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Sierra Leone 1887-88



 Where the Rokel River flows into the Atlantic Ocean on the west coast of Africa a fine natural harbour has been formed. Early Portuguese navigators named the adjacent mountain “Sierra Leone” (Lion Mountain), and during the trans-Atlantic slave trade the harbour became popular with European sea Captains who anchored there to take aboard cargoes of slaves.

Right: Freetown Harbour in 1856



After the American War of Independence that ended in 1783 Britain, who had lost the war, had a problem about what to do with former American negro slaves who had volunteered to serve with the British forces. Some of these men were shipped to Britain where they became a social problem, and others were settled in Nova Scotia, Canada, where they suffered badly from the climate and harsh conditions. Eventually in 1792 philanthropists transported these two groups of former slaves to near the mouth of the Rokel River where a settlement named Freetown was started.


In 1800 a further batch of “Maroons” – descendants of escaped slaves who had fled into the mountains of Jamaica – were exiled to Sierra Leone from the Caribbean. The land for the settlement was obtained from the local Temne tribe and the settlement was managed as a commercial operation by the Sierra Leone Company. From 1807 the Royal Navy actively operated against slave traders and Freetown became an important naval and administrative base. As slaving ships were captured off West Africa their human cargoes, referred to as recaptives, were released in Freetown. In 1808 Freetown was declared a British Crown Colony.

Left: Royal Navy Light Gun Crew
At this time the remainder of the territory we now know as Sierra Leone was controlled by indigenous leaders with whom Britain made treaties in order to protect commerce and trade between the coast and the interior. The European scramble for Africa changed this situation as Britain realized the need to establish formal borders with French colonial possessions adjacent to Sierra Leone. British naval and land forces were used to discipline tribes who opposed Britain’s commercial and territorial ambitions or who continued to practice slavery, and the Yoni Campaign or “Whiteman’s War” as it was known locally, is an example of this type of British action.

The Sierra Leone Company had used former Nova Scotians, Maroons and recaptives as militiamen in Freetown, and also had used troops from the white “Royal African Corps” recruited in Britain (very often the recruits were British soldiers who, when sentenced to a flogging, chose the alternative option offered of service in the Royal African Corps).

Sadly the whites could not survive the tropical climatic conditions, as statistics maintained between 1819 and 1836 record that British military deaths at the Sierra Leone station, due almost entirely to disease, averaged 483 per thousand men (48.3 %).

Troops who could operate effectively in the West African coastal climate were needed, and so in 1819 units of the West India Regiment were rotated through Sierra Leone from the Caribbean. In 1829 the British authorities decided to create a Sierra Leone Police Corps for the defence of the country. An establishment of 17 officers, 23 non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and 300 Africans from the Creole population and the Mende and Temne tribes was authorized. The West India Regiment continued to garrison Sierra Leone and the Royal Navy maintained its base at Freetown.

In the mid-1880s Temne tribesmen from Yoni, living about 50 miles inland from Freetown, were prevented by rivals from the Kpaa and Mende tribes from accessing certain tide-water trading centres on the Rokel, Ribi and Bumpe rivers. As this obstruction seriously affected the prosperity of the Yoni people they started attacking the Kpaas and Mendes involved. The Governor brokered a truce in 1886 but the Mende broke it “in revenge for former raids”. The Yoni waited for the approach of the dry season and then in early October they destroyed Mende villages along the Bumpe River. This meant that the Yoni were attacking people in a British protected area and so in 1887 the colony authorities warned the Yoni to cease hostilities. The Yoni response was to attack several more towns ruled by Mammy Yoko, a British ally. During these attacks several Creoles who were British subjects were killed and a police constable was wounded. After cutting off an ear, hand and the remaining thumb from a captive the Yoni sent him to the British Governor with a message that the Yoni were coming and that nobody would be spared, especially the whites who would be mutilated in this fashion.

Left: A soldier of the West India Regiment in Sierra Leone

The authorities in London approved the mounting of an expedition that would teach the Yoni “a sharp and severe lesson”. Colonel Sir Francis de Winton, Royal Artillery, was sent from Britain to command the expedition.



 Sir Francis raised a force consisting of:

298 troops from 1st West India Regiment.

45 men from the Sierra Leone Police Corps.

38 naval personnel from Her Majesty’s Ships Acorn, Icarus and Rifleman.

400 irregulars from friendly tribes

500 local carriers to transport supplies.

200 local bush-cutters to open up a track through the bush.

19 government officials and military officers.

Right: Sir Francis De Winton

The seamen manned a 7-pounder rifled, muzzle-loading field gun and a Maxim machine gun. The West Indians were each armed with a Martini-Henry rifle and they also operated tubes firing rockets. The Yoni used old muzzle-loaders loaded with small pieces of iron and shot. By then Yoni were centred about 40 miles inland around the town of Robari, and de Winton moved his men in boats up the Ribi River to a base established at Mafengbe, 12 miles from Robari. On 17th November the track-cutters went to work and the British column slowly advanced through dense bush, encountering barricades constructed by their enemy and repeatedly coming under fire from the muzzle-loaders.


Left:Anti-ambush drill in the Sierra Leone bush.


Many more ‘friendlies’ joined the column, much to the disgust of De Winton who commented: “they cling to the rear of the column and their only object is plunder and the capture of slaves”. On 21st November, two miles outside Robari, the Yoni sprang an ambush and nearly five hours of continuous fighting commenced before the town was reached.

The rockets were a key British weapon, both in forcing back the ambushers and in attacking Robari. When the naval field gun also fired the Yoni stampeded out of the town and the ‘friendlies’ immediately rushed in to loot and burn.

For the next four days the British destroyed several other Yoni towns whilst the ‘friendlies’, now totally out of control, rampaged through the smaller villages in the area. The Yoni elders had had enough, and in December submitted to the Governor who decreed that Yoni territory was “now to be considered the Queen’s by conquest”. The elders appointed a new tribal leader who supported this policy. Leaving a small garrison of West Indians in a newly-constructed wooden blockhouse in Robari, the column returned to Freetown having suffered 20 casualties, all wounded.


A more detailed map showing the area in which the Yoni Campaign took place.

The 1st West India Regiment was later awarded the Battle Honour “West Africa 1887” for its part in the campaign. Resulting from his observations during the campaign de Winton made recommendations about the Police that led to the formation of the Sierra Leone Frontier Police in 1890 for frontier duties, and the Civil Police for internal police duties.

All regular servicemen and officials who participated in the campaign were later awarded the East and West Africa Medal with bar inscribed “1887-8” (except those men already in possession of the 1874 Ashanti Medal, who were awarded only the clasp “1887-8”).

Lieutenant F.A. Valentine, Royal Navy, received the Distinguished Service Order for his services as commander of the naval detachment.


The East and West Africa Medal with Bar 1887-8 seen here was issued to

Sergeant J. Dunkley of the 1st West India Regiment

and is shown by kind permission of the copyright holders, the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
SOURCES:


The Sierra Leone Army: A Century of History by E.D.A. Turay and A. Abraham.
The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force
by A. Haywood and F.A.S. Clarke. Wars of Imperial Conquest in Africa 1830-1914 by Bruce Vandervort.
The Empty Sleeve: the story of The West India Regiments of the British Army
by Brian Dyde.
African General Service Medals
by R.B. Magor. The V.C. & D.S.O. Book Volume II.

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