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Queen Nyarroh of Bandasuma, Barri country - 1880 to 1914

25 July 2020 at 22:28 | 1468 views

By Kortor Kamara, PV Special Correspondent, USA

There exists a dearth of historical records and written histography regarding the rise and ascendency to power of Queen Nyarroh of Bandasuma prior to the 1880s.

However, like other women chiefs of her era, such as Madam Yoko, she reportedly ascended the chieftaincy following the death of her late husband, chief Kahjay, and succeeded in making Bandasuma the center of diplomacy and conflict resolution in the upper Gallinas, culminating in her hosting the colonial Governor Rowe, the West African territories Governor, Sir Francis Fleming, Commissioner Aldridge and served as host of treaties like the Lavannah Agreement of May 16, 1885.

Political structure in precolonial Mendi country, according to Professor Arthur Abraham, consisted of nine separate states, with five based on territorial boundaries- Sherbro, Kpa-Mendi, Bumpeh, Lugbu and Gallinas- with the remaining based on loyalty to specific leaders named Makavory, Nyagua, Mendegla and Kai Londo, who functioned as kings.

King Mendegla of Gaura country, the most powerful Mendi King at the time was the overlord of Queen Nyarroh.

Queen Nyarroh’s seat of power, Bandasuma in Barri Chiefdom is often erroneously confused and conflated with Bandajuma in Sowa Chiefdom, both very historical towns in the Pujehun District, even by renowned and published authors.

Bandasuma is geographically described, in the House of Commons Papers, as follows: “beyond the Gallinas country there lies that hitherto unknown tract of country but lately penetrated by Governor Rowe, known as the Barri country. Seldom if ever visited by Europeans and hardly ever by Sierra Leone(Krio) traders. The central principal town is Bandasuma “.

Edmund Peel, an envoy of the Governor made a visit to Queen Nyarroh at Bandasuma on April 20, 1885 and described the town as follows: “ This town here is a large fenced town, by far the largest I have seen. It is situated on the left Bank of the Sulimah River, which is very broad here, but very rocky. I was well received here and have seen all the principal people of the place. The head person is a woman called Mammy Gnaro [Nyarroh] who speaks English very fairly “.

Queen Nyarroh
The House of Commons Parliamentary Papers 1886 - 1889, entitled “Correspondence Respecting Disturbances in the Native Territories adjacent to Sierra Leone”, makes one of the first references to Queen Nyarroh and the central role she played in pacifying the Gallinas country, after several years of fighting following the death of Prince Mannah of Gallinas.

The fact that Queen Nyarroh was fairly able to speak and communicate in English is truly intriguing and serves as testimony to her earlier contacts with Europeans or Krio traders.

However, by 1885 she was being officially acknowledged by the colonial Governor as the ruler of Barri country and one of only five women Paramount Chiefs in the entire hinterland and protectorate of Sierra Leone, as at proclamation of the protectorate, to be appointed a paramount chief in 1896.

Governor Rowe in correspondence to Mr. Edmund Peel, a British envoy , dated April, 1885 instructed the following presents to be taken to Queen Nyarroh, during his visit on April 20, 1885, that: “The boys carry with them 20 lbs of Tobacco as present to Queen Nyarroh and one case of gin and one piece white cloth and one handkerchief as a present to her”.

In 1889, Queen Nyarroh together with the below women Paramount chiefs, namely Madam Yoko of Senehun; Queen Betsy Gay of Bogo, Jong; Queen Kona Kambe of Bagru and Madam Yata of the Massaquoi territory were the only pre-protectorate women Queens.

In an official colonial correspondence between Major Festing, a special envoy of the British West African Governor, Sir Samuel Rowe, dated December 20, 1885, Queen Nyarroh was identified as the most powerful ruler the Governor needed to contact to facilitate an end to the 3 year old raging Gallinas wars.

The Galliness Wars
Before the advent of British colonial expansion into the hinterland of present day Sierra Leone in the 1880s, much of the Gallinas country was embroiled in internecine wars.

These wars started as a dispute between two powerful chiefs of the upper Kittam River, Chief Momo Kaikai and Chief Jabati and their competing allies struggling for the crown of the Massaquoi kingdom and for the lucrative trade routes along the coast.

Boakie Gomma or Bockari Governor, as named by the British, waged wars in the Gallinas country, Sulima and neighboring districts in an effort to assume the Massaquoi Crown. He was supported by Queen Nyarroh, Chiefs Jabati of Bomie, Abdul Lahai of Juring and the most powerful Mendi King, Mendegla.

