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House of Massaquoi

Manya Seisay

The House of Massaquoi is the ruling clan of the Vai people in southern Sierra Leone and northern Liberia. Some of its members were conquering warlords, others were key players in the gruesome transatlantic slave trade, while some were notable politicians, educators, publishers and authors.

The House of Massaquoi is the ruling house of the Gallines state in southern Sierra Leone and northern Liberia.

Origins of the Massaquoi

Gallines was founded by Gideon, a Mande hunter from the Kamara Clan, who migrated to Sierra Leone from Mali.

The true elite among the Mani traced their origins to the Kamara clan of the Konyan region of Western Sudan.

The Cambridge History of Africa, Volume 4, page 278.

Gideon settled at Gangba in Mano Sakrim Chiefdom. In some texts, Gideon is called Kamara the Great, Jomanni or Joomani.

At Gangba, Gideon married and had a son, Kadehen. In some histories, Kadehan is referred to as Kamara the Younger.

The name was changed from Kamara (Kamala in Vai) to Massaquoi when Gideon sent his sons Kadehen, Fahnbulleh (Fabule) and Kiatamba to conquer land along the southern coast of Sierra Leone.

"The others, who according to tradition were led by Kamala the younger, Fangoloma and Kiatamba, reached the sea at Lake Pisu," from General History of Africa. Vol 4.
“The others, who according to tradition were led by Kamala the younger, Fangoloma and Kiatamba, reached the sea at Lake Pisu,” from General History of Africa. Vol 4.

Members of their followers settled inland and were the forefathers of the Kono people.

Kadehen and his brothers made their way to the coast. When they reached their destination, members of their entourage cried out mansa mu i la goi meaning you are a great king. Thus, they called themselves Massaquoi which means great kings.

They settled among the Gola ethnic group and called themselves Vai moenu which means “those who go forward”. Eventually they became known simply as the Vai.

Kadehen was succeeded by Jaya (also known as Jaia), who expanded the realm called it Jayaloh or Jaiahun which means Jaya’s country.

The transatlantic slave trade

The House of Massaquoi reached the height of its power during the rule of King Siaka, who established the Gallines state in the 19th century.

He commanded a powerful army which he used to consolidate his power by waging vicious wars on other ethnic groups to fuel the gruesome empire he built from capturing, enslaving and selling other human beings.

One of his captives was a Mende farmer called Sengbe Pieh better known as the Freedom fighter Joseph Cinqué of the Amistad rebellion.

Trade records show that King Siaka was selling enough people to European slavers to stock up to four or five vessels a month. At times, these ships were laden with some 5000 souls.

King Siaka became tremendously wealthy from his trade with Portuguese slaver Pedro Blanco.

He grew so powerful that the British commissioned a crown and regalia as a gift for King Siaka. They were the only European style crown jewels given to any monarch in Africa in that era.

Another feature of the Massaquoi Crown Jewels is a Sebbeh necklace and amulet, a Mende tradition, which contains items meant to anoint and protect the monarch.

King Momolu wearing the Massaquoi crown at his coronation.
King Momolu wearing the Massaquoi crown at his coronation.

During the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002), the crown was hidden by the Massaquoi family and buried between the graves of two ancestors.

Today the Massaquoi crown jewels are kept in a secret location at Blama Massaquoi in Sierra Leone.

King Siaka was succeeded by his son King Mannah, who continued to prosper as a slave trader for some time during his reign. However, King Mannah signed a number of treaties that ended his slave trading practice and regional dominance. Thus began the decline of the Massaquoi empire which was eventually dissolved by the British in the early 1900s.

However, the Vai people continued to recognize their royal family and King Mannah was succeeded by King Lahai, King Momolu IV, and Queen Wokie who ruled until 1971. Today, the incumbent is Mamadou Massaquoi.

Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, greeted by Wokie, Queen of the Vai, wearing the Massaquoi Crown Jewels
Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom, is greeted by Wokie, Queen of the Vai, wearing the Massaquoi Crown Jewels that were a gift from Queen Victoria to Wokie’s ancestor King Siaka. Image: Madame Wokie

Notable members

The Massaquoi clan has produced many notable people.

King Momolu IV became a politician and diplomat. To learn more about his life, read Raymond J. Smyke’s biography ‘The first African diplomat: Momolu Massaquoi (1870-1938)’.

When they reached their destination, members of their entourage cried out mansa mu i la goi meaning you are a great king. Thus, they called themselves Massaquoi which means great kings.


Princess Fatima Massaquoi-Fahnbulleh became a famous academic and linguist. Dr. Massaquoi was also the first indigenous African woman to write the story of her life, The Autobiography of an African Princess’. She also translated a Vai children’s story, ‘The Leopard’s Daughter’.

Hans Juergen Massaquoi was the grandson of Momolu IV by his son Al Haj Massaquoi. Born to a German mother, Hans Juergen grew up in Nazi Germany, relocated to the United States and became a journalist. He began his career at Jet Magazine and eventually became the managing editor for Ebony Magazine. To learn more about him, access the short film about his life at Biographics and his autobiography ‘Destined to Bear Witness’.

Sierra Leonean designer Mary-Ann Kaikai (pictured below with Sarah, Duchess of York, in one of her creations) is the granddaughter of Queen Wokie for whom she named the fashion label Madame Wokie.

 
 
 
 
 
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The mother of Siaka Stevens, the first president of Sierra Leone, is said to be a member of the Massaquoi clan. He was named after King Siaka.

For a comprehensive overview of the remarkable life of Fatima Massaquoi and the Massaquoi clan, watch her daughter Vivian Seton speak about her mother’s life in the video below.

Resources

Bibliography

Niane, Djibril Tamsir, ed. General History of Africa. Vol. 4. 8 vols. Africa from the 12th to the 16th Century. London, England: Heinemann, 1984. Page 318.

Christensen, Matthew J. “Cannibals in the Postcolony: Sierra Leone’s Intersecting Hegemonies in Charlie Haffner’s Slave Revolt Drama “Amistad Kata-Kata”.” Research in African Literatures 36, no. 1 (2005): Page 7. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3821316.