Samory Toure (also Samory Touré or Almamy Samory Lafiya Toure, c. 1830 - 1900) was the founder of the Wassoulou Empire, an Islamic state that resisted French rule in West Africa from 1882 to his capture in 1898.
Early life and career
Born c. 1830 in Manyambaladugu (in what is now southeastern Guinea), the son of Dyula traders, Samori grew up in a West Africa being transformed by growing contacts with the Europeans. European trade made some African trading states rich, while growing access to firearms changed traditional West African patterns of warfare. Early in his life, Ture converted to Islam.
In 1848, Samori's mother was captured in the course of war by Séré-Burlay, of the Cissé clan. After arranging his mother's freedom, Samori engaged himself to the service of the Cissés where he learned the handling of arms. According to tradition, he remained "seven years, seven months, seven days" before fleeing with his mother.
He then joined the Bérété army, the enemies of the Cissé, for two years before rejoining his people, the Kamara. Named Kélétigui ("war chief") at Dyala in 1861, Samori took an oath to protect his people against both the Bérété and the Cissé. He created a professional army and placed close relations, notably his brothers and his childhood friends, in positions of command.
Expansion through the Sudan
In 1864, El Hadj Umar Tall, the founder of the aggressive Toucouleur Empire that dominated the Upper Niger River, died. As the Toucouleur state lost its grip on power, generals and local rulers vied to create states of their own.
By 1867, Samori was a full-fledged war chief, with an army of his own centered on Sanankoro in the Guinea Highlands, on the Upper Milo, a Niger River tributary. Samori understood that he needed to accomplish two things: to create an efficient, loyal fighting force equipped with modern firearms, and to build a stable state of his own.
By 1876 Samori was able to import breech-loading rifles through the British colony of Sierra Leone. He conquered the Buré gold mining district (now on the border between Mali and Guinea) to bolster his financial situation. By 1878 he was strong enough to proclaim himself faama (military leader) of his own Wassoulou Empire. He made Bissandugu his capital and began political and commercial exchanges with the neighboring Toucouleur.
In 1881, after numerous struggles, Samori was able to secure control of the key Dyula trading center of Kankan, on the upper Milo River. Kankan was a center for the trade in kola nuts, and was well sited to dominate the trade routes in all directions. By 1881, Wassoulou extended through Guinea and Mali, from what is now Sierra Leone to northern Côte d'Ivoire.
While Samori conquered the numerous small tribal states around him, he also moved to secure his diplomatic position. He opened regular contacts with the British in Sierra Leone, and built a working relationship with the Fulbe (Fula) jihad state of Fouta Djallon.
First battles with the French
The French began to expand aggressively in West Africa in the late 1870s, pushing eastward from Senegal in an attempt to reach the upper reaches of the Nile in what is now Sudan. They also sought to drive southeast to link up with their bases in Côte d'Ivoire. These moves put them directly into conflict with Samori.
In February 1882, a French expedition attacked one of Samori’s armies besieging Keniera. Samori was able to drive the French off, but he was alarmed at the discipline and firepower of the European military.
Samori tried to deal with the French in several ways. First, he expanded southwestward to secure a line of communication with Liberia. In January 1885 he sent an embassy to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, offering to put his kingdom under British protection. The British were not interested in confronting the French at this time, but they did allow Samori to buy large numbers of modern repeating rifles.
When an 1885 French expedition under Col. A. V. A. Combes attempted to seize the Buré gold fields, Samori counterattacked. Dividing his army into three mobile columns he worked his way around the French lines of communication and forced them to withdraw in haste.
War and defeat
By 1887, Samori had a disciplined army of 30,000 - 35,000 infantry, organized into platoons and companies on the European model, and 3,000 cavalry, in regular squadrons of 50 each. However, the French were determined not to give Samori time to consolidate his position. Exploiting the rebellions of several of Samori's animist subject tribes, the French continued to expand into his westernmost holdings, forcing Samori to sign several treaties ceding territory to them between 1886 and 1889.
In March 1891, a French force under Col. Archinard launched a direct attack on Kankan. Knowing his fortifications could not stop French artillery, Samori began a war of maneuver. Despite victories against isolated French columns (for example at Dabadugu in September 1891), Samori failed to push the French from the core of his kingdom. In June 1892, Col. Archinard’s replacement, Humbert, leading a small, well-supplied force of picked men, captured Samori’s capital of Bissandugu. In another blow, the British stopped selling breech loaders to Samori in accordance with the Brussels Convention of 1890.
Samori moved his entire base of operations eastward, toward the Bandama and Comoe. He instituted a scorched earth policy, devastating each area before he evacuated it. Though this maneuver cut Samori off from his last source of modern weapons, Liberia, it also delayed French pursuit.
Nonetheless, the fall of other resistance armies, particularly Babemba Traoré at Sikasso, permitted the colonial army to launch a concentrated assault against Touré. He was captured 29 September, 1898 by French Commandant Gouraud and exiled to Gabon.
Samori died in captivity on June 2, 1900, following a bout of pneumonia.