Kaabu Empire
Kaabu Empire circa 1625 (in purple)
Kaabu Empire circa 1625 (in purple)
Common languagesMandinka
Traditional African Religion
Kaabu Mansaba 
• 13th century
Sama Koli (first)
• 1867
Janke Waali (last)
• Kaabu Tinkuru Founded
• Independence from the Mali Empire
Currencyiron bars, cloth
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Mali Empire
Imamate of Futa Jallon
Portuguese Guinea

Kaabu (1537–1867), also written Gabu, Ngabou, and N'Gabu, was a federation of Mandinka kingdoms in the Senegambia region centered within modern northeastern Guinea-Bissau, large parts of today's Gambia, and extending into Koussanar, Koumpentoum, and the Casamance in Senegal.

It rose to prominence as an imperial military province of the Mali Empire. After the decline of the Mali Empire, Kaabu became independent. Kansala, the imperial capital, was captured by Fula forces from the Futa Jallon during the 19th century Fula jihads. However, Kaabu's successor states across Senegambia continued to thrive even after the fall of Kansala; this lasted until total incorporation of the remaining kingdoms into the British, Portuguese and French spheres of influence during the Scramble for Africa.


Scholars and oral historians have proposed various etymologies for the name Kaabu. These include it being derived from Kaba or Kangaba, Mali, the capital of the Mali Empire; from the Mandinka phrase kaa bung folo, meaning 'let's keep fighting'; or from Kambutchi, meaning 'the circumcised people' in the Bainuk language, the name of the pre-existing Bainuk kingdom.[1]



The region that would become Kaabu, stretching from the banks of the Gambia river south and east towards the Futa Djallon massif and the coast of present-day Guinea-Bissau, was thinly inhabited.[2]: 75  Nevertheless, a Bainuk kingdom did exist, founded in the 7th century CE, that ruled from the Gambia to the Cacheu river.[3] The earliest dynasty was called the Jenung, but almost nothing is known of this period.[4] There were Mande traders and immigrants in the area, but they were politically and demographically dominated by their local hosts.[5]

Bainuk legends describe a cruel king named Gana Sira Bana or Masopti Biaye, whose tyranny caused a general rebellion, and the kingdom split apart.[6] These decentralized societies were ultimately unable to resist Mande expansion.[7]


According to Senegambian oral histories, the Mandinka arrived in the region around the year 1230CE. One of the generals of Sundiata Keita, Tiramakhan Traore, conquered the area, founding many new towns and making Kaabu one of Mali's western tinkuru, or provinces. He, or perhaps his sons by his Bainuk wife, defeated Kikikor, the king of the Bainuks and captured Mampatim.[8][9] His son or grandson Sama Coli became the first mansa of Kaabu.[10]

The savannah areas were mostly conquered and ruled by Mandinka vassals to the Mali Empire. Meanwhile the swampy areas near the coast were still dominated by the natives.[11] As in many places that saw Mandinka migrations, much of the native population was dominated or assimilated, with slaves either eventually being integrated into Mandinka society or sold via the trans-Sahara trade routes to Arab buyers. Although the rulers of Kaabu were Mandinka, many of their subjects were from ethnic groups who had resided in the region before the Mandinka invasion. Mandinka became a lingua franca used for trade.

Mansa Sala Sane founded the city of Kansala to replace the old capital of Mampatim. It was more centrally located, and the location of the sacred wood where the new mansaba was crowned.[12]


After the middle of the 14th century, Mali saw a steep decline due to raids by the Mossi to their south, the growth of the new Songhai Empire in the north, and succession disputes. Even its historically secure possessions in what is now Senegal, the Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau were cut off by the expanding power of Koli Tenguella in the early 16th century.[13]

