(Kevin Patience)



The term ‘Send a gunboat’ came to represent the ultimate in policing a foreign dissident and hostile territory.   The Witu expeditions on the east coast of Africa were classic examples of Gunboat Diplomacy as practised by the Royal Navy during the height of the Victorian Empire.   For many years the harbour at Zanzibar was the base for the Navy’s anti-slavery patrols, with its headquarters in the former ship of the line H.M.S. LONDON.   Many of the casualties from ships stationed there who died from accidents, disease or the slaver’s bullet were either buried at sea or in the naval cemetery on Grave Island.   Over the entrance were the words ‘Waves may not foam nor wild wind sweep, where rest not England’s dead’.   A plaque in English and Swahili on the wall in Zanzibar Cathedral states ‘To the glory of God and in memory of the British Sailors who have died at this station in the service of their country and for the cause of freedom.   Jesus, be thou their rest’.


In the last years of the 19th century vast tracts of East Africa under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Zanzibar came under a fierce land grabbing contest between Germany and Great Britain.   The matter was settled with the Treaty of Berlin signed in July 1890 in which the mainland territory was divided into British and German East Africa by a line from Lake Victoria around the northern base of Mt. Kilimanjaro to the Indian Ocean.   Zanzibar became a British Protectorate and the Sultan was left with a five hundred mile long, ten mile wide strip along the coast.   In all, an area of 5,000 square miles, extending from the Lamu Archipelago in the north near the Somaliland border to the Rovuma River bordering Portuguese East Africa, with the exception of the small Sultanate of Witu.   This tiny enclave, ruled by Ahmed bin Fumo Bakari (nicknamed Simba, the Lion) had previously accepted a large number of guns and ammunition from the Germans.   From contemporary accounts Witu was little more than a stockaded village with an adjacent forest of hardwood some twenty-five miles west of Lamu and ten miles inland from the coast.   With the expansion of British interest in the region there were a number of minor uprisings, and over the next six years the Royal Navy was to play a significant part in maintaining law and order on the mainland.


In August 1890, a German trader, Herr Kuntzell, who had been resident in Witu, set up a saw mill.   He had neither the right nor authority to exploit the forest and was warned to desist since it was held that powerful spirits lived in the trees.   Matters came to a head on the morning of 15 September when he and his men returned to find the Sultan’s armed men outside their house.   Kuntzell demanded an interview with Bakari, but was told to wait.   Taking matters into his own hands, he and eight others attempted to force an entry into the stockade;   five succeeded and were shot, one of whom managed to escape.   A German youth left in charge of the saw mill was killed in cold blood the following day and another German killed two days later and his property looted.   A request by a German Government representative to bury their dead was refused.


When the news reached Zanzibar and later Europe there was much indignation.   The German Government demanded Britain should punish the guilty and exact compensation.   However, it was shown that as the area was not under British jurisdiction they were not responsible.   Nevertheless the British undertook to bring the Sultan to task.   The British Agent, Colonel Euan-Smith, based in Zanzibar, in accordance with instructions from London asked Admiral The Hon. Sir Edmund Fremantle, C-in-C of the Royal Navy’s East Indian Squadron, to take action.   On 16 October he wrote the first of five confidential memos on board H.M.S. BOADICEA to the Commanding Officers of the squadron, in which he stated that it was proposed to summon the Sultan of Witu to appear at Lamu to be tried by a mixed tribunal appointed by himself and Euan-Smith and to declare martial law over Witu, Lamu and certain parts adjacent to Witu.   In the case of a no-show situation, a naval expedition was to march on Witu to procure redress or to inflict punishment.


The naval force was to consist of 700 combatants and 150 non-combatants with four 7pdr and four machine guns and rockets, to be landed at Kipini.   Gun limbers were to be packed with 12 rounds of double shell and 12 rounds of shrapnel.   The force would not be away more than 48hrs and all men were to carry 24hrs provisions.   Water bottles were to be filled with cold tea.   Dress instructions included helmets, belts and braces, knives, pistols and swords, haversacks, spades and blue serge suits and eighty rounds of ammunition per man for those carrying rifles.


The second memo detailed landing instructions and personnel disbursement with regard to mustering points ashore marked by flags on poles.   To avoid accidentally shooting native porters not in uniform they had to wear a red distinguishing mark.   Officers were expected to arrange carriage of their own baggage.


