Encyclopedia of African History
Kevin Shillington, ed. Vol. 1. New York & London. Fitzroy Dearborn. p. 536-538
Futa Jalon, or Djalon (also spelled “Foutah Djallon” in countries
of French expression) is an extensive mountainous area located in Guinea, with
outlying areas reaching into Sierra Leone and Liberia. With an average height of
3,000 feet (914 meters), Futa Jalon forms the second highest land in West Africa,
the highest being Mount Cameroon.
The first settlers of the kingdom were a group of Susu who migrated to the west coast of Africa from the banks of the Falama River, a southern tributary of the Senegal, arriving in Fula Jalon about 1400. These migrants had been part of the Soninke kingdom, which was itself part of the kingdom of Ghana, until 1076 when the Almoravids overran the Soninke capital. Before and during the nineteenth century, Futa Jalon was renowned for its jihads (holy wars), its trade, and its educational institutions.
The jihad in Futa Jalon can be traced back to the reign of the great king of the Songhai Empire, Askia Mohammed. Upon returning from his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1497, Askia attacked and forcibly converted to Islam his neighbors: Fulani/Fulbe/Peul, Koranko, and Mandingo. His successors continued his crusade; and before 1559, they had already begun to drive the Koranko back across the Niger toward Sierra Leone where they soon occupied the eastern provinces of Limba country. The last act of this jihad began just before 1600 when the Muslims of Futa Jalon, who were Fulani and Mandingo, drove the remnants of the Mende, across the frontier into Sierra Leone.
In about 1725 Alpha Ba of Koranko, proclaiming himself almamy, instead of taking the usual title of military leaders who were known as siratiks, declared a jihad against the non-Muslims of Futa Jalon, mainly Susu and Yalunka. When he died, the holy war was continued under the theologian and soldier, the former Alpha Ibrahima of Timbo (the capital of Futa Jalon), usually referred to as Karamoko Alpha. By 1786 the Muslims had fought from Futa Jalon to the headwaters of the Moa River in the southeastern region, but encountered no Mende people. The fighting in the Niger district must have driven the Mende south. By the end of the eighteenth century, Futa Jalon had become an Islamic state.
The war dispersed many Susu, converted or unconverted, south and west. Small groups settled among the Limba, at first peaceably, conquering them later, or driving them east. Other Susu groups moved to the coast to dominate the Baga, Temne, and Bulom north of the Scarcies River. Susu immigrants whom Temne kings allowed to build a town opposite Port Loko at Sendugu gradually wrested power from the Temne. Eventually, the Sanko family, Muslims of Sarakulé origin, replaced them altogether.
At first, the Yalunka accepted Islam. However, as the Fula grew powerful, the Yalunka renounced the religion, fought against them, and they were driven from Futa Jalon. The Yalunka found their new capital Falaba in the mountains near the source of the Rokel River. The rest of the Yalunka went further into the mountains to settle among the Koranko, Kissi, and Limba.
Some Muslim adventurers in Futa Jalon also dispersed. The Loko invited a Mandingo, from Kankan to be their king. A Fula styled Fula Alansa became the ruler of Yoni country south of the Rokel River. Some Temne living in the area fled to found Banta country near the Jong River; they became known as the Mabanta Temne. NonLimba kings ruled the Limba. Muslim Mandingo traders also spread through the country, singly or in groups, from the hinterland. Interested mainly in trading, they also spread the teachings of Islam.
It did not take long for the Europeans to notice the lucrative trade in Futa Jalon. At first, many in England, especially the African Association founded (with William Wilberforce a member) in 1788 to encourage exploration, knew very little about the interior of Sierra Leone. However, early in 1794, James Watt and Dr. Thomas Winterbottorn's brother, Mathew Winterbottom, set off for Futa Jalon, sailing up the coast to the Rio Nunez, then overland to Timbo. The residents of Futa Jalon received them warmly and sent a delega.tion with them to Freetown to arrange regular trade. The following year, Watt and John Gray, the Sierra Leone Company's accountant, traveled up the Kamaranka and Bumpe Rivers to visit a Muslim Mandingo king who wanted to trade with the Freetown Colony.
While Christian Europe was gaining a foothold on the Freetown peninsula, Islam was still spreading south and west from Futa-Jalon. The Baga, Bulorn and other coastal peoples along the Northern Rivers — Malakori, Bereira, Rio Pongas, Rio Nunez, and their sluggish, interpenetrating tributaries — were gradually conquered by Muslims from Futa-Jalon. They settled at Forekaria, which became known as “Mandingo country.” Meanwhile, the French on Gambia Island sent the Bunduka, a group of aristocratic Fula, into Temne country as trading agents. The Bunduka stayed and won themselves the Mafonda chiefdom, which is situated south of the Small Scarcies River.
