The Moroccan sultanate’s invasion of the central Sudan in 1591 toppled the Songhai empire and left a power vacuum that Morocco’s proxy rulers, the foreign-born arma, were unable to fill. The seventeenth century was thus a period of political and social instability as the arma’s weak control over the region was repeatedly tested by insurgent forces both inside and outside the territory. In the area of the central Sudan that is now southern Mali, the Bamana peoples began to emerge as a regional power in the mid-1600s. Along the Niger River, the town of Ségou-Koro became the center of two consecutive Bamana states, of which the second, formed in the first half of the eighteenth century, was the longer lived. Unlike some polities whose leaders or forms of governance were imported from elsewhere (such as Lunda state), the political model of Ségou evolved out of indigenous social structures based on hunting, agriculture, and male age-grade associations. Originally designed to enforce communal responsibility and social equality, these societal forms were rendered into tools for dynastic rule and territorial expansion.
The Development of the Ségou State
Although a Bamana state centered at the village of Ségou-Koro flourished briefly in the middle of the seventeenth century under the hunter and warrior Kaladian Coulibaly, it was his descendant Mamary Coulibaly, called Bitòn, who established a lasting polity in this region. The primary mechanism that enabled Bitòn to accumulate power was the tòn, an association composed of men who had undergone their circumcision initiation together as a group. Traditional Bamana society was a gerontocracy governed by a council of elders, and the tòn enabled young Bamana men to organize themselves into a workforce and represent their interests to their superiors. An association of equals based on principles of mutual assistance and shared resources, the tòn elected a headman who ensured that these values were upheld.
Bitòn was selected to lead his tòn sometime after 1700. Through intrigue and alliance, he augmented his own power and restructured the association so that battle, rather than agriculture, became its primary function. By 1712, Bitòn had used his military strength to displace the elders and install himself as the region’s paramount authority. From this point until his death in 1755, Bitòn expanded the territory under his control to include the great trading centers of Macina and Jenne. Timbuktu, while retaining its autonomy, paid Bitòn tribute (it was later conquered by Ségou around 1800). After a brief period of civil war following Bitòn’s death, Ngolo Diarra, reputedly a Coulibaly family slave, gained control of the empire and established the Diarra dynasty, which ruled Ségou until the mid-nineteenth century.
Bamana Courtly Arts
Just as political forces reshaped the tòn, some Bamana art forms were realigned for use by the state. The verbal arts in particular were elaborated and refined, and the historical epics composed and performed by court jeliw (sing. jeli), a hereditary class of singers who chronicled the lives of wealthy patrons, flourished at this time. Many of the oral chronicles that sing the praises of the Coulibaly and Diarra clans have survived to the present day and provide an important source of information about the Bamana past. Arts of traditional Bamana power associations like kòmò and kònò were also incorporated into the state system. Originally, these associations used objects such as boliw (sing. boli) (1979.206.175), large altars composed of diverse, metaphysically potent substances, to harness vast resources of supernatural energy for social and spiritual purposes. Under Bitòn and the Diarra rulers, certain important boliw became tools for the acquisition and maintenance of political power. Four principal boliw, and several others of slightly lesser significance, were kept in the ruler’s treasury and employed in ceremonies that demonstrated and reinforced state power. The names of two of these boliw are still remembered today: Bakungoba (“Big Forest Mother”) and Nangoloko (“Birth Business”). The references to generation and fertility suggest that boliw were viewed as the ultimate sources of royal strength and efficacy.
Architecture was also an important creative medium in the Ségou state. Dynastic histories report that many of Ségou’s rulers built imposing palaces in the cities over which they ruled. Due to the ephemeral nature of the mud brick from which they were constructed, however, none of these buildings appear to have survived to the present. Perhaps the best examples of Bamana urban architecture can be found at Ségou-Koro, the birthplace of the Ségou state. These are typically one- and two-storied structures with flat roofs, built out of sun-dried mud brick and faced with stucco. The thickness of their walls result in deeply set windows and doorways that produce patterns of dark shadow that cool their interiors and enliven their facades. Among the most elaborate and beautiful of these old buildings are mosques studded with wooden posts called toron. Islam had established itself in the region by the end of the eighteenth century, and an important complex of three mosques in Ségou-Koro became a locus of Muslim pilgrimage. This site has explicit connections to Ségou’s dynastic rulers and includes Bitòn’s tomb. Although not a Muslim himself, Bitòn remains a key symbol of local identity and history, and the significance of his memory is indicated by his proximity to these important structures. Like all mud architecture of the region, the tomb has been continuously restored over time and it is unclear whether its present incarnation reflects its original form.
Bortolot, Alexander Ives. “The Bamana Ségou State.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bama_1/hd_bama_1.htm (October 2003)
Banbera, Tayiru. A State of Intrigue: The Epic of Bamana Segu According to Tayiru Banbera. Edited by David C. Conrad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Colleyn, Jean-Paul, ed. Bamana: The Art of Existence in Mali. New York: Museum for African Art, 2001.