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 %).
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
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.
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.
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
The East and West Africa Medal with Bar 1887-8 seen
here was issued to
Sergeant J. Dunkley of the 1st West India
and is shown by kind permission of the copyright holders, the
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
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
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.