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Niumi Dynasty: 12 Female Rulers In The Kingdom Ruled For 122 Years

By Yunus S Saliu

Mummy of Kings’  Regalia

Tourists and researchers who have come to The Gambia especially those interested in knowing more about culture, tradition, and Gambians’ way of governance in the pre-colonial era have found exploring the kingship in Gambia interesting, the pre-colonial ruling villages of Lower Niumi, its three major ruling families and the certain seven villages they hailed.

Niumi, as known, its origin can be traced back to the establishment of the Mali Empire in the 1200s when Mandinka-speaking people began to expand the boundaries of the empire through conquests and trades.
According to historians, Amari Sonko was a general of the great Sundiata Keita, founder of the Mali Empire who had led his warriors down to The Gambia valley, and conquered many villages on his way. Amari Sonko finally reached the Kingdom of Baddibu and Barra near the mouth of the River Gambia where he gradually established a Sonko dynasty, “which enjoyed one of the rotating kingships of Niumi.”

In pre-colonial Gambia, “we have kingdoms and states which were headed by monarchs – kings or queens with absolute power. Niumi was just one of them which has a very interesting set of kingship,” explained Hassoum Ceesay, an erudite historian.

Kingship in Niumi was interesting because “it was on a rotational basis whereby the Kingship passed through three major ruling families known as the Mannehs, Jammehs, and Sonkos.”

Ceremonial Staff

Looking at the list of kings of Niumi of four hundred years before the 1890s when the British destroyed the Niumi Kingships “we had kings whose surnames were Jammeh, and Manneh and the majority of them (surnames) were Sonko. The kingship was on a rotational basis in order to distribute power among the various villages of Niumi.”

According to the narration, initially, ruling power was vested in the hands of Queens, but there come a time when the men rebelled and took the power into their own hands. So Queens had to select husbands from amongst the Manneh, and Sonko families and as well as from their own house of Jammeh. Therefore, men of all three families claimed the right to rule.

“Another interesting thing to know is that these Kings of Niumi can only come from certain seven houses or villages which include the Jammehs of Bakkendik (original Royal House of the Queens), Sonkos of Essau Manserring Su, Sonkos of Berending, Mannehs of Kanuma, Jammehs of Sitanunku, Sonkos of Essau Jelenkunda and Mannehs of Bunyadu. All these villages/towns are all situated in what they today called Niumi and known as districts of Upper and Lower Niumi, North Bank Region,” historian Ceesay explained.

Nevertheless, another thing about the kingships particularly in Niumi was that “Kings in Niumi were among the kings in this region who had most direct contact with the Europeans by virtue of the location of their state in the mouth of the River Gambia. So, Europeans have to deal with them one way or another, and for any passage, you have to pay a royalty.”

As noted by the historian collecting royalties is one important characteristic of the Kings of Niumi they have direct and very effectual mutual contacts with the Europeans earlier than other Kings in other parts of the country example are the Kings of Fulladu, Kiang, Tumana, and among others.

So far so good, one peculiar thing about the Kingdom of Niumi was that it produced early in her glory 12 female rulers who together ruled for 122 years. History has reported that “Mama Mansas, as they were famously referred to in the European writings rule was the longest in Niumi, and was a watershed in terms of development and consolidation of the state. The Mama Mansas provide evidence of a matriarchal system of governance, which lasted for over a hundred years. Though they didn’t rule in succession, alternatively, all hailed from all the three royal lineages of the seven villages,” as affirmed by the erudite historian.

It is essential to know that the Sonkos were the dominant rulers in Niumi because they hailed from Amari Sonko who was a warrior general from Manding. He was sent out by Sundiata Keita to spread the Manding Empire and settle in what they today called Niumi. He conquered the people there and established a Sonko Dynasty and this made Sonkos predominant.

“Niumi Dynasty is not more popular than other traditional rulers in other parts of the country. But it is just that Niumi was more exposed to the Europeans by location as it is not in the interior part of the country. So, the Europeans have more notes, studies, and diaries about their contact with the Niumi Kingdom and Niumi Kings. That makes it easier for researchers to get more detailed materials on Niumi Dynasty easily than the interior states like Fulladu, Tumana, Niani, Kiang, and others,” the historian affirmed.

Not by words saying, traditional rulers in the olden days “didn’t rule with a small head but with political power, supernatural power, juju power which all combined and made them powerful Kings, effective rulers, and long-lasting monarchs.”

Among the importance of traditional rulers in pre-colonial days include local dispute resolution, influencing governing their state or local communities, protecting and defending their subjects and land, and then “we were sovereign and independent before the Europeans arrived. But they came and destroyed our independence and sovereignty by destroying these monarchs. Then those kings have their armies like Niumi who fought the British several times in the battle of Barra in 1831, Foday Sillah in Kombo – the Islamic State of Kombo in 1893, and Alpha Mollow in Fulladu fought the British in the early 1890s also. So they had their armies, tax collection systems, the council of elders like a parliament, and so on. So we have all the sovereign structures which the British destroyed when they declared the protectorate in1889.”


Yunus S Saliu

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