Opposing Bockari Governor - as he was widely believed to have been behind the killing of the last Massaquoi crown holder, Prince Jaiah - was Chief Momo Kaikai, Chief Fawundu and other down river coastal chiefs.

The British colonial Governor Rowe believed that to end the wars on the coast, he needed to visit the chiefs inland of the Gallinas, who largely held sway over the conduct of the wars. In his visit to the Sherbro and Sulima districts in March 1885, Governor Rowe was directed to Queen Nyarroh “said to be the moving spirit of the disturbances“. However, several bouts of negotiations with the most powerful war chief Kovah, in Barri country ensued before the Governor was finally permitted safe passage into Bandasuma through Fanima for meetings with Nyarroh.

Governor Rowe’s visit in 1885
Governor Rowe visited Queen Nyarroh in Bandasuma on April 25, 1885 and many of the important war chiefs and land chiefs of the upper Gallinas region, including Boakie Gomma, who were executing the war along the coast were present.

It was at these meetings that Queen Nyarroh, Boakie Gomma and many of the upper Gallinas chiefs agreed to follow Governor Rowe to the coast to sign a peace agreement. Rowe spent two weeks in Bandasuma negotiating and having meetings with the chiefs.

The killing of Kovah (Kobah) and sacking of Bandasuma by Ndawa in 1885
The most powerful war chief in Barri, Kovah posed an especial threat to Queen Nyarroh as his loyalty was always suspect resulting from treachery which caused his death in Bandasuma in November 1885, at the hands of war boys loyal to Nyarroh.

The death of Kobah caused the legendary warrior Ndawa to seek revenge against Queen Nyarroh, for the killing of his friend, resulting in the sacking and plundering of Bandasuma on April 11, 1887 and the Queen being taking as prisoner.

Nyarroh was publicly humiliated and hundreds killed and enslaved. She was subsequently transferred to Wondi, Ndawa’s headquarters where negotiations for her freedom ensued with the colonial government through assistance of King Mackavory, Ndawa’s overlord.

The record is not clear as to how Queen Nyarroh was released, either through ransom payments or following Ndawa’s killing in battle with Mendegla’s warriors in July, 1888. Nevertheless, she was reported in Freetown in late 1888 and by September of 1889 was at her hometown of Bandasuma rebuilding.

The protectorate years
The institution of chieftaincy in Sierra Leone is a construct of British colonialism, codified by the 1896 Protectorate Ordinance, which Nyarroh effortlessly transitioned into through her several decades of interactions with the colonial government, both in London and Freetown.

Having signed the Aldridge Treaty of Friendship in 1890, together with other chiefs, she was placed on the colonial government payroll receiving stipends.

Queen Nyarroh was still the Paramount Chief of Bandasuma during and after the hut tax war and remained a political force until her death in 1914.

The emergence and role of women Paramount chiefs in Sierra Leone, though largely a phenomenon only in Mendi country, cannot only be attributed to colonialism, as the ascendency and rule of Queen Nyarroh clearly attests.

As a key ruler during the period of British colonial expansion into the hinterland of Sierra Leone in the 19th century, her role and influence in shaping the ultimate outcome of our history cannot be understated.

Despite largely being overshadowed historically by her contemporary Madam Yoko, in many respects Queen Nyarroh is a far more significant leader in the spheres of diplomacy, mediation and conflict resolution, international interactions and trade and development in the upper Gallinas country.

Nyarroh exhibited such diplomacy and skills in making her town, Bandasuma the seat of all important meetings both for the Freetown based Governor with other chiefs and negotiations among the warring chiefs in the Gallinas, including such powerful Kings as Mendegla or his successor, Batte Kaka; Mackavoray; Jabati.

From serving as host of the Governor in 1885, to signing of the Lavannah Agreement in May 1885, the 1889 Commissioner Alldridge visit; the 1893 meeting between all the chiefs of the region and Sir Fleming, the Governor of the West African territories - Queen Nyarroh cemented her legacy not only as a diplomat but towering political figure that other leaders and the colonial administration gravitated towards.

This meeting also brought together two treaty chiefs Momo Kaikai and Momo Jah, both of whom had been on opposite sides in the Gallinas wars.

It is my hope that more Sierra Leone women especially can study and read about the exploits and tribulations of such women leaders, as Queen Nyarroh and seek to emulate them.