The Royal Navy and the East Coast of Africa 1890-1899

"Well I have had my flag flying on Lake Nyasa and that is more than any other Admiral can say." Admiral Sir Frederick Bedford GCB GCMG

The last decade of the 19th century was a very active period for the Royal Navy on the East African coast. The naval presence had steadily increased in importance and this culminated in a series of campaigns and actions during this period.

The first Europeans to arrive in the Indian Ocean were the Portuguese who established settlements on the East Coast of Africa. As other European countries expanded into the Indian Ocean and beyond they bypassed the East Coast of Africa. By the 19th century the only colony that existed was the Portuguese territory adjacent to the Mozambique Channel. This stretched from Delagoa Bay in the south to Cape Delgado in the north; the remainder was claimed by the Sultan of Zanzibar. Lloyd has credited Admiral John Blankett's squadron as the first ships of the Royal Navy to visit these waters in 1799.

In 1873 the British forced the Sultan to close the Zanzibar slave market and the island became the base for the Royal Navy's attempts to suppress the slave trade to the Persian Gulf. In the 1880's the Germans began a process of carving out a territory on the mainland adjacent to Zanzibar. This was in contrast to the British who had been cultivating influence with the Sultan as a way of protecting British interests. This approach would fall if the Germans succeeded in supplanting the British as the dominant nation on the East Coast. The result was a further phase of grabbing territory in Africa that has become known as the Scramble for Africa.

By the 1880's the Royal Navy's role on the East Coast of Africa was limited to patrols of the trade routes between Zanzibar and the Persian Gulf in a attempt to suppress the slave trade. The ships were thus an important, if peripheral part of the Royal Navy's East Indies Station.

The Witu 1890 Expedition

On August 29th 1890 Lord Salisbury signed an agreement with the German Government that settled the question of colonial expansion in East Africa. In exchange for the island of Heligoland, off the north German coast, the British received the German Protectorate of Witu and all territory north of the Tana River. The Germans also recognised the British right to declare a protectorate over the Sultan of Zanzibar's lands. Finally the Germans gave access to Lake Tanganyika and accepted the British claim to the land west of Lake Nyasa.

In the late 1880s a Herr Kuntzel arrived in Witu to begin timber operations in the forests of Witu. As part payment his men trained the then sultan, Sultan Ahmad's bodyguards. In 1890 Sultan Bakari succeeded Sultan Ahmad and tried to disarm Kuntzel and his men. A struggle followed and Kuntzel and all but one of his men were killed. The following day two more Germans living nearby were also killed. The sole survivor, a Herr Mentzel, managed to escape and informed the British and German authorities of what happened. The German Government on receiving news of this incident demanded that the British Government act. The Imperial British East Africa Company, which the British Government had authorised to administer this area, was powerless to act and so the Admiralty was requested to intervene.

The area around Zanzibar constituted the western edge of the East Indies Station and Vice Admiral The Hon. Sir Edmund Freemantle, the Commander in Chief of the station, was therefore ordered to Zanzibar to resolve the situation. Freemantle ordered Fumo Bakari to present himself at Lamu where he would be tried before a mixed court; he was also offered safe conduct, If he refused Admiral Freemantle warned that he would mount a punitive expedition against Witu.

By October 20th Admiral Freemantle arrived at Lamu ready to prepare for the expedition. Admiral Freemantle had decided that this expedition was necessary as a preventative measure as it was feared the various native leaders in the area would unite to oppose the new anti slavery measures that had just been introduced by the Sultan of Zanzibar.

After four days following no clear response to Admiral Freemantle's demands a boat expedition was despatched to burn the villages of Baltia and Mkonumbi where the two Germans not associated with Kuntzel had been killed. The following day Admiral Freemantle disembarked his forces at Kipini and over the next two days a slow advance was made in the face of attacks from the Sultan of Witu's forces, to the stockaded town of Witu. On arrival at the town the gate was blown in and the town captured. Meanwhile Fumo Bakari managed to make his escape into the bush. After burning the town and offering a reward for Fumo Bakari's capture, Admiral Freemantle re-embarked his forces on the 30th October. Total casualties on the British side for this expedition was 13 wounded. Fumo Bakari lived only for a further few months as fugitive in the bush, before dying of fever.

As a result of the increased British interests on the East Coast of Africa, it became clear to the Admiralty that it was impractical for the waters around Zanibar to remain a peripheral part of the East Indies Station. If further punitive expeditions were required it would be difficult if the Admiral was in the eastern part of the station to organise and react quickly.

