During the 19th Century Britain became closely involved with Zanzibar and in 1859 the
Royal Navy helped the island to break away from its Omani rulers. In return the British demanded the abolition
of the slave trade on Zanzibar
territory and a British consul was appointed who more or less dictated British
policy to the Sultan. Meanwhile Germany was acquiring land in East
Africa by direct negotiation with native chiefs, and this alarmed
the Sultan as he claimed possession of key ports along the East African coast
and massive areas of hinterland lying along the old slaving routes into the
interior. In 1875 the Sultan sought to
thwart the German land-grab by giving a 66 year lease of hinterland territory
to Sir William MacKinnon (who had started the British India Steam Navigation
Company) but the British government did not support this and the plan was
dropped, leaving the Sultan to acquiesce to German annexation of the territories
now named Tanzania, Ruanda and Burundi.
German traders were also active further
north and the Denhardt brothers established the Tana Company and made a treaty
with Sultan Ahmed, the ruler of Witu, a stockaded town. This region had a reputation as “bandit
country” as it was a refuge for runaway slaves who escaped from coastal
plantations and slave merchants. The Arab
rulers of Witu defied the Sultan of Zanzibar who claimed authority over the
territory. The German government backed the Denhardts and proclaimed Wituland
to be a Protectorate. Germany also
declared the coast above Witu up to Kismayu as a protectorate.
In 1886 an International Commission
decided, without bothering to consult the Sultan of Zanzibar, that his mainland
territory now consisted of a ten-mile wide strip of territory between Tungi Bay
in the extreme north of present-day Mozambique and Kipini which lies just south
of Lamu in present-day Kenya. Germany
however ignored this Treaty and seized the coastal strip in German East Africa
(as did Portugal further
south), but Britain
acknowledged the Treaty. The following
year the British East Africa Company (also established by Sir William
MacKinnon) was formed to commercially exploit the land north of German East
Africa, and a year later a Royal Charter allowed the title “The Imperial British East Africa Company” (IBEA Company) to
be used. The IBEA Company paid the
Sultan rent to use the coastal strip north of German territory including Mombasa Island, the main port on the coast.
In 1890 Germany
signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty which directly affected the status of
conceded Heligoland (two small islands in the North Sea off the mouth of the
River Elbe) and the Caprivi Strip (between today’s Botswana
and Zambia) to Germany, whilst Germany
agreed to drop claims in Uganda
and around Kismayu. The German-British
border line in East Africa was agreed, and Britain
was free to declare a Protectorate over Zanzibar.
Germany renounced its Protectorate
over Wituland. (The treaty also tidied
up boundary situations in West Africa.) The loss of German protection was not welcome
news to the new Ruler of Witu, Sultan Fumo Bakari, as the presence of the
Germans had kept the Sultan of Zanzibar and his troops at bay.
Germans still resided in Witu and one of
them operated a saw mill. After a
confrontation in the Sultan’s Palace caused by the mill owner and Germans colleagues,
local mobs murdered nine Germans in the Witu area between 15th and
17th September 1890. Public
opinion in Germany was
outraged and Britain
was requested to avenge the deaths and punish Sultan Fumo Bakari. Because the IBEA Company did not possess the
military resources for this task the British Government took action. The Royal Navy was now ordered to dispatch a
punitive expedition to Witu. A squadron
of nine Royal Navy ships, one hired transport and two IBEA Company vessels was
Left: Sir Edmund Fremantle in later years.
Vice-Admiral The Honourable Sir Edmund Fremantle,
Commander in Chief of The East India Station, sailed the squadron from Zanzibar to Lamu
accompanied by the British Consul-General, and sent a letter to Fumo Bakari
requesting that he appear at Lamu with the persons responsible for the killing
of the Germans. A fair trial would then
take place. The Sultan’s reply refused
to accept the request. The Vice-Admiral
now declared Martial Law and on 23rd October 1890 he ordered two of
his Captains to undertake separate punitive missions against villages lying
about 15 miles inland from Lamu on tidal creeks.
Captain the Honourable A.G. Curzon-Howe was told:
are to proceed tomorrow morning with the boats of H.M.S. Boadicea, manned and
armed, to attack Mkonumbi, the object being to punish the inhabitants for the
murder of the German subject Karl Horn.”
Captain John N. McQuhae was told:
are to proceed tomorrow morning with the boats of the Cossack and Brisk, if the
latter ship has arrived in time, to Baltia, to take such steps as may seem to
you advisable to punish the natives for the murder of Mr. Behnke, a German.”
Above: The Advance on Witu 1890
Both Captains accomplished their missions
satisfactorily despite being attacked by groups of the Sultan of Witu’s
men. The Boadicea sailors and marines burned down three minor villages that
offered resistance as well as Mkonumbi.
The Cossack and Brisk sailors and marines had a tougher
time in thick mangrove swamps but burned down Baltia and five smaller
villages. No British losses were
recorded and all the men were back on their ships by nightfall 24th
Fremantle, having ascertained that the bulk of
Fumo Bakari’s fighting men (estimated at up to 5,000 strong) were in or around
Witu, ordered his main force to sail for Kipini Bay. This main force consisted of 750 Blue-jackets
(British sailors) and Royal Marines, 150 Indian Policemen employed by the IBEA
Company and 200 of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s regular troops, all of them armed
with rifles. The support weapons were
four 7-pounder guns, four machine guns and a rocket detachment. The
Vice-Admiral’s staff issued very comprehensive instructions for all operational
and administrative contingencies, using experience gained in West Africa and
A base was established at Kipini and the force, stores and porters hired at Zanzibar and on the coast
disembarked. The landing
was complicated by
the presence of shoals and of a bar that was impassable at low tide but the
base commander and beachmaster, Captain J.W. Brackenbury C.B., C.M.G. (assisted
by Captain W.H. Henderson), ensured that the programme was adhered to. Witu was estimated to be 14 miles away from Kipini.
