You can thank Bai Bureh for Sierra Leone’s independence as the fight for freedom largely started with his 1898 uprising against British rule. His nickname Kebalai, which means “one who never tires of war,” is visible in the many months he held off a highly trained, well-equipped British force in 1898 in guerilla warfare.
With only spears, swords, slings and obsolete muskets, Bureh and his men were a thorn in the flesh of the British administration that was then using Sierra Leone’s natural harbor Freetown as its capital.
Indeed, Bureh had supernatural power and was believed to be bullet-proof. He could also stay for long periods underwater and had the ability to become invisible.
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Such was the reputation of the man who was sent to a training school for warriors in Northern Sierra Leone while he was still young. The strong soldier came back to rule Kasseh, a village near Port Loko in Northern Sierra Leone where he was born.
The military strategist and Muslim devout soon began fighting neighboring villages and rulers who were not in support of his plan to establish “correct” Islamic and indigenous practices throughout Northern Sierra Leone. He did win many of these wars, earning acclaim, and with the people of the north strongly believing that they had found a top warrior who could defend them and their land, they crowned Bureh chief of Northern Sierra Leone in 1886 at the age of 46.
As a ruler, Bureh refused to cooperate with the British administration based in the capital city of Freetown. His defiance of the British colonial power began with a raid on British troops across the border into French Guinea and a refusal to recognize a peace treaty the British had negotiated with the Limba people in the north without his participation.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the “hut tax” the British imposed in 1893, demanding Sierra Leoneans to pay for the right to live in their own land. Many ended up working as laborers to pay for this tax.
Bureh never acknowledged the “hut tax”, stressing that Sierra Leoneans should be left alone to handle their own affairs. Quickly, the British issued a warrant for Bureh’s arrest, with the British governor offering a 100-pound reward for his capture. Bureh’s first response was to offer a staggering 500-pound reward for the capture of the governor — interestingly.
And then the large-scale guerilla revolt otherwise known as the 1898 hut tax war that lasted for ten months began. Having declared war on the British, Bureh brought warriors from the Temne group in the Northern Province, as well as from the Soso, Loko and Limba villages, under his command. His fighters, with little formal training, fought off the most highly trained and disciplined British forces for months, killing many of them as they had expert knowledge of the terrain across which the war took place.
As The Sierra Leone Web writes: “Bureh’s forces surprised the British troops time and again, subjecting them to punishing fire from behind concealed war fences, before slipping away unseen into the bush.”
The British forces failed to defeat Bureh and his men until November 11, 1898, when he was finally captured and taken under guard to Freetown. Almost every day, his countrymen in Freetown would throng the quarters where he was being kept as a political prisoner to catch a glimpse of the man they now consider a hero.
Later, the British sent Bureh in exile to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) but brought him back in 1905, and then reinstated him as the chief of Kasseh before his death in 1908.