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Mane invasions (16th century)

In the mid 16th century occurred events of profound importance in the modern history of Sierra Leone: these were the Mane invasions. The Mane (also called Mani), southern members of the Mande language group, were a warrior people, well-armed and well-organized, who lived east and possibly somewhat north of present-day Sierra Leone, occupying a belt north of the coastal peoples. Sometime in the early 16th century they began moving south. According to some Mane who spoke to a Portuguese (Dornelas) in the late 16th century, their travels had begun as a result of their Chief’s, a woman named Macario, having been expelled from the imperial city in Mandimansa, their homeland.

Their first arrival at the coast was east of Sierra Leone, at least as far away as the Cess River and likely farther. They advanced up the coast toward Sierra Leone, conquering as they went. They incorporated large numbers of the people they conquered into their army, with the result that by the time they reached Sierra Leone, the rank and file of their army consisted mostly of coastal peoples; the Mane were its commanding group.

The Mane used small bows, which enabled Manes to reuse their enemies’ arrows against them, while the enemy could make no use of the Manes’ short arrows. Rodney describes the rest of their equipment thus:

The rest of their arms consisted of large shields made of reeds, long enough to give complete cover to the user, two knives, one of which was tied to the left arm, and two quivers for their arrows. Their clothes consisted of loose cotton shirts with wide necks and ample sleeves reaching down to their knees to become tights. One striking feature of their appearance was the abundance of feathers stuck in their shirts and their red caps.

By 1545 they had reached Cape Mount, not far from the south-eastern corner of present-day Sierra Leone. Their conquest of Sierra Leone occupied the ensuing 15 to 20 years, and resulted in the subjugation of all or nearly all of the indigenous coastal peoples—who were known collectively as the Sapes—as far north as the Scarcies. The present ethnogeography of Sierra Leone is largely a reflection of this momentous two decades.

The degree to which the Mane supplanted the original inhabitants varied from place to place. Thus in the present-day Temne we have a people who partly withstood the Mane onslaught: they kept their language, but became ruled by a line of Mane kings. The present-day Loko and Mende are the result of a more complete submersion of the original culture: their languages are similar, and both essentially Mande.

In their oral tradition the Mende still describe themselves as being a mixture of two peoples: they say that their original members were hunters and fishers who populated the area sparsely in small peaceful settlements; they say that their leaders came later, in a recent historical period, bringing with them the arts of war, and also building larger, more permanent villages. This history receives support from the facts that their population consists of two different racial types, and their language and culture show signs of a layering of two different forms: they have both matrilineal and patrilineal inheritance, for instance.

The Mane invasions militarised Sierra Leone. The Sapes had been un-warlike, but after the invasions, right until the late 19th century, bows, shields, and knives of the Mane type had become ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, as had the Mane battle technique of using squadrons of archers fighting in formation, carrying the large-style shields.Villages became fortified.

The usual method of erecting two or three concentric palisades, each 12 to 20 feet (4 to 7 m) high, created a formidable obstacle to attackers—especially since, as some of the English observed in the 19th century, the thigh-thick logs planted into the earth to make the palisades often took root at the bottom and grew foliage at the top, so that the defenders occupied virtually a living wall of wood. A British officer who observed one of these fortifications around the time of the 1898 Hut Tax war ended his description of it thus:

No one who has not seen these fences can realize the immense strength of them. The outer fence at Hahu I measured in several places, and found it to be from 2 to 3 feet thick, and most of the logs, or rather trees, of which it was formed, had taken root and were throwing out leaves and shoots.

He also said that English artillery could not penetrate all three fences. At that time, at least among the Mende, “a typical settlement consisted of walled towns and open villages or towns surrounding it.”

After the invasions, the Mane sub-chiefs among whom the country had been divided began fighting among themselves. This pattern of activity became permanent: even after the Mane had blended with the indigenous population—a process which was completed in the early 17th century—the various kingdoms in Sierra Leone remained in a fairly continual state of flux and conflict.

Rodney believes that a desire to take prisoners to sell as slaves to the Europeans was a major motivation to this fighting, and may even have been a driving force behind the original Mane invasions. Little says that the principal objective in the local wars, at least among the Mende, was plunder, not the acquisition of territory.Abraham cautions that slave trading should not be exaggerated as a cause: the Africans were perfectly capable of finding reasons of their own to fight: territorial and political ambitions were present. It is well to remember that we are speaking of a period of some 350 years, and the motivations may have changed over time.

The wars themselves were not exceptionally deadly. Set-piece battles were rare, and the fortified towns so strong that their capture was seldom attempted. Often the fighting consisted of small ambushes.

In these years the political system was that each large village along with its satellite villages and settlements would be headed by a chief. The chief would have a private army of warriors. Sometimes several chiefs would group themselves into a confederacy, acknowledging one of themselves as king (or high chief). Each paid the king fealty. If one were attacked, the king would come to his aid. The king could adjudicate local disputes.

Despite their many political divisions, the people of the country were united by cultural similarity. One component of this was the Poro, an organisation common to many different kingdoms and even ethnolinguistic groups. The Mende claim to be its originators, and there is nothing to contradict this. Possibly they imported it. The Temne claim to have imported it from the Sherbro or Bulom. The Dutch geographer Olfert Dapper knew of it in the 17th century.It is often described as a “secret society”, and this is partly true: its rites are closed to non-members, and what happens in the “Poro bush” is never disclosed.

However, its membership is very broad: among the Mende, almost all men, and some women, are initiates. In recent years it has not (as far as we know) had a central organisation: autonomous chapters exist for each chiefdom or village. However, it is said that in pre-Protectorate days there was a “Grand Poro” with cross-chiefdom powers of making war and peace. It is widely agreed that it has a restraining influence on the powers of the chiefs. Headed by a fearsome principal spirit, the Gbeni, it plays a major role in the rite of passage of males from puberty to manhood.

It imparts some education. In some areas, it had supervisory powers over trade, and the banking system, which used iron bars as a medium of exchange. It is not the only important society in Sierra Leone: the Sande is a female-only analogue of it; there is also the Humoi which regulates sex, and the Njayei and the Wunde. The Kpa is a healing arts collegium.

The impact of the Mane invasions on the Sapes was obviously considerable, in that they lost their political autonomy. There were other effects as well: Their trade with the interior was interrupted. Thousands were sold as slaves to the Europeans. In industry, a flourishing tradition in fine ivory carving was ended; however, improved ironworking techniques were introduced.

(Image:-Map of Sierra Leone from 1732)

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