When you find yourself appearing on a country’s bank notes, it’s probably fair to say that you have made it as a national hero or heroine. In 2010 this honour was bestowed upon 19th century Sierra Leone Chief and military leader Bai Bureh when his portrait appeared on the country’s 1000 Leones bank note.
I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Sierra Leone in March this year thanks to funding from the Art Fund Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant. Leeds Museums & Galleries has had close links with the Friends of the Sierra Leone National Railway Museum since 2015 and one of our Leeds-built locomotives is twinned with another Leeds engine in the collections of the African museum. We were delighted to host members of staff from the museum at Leeds Industrial Museum in 2019.
When I was wandering round the National Museum in the capital city of Freetown, I almost bumped into a life-size statue of Bai Bureh. At the time I knew next to nothing about the man who was to carve himself out a key place in West African history.
In early 1898, the Colonial authorities decided to impose a ‘Hut Tax’ upon the Colony of Freetown and the Protectorate of Sierra Leone. The British had just begun building an ambitious railway in order to extract the territory’s rich natural resources and Governor Frederic Cardew was determined to make the local population pay at least some of the costs. As the Illustrated London News reported,
‘The revenue of the colony was insufficient, and the construction of railways and other public works was deemed expedient . . . and it was decided to impose a hut tax upon the Protectorate’.
A frequent ally of Britain up to that point, Bai Bureh now led a ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’ – style revolt against this poll tax by any other name. Bai Bureh’s skills in military strategy resulted in a rout of the British forces for much of 1898 in what the British press called a ‘little war’. Between February and September 1898 British losses amounted to ‘nineteen officers, six of whom died, and nearly three-hundred non-commissioned officers and men.’
An increasingly desperate Governor Cardew offered a bounty of £100 for the capture of Bai Bureh. Not in the least cowed, Bai Bureh styled things out with a counter-offer of £500 for the apprehension of the Governor.
Once regrouped, the Colonial forces took brutal revenge for the rebellion, burning villages and crops in the rebel areas. Even the normally gung-ho British press questioned the savage response to the rebellion: the Illustrated London News noting that the ‘punitive expedition did not behave too tenderly with the women and children of the Timini tribe, and that this fed the flame of rebellion.’
Bai Bureh eventually surrendered on 11 November 1898. In what may have been a token of respect for his military prowess and the validity of the rebellion, Bai Bureh was categorized as a politician prisoner. Rather than executing him, the authorities exiled him to The Gold Coast (now Ghana).
Despite the grudging respect afforded in Britain to the Sierra Leonian Chief, it was usually underpinned by the sneering racist contempt typified in a Bristol Daily Press report of the time: ‘Bai Bureh is not precisely Beau Brummell nor is he fully qualified to become, for example, a President of the British Association. But though his progress towards civilisation may fall somewhat short of the ideal, the West African chief is neither a fool nor a criminal.’
Arguably, Bai Bureh had the last laugh. He returned from exile to Sierra Leone in 1905 and was reinstated as Chief of Kasseh – the first steps in his reputational rehabilitation. By contrast, Governor Cardew’s tactics were censured in a Government enquiry into the ‘Hut Tax’ fiasco and his career declined. Remaining true to his strongly-held principle of making colonised people pay for their own colonisation, Colonies Secretary Joseph Chamberlain ruled that the tax, which he admitted ‘is really a poll tax’, should continue to be levied.
In much the same way that Scots (and Hollywood) revere the guerrilla fighter William Wallace and his struggle against a more powerful oppressor, Sierra Leonians have since elevated the Chief to the status of national icon. As well as appearing on the nation’s currency and gracing the National Museum, his legacy lives on in the public imagination in acts of remembrance like the capital’s Peace and Cultural Monument and the name of the Bai Bureh Warriors professional football club.
Following my visit to Sierra Leone, Leeds Museums & Galleries have included a range of the country’s bank notes in our collections. The Bai Bureh 1000 Leones note takes pride of place among these, helping us to build new narratives about the continent and people of Africa.
By John McGoldrick, Curator of Industrial History