As Mali's authority collapsed, the Mandinka states of the region formed a federation.[11] The number of provinces grew from three to seven, and these encompassed dozens of royal trading towns.[14] These included among others, Firdu, Pata, Kamako, Jimara, Patim Kibo, Patim Kanjaye, Kantora, Sedhiou, Pakane Mambura, Kiang, Kudura, Nampaio, Koumpentoum, Koussanar, Barra, Niumi, Pacana etc.[clarification needed] The kingdoms of Sine and Saloum were established at this time, ruled by Serer kings and Mandinka queens (the Guelowar dynasty), although these became independent by 1600.[14]

Kaabu's many wars of expansion produced up to half of the African people sold into slavery during the 17th and 18th centuries.[14]

According to Mandinka tradition, Kaabu remained unconquered for eight hundred and seven years. There were 47 Mansas in successions.[citation needed]


The power of Kaabu began to wane during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1776, militant Islamic Torodbe clerics established a theocratic state in the Futa Djallon. With some support from Soninke and Mandinka chiefs, they launched a jihad against non-Muslim states in the region, particularly Kaabu.[11] Some non-Muslim Fula, pushed out of the Futa Djallon by the Torodbe, settled in Kaabu and often herded the cattle of the ruling Nyancho aristocracy. Over the course of the conflict with the Imamate, however, these immigrants were seen as a potential 'fifth column', and were oppressed and extorted, creating civil conflict in the empire.[11] The decline of the slave trade, a pillar of the economy for centuries, also pushed Mandinka elites to squeeze the peasants for taxes to replace their lost trade revenues.[15] Therefore the war against the nyancho elites of Kaabu had ethnic, religious, and class components.

Up until the 1860s Kaabu had successfully repulsed on numerous occasions various Fula armies at the fort of Berekolong.In 1865, however, the Kaabu capital at Kansala came under siege from an army led by Alfa Molo Balde [fr]. At the climax of the eleven-day Battle of Kansala, Mansaba Janke Waali Sanneh (also called Mansaba Dianke Walli) ordered the city's gunpowder stores to be set afire. The resulting explosion killed the Mandinka defenders and many of the attackers. With Kansala obliterated, Mandinka hegemony in the region came to an end. The remains of the Kaabu Empire were under Fula control until the Portuguese suppression of the kingdom around the turn of the 20th century.[citation needed]

Some of Kaabu's constituent kingdoms, however, continued to thrive. Among these were Nyambai, Kantora, Berekolong, Kiang, Faraba, and Berefet, mainly in Gambia and parts of southern Senegal. Other Nyancho-controlled areas were Sayjo (Sedhiou), Kampentum (Koumpentoum), Kossamar (Koussanar) and others in today's Senegal, until the arrival of the British and French colonialist at the turn of 20th Century. To date, the influence of the Korings and Nyanchos are embedded within the sociocultural fabrics of post-independence Senegal, Gambia and Guinea Bissau.[citation needed]


Scholars disagree on whether Kaabu was a kingdom, an empire, a federation, or some mix of these. Although there was an emperor, known as the mansaba, power was decentralized and people generally were more responsive to local leaders than the distant, almost mythical, mansaba. The component kingdoms of the empire expanded, contracted, merged, split, appeared and disappeared over time.[16]

The Nyancho

The Mansa of Kaabu was selected from among the leaders of the provinces of Jimara, Sama, and Pachana.[11][10] In contrast to prevailing patrilineal traditions among the Mande, royal inheritance passed through the mother's line, respecting pre-conquest Bainuk inheritance customs.[12][2]: 76 [10] Three other provinces - Kantora, Tumana and Mana - were direct vassals of the three core areas.[17]

The ruling class was composed of warrior-elites made rich by slaves captured in war. These ruling nobles were from two distinctive sets of clans Koring and Nyancho (or Nyantio). The Korings were from the Sanyang and Sonko clans, whilst the Nyanchos were Manneh and Sanneh. The Korings ruled the non-royal provinces, while only those descended from Nyancho bloodlines on both sides could be elected mansa.[18] They claimed patrilineal descent from Tiramakhan Traore, founder of Kaabu, and matrilineal descent from a powerful pre-Mandinka indigenous sorceress. Thus the Nyancho claimed legitimacy through conquest, traditional Mandinka patrilineal inheritance, and local matrilineal traditions.[19]: 2 