In 1891 the East Coast of Africa was transferred to the Cape Station of the Royal Navy. This required the Cape Station to be reorganised to allow the Admiral commanding to be able to control affairs on his station effectively.

The ships on this station were now to be divided into two divisions, with the senior commanding officer of the ships then serving with the division becoming the Senior Naval Officer for the Division, These officers would therefore be able to carry out the Admirals instructions, but also react to events quickly if they were required to. The Flag Officer on the Cape maintained his flagship at Simonstown, for most of the year and would send the other ships of his squadron away for cruises on either the west or east coasts of the station. In this way the ships of the station would alternate between coasts. The senior officers would also all get periods of independent command. The Admiral would also aim to visit each division once a year.

On the new East Coast Division the main role of the Royal Navy was still the anti-slavery patrols that had been maintained for many years. These patrols were in the main not carried out by the ships themselves, but by ship's boats that would be sent away on patrols of up to three weeks. Typically a boat would have a Lieutenant in command with a Midshipman also

aboard. Twelve seamen would man the boat and also an interpreter would be carried. Usually the boat would carry a machine gun and in addition all of the crew would be armed. Some ship's boats, such as those from HMS Boadicea would also tow a light skiff and when they stopped a dhow, this would be used to board the dhow thus allowing the boat to cover the boarding party from a distance.

One unusual example of these patrols is that carried out by Gunner Louis Barber RN of HMS Blanche in September 1892. Commander Lindley of the Blanche while at Zanzibar learnt of an attempt to smuggle slaves from Zanzibar to the nearby Island of Pemba, aboard the steamer that sailed between the two islands. Barber was dispatched with the Blanches cutter to intercept this ship the SS Kilwa. After arriving off Pemba they managed to find the Kilwa at anchor off the port. In the dusk they were able to approach and board without being seen. Once aboard Barber and his men found 12 slaves and were also able to identify their owners. Barber therefore took the Kilwa as his prize. The Prize court did not allow this claim and much to the disappointment of the Blanche's crew the Kilwa was returned to her owners. A more typical example of these anti slavery patrols is Gunner Barber's capture of a dhow during March 1893. An Arab dhow was seen being warped out to sea at night and Barber was sent away in the cutter under muffled oars to give chase. After a hard pull, Barber was able to challenge the dhow. The slavers abandoned their dhow as Barber and his crew came alongside. In the dhow eight slaves, together with several rifles and other weapons were found.

The Witu 1893 and Juba River Expeditions

In February 1893 the Sultan of Zanzibar fell ill and was not expected to live. As there were several claimants the Consul General, Mr Rennel Rodd, requested a small Naval Brigade be landed to ensure the succession of a sultan who would look favourably on British interests. This brigade landed from the small cruiser HMS Blanche and the succession duly occurred peaceably.

In the summer 1893 following increased difficulties with the administration of the mainland territories the British Government decided that the Imperial British East Africa Company were unable to administer the area effectively and that a British protectorate with direct administration would be created. The first stage in this process was to make a proclamation of this new protectorate over the territory of Witu at Witu itself.

The Consul General again called on Captain Lindley of the Blanche to assist in this. Witu was chosen as the new Sultan, Fumo Omari, who had replaced Fumo Bakari, had been resisting the Sultan of Zanzibar's authority over Witu. It was hoped by establishing authority over Witu, this would demonstrate the power of the new administration over the rest of the territory and thus establish the new administration. Rennel Rodd after receiving uncooperative and evasive letters from Fumo Oman decided a military expedition was required.

On the 20th July 1893, Rennell Rodd and a Naval brigade drawn from HM ships Blanche, Sparrow and Swallow, together with Captain Lindley, landed at Lamu on the coast. A base was immediately established in the area and a further supply depot was established at Mkonumbi, the nearest navigable point to the town of Witu. On the 23rd Rodd, Lindley and 25 sailors from the Blanche set out for Witu where the Protectorate was to be declared.

Letters had also been sent to Fumo Omari at his stronghold of Pumwani. When no satisfactory answer was received Rennel Rodd decided that the strongholds of Pumani and Jongeni should be captured and Fumo Omari removed from power.

