women helped one another in their fields. There was a peaceful coexistence between the two villages. And, by way of cementing ties between the two peoples, a young man from Jattaba fell in love with a beautiful girl in the village of Sankandi. As was the custom, the suitor was to give his fiancée, Mariama, one of the most precious gifts: a piece of land. That was the land they were going to cultivate with their children in the future. During this occasion, the praise singer would evoke, through songs, the temporal context of history, which is the colonial period.

«A change had come to Africa and to the Gambian people. The change was known as colonialization. The British, the French, the Portuguese came to the Continent of Africa. To “discover” us; but we were always in this part of the world. How can they discover us? They came to rule us. We had our own rulers. They came to take whatever they could find to build their own nations ».

The Gambia, like any other African country, has undergone political change. It was thus placed under Western domination, as was then the case with all other countries in Africa. The Black continent was then (in 1900) the property of the British, the French, the Portuguese, the Belgians, the Germans, the Italians and even the Spaniards.  The continent was then a cake to be shared. The position of the praise-singer, explaining the reasons for the coming of the Europeans to Africa, “to discover us” shows that a plot was being planned for Africa and that its consequences shall be dire. The praise-singer does not know what the Europeans came to discover again since they have always been “in this part of the world”. In other words, you do not discover what you already know. It is impossible! He sees in it a domination strategy. This is underlined by the opposition between ‘they’ and ‘us’. Added to this opposition is the existing contrast between « they come to rule us! and “We had our own rulers”. In her own estimation, Africa was in no need of new rulers since she already had her own rulers. Consequently, the first and foremost reason for the coming of the Europeans to Africa was to loot and extend their empires, of course, to the detriment of the Black world. For this to happen, Africa should be denied of her glorious past and be declared a “tabular rasa”. 

«The Portuguese came, gave their own names to places we already had names for and left. Then the British came to the Gambia to claim the land as their Colony. The Gambia became part of Britain. Our masters introduced a different kind of Tax! Each village had to pay a Hut Tax with cash. The more huts you had in a compound the more Taxes you paid ».

The Portuguese changed the names of places and replaced them with theirs, before the arrival of the British who claimed The Gambia as their own colony. Henceforth, the people were obliged to pay taxes that would never end. The worst of all, according to the praise-singer, the village people were now to pay in cash. This was new. Before this time, it was based on a barter system. This practice enabled them to be self-sufficient. But with the introduction of the cash crop by the colonial master, the barter system had to come to an end. Now, « you harvest and sell them for cash ». Yes, the money gotten from the sale of the crops would now enable the people to pay their taxes. Since it was groundnut cultivation that was encouraged by the colonial master, the peasants were not only obliged to change crops to cultivate, but were also obliged to produce more in order for them to be able to pay their taxes.

