Kwasi Konadu

Religious Effects of Atlantic Slaving on African Regions

African History 360Kwasi KonaduComment

Toward the end of the seventeenth century, marabout Nasir al-Din launched a religious movement against transatlantic slaving but for the Islamization of the Senegal valley. French colonial official Louis Chambonneau, stationed at the French outpost of St. Louis at the mouth of the Senegal river, was an eyewitness whose reporting of the events to his superiors remains one of the best first-hand accounts Nasir al-Din’s movement. Nasir al-Din was born in the southern Sahara to an elite family of the Traza Moors (so-called “Berbers”). Chambonneau referred to the movement as Toubenan (from the Wolof tuub, “conversion”). Chambonneau and many after him agreed the success of the Toubenan religious movement, though Nasir al-Din was killed, was due to the negative effects wrought by transatlantic slaving.

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The tyranny and avarice of the kings towards the subjects is frequently the cause of their ruin, losses and revolutions of their kingdoms and of other hands arriving by the secret counsels given by a foreign king to the people being malcontent to take up the fist of their king to obtain their own. This is what took place among the people who in order to free themselves from these tyrannies organized themselves into republics.  But no one had seen up to now, a simply priest or marabout, who in this quality, ought to abandon the world to dedicate and vow to [the Islamic] God, whose humility ought to be profound, poverty continual and who ought not hold any more account of all the riches of the Kingdoms than of filth and trash, one has never seen, I tell you, a simple marabout leave his country and go far away in a land where he made the people rise up, and make them kill or drive out their kings under the pretext of religion and divine revelation, to possess himself and govern them, as has taken place in this case.

The said Marabout or priest of the superstition of Muhammad, a Moor by nation, who lived in Barbary, a very ambitious man, was not content with having started a change in customs and religion in his land, and in placing this Toubenan[1], did not look still to run, and know that the Negroes were governed by a king who they did not support except with the yoke of force by tyrannies, pillages and enslavement which they suffered, took a resolution to go in their land and make all that he did.  It seems that the Negroes took to him and quickly followed him.

He wanted at first to send his people to them, to feel out the hearts of those people, to better cover his plan under the mantle of religion, letting it be know that he was not at all trying to usurp the kingdoms and drive out the kings, that he put forth that he want to reform then and take up the toubenan, but to obey the inspiration and will of God, and the good and comfort of the people.  To that effect he committed his people and marabous who went straight to Siratik [Siratic; title of Futa Tooro ruler][2], king of the land of the Foules [Fulbe], the largest and most powerful of that land, to whom he said that they were sent on the part of a the greatest servant of god, after Mahomet, to saw to them that god had revealed to him to show all the kings to change their lives and make them better and to pray the sala more often, to be content with three or four wives, to drive out all the griots [Jeli][3], Baladins[4] and pleasure people around him, and finally that god did not at all want him to pillage his subjects, or kill and take them captive any more, and many other pretty things, the marabous adding that their master had the power of God in case they refused to use iron against them and all other means to drive them from their kingdoms like enemies of God and of his Law and do with them what seemed good to him; to which this king replied laughingly that their master was crazy, and in going to say for his part that there was no one who could control or drive him out.

The said ambassadors replied that he ought not speak this way of their Master or think evil of him that he did not know what he said of him that same hour.  Even though he was over 100 leagues away he could read the hearts of all men, that in a blink of an eye he could come to their land and cross all the rivers with dry feet, Finally having nothing more from king Siratik than mockery, they went to report to their pernicious master that which they had done; he having had the response, he sent them back a second time to the same king, he enjoined them to say to him moreover that he should pay above all something, and help him in all that he could, if he would embrace the new mode of life and religion, that it was the will of God that he was the executor.  That king chased them away without letting them speak and notwithstanding that the Marabout saw well that he did no more good the third time as with the others, he did not stop (in order always to better advance his goal of making those people believe that he was only for religious zeal and liberty) sending his people again up to seven times for these dreams.  The king in order to make those Moors see and understand that he did not want to have any discussion with them, forced them to leave his land with threats that if they returned he would put them cruelly to death.  The Marabout understanding this from the return of his people, left his land of Barbary at the beginning of the year 1673, accompanied by Moorish raiders and brigands of his nation, not with the aim of going to the house of the king to say to him personally what his people had not been able to make him understand, as it would not go well for him having so few people, but to subvert his people and cause them to raise up against him to drive him from his land and in this way to achieve his plan to govern them himself.  Being thus in the lands of that king, he went from village to village, preaching the Toubenon to all the people in the public meeting places. 

