By Spy Uganda
Among all the European countries, the British had the most African states under their rule. They fought several African kingdoms, killing their rulers and weakening their armies in order to take control.
Despite the existence of several weaker kingdoms that gave in to the British Empire easily, other African states gave them a hard time. These African states were ruled by strong and courageous kings or chiefs who protected their kingdoms for as long as they could. This led the British to exile many of them, where they were left to die or live for several years by which time the British had successfully taken control over their states.
Bai Sherbro Kpana Lewis was one of the chiefs who was exiled by the British for resisting colonial rule. He was the last great ruler of all the Sherbro, a native people of Sierra Leone, who speak the Sherbro language. Kpana Lewis had authority over almost all Sherbro rulers and was a thorn in the flesh of the British administration that was then using Sierra Leone’s natural harbor Freetown as its capital.
Even though Sierra Leone’s great hero and military strategist Bai Bureh helped start the fight for freedom and independence thanks to his 1898 uprising against British rule, some say that Kpana Lewis was the brain behind the revolt. And so when he and Bai Bureh were exiled by the British to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) following the 1898 rebellion, Bai Bureh was allowed to return from exile but Kpana Lewis was not. He remained in exile in the Gold Coast, where he died.
Born in 1830 in Sherbro Island in the Southern Province of British Sierra Leone to a family of the Sherbro aristocracy, Kpana Lewis became leader of the Sherbro people in 1879 following the death of his father. Decades before this, his grandfather, Bai Kong Kuba Lewis, who was the most dominant king among all of the Sherbro people, had signed a treaty ceding Sherbro to the British in 1825.
At the time Kpana Lewis became leader of the Sherbro people, many of the provinces of the Sherbro Kingdom had become autonomous but he was able to bring some of them back under his control. He was able to do this with the help of the Poro, a secret society that he was part of. It was that secret society that helped him achieve so much power to defy colonialists.
In 1893, the British imposed the infamous “hut tax” demanding Sierra Leoneans to pay for the right to live in their own land. Many ended up working as laborers to pay for this tax. Kpana Lewis and other rulers including Bai Bureh were against this “hut tax”, stressing that Sierra Leoneans should be left alone to handle their own affairs.
Kpana Lewis even led a group of chiefs to Freetown to protest the tax. There, the British Governor made it known to him that the Sherbro was not affected by the tax. Still, Kpana Lewis would not allow the other rulers affected to be protesting alone so when he returned to his kingdom, he started using the Poro, which worked like the present police force and the judiciary system, to fight against the tax.
He used the Poro to carry out a boycott of trade with Europeans and Krio traders, who were seen to be supporting the colonialists. The British immediately had to pass a law to make it a criminal offense to use the Poro to boycott trade.
And then the large-scale guerilla revolt otherwise known as the 1898 hut tax war that lasted for ten months and was led by Bai Bureh began. Having declared war on the British, Bai Bureh brought warriors from the Temne group in the Northern Province, as well as from the Soso, Loko and Limba villages, under his command. His fighters, with little formal training, fought off the most highly trained and disciplined British forces for months, killing many of them as they had expert knowledge of the terrain across which the war took place.
The British later accused Kpana Lewis of being behind the revolt. They first detained him as a suspect before he and Bai Bureh were exiled to the Gold Coast. The British subsequently installed their own nominee, Fama Yani, as Bai Sherbro. They never allowed Kpana Lewis to return from exile, fearing that his return would cause the overthrow of Fama Yani.
So even though Bai Bureh returned, Kpana Lewis continued to be held in exile. His son protested this and the Anti-Slavery Society in London even stepped in but the British were adamant. Kpana Lewis died in the Gold Coast in 1912 after being held in exile there for more than 10 years.