The Kaabu Empire (also spelt N’Gabu / Gabu) started as
a westward extension of the Manding Empire. Its rulers were ordained
into office by the king of Mali (Manding) but as Mali declined
during the 15th century the Kaabu became autonomous. Among the
western Mandinka who
inhabit Senegambia, Kaabu was second only to Manding in importance
and its ruling dynasty, who bore the title of Nyanchos,
were better known, more respected and more jealous of their heritage
than any other of the Western Mandinka dynasties.
At the high point of Manding the Kora
musical instrument was introduced as well as the perfection of
older instruments such as the Balafon, Kontingo and the Bolombata
which are still used today by Senegambian griots, important masquerade
dances like the Kankurang, the
Maano and the Tintirinya are all said to have originated in Kaabu.
The main area of Kaabu is situated in the vicinity of present-day
Guinea-Bissau and the land which lies north of the Casamance River.
It extended from the Gambia River
in the north to the borders of Futa Jallon in the Republic of
Guinea in the south. The Mandinka
ruled areas of Niokolokoba, Jimara, Kantora, Tenda and Tumana
where all part of the Kaabu kingdom.
Origins & Rise:
The empire was established during the reign of Mansa Sunjatta
Keita as a result of westward migrations from Manding by the
Manding war general Tirmakhan Traoré (also spelt Tiramakan, Tiramong
or Tiramaghan). Oral tradition has it that Tiramong Traoré came
from the "West" in order to exact retaliation against
the Burba Jolof for having stolen horses
belonging to Mansa Sujatta and had insulted the king to boot.
Tirmakhan Traoré is said to have considered
war as a kind of 'sport' and was always ready to do battle "anytime
and any place". He defeated the Jolof and sent Burba's decapitated
head back to his king in Manding and proceeded to head southwards
over the Gambia River as
far at the Damantang Kingdom in modern day Casamance. When he
arrived in the Kassa region he found Mandinka
who were already settled their since the 10th century in search
of land or to establish new trade routes.
The general is thought to have made his residence in Damantang
where he later married one of the daughters of the prominent Mandinka
family known as the Sanes. In alliance with the Sanes they either
expelled or subjugated the indigenous tribes and established Mandinka
supremacy in the area. He was asked to come back to Manding by
Sujatta but died on his way there in the Upper River Division
of The Gambia. The ruling classes of the empire were the Nyanchos
and they claimed paternal ancestry through Tirmakhan as well as
supernatural maternal ancestry.
In addition to the ruling Nyanchos family there were also the
Sanyangs and Sonkos who were given the title Koringo and ruled
below the Nyanchos. They ruled the states that made up Kaabu.
Kaabu was encircled by a number of Fula
kingdoms and states with the main ones being Bundu, Futa
Toro, Masina and Futa Jallon. They mostly clustered in the
upper Casamance, Jimara and Firdu until by the middle of the 19th
century they formed the majority ethnic group. Despite this fact
the Nyanchos were still the ruling class and the Fula in the area
felt oppressed. Their prime cattle stock and horses were liable
to confiscation at anytime without any compensation. In the early
19th century Futa Jallon had started raiding regularly into the
very centre of Kaabu. In the 1860s the armies of Futa Jallon defeated
the Kaabu army at Berekolong Fort in Sankolla. This defeat emboldened
the Fula population, under Alfa Molloh Baldeh, for a major showdown
against their Nyancho overlords.