1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mandingo

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MANDINGO, the name currently given to a very important division of negro peoples in West Africa. It is seemingly a corruption of a term applied to an important section of this group, the Mande-nka or Mande-nga. The present writer has usually heard this word pronounced by the Mandingo themselves “Mandiña,” or even “Madiña.” It seems to be derived from the racial name Mande, coupled with the suffix nka or nke, meaning “people,” the people of Mande. Then again this word Mande seems to take the varying forms of Male, Meli, Mane, Madi, and, according to such authorities as Binger, Delafosse and Desplagnes, it is connected with a word Mali, which means “hippopotamus” or else “manati”—probably the latter. According to Desplagnes, the word is further divisible into ma, which would have meant “fish,” and nde, a syllable to which he ascribes the meaning of “father.” In no Mandingo dialect known to the present writer (or in any other known African language) does the vocable ma apply to “fish,” and in only one very doubtful far eastern Mandingo dialect is the root nde or any other similar sound applied to “father.” This etymology must be abandoned, probably in favour of Mani, Mali, Madi, Mande, meaning “hippopotamus,” and in some cases the other big water mammal, the manati.[1]

The West African tribes speaking Mandingo languages vary very much in outward appearance. Some of them may be West African negroes of the forest type with little or no intermixture with the Caucasian; others, such as the typical Mandingos or the Susus, obviously contain a non-negro element in their physique. This last type resembles very strongly the Swahilis of the Zanzibar littoral or other crosses between the Arab and the negro; and though nearly always black-skinned, often has a well-shaped nose and a fairly full beard. The tribes dwelling in the West African forest, but speaking languages of Mandingo type, do not perhaps exhibit the very prognathous, short-limbed, “ugly” development of West African negro, but are of rather a refined type, and some of them are lighter in skin colour than the more Arab-looking Mandingos of the north. But in these forest Mandingos the beard is scanty. Occasionally the Mandingo physical type appears in eastern Liberia and on the Ivory Coast amongst people speaking Kru languages. In other cases it is associated with the Senufo speech-family.

Delafosse divides the Mandingo group linguistically into three main sections: (1) the Mande-tamu, (2) the Mande-fu, and (3) the Mande-tã, according as they use for the numeral 10 the root tamu, or fu. Of the first group are the important tribes of the Soni-nké (called Sarakulle by the Fula, and Sarakolé by the French); the Swaninki people of Azer, and the oases of Tishitt, Wadan and Walata in the south-west Sahara; and the Bozo, who are the fishermen along the banks of the Upper Niger and the Bani from Jenné to Timbuktu. The Soni-nké are also known as Marka, and they include (according to Binger) the Samogho and even the Kurtei along the banks of the Niger east of Timbuktu as far as Say.

The group of Mande-tã would include the Bamana (incorrectly called Bambara) of the upper Senegal and of Segu on the Upper Niger, the Toronke, the Mandenga, the Numu of the district west of the Black Volta, the Vai of south-western Liberia, and the Dyula or Gyula of the region at the back of the Ivory Coast.

The group of the Mande-fu includes a great many different languages and dialects, chiefly in the forest region of Sierra Leone and Liberia, and also the dialects of the celebrated Susu or Soso tribe, and the Mandingo tribes of Futa Jallon, of the Grand Scarcies River and of the interior of the Ivory Coast, and of the regions between the eastern affluents of the Upper Niger and the Black Volta. To this group Delafosse joins the Boko dialect spoken by people dwelling to the west of the Lower Niger at Bussa—between Bussa and Borgu. If this hypothesis be correct it gives a curious eastern extension to the range of the Mandingo family at the present day; or it may be a vestige left by the Mandingo invasion which, according to legend, came in prehistoric times from the Hausa countries across the Niger to Senegambia. It is remarkable that this Boko dialect as recorded by the missionary Koelle most resembles certain dialects in central Liberia and in the Ivory Coast hinterland.

The Mandingos, coming from the East and riding on horses (according to tradition), seem to have invaded western Nigeria about A.D. 1000 (if not earlier), and to have gradually displaced and absorbed the Songhai or Fula (in other words, Negroid, “White”) rulers of the countries in the basin of the Upper Niger or along its navigable course as far as the Bussa Rapids and the forest region. On the ruins of these Songhai, Berber, or Fula kingdoms rose the empire of Mali (Melle). Considerable sections of the Mandingo invaders had adopted Mahommedanism, and extended a great Mahommedan empire of western Nigeria far northwards into the Sahara Desert. In the 16th century the Songhai regained supreme power. See infra, § The Melle Empire.