The principal tax, collected in cloth or pagnes, was known as the kabunko.[20] Slaves worked large-scale cotton plantations to produce this form of currency. The nyancho warrior aristocracy used increasing tax revenue to fund more wars, thereby capturing more slaves, who produced more cloth, which financed still more wars.[2]: 321 



Kaabu was a multicultural state hosting several languages, namely: Balanta, Jola-Fonyi, Mandinka, Mandjak, Mankanya, Noon (Serer-Noon), Pulaar, Serer, Sarakhule, and Wolof. Mandinka, however, was the language of the ruling class and of trade.


Mandinka oral tradition holds that Kaabu was the actual birthplace of the Mande musical instrument, known as the Kora. A kora is built from a large calabash cut in half and covered with cow skin to make a resonator, and has a notched bridge like a lute or guitar. The sound of a Kora resembles that of a harp, yet with its gourd resonator it has been classified by ethnomusicologists such as Roderick Knight as a harp-lute.[21] The Kora was traditionally used by the griots as a tool for preserving history, ancient tradition, to memorize the genealogies of patron families and sing their praises, to act as conflict intermediaries between families, and to entertain. Its origins can be traced to the time of the Mali empire and linked with Jali Mady Fouling Diabate, son of Bamba Diabate. According to the griots, Mady visited a local lake in which he was informed that a genie who granted wishes had resided. Upon meeting him, Mady requested that the genie make him a brand new instrument that no griot had ever owned. The genie accepted, but only under the condition that Mady release his sister into his custody. After being informed, the sister agreed to the sacrifice, the genie complied, and hence, the birth of the legendary Kora. Aside from oral testimony, historians propose that the Kora appeared with the apogee of war chiefs from Kaabu, allowing the tradition to spread throughout the Mande area until it was made popular by Koryang Moussa Diabate in the 19th century.


Kaabu was explicitly a non-Islamic state. The most important shrine was that of the snake Tamba Dibi, set in a sacred forest of tabo trees whose fruit could supposedly protect warriors from harm.[2]: 319 

See also


  1. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 240.
  2. ^ a b c d Green, Toby (2020). A Fistful of Shells. UK: Penguin Books.
  3. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 263.
  4. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 264.
  5. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 252.
  6. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 267–9.
  7. ^ Niane 1989, pp. 37.
  8. ^ Niane 1989, pp. 22.
  9. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 277.
  10. ^ a b c Page, Willie F. (2005). Davis, R. Hunt (ed.). Encyclopedia of African History and Culture. Vol. II (Illustrated, revised ed.). Facts On File. p. 79.
  11. ^ a b c d e WESTERN AFRICA TO c1860 A.D. A PROVISIONAL HISTORICAL SCHEMA BASED ON CLIMATE PERIODS by George E. Brooks, Indiana University African Studies Program, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana, August, 1985.[1]
  12. ^ a b Mane 2021, pp. 279.
  13. ^ Barry 1998, pp. 21.
  14. ^ a b c Page, Willie F. (2005). Davis, R. Hunt (ed.). Encyclopedia of African History and Culture. Vol. III (Illustrated, revised ed.). Facts On File. p. 92.
  15. ^ Glovsky 2020, pp. 75.
  16. ^ Glovsky 2020, pp. 68–70.
  17. ^ Glovsky 2020, pp. 70.
  18. ^ Barry 1998, pp. 22.
  19. ^ "Kaabu Oral History Project Proposal" (PDF). African Union Common Repository. 1980. Retrieved 24 November 2022.
  20. ^ Mane 2021, pp. 274.
  21. ^ "KNIGHTSYSTEM". 2.oberlin.edu. Retrieved 10 August 2019.