The third memo detailed the landing of an advance party to make its way towards Witu and camp before nightfall, to await the remainder of the force the following day.   In case of serious attack the company was to form into a defensive square or if sporadically attacked then men were to be detailed to put the enemy to flight.   Great emphasis was put on bringing tea, cocoa, sugar and of course the kettle!   Spirits would be issued in the evening.   When skirmishing, officers should encourage men to advance as this most disconcerts savages, and finally the obstacle to be overrun with the dash and spirit of British Sailors.   There was also a map of the supposed features surrounding Witu.


The fourth memo contained details of the camp arrangements, cooking, bugle calls, sentries and also that no nuisance was to be committed anywhere in the camp except in the appointed places.


The final memo laid out the disposition of men and arms for the march on Witu.   The Declaration of Martial Law read as follows:


In compliance with instructions received from Her Britannic Majesty’s Government, I hereby declare Martial Law throughout the sultanate of Witu from Noon on the twenty-first day of October until further notice.


                Signed E. R. Fremantle

                Vice Admiral and Commander-in-Chief of the Naval Forces of Great Britain in the East Indies.

                Dated on board H.M.S. BOADICEA at Zanzibar this twentieth day of October 1890.


On 20 October the task force of nine warships consisting of H.M.S. BOADICEA (Capt. Hon. A. G. Curzon-Howe), BRISK (Cmdr. Winsloe), CONQUEST (Capt. Henderson),  COSSACK (Capt. McQuhae), HUMBER (Lt. Brown),         KINGFISHER (Cmdr. Gardiner), PIDGEON (Lt. Floyd), REDBREAST (Lt. Keary) and TURQUOISE (Capt. Brackenbury), together with three transports, S.S. SOMALI, JUBA and HENRY WRIGHT sailed for Lamu.   This expedition consisted of nearly eight hundred sailors and marines together with one hundred and fifty Indian police of the Imperial British East Africa Company led by Captain A. S. Rogers, two hundred Zanzibari troops and over two hundred and fifty native Seedies from the ships.


The ships anchored off Kipini at the mouth of the Tana River while BOADICEA, COSSACK and BRISK dropped anchor in Lamu harbour.   Lamu was a small Arab town with a sheltered harbour, well known for the export of mangrove poles to the Middle East by dhow.   Two armed parties, accompanied by comrades of the murdered Germans set off up the harbour on 24 October to the villages implicated in the murders.   The back waters of the Lamu archipelago are an inhospitable maze of small mangrove-lined channels and creeks where it was quite easy to lose one’s way.   They met with little opposition and the villages of Hidio and Mkonumbi were burnt to the ground.   the following day a base camp was established at Kipini and an advance party of two hundred men with the 7pdr guns pushed forward three miles through the dense bush and high grass towards Witu and set up camp.   On the morning of the 26th the remainder of the expedition set out under Admiral Fremantle and that day covered seven miles before sundown.   That night Bakari attacked the camp causing three casualties.


The last three miles were interspersed with random attacks from the thick bush before the troops formed up outside the stockade.   The cannons were brought to bear and the 7 pdr shells crashed into the centre of the village bringing down the mud and palm thatch huts in dusty heaps.   Never having been at the receiving end of high explosive, Bakari and his nearly three thousand men soon fled into the bush.   Their defense was, to say the least, half-hearted.   Covering fire from the guns enabled a gun cotton party to demolish the gate and storm the village.   The fighting was over very quickly and the remainder of the day was spent blowing up ammunition, gunpowder and burning the remaining huts to the ground.   The next day the force returned to Kipini with thirteen wounded and sailed for Zanzibar.   Bakari’s losses were estimated at between seventy or eighty killed and wounded not forgetting numerous goats and chickens.   On 15 November the area was declared a British Protectorate but nothing was done towards administering the territory.  Bakari died soon after and was succeeded by his brother Shehe who announced he would surrender the murderers and make peace with the British.   He was promptly deposed and imprisoned while a second brother Fumo Oman took over.


In March 1891 agreements were signed on the part of the British Government, the Imperial British East Africa Company and the notables and people of Witu.   Under the new agreement the British company administered the area and slavery was abolished although it was another five years before all were freed.   Two hundred and fifty Indian police were brought in under the command of Captain Rogers to maintain law and order.


Within a few months it was evident that peace would not last when it was found that Oman had taken to harassing the countryside around the village of Jongeni northeast of Witu.  After an unsuccessful attempt at peaceful diplomacy in July, Rogers led an armed attack on Jongeni in March 1893 but with no gunpowder or cannon they were unable to destroy the stockade.   In April H.M.S. PHILOMEL arrived in Lamu and together with the help of the British Commissioner at Witu, Oman and his followers were persuaded to return to their allotted villages.   A month later he was back in the forests with hundreds of armed supporters and in February 1893 became openly defiant, demanding the release of his men imprisoned for raiding.   His letter addressed to the administration read as follows “Between this and Witu there is no sea.  Let me know if you and I are to be at peace no longer.   My arm is long and not short.   I know no man with whom I would go to war.   As soon as you read my letter, release my people.”


