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The War of the Mulattos (1860-1880): a case of resistance to the slave trade on the Rio Pongo.

When we think of slave revolts, we generally have in mind the rebellions that occurred on the American continent. The most successful one shook the island of Santo-Domingo at the end of the 18th century and eventually led to the actual liberation of the slave population and the creation of an independent state, the Republic of Haiti.

However, on the African continent itself, there were probably numerous revolts in the villages and settlements, where the unfortunate captives were held before shipment, but most of these have never been registered in writing.

In the 19th century, in the area of Rio Pongo, one of the major slaving posts on the coast of Guinea, there was a slave revolt of the utmost significance. In the oral tradition of Rio Pongo, it goes by the name of the War of the Mulattos (Mulati guere in Susu) since it was in fact a war between the mulatto slave traders and the local chiefs. Taking advantage of the situation, the slaves revolted and organized themselves into free villages. The slave trade was shaken to its very foundations.

Our study will primarily concentrate on the revolt of the Rio Pongo, but beforehand we need to situate the area of the Rio Pongo and contextualize its trading posts, its population, its local rulers, and slave traders.


The coast of the Republic of Guinea is sharply indented with inlets and estuaries that reach deep into the interior. Most of these inlets have kept their Portuguese names from the time when they were `discovered' by sailors expedited to the coast of Africa by Henry the Navigator: the Rio Nunez, the Rio Pongo and the Rio Kapatchez. The islands of Loos (a deformation of `ilhas dos idolos'), the isle of Alcatraz and Cape Verga testify to the strong Portuguese influence on place names. The low swampy coast features an intricate labyrinth of channels, islands and inlets, which formed excellent harbors for the vessels of the first navigators. At the time when slave trading was outlawed, these refuges provided ideal hiding places for illicit trade.

The Rio Pongo, in this respect, was one of the major slaving harbors after the Congress of Vienna (1815) abolished the slave trade.

Flowing deep into the interior for over twelve miles, the estuary of the Rio Pongo subdivides into a multitude of inlets or sounds. Numerous rivers run into it. The biggest is the Fatala, flowing down from the slopes of the Futa Jallon.

Around 1730 the Fulani created a theocratic Muslim state in the Futa Jallon. The Rio Pongo was to become the main outlet for the caravan trails across the Futa Jallon. Every year the Fulani army penetrated into animist territory solely for the purpose of taking prisoners and selling them. Some of the slaves, however, were settled in the farming communities of the Futa to provide agriculture produce for the aristocracy converted to the Koran and the Jihad. In addition, the Futa Jallon had become the obligatory route for slave traders from the Upper Niger (Kankan). The kingdom thus became one of the major suppliers of slaves dispatched mainly to the Rio Pongo, whose banks were literally crowded with slave harbors and trading posts. Who lived along the Rio Pongo? Low and swampy, the coast of Guinea was inhabited by agricultural peoples, the Nalouy, Landouman and Baga, stateless societies living in independent villages, worshiping common divinities. Fiercely jealous of their independence, they very often entertained conflictual relations with the white slave traders and captains. The Baga were known to be particularly hostile. In order to escape the strong arm of the slave traders, many of the Baga villages were built in the middle of the swamps on dikes or mounds surrounded by water, which were virtually impregnable. A Portuguese traveler writes: "They cut off the heads (of Whites and Christianized Blacks) and make goblets out of them." The slave captains called them `traitors' since the Baga were expert at hiding in the mangrove and shooting poison arrows at the slave ships. The Susu formed a second group. At the time of the arrival of the first navigators, they were firmly entrenched on the hills and upper slopes of the interior, but attracted by the bustle of trade they settled in villages along the coast. Their local rulers became highly implicated in the slave trade e.g. the kingdom of Thia on the right bank of the Rio Pongo, the kingdom of Lisso, and the chiefdom of Lisso. The kingdoms of Farin Sosso and Capout (Kabita) were the most important in the 15th century, but were replaced by the kingdom of Thia under the dynasty of the Katis in the 18th century. (1)

The region was rich in beeswax, ivory, cattle, and cereals, but from the 16th century on slaves became the most prized merchandise. The Rio Pongo became an especially attractive commercial pole: the Mandingos and Serawoollis, professional traders, journeyed in endless caravans to the ocean, and the kings and local rulers along the coast became the `Diatigui' or caravan hosts while waiting for the white slave traders to do likewise. But the most striking characteristic of the Rio Pongo was the settlement of numerous white slave traders as early as the 18th century.

The Portuguese had already been ousted by the French and English in the 17th century, but it was the British and Americans who constituted the greatest number, especially after 1820 when the slave trade was abolished and American slave traders from the Carolinas and Virginia moved in.