He said that he was sent by God for that, that he had announced this many times to their king who wanting nothing to do with it, that God did not permit in any way for kings to pillage and kill nor make his people captives, but on the contrary, to guard maintain and guard them from their enemies, the people—not at all being made for the kings, but the kings for the people; the Negroes listened to him, they saw a man who was not yet thirty years old, who preached penitence while naked, despising all clothing, with his head shaven, who spoke of nothing but the law of God, and of their good and liberty.  With this discourse their faith began to waver and succumbing to the snares of that false lawgiver, they took off their clothes, shaved their hands, redoubled their sala, under no circumstances omitting the least part of the circumstances of that reform of life and after than cried out against their king that he was a tyrant, that he should be defeated, and leaving all their ordinary occupations, and one saw nothing among them but assemblies in the meeting places.  They took up arms against their king, following that Marabout in everything, with which the troop grew more and more with each village that it passed, winning and subjecting all the country, without giving a blow except with his tongue so that he infected them all; such that in a short time he pushed right up to the house of the king who did not imagine any more than that when that Moorish Marabout would be in his talons, he would twist him to make the people who were there slip from him.  That king, completely surprised by an unheard deed, and immediately rose up and prepared himself to meet the rebels, but it was already to late, he had not anticipated that blow, everyone left and abandoned him he was obliged to flee from his kingdom, with very few followers and his family, before anticipating all those people who conspired against his life, all the rest of his country had no more than heard of this news than each one sent to the great Marabout to offer his services and obedience in such a way that in less than a month, all the kingdom of over 300 leagues along the River was reduced to the obedience of that marabou who drove all the village rulers out of their places even if they took his toubenan to assure himself of the country he imposed Marabous his supporters on them, reserving the sovereignty for himself, he had himself called “Bourguli” which means in our language “The Great Master of Prayers.”

Not satisfied with that, he wanted all the kings, to that end he sent to the kings of Guilof [Jolof], Brak [i.e. Waalo] and Cahiore [Kajoor] say to them that they should embrace the toubenan, and when they refused he began with Guiolof or Jalofes [Jolof people] where no sooner had he defeated that king than he imposed a Lieutenant general or Viceroy Marabou, and Marabouts under him in each village.

 From that kingdom he went on to Cahiore or Cape Verde where the kings are called “Dhamel” and killing the king who met him in, he won the battle and the kingdom was placed among those of the toubenan party.

Then he crossed the Niger and went to the Kingdom of Brak [called Waalo] for the same thing, but he found more resistance as that king called “Brakfara” was well loved and respected by his people, and the best part of them armed themselves to support him.  These people were very skillful at arms and wars, more than the people mentioned above, and twice they fought with the numerous army of Bourguli, around four or five thousand massed around the country they wished to take; but finally he could not sustain himself against so many people who were constantly renewed with reinforcements, and attacked him right up to his village, so that one morning the toubenans entered his village by surprise and even his most faithful people, frightened by the news and rumors, fled, leaving their king all alone among two or three of his servants who loved him enough to perish with him rather than abandon him, seeing well that he would die, hardy and valorous as he was, he mounted his house and sold his life dearly, pushing into the mass of his enemies rather than be taken, and he killed a good number with his saguayes [kind of weapons] until he was so pierced by blows that he fell dead from his horse.  These two servants also lost their lives, and thus the kingdom went into the ranks of the others, that is reduced to a province of the power of that Bourguly….


Source: Carson I. A. Ritchie, "Deux textes sur le Senegal, 1673, 1677," Le Bulletin de l'Institut fondamental d'Afrique noire vol. 30, No. 1, Series B (1968): 338-341.


[1] Toubenan: A term Chambonneau used name the religious movement led by Nasir al-Din. The term might derive from Arabic but comes specifically from the Wolof word tuub, meaning conversion (to Islam).

[2] Siratic: French name for the kingdom of Futa Tooro; in fact, the name was the title of its ruler.

[3] Jeli (pl. jeliw): Praise singers, oral historians.

[4] Baladins: Musicians who played the balafon, an instrument resembling the xylophone.