As part of a series, TRT World explores fascinating stories of African figures whose contribution to humanity has been largely neglected.
Described as African Napoleon, Samory Toure built a Muslim empire fighting off the French colonisation of West Africa in the 19th Century.
Toure's rise is one of the inspiring examples of resistance in times of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, which heavily influenced West Africa between the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Born in present day Guinea in 1830s, his father was a trader and Toure followed in his footsteps at the age of 15. During these years, he contacted many Islamic scholars and applied the model of Islamic finance to his trading business.
In 1853, his life took a major turn with the kidnapping of his mother by the leader of the powerful Cisse clan. To save her, he quit trading and signed up to be a personal slave of the clan leader, his mother's captor, serving him for seven years, seven months and seven days. His mother was eventually released for his work as a slave. While learning the Quran and increasing his knowledge in Islamic education, he also acquired military skills. He took part in several campaigns under the command of local clan chiefs.
By 1855, Toure returned to his native place and in the next six years he gathered volunteers from the Camara clan. He gave them both military training and Islamic education. In the following years, he became the most powerful military and political leader in the Milo region. He promoted his friends and relatives to various leadership positions in his army.
His military prowess contributed to his expansion from Bamako, Mali, in the north, to the frontiers of Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast, and Liberia in the east and south. In the 1880s he divided his lands into 162 counties and placed his relatives at the top. He made Islamic scholars advisors to the government officials. In 1884, he took the title of Almami, meaning the religious head of a Muslim empire.
He commanded an army of between 40,000 to 65,000 soldiers. He first imported weapons from the British colony Sierra Leone and later founded a gun factory with the help of soldiers who had left the British and French troops. He even captured gold mines near the Sierra Leone-Guinea border, becoming one of the richest kings in the region.
As Toure's realm expanded in the region, he tried to reestablish the historic Mali Kingdom, which existed in Western Africa from 1235 to 1670 and whose rulers and royals were believed to be wealthy and generous.
He became known as a devoted Muslim with impressive social ethics. He sent Quran teachers to almost all the villages of his region to spread Islamic understanding. He personally monitored many students of the Quran, testing their knowledge of the holy book, rewarding the most successful ones.
The students who graduated from the Islamic school played a key role in spreading the word of Islam across the region. Therefore, in Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Islam spread rapidly in the late 19th Century, when Toure ruled the region.
In 1881, as French forces clashed with his soldiers, he gave a befitting reply to the invaders. The gallant efforts made by Toure's army to repel the French invasion helped him earn a nickname — the Napoleon of Africa.
Two years later, however, he couldn’t prevent another French invasion in Bamako.
Following the partition of Africa due to the Berlin Conference in 1884, French troops began encroaching on Mandinka. Despite his army initially defeating the French troops, it was pushed back into the West African interior. French troops often included Senegalese troops to build a strong attack against Toure's army.
Toure's forces inflicted massive damage upon French troops in 1885 in Bure. But as France was decisive in its invasion of West Africa, Toure signed three deals with them. After signing the first agreement in 1886, he left Bure, and a year after he handed over the control of the west bank of Niger to France.
Toure signed the last agreement with France in 1889 and left the area from Tisinko to the Niger River. However, in 1891, France attacked Toure again and he was obliged to leave most important parts of his country to France, including his capital.
Because of the growing French threat against him, he retreated back to the northern sides of the Ivory coast. He targeted Muslim forces who had collaborated with France during his retreat.
By 1898 he had moved to Liberia, as Britain refused to support his resistance against France by denying him the supply of weapons. Toure formed a second empire and established its new capital in the city of Kong, Upper Ivory Coast. On May 1, 1898, when French forces seized the town of Sikasso, just north of the new empire, Toure and his army took up positions in the Liberian forests to resist a second invasion.
This time, however, famine and desertion weakened his forces and the French seized Toure on September 29, 1898. He was sent to Ndjole in Gabon where he died in exile in 1900.
Guinea’s first president Ahmed Sekou Toure was claimed to be Samory Toure's great grandson. Ahmed played a key role in the African independence movement.