BAI BUREH (ca. 1840-1908) HERO OF THE 1898 REBELLION

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Bai Bureh was the great ruler and military strategist who led the Temne uprising against the British in 1898.

His father was an important Loko war-chief, and his mother probably a Temne woman from the region around modern Makeni. He was sent as a young man to Gbendembu, a training school for warriors where he earned the nickname “Kebalai”, meaning “one whose basket is never full” or “one who never tires of war”. Kebalai became a famous war leader in the 1860s and 1870s, serving under a Soso ruler in a long Jihad to establish correct Islamic practices. In 1886, Kebalai was crowned ruler of Kasseh, a small kingdom near Port Loko, and given the royal title of Bai Bureh.

The new ruler soon gained a reputation for stubborn independence that annoyed the British administration in Freetown. On one occasion, Bai Bureh refused to recognise a peace treaty the British had negotiated with the Limba without his participation, and on another occasion, he led warriors on a raid across the border into French Guinea. When the British declared their Protectorate in 1896, they quickly issued a warrant for Bai Bureh’s arrest, fearing that he would foment resistance to the new “hut tax”. But the British could not capture him, and so began a long war of aggression to which Bai Bureh valiantly responded by organising a large-scale guerilla revolt that lasted for ten months. He brought warriors from several Temne states under his command, as well as some Loko, Soso, and Limba fighters — and he held the initiative over the vastly more powerful British for the first four months. Bai 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. Bai Bureh acquired a reputation for supernatural power, and was believed to be bullet-proof and to have the ability to become invisible or stay for long periods under water. The British offered a reward of £100 for information leading to Bai Bureh’s capture, but no one would come forward — a colonial official wrote that Bai Bureh’s men “loved their chief, and remained loyal to him to the very last”.

Bai Bureh was finally captured on November 11, 1898 and taken under guard to Freetown, where crowds gathered around his quarters day and night to gain a glimpse of the great man. The British sent Bai Bureh in exile to the Gold Coast (Ghana), but brought him back in 1905, reinstating him as a Chief of Kasseh. Sierra Leone’s greatest hero died in 1908.