A glance at the map of the Rio Pongo is particularly revealing. There were no fewer than a dozen trading posts and slave harbors built by these traders.

A certain Monseigneur Lerouge, a priest from the Catholic mission in Conakry, gives a virtually comprehensive list of traders operating on the Rio Pongo in the 19th century.

"The Emersons descended from an American who first settled in Bettia, near Faringhia and married the daughter of Mamy Lightburn (Elizabeth). He went back to America, leaving behind a boy William whose son, going by the name of William II, settled at Tanene-Bramaya.

The first of the Fabers was an American, Paul, established at Sangna. At Koubia, there was Debi Lawrence. The Curtises, originating from North America, became secretaries to the the kings of Thia, the Kattys, whose ancestors were hunters from the Upper Niger. The Curtises lived in the village of Kissing. The Wilkinsons or rather Wilkinsins descended from an Irishman who was Protestant (was he Protestant before arriving at Rio Pongo?). He was called James and first settled at Bramaya. This explains his marriage to Maraya Fernandez, daughter of Yelloron Fernandez, king of Bramaya. He then fled to Faringhia. The Lightburns established themselves at the village of Faringhia, which became their main slave barracoon. Mamy Gbeli (or Niara Gbeli) was the most famous member of this family. The Mousteys had Marie Faye from Senegal as mother who remarried Henri Johnson from Lagos. The Coles's paternal grandfather was one Thomas Cole who was secretary general to Sierra Leone around 1840, and their maternal grandmother was Elisabeth Isaac whose father Nathanael came from Bathurst. The Ormonds set up residence in Bangalan. Their ancestor, Mongo John Ormon, died there in mysterious circumstances, but he had time to create a family. The Beynis, established at the village of Dondolefandji (Rio Pongo) descend from Etienne, a mulatto from Senegal." (2)

As we can see, there was a considerable number of slave traders established along the Rio Pongo. These white traders "had the presence of mind not to harm each other mutually" and the intelligence to marry local women. They thus created the first generation of mixed bloods or mulattos called locally the `mulati,' `fote' (White)or `crions' (Creoles).

So in the early 19th century the number of mulattos along the Rio Pongo increased as they lived with their relatives and took part in trading activities. "The mulattos married amongst themselves as much as possible." (3) They could lay claim to a genuine `slave trading aristocracy' (4) comparable to the community of Afro-Brazilians in Dahomey (Benin).


Some of these families had their moment of glory. Almost all of the white slave traders established solid links with the reigning families. They married local women and consequently, became deeply involved in local politics.

But very early on, a bond was initiated and strengthened between the white traders. Their mulatto descendants tended to look down on the indigenous population while striving to make the most of the advantages afforded by their maternal ties to a princely family. For all these reasons, the history of these slave traders during the period of illicit trading is an imbroglio, a web of intrigue difficult to unravel. Although written history mentions these white slave traders established along the Rio Pongo, little is known about their relations with the local kings or chiefs.

Oral tradition, however, provides a multitude of information. The history of this slave trading aristocracy divides into three distinct periods:

1. The golden age of the mulattos running from 1820 to 1850, a period dominated by the Ormonds, Lightburns, Fabers, Wilkinsons and Curtises.

2. The civil war, known traditionally as the "War of the Mulattos" (Mulati guere).

3. The decline, when the famous figure of Niara Belly emerges. She was the wife of Louis Lightburn, commonly called Mamy Lightburn, who was considered the queen of Rio Pongo during this final phase of the slave trade. Today she appears as a legendary figure in oral tradition (1850-1870).

Theodore Canot, a French slave trader, author of the famous book, The Adventures of a Slave Trader, arrived on the Rio Pongo in 1826. His book gives us a good deal of information on the slave trade, which then flourished in the area. It was the start of illicit trading. Theodore Canot was hired by John Ormond, a slave trader established at Bangalan, and became his private secretary before setting up his own business.

Who was John Ormond? Born of a Susu mother, John Ormond was the son of a wealthy English slave trader from Liverpool. Brought up in England, this mulatto returned to the Rio Pongo to take over his father's business. Thanks to connections on his mother's side, he was able to recover all his father's property-houses, land, and slaves. His trading post prospered and soon Ormond had become the most important slave trader on the Rio Pongo. The inhabitants conferred on him the title of Mangue or king, which was changed to Mongo by the Whites so that he has gone down in history as Mongo John.