To attack Pumwani,Lindley first needed to concentrate his forces at Mkumbi, a small village near Mkonumbi. On the 6th August, the expedition set out from Mkumbi. The path to Pumwani was along a narrow track that meant that all personnel had to walk in single file. On the way, the force was shot at from the jungle, but nobody was ever seen. By four o'clock, a clearing near Pumwani had been reached, and it was decided that the force would camp for the night. Early the next day, after crossing an area of swampy ground, the force arrived at open ground on the edge of Pumwani where the naval brigade immediately came under fire from a series of concealed rifle pits. The main gate was soon identified and the field gun brought into action and after a frontal assault on the main gate of the town a large gun cotton charge blew in the gate and the two companies of Bluejackets rushed into Pumwani. After brisk fighting, the enemy were forced out of the town and into the jungle. The fighting had lasted for about two hours and the brigade had suffered casualties of two killed and fifteen wounded. Afterwards the town was destroyed on Rennell Rodd's orders and the expedition returned to Mkumbi the next day.

Rennell Rodd once again gave Fumo Omari the opportunity to recognise British authority, however as no reply to this had been received, the naval brigade once more set out for Fumo Omari's other stronghold of Jongeni on the 12th. After a short engagement using similar tactics to the assault on Pumwani, Jongeni was captured. Fumo Omari again escaped into the jungle and Jongeni was destroyed. The naval brigade once more returned to the coast and by the 16th all men and stores had been re-embarked.

On arrival at Zanzibar the navy was immediately requested to attempt to bring order to the area around Kismayu following the murder of Mr W.G. Hamilton the Superintendent of Askaris for the IBEA Co, who had been killed in an attack on Turki Hill Fort. Though most of the crew was now ill following the Witu expedition, the Blanche under the command of Lieutenant Price Vaughan Lewes, the navigating office was dispatched. Lewes arrived at Kismayu the following day to find that this attack had been carried out by a party of Herti Somalis and rebel company irregular troops. Also two other company officers, Mr MacDougall and Captain Tritton were trapped on board the SS Kenia at Gobwen, together with a small force of loyal Askaris.

At the time of the attack, Turki Hill Fort consisted of a series of banks together with a freshly planted fence of thorns. The garrison consisted of forty six regular troops employed by the IBEA Co and four hundred and twenty three irregulars, of whom fifty four had recently deserted, taking their arms with them. After taking the fort the Somalis and the rebels then attacked Kismayu itself, on the 18th. Here after nearly three hours of fighting, they were driven off by forces loyal to the company that were led by the Italian Count Lovatelli and Mr Farrant the Company's representative there.

After arriving on the 23rd August, Lewes immediately decided to attempt the rescue of the two men trapped on the Kenia up river. Calling for volunteers, he was able to set off that evening at 7.30 p.m., and after a difficult night march, the small force arrived at Turki Hill Fort soon after midnight. As they arrived, the rebels retreated and the fort was taken without a fight. With the rebels retreating up river, Lewes and his small force continued their advance to Gobwen. This took a further hour and a half and here they found the two company officers unharmed, but tired after their ordeal. Lewes' force together with the twenty two Askaris and the two company officers, continued his advance with a view to punishing the rebelling Herti Somalis.

The Kenia, now armed with Maxim and Hotchkiss guns, was able on arriving at the village of Magaradato to destroy it by shelling. Count Lovatelli then was able to give permission for Lewes to pursue the retreating rebels into the Italian sphere and an attack was made on the town of Hajualla, which was taken after an hours fighting. Lewes now recrossed the river back into the British sphere of influence and attacked Hajowen. After one and a half hours stiff fighting this town was also captured. The remaining rebels and mutineers fled to the town of Yonti a further four miles up river. Lewes decided not to pursue any further as he was aware of the small size of his force and the unreliable state of the Kenia. By the end of the various actions, the rebels had suffered nearly a hundred casualties killed in action, while the naval force had managed to avoid any casualties at all.

In due course, Lewes was congratulated for removing the threat posed by the towns of Hajualla and Hajowen as these towns had been a bar to ordinary trade on the river for some time. Additionally there was some concern that the Herti Somalis would attempt to join forces with Fumo Omari and his followers.

In October, news reached the Consul General that Fumo Omari had returned to Pumwani and was refortifying the town. A new naval expedition was authorised, this time led by Commander Henderson of HMS Racoon. The expedition set out for Pumwani on the 3rd October and after spending the night at Mkumbi again captured Pumwani. On entering the town all resistance ceased, but Fumo Omari again avoided capture. Henderson learned that Omari had fled to the next village of Panda Nguo which was close by and he immediately decided to pursue Omari. The column was able to enter the village after facing only light resistance, but found rebels had set light to the village and Omari had escaped again.