An Advance Guard under Commander R.A.J.
Montgomerie landed at Kipini during the afternoon of 25th October
and marched three miles towards Witu before erecting a portable water tank,
pouring into it water carried by porters, and building a zareba (a defensive
fence, usually of thorn bushes, protecting a camp or village). At around 2300 hours that night Fumo Bakari’s
troops surrounded and attacked the zareba with about 500 riflemen and 1,500
spear and bow and arrow men. Montgomerie
had 349 bluejackets and marines with him, and the four 7-pounders and the 4
machine guns. The guns were used against
groups of enemy, silencing them. Some of
the attackers advanced to within 50 yards of the zareba, but most enemy
riflemen fired high. Three sailors were
wounded, one seriously, and several more were bruised by bullets that had lost
force coming through the zareba. After
30 minutes of action Fumo Bakari’s men withdrew, leaving blood trails as they
dragged bodies away.
On 26th October Fremantle
detached Lieutenant N.A.H. Budd of the Bombay Staff Corps with 50 IBEA Company Indian
Police and 50 of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s men, and tasked him to use the Boadicea’s boats to move up the Osi River
to seize Kuu. From there he was to
reconnoitre towards Witu and arrest any fugitives fleeing from the main
party. The remaining Zanzibari soldiers
were used to guard the base or as porters.
Left: Blowing in the gate at Witu.
The main force now advanced with
skirmishers ahead, flanking parties to left and right and a rearguard behind
the porters. A hot sun blazed as the men
in their thick European uniforms pulled the guns. The terrain was firstly heavy sand, then a
plain leading into palm trees followed by thick bush and high grass. Tactical formations had to be constantly
adjusted to suit the ground. Halts were
made every hour and a temporary camp was established where water was found,
halfway to Witu along the line of march.
Another zareba was built here and garrisoned by 50 sailors and marines
with two machine guns.
Fremantle pushed on another three or four
miles and at 1630 hours ordered a third camp to be built for a night halt. As the zareba was being constructed the
British came under attack from a few hundred of Fumo Bakari’s men. Detecting that his men, although tired and
dehydrated, wanted to be “up and at them” Fremantle left two Royal Marine
companies to guard the camp and deployed the remainder of the force outside the
zareba to skirmish forward. This action
lasted for about 30 minutes and took the enemy troops by surprise, resulting in
them withdrawing. Three marine gunners
and a Petty Officer were slightly wounded, and the British skirmishers moved
back into the zareba for the night.
Right: The British flag flies over the Sultan's palace, Witu 1890
At 0630 hours on 27th October,
having left 12 sailors and 30 IBEA Company Indian Police to guard the night
camp, Fremantle advanced on Witu. The
British encountered Fumo Bakari’s men two miles out from the town, and
skirmished forward to seize a hill that the guns occupied. The town was now in plain view and Fremantle
formed up his force with the sailors guarding the flanks and the Royal Marines
and one gun being in the centre ready to storm the entrance. The other guns and the rocket detachment
fired in support. When near the gate the
gun with the marines fired two shells and then the guncotton (demolition) party
from H.M.S. Boadicea ran forward and
blew in the sturdy gate. The
Vice-Admiral’s bugler sounded the advance and the marines rushed into Witu,
meeting no opposition and finding only a few wounded enemy. The firepower of the field and machine guns and
the effects of the rockets had been too much for the defenders.
The IBEA Company Indian Police and the
machine gunners were tasked to pursue the retreating enemy but the machine
gunners and their porters were by now exhausted and incapable of supporting the
Police. The pursuit was recalled, the
town was searched and then destroyed by fire and demolition. Notices in Arabic and Swahili were posted
offering a 10,000 rupee award for the apprehension of Fumo Bakari. Two marines and three sailors had been
slightly wounded during the assault on Witu.
Throughout the expedition Fleet Surgeon J.H. Martin had managed the
medical aspects on land.
The British now withdrew towards Kipini
arriving there the next day. Lieutenant
Budd’s detachment withdrew from Kuu; 50 IBEA Company Indian Police were left to
garrison Kipini, and the ships and crews dispersed to their various duty
stations. H.M.S. Humber returned the Sultan of Zanzibar’s troops to their barracks
in Zanzibar. The whole campaign had lasted less than a
place-names in this article have been spelt as you find them on the map.)
Captain the Honourable Assheton Gore
Curzon-Howe, (Left) Royal Navy, was appointed to be an Ordinary Member of the Most
Honourable Order of the Bath.
Fleet Surgeon James Hamilton Martin, Royal
Navy, was appointed to be a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order.
In August 1895 the Admiralty issued the
East and West Africa Medal with Clasp WITU 1890 to those men who had served
actively on the expedition. One
recipient of the medal was Midshipman R.J.B. Keyes of H.M.S. Turquoise, later to become famous as
Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes.
After the expedition the Imperial British
East African Company garrisoned Witu with its Indian Police, but in 1893 the
Royal Navy was required to re-appear on the scene.
The East and West Africa
Medal 1887 to 1900 with Clasp WITU 1890 displayed here was awarded to Petty
Officer 1st Class H. Gardner of H.M.S. Kingfisher. It is shown by kind permission of the
copyright holders the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
Fremantles’ Despatches in London Gazette No. 26122 dated 6th
News No. 2694 dated 6th December 1890.
General Service Medals by R.B. Magor.