History of the Bambara: Ségou and Kaarta

Many oral histories, myths and conjectures obscure the origins of the Bambara. Some claim their ancestors migrated from the Sahara desert. Others say they came from the Wassoulou River Valley, an area straddling the extreme south of present-day Mali, the east of Guinea and the north of the Ivory Coast. While others still suppose their language and traditions are so close to the Mandinka, Bozos, Soninke and other groups that they must have always been indigenous to the Niger Bend.

Whatever the case, the Bambara were part of a powerful Mandinka state — the Mali Empire — in the 13th century, that much is certain. And that is where their story truly starts.

Illustration of two Bambara people wearing traditional garments
“Types et coiffures de Bambaras.” 1872.
Source: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Bambara Resistance and Migration

The Bambara firmly resisted Islam, a religion their rulers had embraced, in favor of their traditional religion and ancestor worship. It may be under the reign of Mansa Musa I (1307 – 1337), who squandered the empire’s vast treasury during his pilgrimage to Mecca, that the Bambara ruptured from the muslim Mandika. They created a secret society, Koma, and named themselves the Banmana, meaning “the ones who refused submission”. (From ban, the word for “end, refuse”, and mana, meaning “masters, Mansa“.)

Over the next few centuries, the Bambara slowly made their way up the Niger river. Some of them broke off to populate the regions of Bougouni, Bamako and Bendougou, while the others kept marching north-east to reach the lands around Djenné and Ségou.

Niangolo and Baramangolo

Of course, such an account of migration cannot go without its own river-crossing themed origin story,  so prevalent throughout Africa.

Two brothers, Niangolo and Baramangolo, reached the river — either the Niger or the Boulé, stories vary — enemies hot on their tail. Out of breath and out of luck, they could find no canoe to make their crossing. They despaired as their pursuers drew closer, until an enormous m’polio (catfish) emerged from the water, kindly offering assistance. Some versions say the catfish ferried them across on his back, others that the fish turned into a bridge for them.

The story goes on to explain that Niangolo, at the urging of his starving wife and children, killed their catfish savior, much to Baramangolo’s chagrin. This foreshadows of the long-lasting rivalry between the brothers, passed down generations to their descendants.

It is said all Bambara at that time took the surname “Coulibaly” — also spelled “Kulibali” — (from kulu, the word for “canoe”, and bali meaning “without”). Later, the name “Coulibaly” would come to refer only to Baramangolo’s descendants, as Niangolo’s would take the name Massasi. The Coulibaly refuse to eat catfish to this day. Other Bambara do indulge in catfish meat, although they make a point to leave the head intact.

The brothers split up after that. Baramangolo settled on the right bank of the Niger, in Ségou, and Niangolo built a tata (fort) on the left bank, named Baïko.

Assimilation and Rise to Power

The Bambara quickly moved from the status of refugees to that of protectors, and eventually, of masters of their adoptive land.

The Soninke people, mostly traders and some slave-dealers, had lived in the area for generations before the Bambara brothers showed up. Never much interested in soldiering, the Soninke of Ségou welcomed Baramangolo and his warriors, allowing them to defend their borders. In the Baïko region, the Soninke tried many times to storm Niangolo’s fort, but eventually gave up and formed peaceful relations with the newcomers. That is, until captives brought by the Dioula (another Mandé ethnic group of successful merchants) rebelled and joined Niangolo’s forces.

Bambara Kingdoms of Ségou and Kaarta

Situate these kingdoms on the timeline and in the History of West Africa as a whole.

Map showing the Bambara kingdoms of Ségou and Kaarta among other West African states of the 1800s
Map of West African States in the 1800s, showing the Bambara kingdoms of Kaarta and Ségou.
Source: Encyclopedia of African History and Culture – Vol III, 2001.

Kingdom of Ségou, aka Bambara Empire

In the 17th century, one of Baramangolo’s descendants, Kaladian Coulibaly (r. c. 1652 – 1682), founded the kingdom of Ségou. Though it was one of the dominant forces in the region, it never became stable enough to outlast his death. A few decades later, circa 1712, his great-grandson, Mamari “Biton” Coulibaly, established the Bambara Empire on the very same spot.

Bitonsi Dynasty

Mamari Coulibaly (r. 1712 – 1755) is said to have been endowed with extraordinary strength, born of a mother who brewed dolo (millet beer) and hydromel. He became leader of his ton — an association of young men circumcised at the same time — which earned him the nickname Biton.

Mural depicting Biton Coulibaly, ruler of the Bambara Empire, in Ségou, Mali.
Mural depicting Biton Coulibaly, in Ségou, Mali. (Source)

According to the legends, Biton once surprised the daughter of the river genie, Fâro, trying to steal eggplants from his farm. After pondering what to do with the thief, he decided to spare her life. Ever grateful, Fâro put a drop of milk in each of Biton’s ears, blessing his reign and giving him the ability to hear any plots being planned against him.