After consultation with his various officers and advisers, Henderson decided that after a visit to Jongeni and a show of force around the area, during which they destroyed several villages, he had achieved all he was able to do with the forces available to him. The column therefore arrived back at Mkumbi on the 9th where the expedition embarked aboard the Racoon.

The M'wele Expedition

The British East African territories were administered with the cooperation of the local Arab rulers. It was therefore essential for the British that when one of these leaders died that the new chief was amenable to British policy. In early 1895 Salim-bin-Hamis, the chief of a small town thirty miles north of Mombassa died. The IBEA Co, which still administered this area, supported his son Rashid-bin-Salim as the new chief. One of the old chief's other sons, Mubarak-bin-Rashid, though did not acknowledge this claim and installed himself with the support of his uncle M'barak, who was the most powerful of the local chieftains, as chief instead. Mubarak seized a supply of arms and fortifed himself in the stockaded town Gongoro. The Consul General now Mr A.H. Hardinge decided to support the company and ordered M'barak and Mubarak to recognise British authority. The principle reason for this rebellion was the desire to force the Arabs to dispense with slavery on their plantations and to pay their African workers instead. The Arabs were in the main reluctant to do this.

Rear Admiral Sir Harry Rawson, who was the new Commander in Chief on the Cape Station. After having arrived at Zanzibar was requested to mount and expedition to force Mubarak to recognise British authority and surrender his arms. Admiral Rawson together with 360 officers and men along with Zanzibari regular troops attacked and destroyed Gongoro. Mubarak managed to escape from Gongoro and joined his uncle, who in turn decided to side with his nephew. The two rebels therefore moved into the interior and based themselves at the fortified town of M'wele.

Hardinge made a further attempt to persuade the rebels to submit to British authority, but as no response was forthcoming and after gaining Admiralty authority, Admiral Rawson and Sir Lloyd Matthews the Sultan of Zanzibars military commander, decided to storm M'wele.

The expedition set off on 12th August and after skirmishes on the way arrived at M'wele on the 17th, The stockades were stormed using the same tactics of the earlier expeditions but M'ubark and his relatives escaped into the bush. The expedition spent the next three days destroying the fortifications and had re-embanked by the August 21st, M'ubark however did not give up and embarked on a guerrilla campaign that lasted into 1896. During this campaign the navy landed naval brigades on several occasions. M'ubark was finally driven into German East Africa and peace was restored to the area. During the storming of M'wele the naval casualties were two killed and five wounded.

The Shortest War in History

On the 25th August 1896 the Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamid-bin-Thwaini died suddenly. It was generally believed he had been poisoned. Immediately, with German support one of the Sultan's cousins, Seyyid Khalid proclaimed himself Sultan. The British Government however chose to support another of the late Sultan's family, Sayid Hammoud. Mr Cave, the British Government's representative, informed Khalid of the British decision and ordered him to withdraw his claim. Seyyid Khalid refused and with an armed group of supporters, fortified the Sultans Palace and seized the Sultan's armed vessel the Glasgow. Admiral Rawson assembled a squadron of ships at Zanzibar to enforce the British decision and Khalid was given till 9.00am on 27th August, to withdraw from the palace or the ships of the Squadron would open fire.

There having been no positive response, when the palace clock struck 9.00 the Racoon, Sparrow and Thrush opened fire on the Palace. The Glasgow that was moored in the midst of the British squadron attempted to reply, but was soon silenced by the Philomel and St George and sank at 10.45 that morning. There was some fire from the shore but by 9.45 Khalid's flag had been shot away and he had escaped to the German consulate. In due course Khalid was allowed to move to Dar-es-Salaam to live.

Actions on the Rivers and Lakes

Since the 1870s, British missionaries had been working on the shores of Lake Nyasa to establish mission stations. This had in turn led to trading settlements being established in the area, which resulted in the area being grudgingly recognised by the other European powers as a British sphere of influence. The main point of access to this area was to follow the River Zambesi up stream and then its tributary, the Shire River that flowed from Lake Nyasa. These rivers flowed through the East African Territory of Portugal and free access to the interior strained relations between Portugal and Britain.

In early 1890 the British Government ordered Admiral Freemantle to assemble a large combined squadron that consisted of ships from the East Indies, Cape, Australian and China Stations off Mozambique. This squadron was initially to act as a visible form of pressuie to complement the diplomatic negotiations being carried out between the British and Portuguese Governments. If the negotiations failed Freemantle was authorised to seize the Portuguese territory. During January Freemantle's squadron assembled at Zanzibar except for the Cape ships which would join him in Portuguese waters. While conducting exercises prior to the proposed operations, Freemantle received news that a diplomatic solution had been reached and the squadron was dispersed.