In May the directors of the I.B.E.A. Co. informed the Foreign Office that they intended to terminate their administration agreement of 1891 and withdraw the remaining police.   Although contested by the Foreign Office, the date of withdrawal was set for 31 July.   In the meantime the British Consul General in Zanzibar, Mr Rennell Rodd, was instructed to take over the territory on behalf of the British but under the jurisdiction of the Zanzibar Government without the use of force if possible.   Knowing this was unlikely, he requested assistance with a naval party from Admiral Frederick Bedford the new C-in-C of the East Indies Squadron.   On 17 July, three warships, H.M.S. BLANCHE (Capt. Lindley), SWALLOW (Cmdr. Sampson) and SPARROW (Lt. Cole) together with the Zanzibar ship BARAWA carrying Sir Lloyd Mathews, the Sultan’s Advisor, Brigadier-General Hatch, i/c Zanzibar Militia, one hundred and twenty five askaris and fifty Sudanese troops departed for Lamu.


On arrival, letters were sent to the principal chiefs at Pumwani and Jongeni inviting them to Witu to discuss matters.   Porters were recruited and on the 23rd the expedition sailed round Lamu Island to Mkonumbi before setting off for Mkumbi, six miles inland where a base camp was established.   Rodd, Mathews and Capt. Lindley, together with an armed escort set off for Witu where on the 31st the I.B.E.A. Co. flag was replaced with the red flag of Zanzibar.   Oman had meanwhile made nothing but excuses for not appearing at Witu despite the offer of hospitality and security.   Information from native sources indicated that he was in fact preparing defences around Pumwani, a village deep inside a forest.   Fearing a possible attack Rodd despatched H.M.S. SPARROW to Zanzibar to collect a field gun.   Having completed formalities at Witu the party returned to Mkumbi where the 9pdr gun arrived on 4 August.   The next morning the expedition set off in single file along a narrow path for Pumwani, the line extending nearly half a mile with the field gun being pulled by relays of thirty five men.   The naval force consisted of ten officers, one hundred and twenty one seamen, thirty six marines, five Kroomen, five Seedies and three interpreters, with General Hatch leading seventy askaris and two hundred porters.


The oppressive heat, mosquitoes and safari ants did little to aid the party and it was with great relief that a camp site was found in the late afternoon.   They had covered seven miles.   As they approached Pumwani the next morning, shots were fired and it was evident that the inhabitants were prepared to fight.   There were numerous defensive pits in the surrounding bush all providing a heavy fire, together with camouflaged pits with sharpened stakes for the unwary.   The entrance to the village was a gate built from heavy tree trunks and the shells from the field gun had little effect as did the rockets.   It was the gun cotton party under a covering fire that saved the day and demolished the gate.   The sailors and marines stormed the village whereupon the defenders beat a hasty retreat down numerous paths leading into the forest.   The action had taken two hours with one sailor and a Sudanese killed and fifteen wounded.   A second village was found nearby and before leaving, the crops, defenses and villages were burnt to the ground.   Oman had once again returned to the forests.   For this action nine officers and men were mentioned in despatches.


The return journey was uneventful and Rodd despatched a letter to Jongeni demanding its surrender.   After a lapse of two days with no reply, the party took to the warpath again on 12th August heading for Jongeni.   The same procedure was used to gain access and within an hour the place was overrun, with only four wounded.   The remainder of the day was spent destroying the fields of maize and three surrounding villages before departing at noon the following day.   One outcome of the expedition was the number who went sick with malaria.   Of the forty one, twenty eight were marines.   The ship’s Surgeon considered that the marines’ clothing rendered them more likely to catch malaria than the sailors.   Fourteen officers and men were mentioned in despatches.


To maintain law and order in the area, Sudanese and Zanzibari soldiers were based at Kmumbi and a number of outposts.   Oman made two more raids in September which were followed by the arrival of H.M.S. BLANCHE, SPARROW, RACOON and SWALLOW at Lamu in October.   A further expedition under General Hatch consisting of one hundred and forty sailors and eight five troops surprised the outlaws and destroyed a number of villages.


Oman died shortly afterwards and a chief who had been the headman at Witu, Omar bin Hamid was appointed the new Sultan by the British in July 1895 and peace returned to the region.   Rogers went on to distinguish himself in the service of the Zanzibar Government when he became the island’s second Prime Minister inn 1901 when Lloyd Mathews died.   He retired in 1905 having also acted as regent from 1902 for the then young Sultan Ah bin Hamoud on the death of his father Sultan Hamoud bin Mohammed.


