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A punitive expedition on the East African coast.

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 and Britain signed the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty which directly affected the status of Wituland.  Britain 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 prepared.

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:  “You 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: “You 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 October. 
 
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 the Sudan. 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 week.  

(The 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 Vice-Admiral Fremantles’ Despatches in London Gazette No. 26122 dated 6th January 1891. The Illustrated London News No. 2694 dated 6th December 1890. African General Service Medals by R.B. Magor.  

 
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