However, coming back to the love relationship between Mariama of Sankandi and her husband, Ismaila of Jattaba, the playwright intimates that, after years of marriage, Mariama died. The people of Sankandi decided then to take back the piece of land they offered to her during her marriage to Ismaila. Ismaila refused to hand back the land to them. As far as he knew, this land belonged to him just the same way as it did to the people of Jattaba. He preferred to reappraise the customary law which clearly stipulates that in such a situation, the management of the land should come to Sankandi. In spite of the seriousness of the situation, the praise-singer believed that there was a way out, through dialogue. When our ancestors were confronted with such a problem, they used dialogue to resolve it. « Africans in the olden days believed in discussions, in negotiations and in collectively arriving at a decision. One that would satisfy and please the groups in conflict ». At that time, before the arrival of the colonial master, dialogue was given premium in the interest of both parties. In line with this practice, Commissioner Sitwell proposed a solution which was that the land be cultivated in turns, thus violating the customs hitherto practised by the people. Mister Sitwell’s proposal was not rejected by the youths of Jattaba who accepted this proposal. Thus with the support of Mister Sitwell, the youths of Jattaba attacked those of Sankandi.  « Drum beats sound threatening and menacing. Young men from Jattaba approach young men from Sankandi. They fight wrestling type to start off. Then they bring out bows and arrows. Women rush in from either side weeping and wailing as bodies fall ». This clash resulted in a bloodbath. Chaos ensued; the colonial administration was indifferent to this because, going by the words of the Governor, this was not happening in Great Britain. « Well, of course this is not Britain!! Ha! Ha! It’s a simple place really, not much to offer in terms of resources. But The River Gambia is a goldmine. It offers a unique opportunity for trade ». This response given during the conversation between Silva (the future successor of Sitwell) and Governor Denton, demonstrated that the development and stability of The Gambia was not part of the colonial agenda. They were only interested in the River Gambia which they regarded as a goldmine. They also saw it as a means which facilitated their commercial activities. Expressing his spite for the culture and civilisation of the indigenous people, Governor Denton had this to tell Silva: « I believe they once had some sort of a civilized system of administration. But it is not in keeping with the British Government’s refined way of doing things. We had to say No to their way and insist on ours. I am sure Sitwell will explain everything to you ». He rejected the Gambian vision of the world in order to impose on Gambians theirs. This is particularly clear in his head when he said this: « We had to say No to their way and insist on ours ». Worse still, Governor Denton arrogates on to himself the power to impose his will, using all means possible, on the people whom he judges as « stubborn as mules ». After these utterances against the people of The Gambia, he gave Sitwell the order to restore order at Sankandi. « I think it would be wise to go immediately to Sankandi and solve this problem in our way, you understand, not their way. Do this before your departure ». Will he be able to solve this problem? At any rate, Sitwell was given precise instructions. The crisis must be resolved « in our way […] not their way », said the governor.  When he arrived at the hotspot, Sitwell received the village chief of Faraba, who did not mince his words in telling him that the Council of Elders could solve the problem « The Chief of Faraba says that the only way to solve this serious problem is to ask our traditional leaders for help. These traditional leaders are well respected. They are elders in the villages around, they will know what to say and how to say it. The two villages will listen and obey the decision they arrive at ». According to the Chief of Faraba, the only valid solution was the intervention of the traditional leaders, who were deemed capable of extinguishing the fire. Indeed, the latter were not only well respected but they also knew what to tell the warring factions. According to the Chief of Faraba, the people, as usual, would listen and obey the decision taken by the traditional leaders. However, as far as Sitwell was concerned, this proposal was senseless.

«Nonsense! We have put in place our own village leaders. He is one of them. Gambians have to accept change. We will not have doddering old fools meddling with our own full proof system. When I need his advice I will ask him ». Instead of using the traditional chiefs who were recognised by the people, the colonial administration chose their own village chiefs. These were the only ones allowed to do this work on behalf of the colonial master. Sitwell would not accept the traditional chiefs, whom he sees as « stupid old men », to pollute his « own proof system ». Sitwell believed to be the sole holder of the truth. Only he and his administration were right. It was his wish to have Gambians understand and accept his changes without asking questions. Because of Sitwell’s arrant arrogance, the chief of the village of Sankandi refused to meet him outside the village. «Alkalo of Sankandi: These Toubabs are strange men. They are devils in a white skin. Sitwell is rude, he has no respect for age and position. He asks me, the Warrior in this region, to meet with him outside my village. We have a place to meet to discuss issues of importance. That place is under the Bantaba. Tell him I say NO! I will not go and meet him. Let him come into the village. I will wait for him under the Bantaba. And we shall have our meeting in peace ». Like in When The Monkey Talks written by Baaba Sillah, the chief of the village of Sankandi became furious against Sitwell’s request, whom he considered as being impolite and who has no respect for age and social rank. The chief wanted them to meet in the village, under the bantaba tree, as was their custom. For him, it was then out of the question to twist this rule. But after some moments of reflection, he changed his opinion and went in the company of his nephew Lang Sanyang, a young man in the prime of life who was even believed to be the future leader of his people. However, as misfortune never comes alone, he was assassinated by Sitwell’s henchmen upon his instruction. Furious because of this assassination, the people of Sankandi, as worthy descendants of the great Mandinka warriors, decided to avenge the death of one of their most worthy sons.  Responding indirectly to this colonial aggression in general, and to the disrespectful utterances made by the governor in particular, the praise singer affirmed that « we are not animals. Killing one of us is a serious crime ». The Gambia, according to the praise-singer, is after all not what the colonial master thought it was. Here, the people refused to imagine that they were in a jungle. Killing one of them was punishable by unlimited revenge. Sitwell and his henchmen were thus not going to escape this fate: « Sitwell’s company run on stage […]. They find themselves in the midst of the warriors. They are shocked. They begin shooting aimlessly. The warriors take their guns from them and slaughter them with knives. The chief of Batteling is killed. After the warriors succeed in defeating Sitwell’s group, they dance triumphantly ». Not the least expecting this uprising, Sitwell was shocked to be surrounded by Mandinka warriors who wanted his life. He was eventually slain like an animal. But when Governor Denton was informed about his lieutenant’s fate, he was mad with anger. « When Governor Denton heard the news he was like a madman!! His orders were to demolish Sankandi. Wipe them out of the face of the earth. Gambians had to be taught a lesson. You do not kill an English man. Worse, you do not kill two Englishmen and get away with it ». Denton was red with anger and demanded that Sankandi be demolished, in vengeance for the killing of his two friends by the people of Sankandi. He ordered the complete annihilation of Sankandi. As far as he was concerned, the mistake of the century committed by Gambians was to kill a British citizen, not to talk of killing two of his compatriots. The perpetrators of this crime against the two Englishmen must be punished. He would therefore spare no means to accomplish this. He requested for half a battalion of the Third West Indian Regiment stationed in Sierra Leone and for half a battalion of the Second Central African Regiment. Governor Denton did not hesitate to name this operation, «Operation Annihilate Sankandi ». The village chief, in full knowledge of the gravity of the repression his people were going to suffer, asked them to flee to Casamance, a neighbouring province in Senegal, in order to seek asylum. Over there, they would be in good hands. This brought distress and regret to the people. Thus, the mother of Dari (one of the characters) cannot stop herself from lambasting the change promised to The Gambia by the British.