The Freetown colony's small trade with the interior in gold, ivory, and hides depended on the Fula caravans being able to pass safely along the paths to the coast. In 1820 the king of Futa-Jalon wrote requesting that Governor Sir Charles MacCarthy, whose fame had reached the interior, mediate in a war in the Northern Rivers that inhibited their trade outcome. Early in the subsequent year Dr. Brian O'Beirne, an army surgeon, was sent to Timbo with a friendly message, overland from Port Loko, to open a new trade route. He traveled on horseback through Limba. country, returning the same way, encouraging traders in Futa-Jalon to do the same.
The end of the Temne wars in 1840 prompted the Fula to revive the gold trade with the colony. When Freetown merchants suggested sending a mission to Timbo, the government would only contribute L200. Instead, Governor Dr. William Fergusson persuaded them to subscribe themselves. Three recaptli ves, Carew, Wilhelm and William Jenkins, subscribed. Cooper Thompson, the Christian Missionary Society linguist, led the mission, starting off in December 1841 with his twelve-year-old-son. They were well received upon their arrival in Timbo.
In 1863 French Governor Louis-Léon César Faidherbe embarked upon linking the Senegal to the Niger in order to secure the entire West African hinterland for France. By the time Dr. Valesius Skipton Gouldsbury, administrator of the Gambia, reached Futa-Jalon in 1881, he found French agents had preceded him. The king of Futa Jalon denied having sold the French land, but in France it was claimed that Futa-Jalon was now under the aegis of France. Expecting to earn profits from their investment in Futa-Jalon, the French declared a virtual monopoly in that territory's trade. The British government was forced to extend its influence inland, not by assuming administrative responsibilities, but by trade treaties.
In 1873 Dr. Edward Wilmot Blyden, one of the most erudite of educated Africans at the time, traveled to Timbo and signed a treaty with the king for a L 100 annual stipend and tried to reconcile him with his non-Muslim neighbors at Falaba. Blyden urged the British government to extend its influence over these inland kingdoms, highlighting the French encroachment, and suggesting that a consular agent be stationed in Timbo.
Governor Sir Samuel Rowe had planned to encircle the French and unite Gambia to Sierra Leone through the interior. In 1879 he sent messengers to Timbo, ignored (and stipend unpaid) since Blyden's visit. Rowe also urged Gouldsbury to take an expedition in 1881 up the River Gambia, overland to Futa Jalon, and on to Freetown.
That Futa Jalon had an excellent reputation as a place for higher leaming is hardly a matter of dispute. In 1769, as a king in Sierra Leone sent one son to Lancaster to learn Christianity, he also sent another son to Futa Jalon to learn Islam. Mohamadu Savage, the Muslim Aku leader at Fourah Bay, bought ships for the sole purpose of trading. Instead of allowing his children to attend Christian school, this wealthy man sent them to Futa Jalon to study. Harun al-Rashid of Fourah Bay, educated at the Gram-mar School (as Henry Valesius King), continued his studies at Futa Jalon and Fez. He later went to Mecca, the first pilgrim from the colony to do so. Upon his return from Mecca, al-Rashid, with the title of al-Haji, taught Arabic for one year at Fourah Bay College. He then worked as a private teacher until his death in 1897.
With an admiration for Islam, William Winwood Read (author of books such as Savage Africa; The Lost Negroes; The African Sketch-book; and The Martyrdom of Man) was quite pleased when he got to know Mohamed Sanusle, an Aku Muslim and highly respected product of Futa Jalon education, who showed him a collection of Islamic works composed in Futa Jalon and other parts of West Africa. Sanusie served as an interpreter for the colonial government. He was highly skilled in Arabic, able to speak it fluently and to write it sufficiently well. Blyden himself thought that Sanusie's Arabic library was very respectable. His English, moreover, was excellent, and he knew the Bible better than most missionaries knew the Qur'an.
Blyden, E. W. “Report on the Expedition to Timbo.” In Hollis R. Lynch, ed. Selected Letters of Edward Wilmot Blyden. New York: Kto Press, 1978.
Harris, J. E. The Kingdom of Fouta Djallon. Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University, 1965.
Howard, A. M. Big Men, Traders, and Chiefs: Power, Commerce and Special Change in the Sierra Leone, Guinea Plain. Ph.D. diss. University of Wisconsin, 1972.
Jamburia, O. “The Story of the Gihad or Holy War of the Foulahs.” Sierra Leone Studies. 3 (1919): 30-34.
Marty, P. L'Islam en Guinée, le Fouta Djallon. Paris: Leroux, 1921.
McGowan, W. F. The Development of European Relations with Fuuta-Jallon and French Colonial Rule 1794-1896. Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, London, 1972.
Rodney, W. A History of the Upper Guinea Coast 1545 to 1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Winterbottom, T. An Account of the Native African in the Neighbourhood of Sierra Leone. 2nd ed. 2 vols. London: Frank Cass, 1969.