NYAGUA (ca. 1842-1906) THE TRAGIC KING

Nyagua was a wise and respected Mende ruler who, despite his gestures of friendship to the British, was destroyed in the advance of colonialism.

Nyagua ruled a great realm, covering much of the territory between modern Kenema and Sefadu in the Eastern Province. By all accounts, he was a good king who ruled with strength and justice. He conquered many outlying districts to enlarge his domain, but some came voluntarily under his control, in view of his reputation as a protective and benign ruler. Nyagua built up an impressive capital at Panguma, and is said to have possessed a vast number of slaves and about four hundred wives. As British power increased in the Sierra Leone hinterland, Nyagua realised that he did not have the strength to resist it. He therefore co-operated with the British on several occasions by signing a treaty of friendship, capturing warriors who had raided a customs post, and sending a son to be educated in Freetown.

But Nyagua saw himself as a friend, and not a vassal or servant of the British. He was the king of a small allied state, and felt that he deserved the respect of a sovereign ruler. When a travelling British Commissioner called Nyagua to a meeting abruptly at his own convenience, the Mende King refused to attend; and when the British Governor sent an “order”, Nyagua replied that he must take up the matter with his elders first as custom required. British officials began to see Nyagua as “arrogant” and troublesome, despite his obvious co-operation; and when the 1898 Rebellion erupted, they ordered his immediate arrest.

Nyagua had commanded his people to remain at peace for their own protection, and his followers attacked the British only after the arrest of their king. Nyagua was taken to Freetown on “suspicion of disloyalty” and sent with Bai Bureh into an exile from which he never returned.

Even the British officials acknowledged that Nyagua had committed no hostile act, but they felt his influence was too strong for him to remain a chief in their new Protectorate. Nyagua’s only crime was to command the respect and affection of his people and to insist upon the dignity of his office. He was among the last of Sierra Leone’s proud and independent warrior-kings.