Initial British clashes with the Somalis of
In the late 19th
Century the Arab Ruler of Zanzibar garrisoned all the important ports on the
East African coast from Mogadishu in today’s Somalia down to Tunga Bay in
today’s Mozambique. The Sultanate’s real
interest was the hinterland west of the ports which provided his traders with
vast quantities of white and black ivory (tusks and slaves). As the European powers scrambled for Africa,
and as Great Britain strived to suppress slavery, various treaties were made
between the Sultan of Zanzibar and representatives of European
Initially Britain and Germany
agreed that their respective spheres of influence would lie north and south of
the present-day boundary between Kenya and Tanzania. A commercial British East Africa Association
was started to take over the British treaty rights and this Association was
formally established as the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC). However the Germans then made a special deal
with a local coastal ruler and declared that the coast between Witu and Kismayu
was a German Protectorate. This strip of
coast was relinquished to the British as part of the terms of the Anglo-German
Agreement signed on 1st July 1890 and the territory became part of
British East Africa. The IBEAC commenced
administering the Witu to Juba area in March 1891. The previous year the Sultan of Zanzibar had
treated with the Italians granting them his coastal possessions north of the
River Juba. The British and Italian
governments agreed that the river would be the international boundary, and that
both parties would have joint and equal navigation rights on the river. The river valley was fertile and offered good
prospects for agricultural plantations.
Kismayu lay about 17 kilometres
south of Gobwen at the mouth of the Juba River, and part of its IBEA garrison
included Arab Soldiers formerly placed there by the Sultan of Zanzibar. These men, known locally as Viroboto or fleas
because of the way they jumped during traditional dances, were unpopular with
the local Somalis of the Herti tribe.
The Viroboto were arrogant and rough in their dealings with the
Herti. The IBEA administrator at
Mombasa, Ernest Berkeley, tried to placate the Herti by suppressing the
activities of the Viroboto and by compensating the Herti who raised claims for
mis-treatment. This policy backfired
when the Herti started squabbling about who had got what in compensation, and
the IBEA Acting Superintendent at Kismayu, J. Ross Todd, was threatened by
In February 1893 Todd requested
support and HMS Widgeon was
despatched to Kismayu. Lieutenant W.J.
Scullard landed from Widgeon with a
party of sailors and rescued Todd who had been stabbed in the head during a
‘baraza’ (a deliberation meeting). Todd
later died, but during his rescue several Somalis were killed.
The IBEA now decided to increase
the garrison at Kismayu and W.G. Hamilton was sent there with the job-title of
Superintendent In Charge Of Askaris.
Hamilton had served in the Franco-German war and he was enthusiastic
about applying the more stringent aspects of German military behaviour. Previously he had served at Taveta on the
British-German border and the IBEA had received complaints from that location
about his behaviour towards
The IBEA had placed a steamer
named Kenia on the Juba River to
transport goods and passengers. Hamilton
chose a site at Turki Hill above the river to build a defensive post from which
the moored steamer could be protected, and from where the two cannon on the
hill could prevent local dhows from shipping slaves out to sea. By mid-1893
Hamilton was installed in his post with nearly 500 troops there and on the
coast. However the Viroboto had no
intention of leaving their coastal flesh-pots and manning the Turki Hill position.
The acting IBEAC Administrator at
Kismayu, R.G. Farrant, had been hoping to replace the Viroboto with
less-expensive Askari, and he had started recruiting freed slaves. This appears to have triggered a section of
the Viroboto to start plotting to desert and join the dissaffected Somalis
further inland. This they did in early
August. At 0430 hours on 11th
August the deserters and a number of Somalis attacked Turki Hill, overcame the
30-man garrison, and killed Hamilton with a shot through the heart. The two cannon were taken into the bush and
moved inland, along with a quantity of ivory tusks that IBEAC had bought
locally. The 50 or so mutineers were
named the Hyderabad Contingent as they had previously served in India where the
Ruler of Hyderabad recruited Arabs for his military forces.
Farrant appealed to Mombasa for
100 Askari reinforcements and a warship.
HMS Blanche arrived on 23rd
August, to find that Farrant and his loyal Askari had beaten off a night attack
on the Kismayu Residence. This
action, mounted by the mutineers who now
numbered around 100 men, occurred on 18th August. During this attack Farrant was greatly
assisted by the Italian officer Count Giovanni Lovatelli. The Italian and British authorities on the
spot agreed on the need to assist each other without prior reference to their
Lieutenant P. Vaughan Lewes had
temporary command of HMS Blanche as
his two superior officers were sick.
Count Lovatelli briefed Lewes that there were two Britons upriver on the
Kenia that needed rescuing immediately. The enemy was believed to number 150 riflemen
and 600 spearmen, supported by the two cannon, and an attack on the moored Kenia was imminent.
The fighting up the River Juba
Because of fever contracted during
recent shore operations further down the coast HMS Blanche had a sick list of 40 sailors and marines and three
officers. Lewes called for volunteers
from the remainder of the crew and 38 Royal Navy sailors and marines and four
locally enlisted Swahili sailors, plus a Swahili interpreter, responded. The naval party departed on foot at 1930
hours that evening, accompanied by Count Lovatelli and around 50 loyal IBEAC
Above: HMS Blanche, a Barracouta Class Cruiser. The Barracouta Class
cruisers were designed for service on distant stations.