The London Gazette of 12 December 1893 announced that Captain Lindley was appointed to be a Companion of the Bath in recognition of his leadership of the naval force and Sir Lloyd Mathews was appointed a Knight of the Order of St. Michael and St. George in the new year.


The silver medal awarded was the East and West Africa which was similar to the Ashantee Medal and depicted a scene of bush fighting between British troops and natives.   If officers or men were in possession of the latter medal then they would receive only the appropriate bars.   The former had been instituted inn 1887 and covered numerous small campaigns and expeditions on the African continent.   The medal roll shows some 1,059 Naval personnel and 295 Seedies were entitled to the medal and clasp WITU 1890.   There were other personnel including the I.B.E.A. and Zanzibari contingent also entitled.


For the second expedition 200 naval personnel, 34 Seedies and five others including Sir Lloyd Mathews, Mr Rennell Rodd, Brigadier General Hatch, Captain Rogers and Dr Rae, the medical officer, received the medal and clasp WITU AUGUST 1893.   Although the latter bar is not strictly true since WITU did not figure in the action, it is in fact surprising that the clasp did not read LAMU AUGUST 1893 as it was referred to as the scene of operations in the London Gazette.   Both clasps are relatively common and seen regularly in sales catalogues.   There do not appear to be any known medal rolls for the Sudanese or Zanzibari troops and no medals were awarded for the third expedition under General Hatch in October 1893.


A second silver medal was instituted by the Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamid bin Thuwaini (1893-96) with clasps for the actions at Pumwani and Jongeni and awarded to the troops under General Hatch.  The obverse showing the bust of the sultan surrounded by an Arabic inscription reading ‘Seyyid Hamid bin Thuwaini, Sultan of Zanzibar, 1313’.   These medals are occasionally seen in a group or as a single item.


The I.B.E.A. Co. also issued a silver medal in 1890 to European and native troops for bravery and campaign service.   The obverse showing a crowned radiant sun with a motto ‘Light and Liberty’ and the inscription ‘The Imperial British East Africa Company’ around the circumference.   As the first Witu expedition occurred during the company’s tenure the medal was awarded to Captain Rogers and the native troops that took part.   The rarest of the medals for the campaign, they have only been seen as part of groups to native troops.   A single example minus suspender is mounted on a board listing past committee members in the Nairobi Club.


Reading between the lines, it would appear that the first expedition was overkill in terms of personnel and logistical support for what amounted to a one day operation; hence when Rennel Rodd requested assistance on the second occasion, the Navy’s response appears to have been less enthusiastic.  Even the Admiral did not get involved on this occasion.


The author spent some time in the Lamu area researching the local aspect of the Witu campaigns and travelled extensively around the archipelago tracing the routes of the expeditions.   The villages of Jongeni, Mkumbi and Pumwani no longer exist and the positions on the map are approximate.   During a visit to Kipini, the local African administrator showed him a number of overgrown graves in the bush.   Two of these were the last resting places of British District Officers who had succumbed to despair and committed suicide.   Kipini had apparently been one of the least desirable postings in the days of the Empire.   A third grave mentioned the occupant’s home village of Liddington in Wiltshire.   Curiosity getting the better of him, the author visited the village church to discover that one of the stained glass windows featured a portrait of the deceased.   It turned out that the deceased’s father had been the local rector.


There was another intriguing relic at Kipini, the PELICAN, a steel flat-bottomed launch that in later years had been used to take the District Officer on inspections up and down the Tana  River.   The last African marine engineer proudly displayed photographs showing an immaculate vessel with a small sun deck verandah on the after end with wicker chairs and starched tablecloths and a crew of five turned out in naval dress.   Today all that is left of this colonial memento are the rusting remains of the hull lying in the mangroves.


Lamu is still a small township that exports mangrove poles but in recent years has become a tourist haunt for visitors to the Kenya coast.   Standing on bricks outside the local museum are two of the bronze 7pdr guns used in the 1890 expedition, the carriages and wheels a little worse for wear and the barrels worn smooth, probably as a result of enthusiastic polishing by the staff of the Government Office at Witu, where they had presumably been left as a symbol of authority before being moved to the museum.


It was however the Zanzibar Archives which produced the piece de resistance;  Rear Admiral Fremantle’s nineteen page beautifully hand written foolscap memo which detailed the entire operation.   They were tucked into a file of correspondence from the British Consulate and only discovered by chance.