Although the Mandingos, and especially the Susu section, may have come as conquerors, they devoted themselves through the succeeding centuries more and more to commerce. They became to the extreme west of Africa what the Hausa are in the west-central regions. Some of the Mandingo invasions, especially in the forest region, left little more than the imposition of their language; but where there was any element of Caucasian blood (for the original Mandingo invaders were evidently dashed with the Caucasian by intermingling with some of the negroid races of north-central Africa), they imposed a degree of civilization which excluded cannibalism (still rampant in much of the forest region of West Africa), introduced working in leather and in metals, and was everywhere signalized by a passionate love of music, a characteristic of all true Mandingo tribes at the present day. It is noteworthy that many of the instruments affected by the Mandingos are found again in the more civilized regions of Bantu Africa, as well as in the central Sudan. Many of these types of musical instruments can also be traced originally to ancient Egypt. The Mandingos also seem to have brought with them in their westward march the Egyptian type of ox, with the long, erect horns. It would almost seem as if this breed had been preceded by the zebu or humped ox; though these two types are evidently of common origin so far as derivation from one wild species is concerned. The Mandingos maintain the system of totems or clans, and each section or tribe identifies itself with a symbol, which is usually an animal or a plant. The Mandenga are supposed to have either the manati or the hippopotamus as tanna (totem). (Binger states that the manati was the totem of the Mande group, to which perhaps belonged originally the Susu and the Dyula.) The Bamana are the people of the crocodile; the Samanke are the people of the elephant; the Samokho of the snake. Other totems or symbols of special families or castes are the dog, the calabash or gourd, the lion, the green monkey, the leopard, the monitor lizard, a certain spice called bandugu, certain rats, the python, the puff-adder, &c.

Authorities.—The bibliography dealing with the Mandingo peoples is very extensive, but only the following works need be cited: Captain L. G. Binger, Du Niger au Golfe de Guinée, &c. (1892); Maurice Delafosse, Vocabulaires comparatifs de plus de 60 langues et dialectes parlés à la Côte d’Ivoire, &c. (1904); Lieut. Desplagnes, Le Plateau central nigérien (1907); Lady Lugard, A Tropical Dependency (1905); Sir Harry Johnston, Liberia (1906). Most of these works contain extensive bibliographies.  (H. H. J.) 

The Melle Empire.—The tradition which ascribes the arrival of the Mandingo in the western Sudan to the 10th or 11th century is referred to in the previous section. It is not known by whom the Melle (Mali) state was founded. Neither is there certainty as to the site of the capital, also called Melle. Idrisi in the 12th century describes the Wangara (a Hausa name for the Mandingo) as a powerful people, and El Bakri writes in similar terms. But the first king whose name is preserved was Baramindana, believed to have reigned from 1213 to 1235. His territory lay south of that of Jenné, partly within the bend of the Niger and partly west of that river. The people were already Moslem, and the capital was a rendezvous for merchants from all parts of the western Sudan and the Barbary States. Mari Jatah (or Diara), Baramindana’s successor, about the middle of the 13th century conquered the Susu, then masters of Ghanata (Ghana). Early in the 14th century Mansa, i.e. Sultan, Kunkur Musa, extended the empire, known as the Mellistine, to its greatest limits, making himself master of Timbuktu, Gao and all the Songhoi dominions. His authority extended northward over the Sahara to the Tuat oases. Mansa Suleiman was on the throne when in 1352–1353 Melle was visited by Ibn Batuta. By this monarch the empire was divided into three great provinces, ruled by viceroys. For a century afterwards Melle appears to have been the dominant Sudan state west of the Lower Niger, but it had to meet the hostility of the growing power of the pagan Mossi, of the Tuareg in the north and of the Songhoi, who under Sunni Ali (c. 1325) had already regained a measure of independence. Cadamosto nevertheless describes Melle in 1454 as being still the most powerful of the negro-land kingdoms and the most important for its traffic in gold and slaves. The Songhoi sovereign Askia is said to have completed the conquest of Melle at the beginning of the 16th century. It nevertheless retained some sort of national existence—though with the advent of the Moors in the Niger countries (end of the 16th century) native civilization suffered a blow from which it never recovered. Civil war is said to have finally wrought the ruin of Melle about the middle of the 17th century.[2] The Portuguese, from their first appearance on the Senegal and Gambia, entered into friendly relations with the rulers of Melle. Barros relates (Da Asia, Decade I.) that John II. of Portugal sent embassies to the court of Melle by way of the Gambia (end of the 15th century). At that time the authority of Melle was said to extend westward to the coast. The king, pressed by the Mossi, the Songhoi and the Fula, solicited the help of his “friends and allies” the Portuguese—with what result does not appear; but in 1534 Barros himself despatched an ambassador to the king of Melle concerning the trade of the Gambia. By way of that river the Portuguese themselves penetrated as far as Bambuk, a country conquered by the Mandingo in the 12th century. By Barros the name of the Melle ruler is given as Mandi Mansa, which may be the native form for “Sultan of the Mandi” (Mandingo).

See further Timbuktu and the authorities there cited; cf. also L. Marc, Le Pays Mossi (Paris, 1909). Lists of Mandingo sovereigns are given in Stokvis, Manuel d’histoire, vol. i. (Leiden, 1888).  (F. R. C.) 

  1. Indeed it is possible that the European name for this Sirenian—manati—derived from the West Indies, is the corruption of a West African word manti, applied very naturally to the animal by the West African slaves, who at once recognized it as similar to the creature found on the West African coast in their own rivers, and also on the Upper Niger.
  2. On the ruins of the old Melle dominions arose five smaller kingdoms, representing different sections of the Mandingo peoples.