Turki Hill post was assaulted at
midnight, the defenders retreating into the darkness. Lewes later reported: ‘We found some of the late Mr. Hamilton’s
remains, which we buried, . . .’ Ninety minutes later Gobwen was reached and
the Kenia boarded. The Kenia’s
two Britons, Captain Tritton and Mr. McDougall, were unharmed but worn out as
they had spent the previous ten days expecting to be attacked. Next morning discussions were held aboard
the Kenia, which now housed the
relief force. The decision was made to
steam up-river and attack the enemy.
The Kenia was an interesting vessel.
She was an 80-foot long by 21-foot broad stern-wheel steamer built in
Greenock , Scotland and re-assembled after shipment of the parts to
Mombasa. She was ordered for commercial
work on the Tana River on the Indian Ocean coast, but as that waterway had
proved to be unsuitable the IBEAC deployed her on the Juba. Her draught when
lightly loaded was 18 inches and when fully loaded it was 39 inches. To defend
against attacks from local canoes a perforated pipe attached to the main boiler
circled the vessel, allowing steam to be discharged when necessary. Her main armament was a Quick-Firing
Hotchkiss gun mounted forward on the promenade deck and she carried two smaller
Maxim-Nordenfeldt machine guns. Now iron plates, sections of local canoes and
bales of trade goods were used by Lewes’ men to protect firing positions on the
With his naval party and 22 loyal
IBEAC Askari on board Lewes proceeded up-river but soon the Kenia broke down. Four hours were spent in repairing the donkey
feed pump, and during this delay the enemy must have been made aware of Lewes’
advance. Once underway again, and after
another breakdown during which enemy snipers engaged the Kenia, Magarada village was reached and destroyed with gunfire. Then at Count Lovatelli’s request a ground
assault was made against Hajualla town on the Italian bank. Hajualla housed around 1,000 Somalis and
after softening it up with rockets and guns Lewes, Lovatelli and 30 men
landed. After an hour’s fighting the
British burned the town, having killed at least 18 opponents. One prisoner was taken.
The next target was Hawajen, a
town of about 700 huts located on the British side of the river but
inland. The mutineers, supported by
hundreds of Somalis, were formed up outside the town. The Somalis were armed with long spears, small round
rhinoceros-hide shields, and short stabbing knifes. Lewes
landed every available man and marched to battle, engaging the enemy with rifle
volley fire. The Kenia was too far away to give direct fire support and the British
had a lively time as the opposition was returning fire with Snider rifles and
plenty of ammunition. After 90 minutes,
having killed over 100 enemy, Lewes withdrew and burned down Hawajen, totally
destroying it. Some of Hamilton’s
personal effects including a tin case with his name painted on it had been
found in the town.
Attention was now turned to two
villages located about three miles away from the Kenia. The British wanted to
recover the missing ivory, but that could not be found nor could the two lost
cannon be located. These two villages
met the same fate as Hawajen. Ten rifles
were seized. Cattle, sheep and donkeys
that could not be put aboard Kenia
were shot. The victorious British force
now withdrew down river to Gobwen without suffering any reportable
casualties. The mutineers and their
Somali allies disappeared from the scene up-river towards Yonte
Left: A stretch of the Juba River
Safeguarding the Kenia
The opinion of the British and
Italian authorities was that a significant blow had been struck in assisting
international trade on the Juba. The
inhabitants of Magarada and Hawajen towns had been charging dhow operators
extortionate customs charges to pass up and down the river. Other local communities had periodically
attacked the two towns but had never been able to mete out the punishment
delivered by Lewes and his men.
Left: Jubaland 1893 sketch map
Trade goods valued at 20,000
Indian rupees were aboard the Kenia. Two local Somali chiefs, Omari bin Jaffir and
Akidi Awall, guaranteed the security of the vessel and its cargo at Gobwen
until the IBEAC had re-organised its military position in the area. Kenia
was left in mid-channel between two river-bank defended posts, moored with
three anchors down. The chiefs agreed
that there would always be one of them aboard the vessel. Eight Snider rifles and a quantity of
ammunition were given to the chiefs. The
British then withdrew on foot to Kismayu carrying the three guns from the Kenia.
Conclusion HMS Racoon arrived at
Kismayu on 27th August and found His Majesty’s Italian ship Staffeta there. The Captain of the Staffeta offered his military services
but it was decided not to proceed further with operations.
In recognition of service during
this three-day campaign a clasp inscribed JUBA RIVER 1893 was awarded to be worn on the East & West Africa Medal. This is now a very rare clasp. Lieutenant Lewes’ party including the five
Swahili men qualified for the clasp, as did Count Lovatelli, Captain Tritton
and Mr. McDougall. The loyal IBEAC
Askari did not qualify for a medal. The
surviving mutineers presumabely qualified for a share of the stolen ivory.
Lieutenant Price Vaughan Lewes,
Royal Navy, was created a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order: In
recognition of services during the recent operations in aid of the British East
Africa Company, against the Somalis, on the Juba.
Tenente de Vascello, Count
Giovanni Lovatelli, Cavaliere della Corona d’Italia, was appointed to be an
Honorary Member of the Third Class, or Companions, of the Most Distinguished
Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.
Right: Zanzibari uniforms of the 1890s
In his after-action report Price
Vaughan Lewes stated that he went up-river to safeguard his withdrawal by
striking the enemy first, and also ‘To punish the culprits for murdering an
This sentiment of the times appears to have found favour with every
reader of the report.
The King’s African Rifles by
Lieutenant Colonel H. Moyse-Bartlett.
3rd Battalion King’s African Rifles Historical Records
1895-1928 (National Archives file WO
Men Who Ruled Kenya. The Kenya Administration 1892-1963 by Charles Chevenix Trench.