He lived like a real African king. In his private residence there were "his wives' quarters, which consisted of a simple compound built of mud houses, laid out in a square around a courtyard whose entrance was never guarded, except at night." Mongo John's private secretary continues: "John Ormond's private residence was a house built of reeds, daubed with a mixture of clay and straw, extended by a veranda with an earthen flood and covered by a thatched roof. The entire building was sur rounded by a high enclosure where each gate was protected by a cannon. (5) During this period John Ormond dominated the slave trade and allocated quotas among the traders.

Mongo John came to a tragic end. According to J.B. Durand, cited by Mamadi Diallo, "Ormond was as superstitious as he was cruel. One of the tribes (probably the Susu) with whom he had quarreled swooped down on the trading posts and plundered them aided by the slaves. All the buildings were burned to the ground; twelve to fifteen thousand captives, estimated at thirty thousand pounds, broke their chains. The young Ormond was put to death and his father did not survive more than a month after this reversal of fortune." (6)

These events are said to have occurred around 1833. But we believe they took place much later around 1850 during the slave rebellion in question. Whatever the case, it gives us an idea of the slave population. The Susu reportedly rose up against Ormond, tired of his raiding their villages for slaves.

A little further down the coast Freetown was the bridgehead created by the English for policing the ocean. There were frequent patrols in the Rios causing considerable inconvenience to the slave traders. Some of the mulattos began investing in legal trade. In 1852, the English imposed a treaty on the Susu king of Thia. They intended to put an end to the delivery of slaves to the mulattos and required Thia and other kingdoms to trade in conventional merchandise such as palm oil, hides and beeswax whose biggest buyers were the English. The English established a number of Sierra Leonean traders at Dominghia.

This was the starting point of the War of the Mulattos. The Fabers of Sagna Paulia, the Lightburns of Faringhia and the Wilkinsons of Falandian raised an army of slaves and attacked Thia, which had willingly signed the British treaty. The Mulattos destroyed Thia with canon fire and put the Katis to flight. The Mulatto army was led by Louis Lightburn. After Thia had been burned to the ground, the army marched on Kissing, the Curtises' trading post, which had already agreed to deal in legal merchandise.

Many of the local rulers rallied together, outraged at the arrogance of the Mulattostheir nephews-who no longer had any scruples about bombarding peaceful villages "to take slaves," and establishing themselves as true masters of the country.

Matters were complicated further by some of the local chiefs joining ranks with the slave traders, jealous of the prerogatives obtained by the Katis. This was the case of Chief Kane Bangou who vowed an undying hatred for the Katis and their ally at Kissing.

The destruction of Thia, the ancient capital of the Susu, by the Mulattos raised a general outcry from the traditional rulers. The Susu mobilized themselves into a small detachment so as not to be mowed down by the Mulattos' canon fire. But taking advantage of the situation, the slaves rebelled and many of the trading posts were plundered.

The major battles were fought around Dominghia. Up river, Faber's slaves pillaged the trading post at Sagna Paulia, but were driven back by canon fire. Louis Lightburn abandoned Dominghia and quickly arrived at Faringhia in time to control the situation. Many slaves were on the run. Lightburn's wife, Niara Belly, bravely led the troops in an attempt to stop the slave revolt.

The Barancon, Faber, and Susu slaves, most of them captured from the surrounding villages, defiantly established a free village which they called Sagna Sossota (Sagna, village of the Susu) in opposition to Sagna Paulia (Sagna, village of Paul the slave trader).

The former slaves drove back the attacks by the Mulattos and soon forged a reputation of being invincible. The rumor spread that they possessed fetishes and supernatural powers capable of confusing the enemy. Louis Lightburn sought peace terms, and after several palavers the local rulers accepted the offer by the Mulattos, their nephews. But nothing was ever the same again.

Andre Arcin situates the War of the Mulattos around 1870. (7) If it was Louis Lightburn who led the mulatto troops, this date is too late since we know that Lightburn returned to the States in 1855.

In his study, Mamadi Diallo places the war around 1840. This is highly unlikely, since at that date all the slave traders on the Rio Pongo were on peaceful terms. We believe it occurred after the intervention by the English in 1852. (8)

It is almost certain that the coalition of local rulers and the slave revolt forced Louis Lightburn to return to America. He was the first to realize that the era of slave trading had come to an end. Tradition has it that Charles Wilkinson owed his life to chief Alpha Siaka, related to his mother. The recently arrived Stell Lightburn, son of Louis Lightburn, helped his mother Mamy Lightburn manage the Lightburn establishments.

The Mulattos were now deeply divided: on one side there were those who had converted to legal trading such as the Curtises of Kissing and the Commons of Kossinsing on the lower Pongo, and on the other, the slave traders represented by the Fabers and Lightburns on the upper Pongo.

