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Initial British clashes with the Somalis of Jubaland

Background

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 governments. 

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.

Problems develop

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 dissatisfied Herti.

 

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 Africans. 

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.

Mutiny

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 respective superiors.

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 Askari. 

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 decks.

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 thereThe 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

Imperial footnote


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 Englishman’.   This sentiment of the times appears to have found favour with every reader of the report.

SOURCES:

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 106/270).

Men Who Ruled Kenya. The Kenya Administration 1892-1963 by Charles Chevenix Trench.

Italian Colonialism in Somalia by Robert L. Hess.

A History of the Hyderabad Contingent by Reginald George Burton.

The Lake Steamers of East Africa by L.G. “Bill” Dennis.

Expedition up the Jub River through Somalil-land, East Africa article by Commander F.G. Dundas, Royal Navy, in the Royal Geographical Journal, London Volume 1 (3), 1893.

African General Service Medals by R.G. Magor.

London Gazette dated December 12, 1893.

Above: HMS Blanche, a Barracouta Class Cruiser.  These cruisers were designed for service on distant stations. (Photo from Kevin Patience)
Above: The stern-wheel steamer Kenia (Photo from Kevin Patience)

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