Bai Bureh was a Sierra Leonean ruler, military strategist, and Muslim cleric, who was exiled for leading an uprising against British rule in 1898 in Northern Sierra Leone.
Born in 1840 in Kasseh, a village near Port Loko in Northern Sierra Leone, Bureh was shaped by his father’s role as a Muslim cleric and a Loko war-chief who preserved both African traditions and values.
Bureh’s journey as a warrior began in the village of Gbendembu, where he earned the nickname “Kebalai,” which translates to ‘one who doesn’t tire of war’. This reputation, coupled with his victories in battles against other village heads and tribal leaders, amplified his popularity among the people of the north. This admiration eventually led to his coronation as the ruler of Kasseh.
During the 1860s and 1870s, bureh successfully fought and won wars against other villages heads and tribal leaders and this helped spread his popularity even more. The people of the north felt they had found a warrior who would defend their land. In 1886, Bai Bureh was crowned as the chief of Northern Sierra Leone.
On January 1, 1893, 7 years after he was crowned chief of Northern Sierra Leone, the British colonial government instituted a hut tax in Sierra Leone and throughout British colonies in Africa.
This tax imposed a financial burden on the Protectorate’s residents, compelling them to pay a fee based on the size of their huts.
The owner of a four-roomed hut was to be taxed ten shillings a year; those with smaller huts would pay five shillings.
Bai Bureh, a staunch defender of his people’s sovereignty, staunchly refused to acknowledge this tax. He viewed it as an unjust obligation imposed by foreign powers and called for the British to depart and let the Sierra Leoneans govern their own affairs.
A total of 24 chiefs signed a petition to the colonial government explaining why these requirements were so burdensome and threatened their societies. The chiefs further contended that the tax infringed upon their sovereignty, but the British remained steadfast in their refusal to cease or reduce the tax.
After refusing to pay his taxes on several occasions, the colonial government issued a warrant to arrest Bureh. The British Governor to Sierra Leone, Frederic Cardew, also offered one hundred pounds as a reward for his capture. In response, Bai Bureh offered the higher sum of five hundred pounds for the capture of the governor.
In 1898, Bai Bureh, undeterred by the odds stacked against him, declared war on the colonial government, igniting what would be known as the Hut Tax War of 1898. Supported by several prominent native chiefs, Bureh’s forces fought fiercely, managing to gain an upper hand for a significant portion of the conflict.
Bai Bureh’s men not only engaged in combat with the colonial government’s forces but also killed dozens of indigenous people who they suspected supported the colonial government.
Bureh’s fighters had the advantage over the better armed forces of the colonial government for several months of the war, with high casualties on both sides.
By 19 February 1898, Bai Bureh’s forces had completely severed the lines of communication between Freetown and Port Loko. They also blocked the road and the river from Freetown. Despite the existence of an arrest warrant, the colonial government’s troops were unsuccessful in overcoming Bureh and his supporters.
As frustration grew, the colonial governor of Sierra Leone ‘Governor Cardew’ realized that he had to do something drastic in order to win the war. Consequently, he issued a “scorched earth policy,” a military strategy that aimed to destroy anything and everything that might be useful to the enemy. This strategy led the British forces to burn entire villages, farmlands, and pastures, leaving no useful assets untouched.
This change in tactics significantly affected Bai Bureh’s war effort, as it reduced provisions to feed not only his warriors but his subjects as well. He also realized that the cost of repairs was piling up as the British were relentless in pursuing the new policy.
In the face of this dire situation, Bai Bureh chose to surrender on November 11, 1898, to prevent further suffering among his people. His resistance came at a cost; he was exiled along with Sherbro chief Kpana Lewis and the powerful Mende chief Nyagua to the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), while many of his comrades were executed.
Despite the challenges of his exile, Bureh’s legacy persisted. In 1905, the British permitted his return to Sierra Leone, where he was reinstated as the Chief of Kasseh. Tragically, Bai Bureh’s life came to an end in 1908, yet his profound influence on Sierra Leonean history endured.
Today, the memory of Bai Bureh is kept alive through various commemorations. There is a large statue of Bai Bureh located in central Freetown, Sierra Leone. His image also appears on several Sierra Leonean paper bills, and a professional football club from Port Loko, named the Bai Bureh Warriors, proudly carries his name, ensuring that his legacy remains alive and relevant.