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Mandinka History in Gambia & West Africa

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The ancestors of the Mandinkas (Mandingo) of today's Gambia and Senegal region lived in Kangaba which was a part of the ancient Mali Empire. They became independent in AD 1235 and gradually some of them moved westwards. They were looking for a better climate as well as farming and grazing land which they found near the big rivers Gambia, Senegal and Casamance. Another reason was their search for better trading possibilities near the Trans-Sahara-Route. Finally it was also princes' and generals' hope to reign over own land. This was indeed possible, because the original inhabitants of the region lived on scattered farms and therefore weren't able to defend themselves effectively.

Whereas at the beginning only single families dared to move, in the middle of the 13th century general Tiramang Touray started a big campaign into the region which is today in the south of the eastern half of Gambia. He founded the Kaabu Empire and expanded into all directions, so that at the end of the thirteenth century the whole area with many different nationalities was under the Mandinka's rule. Later Tiramang's descendants and his generals founded their own empires within Kaabu. In the centre of the seventeenth century Kaabu was in its heyday which wasn't only mirrored in the geographical extent, but also in the cultural development. During this time the Europeans' influence started. They were mainly interested in trade with slaves, gold and ivory.

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the Kaabu Empire lost power. The single states were led by individually thinking rulers and the influence of the Islam changed very old traditions and structures. The Islamic influence already started in the 15th century, when the Fulas sent out missionaries to other peoples, priests from Morocco preached and Muslim traders came from far away and founded churches near the rivers. Muslims usually enjoyed high standing, because they were well educated, had medical knowledge and extensive relations. Therefore they were also often in the council of Mandinka rulers. The people were especially interested in their magical powers. Soon amulets were filled with Koranic verses and Muslims` prayers were considered to be a special protection. Nevertheless the animistic thinking didn't stop. In the 19th century Islamic leaders had established in nearly all Mandinka states.

Dissent & Decline:
Strict Muslims accomplished the building of mosques, prayer five times a day and fasting in many settlements, but often the Islamic doctrine wasn't taken too serious. Usually the personal experience of Allah, even through animistic actions, was more important for them than the actual doctrine. In this way it was, for most people, easier to become a Muslim. Nevertheless Islam tried to weaken the central points of the traditional religion: Secret societies were destroyed or turned into Islamic communities and places of initiation were used for Islamic feasts. As a result of this the rites were still important in the families, but the annual festivals and the honouring of the ancestry lost their importance.

Thus two societies with separate laws and behaviour patterns developed within the empire. In this way many conflicts and changes were induced in all nations. Young men left their families in order to follow their masters, new Muslim settlements developed and traditional ones broke up for reasons of religion. Even families were divided in this way. Supporters of the traditional religion were called "Soninke" (from Kafirs - Arab unbeliever), whereas Muslims called themselves Marabouts, which was originally used for Northern African masters of cults. In 1850 an open fight broke out, which went down in history as the Soninke-Marabout-Wars. Islamic Fulas invaded the country and Ma Bah, son of a Mandinka Marabout proclaimed the holy war (Jihad). The longer the war lasted the more the fight for power displaced religious reasons.

Thus it even happened that Muslims fought against each other, e.g. when a traditional ruler was to be displaced by a Marabout. At the end of the 19th century this war made it possible for the English who had their settlements near the mouth of the Gambia River even a long time before to subjugate the area along the river and make it their colony. The marabouts' leaders were defeated and some of the Mandinka rulers even were glad about it, because they were tired of fighting, though the ancient Mandinka empire had now been destroyed and the traditional Mandinka rule had come to an end. In 1901 England and the native leaders signed a peace treaty and the interior of the country was divided into 5 provinces.
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