During his reign, Biton repelled attacks from the Kong Empire (a Muslim state situated in modern-day Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso), one of them with a swarm of bees. He forced the rival Bambara kingdom of Kaarta further west, and expanded his empire to Bamako in the southwest, to Djenné and Timbuktu in the northeast. Finally, in 1751, he even conquered the capital of the declining Mali Empire, Niani.

Biton’s sons, however, never lived up to his name. Denkoro reigned less than three years (r. 1755 – 1757), executed for tyranny. His brother Ali, a devout Muslim, attempted to convert his subjects to Islam, banning animist cults, traditional worship, and the drinking of millet beer. Incredibly unpopular, he too fell to an assassin’s blade, marking the end of the Bitonsi dynasty, and sending the Empire into chaos.

Ngolosi Dynasty

Ngolo Diarra (r. 1766 – 1790), a freed slave, seized the throne by persuading the war chiefs to swear on magical objects that Biton himself had named him successor. He restored order, consolidating the monarchy and strengthening the Empire’s hold on Timbuktu and Macina. He died in a campaign against the Mossi, having founded a dynasty that would reign until the empire’s fall.

“The view of this extensive city [of Ségou]; the numerous canoes upon the river; the crowded population, and the cultivated state of the surrounding country, formed altogether a prospect of civilisation and magnificience, which I little expected to find in the bosom of Africa.”

— Mungo Park, Scottish explorer, visiting Ségou in 1796.

Monzon Diarra (r. 1790 – 1808) struggled against his brother to succeed their father. He stretched the empire’s borders by conquering Timbuktu for good and seizing the city of Guémou from Kaarta, before passing the torch to his son, Da (r. 1808 – 1827), who followed in his father’s footsteps by repelling the Macina Empire.

A long succession of Da’s brothers followed, but the Bambara Empire of Ségou was in decline and did not live to see another generation of kings.

Kingdom of Kaarta

Illustration of a Bambara man smoking a pipe.
“Type Bambara”, 1885.
Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections

Niangolo’s grandson, Massa (r. c. 1666 – 1710), was a famous farmer and fathered an enormous amount of children. He deployed a clever strategy to grow the realm. Instead of marrying his dozens of daughters to princes, he would offer them to poor men. In exchange for lifting them up, his new sons-in-law swore themselves to him and his cause.

The second part of the plan involved launching raids that would attract strong adventurers and warriors. Massa only allowed these men to join if they proved their worth at farming. This king gave his name to the dynasty, Massasi meaning both “son of Massa” and “descendants of the king”.

Massa’s son Benefali (r. c. 1710 – 1745) followed that strategy to the letter. When Foulakoro (r. c. 1745 – 1754) succeeded his brother, he could not avoid a confrontation with their neighbors and rivals, the Kingdom of Ségou. Though the Massasi had the more authentic claim to nobility — they were descended from the eldest brother, Niangolo, after all — their enemies in Ségou owned the better territory around the river, and boasted a larger and more diverse population of farmers, cattle-herders, traders and warriors, not to mention the capable Biton Coulibaly as a ruler.

It was during Foulakoro’s siege of the city of Mourdia that Biton siezed the chance to defend Kaarta’s enemies. Foulakoro was defeated, taken prisoner, and died in captivity. The Massasi were forced to move further west, licking their wounds. Under the rule of Sey Coulibaly (r. 1754 – 1758) and Deniba Bo (r. 1758 – 1761), Kaarta became semi-nomadic. It reestablished itself, and recovered some of its power through raids, acquiring captives and riches from weaker nations.

Sira Bo (r. 1761 – 1780) of the Massasi dynasty put an end to the nomadic way of life. Establishing a capital in Guémou, he expanded the kingdom, which emerged as a regional power once again.

Kaarta reached its full height under Bodian Moriba (r. 1818 – 1832), who restored Kaarta to its former glory, regaining the territory it had lost. Bodia’s most famous accomplishment was making peace with the Ségou Kingdom, putting an end to the three decades long feud.

Fall of the Kingdoms and French Occupation

Both animist kingdoms fell, Kaarta in 1854 and Ségou following in 1862. They were conquered by the Toucouleur cleric al-Hajj Umar Tall from Senegal, in his jihads to convert them to Islam.

In 1890, the Bambara allied with the French to take back Ségou. Umar Tall’s son, Ahmadou, fled the city without a fight. This marked the end of the brief Muslim empire, and the beginning of life under French occupation.

Sources and Further Reading

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