The Journal of African History

Research Article

Innovation and Change in Mende Chieftaincy 1880–1896

Kenneth C. Wylie

This article deals with the evolution of centralized chieftainship in response to changing conditions in a part of Sierra Leone where such organized political controls had not previously been necessary. The transformation which characterized the last decades of the nineteenth century in the Mende chiefdoms of what is now Kailahun District was largely a response to war and invasion.

Prior to the 1880s, ‘Upper-Mendeland’ had been little more than a loose conglomeration of petty chiefdoms made up of groups of tiny self-sufficient villages, united only by loose kinship ties and in common defence in time of danger. Increasing military pressures from within and from without forced these autonomous groups, depending on secret societies and kinship ties for social control, to give way to larger and better-organized chiefdoms with powerful leaders, tributary towns, and in some cases the beginnings of genuine administrative structures. Some of these transformed chiefdoms, such as Luawa and Dia, underwent decisive innovation in remarkably short periods of time. Powerful war-leaders were able to forge strong central controls over their military organizations, and in turn over the political units which they dominated. In some cases these innovations approached those of a bureaucratized state.