In October 1890 although agreement had previously been reached that the rivers were free to traffic, the local Portuguese officials in 1890 began to make the situation difficult for the British in the interior. The British Government had been pursued by pressure at home to support the IBEA Co. and the missionaries in their fight to suppress the local slave trading chiefs. For the Royal Navy this meant that two small gunboats, HMS Herald and HMS Mosquito had been built to operate on Lake Nyasa and the Shire and Zambesi Rivers. These gunboats would also protect British interests from the Portuguese local officials. Once again a diplomatic solution was found that was underpinned by the threat of British sea power and the gunboats arrived on the rivers.

In 1893 the naval personnel from the gunboats that were serving on Lake Nyasa were involved in two of the numerous little local campaigns conducted by the IBEA Co.'s representatives. One of these campaigns was against the slaver Liwondi who had been capturing natives in the upper Shire River area, with a view to selling them into slavery. After a successful action Liwondi's power was destroyed.
The other campaign was the storming of the fortified village of Kisamba on the shore of Lake Nyasa. This fortified village was being used by slavers as a base for their operations. After a successful action the village was destroyed and thus again the slavers power in the area was destroyed.


In 1890 the 'Scramble for Africa' on the East Coast of Africa resulted in the end of Arab power on this coast In the place of the Arab dominance a western European dominance was established. For the British areas this meant a concerted effort to break the slave trading traditions of the Arabs and the establishment of a British administration. Initially, until local colonial military units could be raised, the Royal Navy was the main source of military power for the area. The Royal Navy quickly showed it was more than capable in these operations and by the 1900s the area had been largely pacified due to this naval effort. The Royal Navy therefore played an important part in the creation of a situation that allowed the British East African colonies to develop.

The naval casualties resulting from these campaigns appear at first sight to have been light, but though this is true of actual battlefield casualties, the amount of sickness that resulted from the campaigns should not be overlooked. All expeditions ashore were guaranteed to result in a heavy sick return and large numbers of personnel could be expected to either die or not be fit for further naval service. This meant that these expeditions were not lightly undertaken.

For the Royal Navy these campaigns added to the navy's reputation and showed the navy's versatility, while for the first time the East African slave trade to the Persian Gulf was largely eliminated. The navy had thus become an instrument of commercial development on the East Coast of Africa during this period.

"The Royal Navy undoubtedly provided the chain which linked together all the scattered territories of our colonial empire; while in the field of foreign policy it was repeatedly used as an instrument whereby the British Government made its views known" Captain Stephen Roskill RN



Bedford FGH, The Life and Letters of Admiral Sir Frederick George Denham Bedford GCB GCMG. Privately published (1961)
Clowes William Laird, The Royal Navy: A History From the Earliest Times to 1900 Vol. 7. Chatham Publishing (1997 edn)
Freemantle Admiral The Hon. Sir Edmund GCB, The Navy As I Have Known It. Cassell & Company. (1904)
Lloyd Christopher, The Navy and the Slave Trade. Longmans, Green and Co. (1949)
Magor RB, African General Service Medals. The Naval and Military Press (1993)
Pakenham Thomas, The Scramble for Africa. Weidenfeld and Nicolson (1991)
Patience Kevin, Zanzibar and the Shortest War in History. Privately published (1994)
Rawson Geoffrey U RIM, Life of Admiral Sir Harry Rawson GCB GCMG. Edward Arnold (1914)
Roskill SW Capt. RN, The Strategy of Sea Power. Collins (1962)
Tupper Admiral Sir Reginald GBE KCB CVO etc., Reminiscences. Jarrolds.


'Witu Campaign 1990' by Kevin Patience in 'The Review', the Journal of the Naval Historical
Research and Collectors Association Autumn 1990 Vol. 3 no 2 pp45-49.


Warrant Officers Journal, May 1893 p44 Naval and Military Record 10th May 1894 p4 Admiralty Documents at the Public Record Office Kew ADM 1/7148 copy of dispatch from Rennel Rodd to the Earl of Rosebery. ADM 1/7168 Report of proceedings of landing at Lamu By Commander FH Henderson.

Reproduced from ‘Soldiers of the Queen' issue 110, September 2002

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