«What is happening to us? Is this the change we thought would be good for us? What kind of change is this that makes us kill for land? What kind of change is this that makes us run for our lives? What kind of change is this that causes us to leave all the things we know and love to become strangers in another land? What kind of change is this that ignores our customs and traditions? This is not what we had hoped for or expected when strangers took control of our land. Life is about changes that give people a better life. But our change in this village has been destructive. We should have been left to make our own decisions in the way that we have always made them. But no one listens to women ».

The only change brought about by the colonial master was destruction. In the first place, he pitched Gambians against one another in order to kill one another in order for them to control just a small portion of land. Next, Sankandi was razed to the ground. The youths who stayed behind to defend their village were all massacred. And finally, this event made many inhabitants of the village go into exile. That was how the British understood the meaning of change. Indeed, Daru’s mother and her compatriots hoped for everything except that. It is important to note that even when they knew that they were going to be killed by the colonial army, some youths like Dara Bana Darboe refused going into exile in order to save the honour of the village. He made this known to his mother when she asked him to go away. These were his words: « Mother try and understand. We can’t all run away like frightened squirrels. I am willing to sacrifice my life for the honour of this village. When they arrive they will find us waiting. We shall do what we can to defend our village. Go well mother, may Allah protect and keep you safe ». Dara Bana Darboe was ready to accept the supreme sacrifice: dying for a good cause and for the fatherland. It was for this reason that he and his friends refused to flee like frightened squirrels. They wanted to use all their energy to block the enemy’s advance, even if it meant sacrificing their lives in honour of Sankandi. They demonstrated extraordinary patriotism before being gunned down by the colonial army. This hitherto peaceful space became an arena of chaos: « The village of Sankandi became a ghost village. Ghosts cried day and night for the villagers who once danced, and sang and lived in that lovely village on the South Bank of the River Gambia ». Sankandi, which was a peace haven, where harmony reigned, had then been transformed into a ghost village. This erstwhile beautiful village located in the south of the River Gambia became another world, the world of darkness. It was nausea tic!

After When The Monkey Talks by Baaba Sillah, The Battle of Sankandi by Janet Badjan Young revisits one of the stages which constitute a milestone in the political history of The Gambia. The playwright rises up against the damage caused by the colonial master, especially the destabilisation of The Gambia.


Dr Pierre Gomez

Senior Lecturer

Dean, School of Arts and Sciences

The University of The Gambia

Brikama Campus, P.O. BOX: 3530

The Gambia

West Africa


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