1852 marked the beginning of the decline of the illegal slave trade. The English sought to consolidate their position by establishing new trading posts at Dominghia in the lower Pongo. In 1862, they built a church here and appointed the first priests from Barbados. English and German traders set up business and `protected' the local rulers who became increasingly involved in the trade of conventional products for which there was a growing demand. The trade in beeswax, palm oil, and groundnuts soared after 1860 under the influence of the French governors in Senegal.

Niara Belly also realized that the slave trade was no longer a going concern. Some of the local chiefs, however, wanted quite simply a share of her property and thought they could eliminate her after Louis Lightburn had left. A solid coalition of Susu rulers rose up against her and laid siege to Faringhia. They were cut to pieces by her canon fire. Niara Belly routed and slaughtered their army at Koure Mayeki near Baraya. Tradition says that twenty years later the waters of the river Koure Mayeki were still unfit to drink. (9)

Niara Belly, an intelligent woman, understood the need to deal increasingly in the legal trade. She skillfully managed her slave trading with the help of her son Stell whom the Susu called `Fote Stell' (Stell the White). She also understood the need to have a husband, as the local custom demanded. In a marriage of convenience, she chose Sekou Amadou, one of Louis Lightburn's employees. He managed one of the trading posts, and was also a reputed marabout who had established a Koranic school. In animist territory, he was seen as a missionary of Islam, which gave him a special status in the eyes of the Fulani caravaners who preferred to lodge with him as `diatigui.' By marrying Sekou Amadou, Niara Belly strengthened her ties with the Futa Jallon. In addition to slaves, she bought hides, beeswax, and cattle. Taking advantage of the abundant harvest of palm oil by her slaves, she established a soap factory, as well as agricultural communities run with slave labor. Tradition tells us that Niara Belly owned six slave barracoons numbering on average 6000 slaves. The villages of Dinwororo, Kankanterin, Youmaya and Bodobada were huge slave camps. Niara adapted to the times and became enormously wealty at a time when the other slave traders were in a state of collapse.

She died in 1879 leaving behind the memory of a rich and powerful queen. At the time of Niara Belly's death, the legal trade had already triumphed; her sons prospered until the end of the colonial conquest. But the powerful European companies were soon to stifle the old slave trading posts. The Rio Pongo lost its economic importance when the French established the capital of Guinea at Conakry. All the trading houses moved there and the Rio Pongo fell into a deep state of lethargy.


In the vicinity of the slave barracoons, there were sacred groves, hallowed ground where the slaves were subdued through special rites. At Faranghia, the Lightburn's largest slave barracoon was situated at Balandougou, where the slaves for sale were chained. Tradition tells us that a famous priest, Mansa Conte, carried out `the supernatural handling of the slaves,' in the words of Mamadou Camara. At the end of the ceremony, he had the slave sit on a rock while chanting his incantations. And when the slave stood up, he had lost his soul and could no longer run away. Elsewhere, the slaves were made to take baths. This was the case at the Fabers in Sagna Paulia where in addition they had to drink potions `which made them docile. (10)

Priests and sorcerers offered their services to the local kings and white slave traders established along the river Pongo. The latter went along with all the traditional rites since they had married local women.

Despite these practices, however, which often worked to the satisfaction of the slave trader, there were slave revolts which became increasingly frequent after 1830, and the runaway slaves established a number of free villages along the Rio Pongo.

The village of Sagna Sosota, as we have seen, was established in the mid 19th century by slaves fleeing the village of Sagna Paulia (the Faber barracoon). These slaves rapidly acquired the reputation of possessing extraordinary supernatural powers. Nobody ventured inside the safety boundaries they had staked out for themselves. This was also the case for the villages of Konyeya and Gbassaya `proverbially known along the Rio Pongo for their mystical and supernatural powers to protect themselves against wars and raids.' (11) It was said that in time of war, the priests of these free villages could `hang them in the air' and `make them disappear,' meaning that the attackers were unable to find their way to the village they were intent on destroying.

It was also said that these free slaves villages possessed female priests with extraordinary powers. Konyeya was the village of freedom par excellence along the Rio Pongo. Any fugitive or slave who reached there became free after a `ritual for reappropriating his human dignity.' Under the hundred year-old silk cotton tree in the village, there are three rocks. It was on this very spot that the Patriarch in charge of the ceremony liberated the body and mind of the fugitive. (12) The latter washed his face three times with the water contained in a jar and then drank it. The priest washed him at night `when the sky and the earth are asleep,' i.e. midnight. The next morning the fugitive changed his name, he was given a plot of land and ploughing instruments, and his new era of freedom began. He now belonged to the community of free men.

