Bai Bureh is primarily responsible for Sierra Leone’s independence, as his insurgency against British rule in 1898 sparked the country’s independence. In guerilla warfare against a well-trained, well-equipped British force in 1898, he gained the moniker Kebalai, which means “one who never tires of fighting.”
Bureh and his warriors were a thorn in the side of the British administration, which was relying on spears, swords, slings, and obsolete muskets to defend Freetown, Sierra Leone’s natural harbor.
Bureh possessed superhuman talents and is believed to be bulletproof. He could also turn invisible and stay underwater for long periods of time.
The man who was sent to a warrior training school in Northern Sierra Leone while he was still young had such a reputation. The powerful soldier returned to his birthplace of Kasseh, a community near Port Loko in Northern Sierra Leone.
The Muslim ardent military strategist soon began attacking neighboring towns and rulers who opposed his plan to promote “proper” Islamic and indigenous practices throughout Northern Sierra Leone. He won many of these fights, earning fame, and the people of northern Sierra Leone proclaimed Bureh chief of Northern Sierra Leone in 1886 at the age of 46, believing they had discovered a top warrior who could defend them and their territory.
Bureh, as a king, refused to work with the British administration in Freetown, the country’s capital. His defiance of British colonial power began with a cross-border raid on British troops and a refusal to recognize a peace treaty negotiated with the Limba people in the north without his participation.
The “hut tax,” imposed by the British in 1893, was the final straw, requiring Sierra Leoneans to pay for the right to live in their own land. To pay for the levy, many people ended up working as laborers.
Bureh never obeyed the “hut tax,” instead of emphasizing that Sierra Leoneans should be left to their own devices. The British quickly issued an arrest order for Bureh, with the British governor offering a reward of 100 pounds for his apprehension. Bureh’s initial response was to offer a massive 500-pound reward for the governor’s capture — interestingly.
Then came the large-scale guerilla insurrection known as the 1898 hut tax war, which lasted 10 months. Bureh gathered warriors from the Temne tribe in the Northern Province, as well as the Soso, Loko, and Limba villages, under his leadership after declaring war against the British.
With no formal training, his fighters battled off the most highly trained and disciplined British forces for months, killing many of them due to their expert understanding of the terrain.
“Bureh’s forces shocked the British troops time and time again, subjecting them to devastating fire from behind disguised war walls, before slipping away unobserved into the bush,” reports The Sierra Leone Web.
Bureh and his troops were not defeated by British forces until November 11, 1898, when he was ultimately caught and sent to Freetown under guard. His countrymen in Freetown would swarm the quarters where he was being held as a political prisoner almost every day, hoping to catch a sight of the man they now consider a hero.
Bureh was exiled to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) by the British, but he was brought back in 1905 and reinstated as the chief of Kasseh before his death in 1908.