The slaves, therefore, put the practice of bewitchment and servitude of the mind to new uses. In order to become a man in full, a treatment of self-reappropriation was called for.

Runaway slaves were common. One reliable source of information tells us that "our Susu relatives" took refuge in the bush by hiding under leaves and branches, thereby escaping their searchers. These fugitives in camouflage took on a frightening appearance and were called "soute" Banding together, they were the first to establish the many free villages. In short, the Rio Pongo had its own community of maroons.

In the mountains close by there was a grotto called Nienguissa (the place where one breathes) where the runaway slaves used to meet. Nobody dared go and look for them for the place was said to be haunted by evil spirits. From Nienguissa, the slaves could reach the high country or their home village by camouflaging themselves and becoming "soutes."

It should be noted that the migration of populations along the Rio Pongo and the entire coast due to war was commonplace. There was a great intermixing of ethnic groups and people would frequently change names by placing themselves under the protection of a member of a powerful family. Local history is highly enlightening on this intermingling of Fulani, Mandingos, Nalou and Baga ... and also between Black and White.


Although the English and their treaty of Thia were the cause of the War of the Mulattos, they were never present on the battlefield. What is remarkable in this war was the solidarity between the slaves and the local population. The former intended to recover their freedom and the latter rose up against the Mulattos, who were determined to enslave them. Although the illegal slave trade continued until 1870, legal commerce had already won the day, and new trading stations were flourishing-Dominghia at the estuary and Bakoro, up river where French and German houses of commerce were established. The caravans journeying from the Futa Jallon no longer included columns of slaves. A new chapter was beginning: the colonization of Africa. Rivalries were to intensify, but the Conference of Berlin in 1885 had the final say when it partitioned the African continent among the colonial powers.


(1.) Andre Donelha: "Description de la Sierra Leona et des Rios de Guinee du Cabo Verde"-Lisbon 1977.

(2.) Monseigneur Lerouge in "Monographe du Rio Pongo" in Recherches Africaines No. I-Conakry 1969.

(3.) Sy (Sekou Bounama) "Monographe du Rio Pongo" in Recherches Africaines No. I-Conakry 1969.

(4.) Camara (Mamadou): "Visage d'une aristocratic negriere au Rio Pongo"-DEA thesis Paris 1989.

(5.) Theodore Canot quoted by Mamadi Diallo in "Implantation coloniale a travers les vestiges du Rio Pongo." Thesis-IPC Conakry 1969 p. 23-25.

(6.) See Mamadi Diallo: "Implantation coloniale travers les vestiges du Rio Pongo." Thesis-IPC Conakry 1969. p. 23

(7.) Andre Arcin: "Histoire de la Guinee Francaise" - Chalamel-Paris.

(8.) Mamadou Camara:L "Visage d'une aristocratic negriere de 1807 a 1850" DEA thesis: Paris 1989.

(9.) Sy (Bounama): "Monographie du Rio Pongo" - Conakry No. 1 1969 p.44.

(10.) On subduing of slaves, see Mamadou Camara Lefloch: "Traitement occulte et domptage de l'esclave au Rio Pongo" -paper presented at the conference Traditions Orales er Traites Negrieres-Conakry 1997 cf Mamadi Diallo op. cit p. 29.

(11.) Mamadou Camara, op. cit p. 6-Konyeya is now a district of Boffa, the main town in the Prefecture of Rio Pongo.

(12.) "Domptage des esclaves-Rio Pongo." Paper presented at the conference Traditions Orales et Traite Negriere-Conakry 1997 p. 7.


Archives Nationales de Guinee: Les Rivieres du Sud 1890-1898-1A4-53 items

Arcin, Andre: Histoire de la Guinee Francaise-Challamel 1 Paris 1912.

Bah, Oumar: La Traite Negriere au Rio Pongo-IPC Conakry 1972.

Camara, Mamadou: Visage d'une aristocratie negriere. Le Rio Pongo de 1807-1850-DEA thesis Paris 1989.

Diallo, Mamadi: L'Implantation coloniale a travers les vestiges du Rio Pongo-IPC Conakry 1970.

Sy, Sekou Bounama: Monographie du Rio Pongo in Recherches Africaines No. 1-Conakry 1969.

DJIBRIL TAMSIR NIANE is a renowned oral historian and writer who has performed important research on the history of the Malian Empire in the Middle Ages. He is a Professor at the University of Conakry, Guinea, and head of the Societe Africaine d'Edition et de Communication. His works include Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mall (Heinemann) and Mery (Nouvelles editions africaines).
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Author:Niane, Djibril Tamsir
Publication:Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire
Geographic Code:6GUIN
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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