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Map showing Kisii, the centre of Gusiiland

FORGOTTEN EDGES OF EMPIRE

Marched over by men of the The Royal Lancaster Regiment

Introducing some little-known campaigns where men of the King's Own served.

Compiled by Major Harry Fecitt MBE TD

Number 3

GUSIILAND

Gusiiland lay on the southwestern highlands of British East Africa (now named Kenya) about 50 miles south and southeast of Kisumu, where the British-built railway from Mombasa named the Uganda Railway terminated. From Kisumu passengers and goods were transported in steamers across the lake to Uganda.

Gusiiland was extremely fertile, attracting rainfall throughout the year. The local tribes, named the Gusii, grew a variety of crops and herded cattle. The Gusii lived in clans but lacked a central organization to determine tribal policies, and this led to them rarely uniting as a whole tribe. They were extremely superstitious and prophets and tribal doctors ("witch doctors") exercised a lot of knowledge and influence. This knowledge could be very practical and useful as in the case of trepanning, where the doctors drilled a hole in the skull to relieve headaches or mental illness.

Since 1894 Gusiiland had been theoretically administered by the British as part of the Uganda Protectorate but in 1905 it was transferred with other eastern Uganda territory to be part of British East Africa. However the British had only concerned themselves with the fringes of Gusiiland and knew little about the heartland. It was only when a minor Gusii clan living on the northern Gusiiland border towards Lake Victoria came to Kisumu to request British protection from stronger Gusii clans who kept raiding and stealing cattle, that the British decided to enter Gusii territory. Action needed to be taken because the Gusii were also regularly raiding the Luo tribe who inhabited the southern shore of Lake Victoria. The British administrators also had in mind that Gusiiland could be a potential area for European settlement.

In June 1905 a British column subdued the Sotik tribe who were the Gusii's eastern neighbours and who had recently raided cattle from the Masai and taken captives. As a punishment 5,000 head of cattle were taken from the Sotik. This success led to an expedition against the Gusii four months later. A 100-man strong company of the King's African Rifles and 50 policemen marched from Kericho southwest into Gusiiland to punish the tribe for murdering Luos near Lake Victoria. The Gusii that had collected to fight were armed with long-shafted spears with small heads and on 28th September they charged right up to the KAR bayonets before the Askari firepower killed 67 of them. On 4th October around 600 Gusii attacked the British column again, and although the Askari were ordered to initially fire over the attackers' heads about 30 Gusii were killed and the same number wounded. The Gusii now realized that the rifles that the Askari carried were not sticks but were firearms that could kill at a distance.

The British column stayed two weeks in Gusiiland collecting many cattle as a reprisal and having to fight several skirmishes whilst doing so. This led to more deaths of Gusii warriors. (The KAR Askari enjoyed rounding-up livestock as, when out of sight of their officers, they rounded-up the shepherdesses as well.) The British column then marched away to other duties leaving a legacy of ill feeling. Due to staff shortages the British administration was slow to follow-up the military action and it was not until early 1907 that a government station was sited at a location named Kisii. G.A.S. Northcote (an Oxford graduate who joined the Colonial Service in 1904 and eventually rose to be Governor of Hong Kong) was appointed Assistant District Commissioner at Kisii. He was an enlightened man but had difficulties in persuading all sections of the Gusii (now re-named the Wakissi by the British) to accept British rule and law. The clans who had suffered during the 1905 punitive expedition were especially recalcitrant ? they had not invited the British to their territory and they did not want the British to remain.

Northcote introduced the British principle of taxation to be paid in cash. To a cashless society this presented problems and led to an influx of Swahili (coastal) cattle dealers and Asian and European traders who would buy livestock and other commodities from the Gusii, but not always fairly. This further displeased the conservative elements amongst the Gusii, particularly the prophets and tribal doctors. Also as he constructed his government station Northcote sometimes could not always hire the labour or buy the materials that he needed. In those situations he used force to procure the labour and materials, and although the debts were always settled later in cash, Gusii society was further alienated.

On 30th May 1907 Lieutenants John Bois and Thomas O. Fitzgerald were seconded from The Royal Lancaster Regiment to The 3rd King's African Rifles based in British East Africa. Towards the end of 1907 John Bois, serving in No 1 Company 3 KAR, took out a patrol of 35 rifles into the Western Highlands to quell disturbances. (Lieutenant Bois, who had gained the Queen's Medal with four clasps in the South African War was later awarded the African General Service Medal with clasp inscribed "Somaliland 1908-10" for operations described in the first article of this series.)

In Kisii in November 1907 a famous Gusii prophetess called Muraa was inflaming opinion against Northcote and the British presence that he represented. Northcote arrested Muraa for a minor offence and later released her. He then held a large tribal baraza (public discussion) during which he hoped to clear the air. It was not to be. On 11th January 1908 Northcote was investigating the theft of cash from Swahili traders when the thief, inflamed by taunts from Muraa, speared Northcote in the back, narrowly missing his spine. The wound was painful but not critical, and to Northcote and other Europeans working with the tribes this type of incident was to be expected as part of the job, as the spearing was recognized as being a personal issue rather than a tribal one.

However to the rear echelon back in Nairobi the spearing represented a major challenge to British authority that had to be punished. Groups of Gusii warriors now further enraged the British administration by attacking and killing two unarmed policemen and an Asian trader and by reverting to the old pastime of raiding Luo territory. Many warriors approached Kisii hoping to finish off Northcote and the traders, but a display of rifles kept the spearmen at bay. As usual the Gusii did not unite as a tribe and only the clans that really disliked the British took up their spears.

A British punitive expedition was organized and dispatched by train to Kisumu. From there 334 officers and men from the King's African Rifles, equipped with Maxim guns and supported by 50 Nandi tribal auxiliaries sailed by steamer to Kendu Bay, 53 armed police having gone ahead to Kisii. (The Nandi were a tribe living to the northeast of Kisumu that had fiercely resisted the construction of the Uganda Railway through its territory, but whose warriors later fought well for the British as irregulars.) Marching south into Gusiiland for a month the British force seized cattle, burned huts and used their rifles and machine-guns to kill anyone who stood in their way. There were no pitched battles and no British casualties but 240 Gusii were killed (like many body counts of the day this did not include the wounded men, women and children who took refuge in the bush until they died) and 7,000 head of cattle and 5,000 sheep and goats were seized.

In Nairobi the severity meted out to the Gussi was felt to be justified as it was followed by the swift imposition of British administrative procedures throughout Gusiiland. But Northcote thought that the whole operation was too severe and was poorly carried out by the KAR. In a later letter to his father he wrote: "It would take too long to describe the absolute idiocy, obstinacy and want of knowledge of military operations in this country that they shewed."

Captain T.O. FitzGerald wrote in a jingoistic style: "In January, 1908, the Kisii became out of hand and speared the District Commissioner when travelling round his district as a protest, against paying taxes. This necessitated an expedition being sent to punish the tribe. It was alleged that the Wakissi were a very ferocious and formidable tribe, so great excitement prevailed among the officers chosen to take part in this expedition, as it was thought that it would be a really good show. However the formidable enemy turned out to be a myth, the warriors having no stomach for a fight. Large numbers of cattle were captured and many huts destroyed besides about 150 casualties inflicted on the tribe.

After about six weeks the expedition returned to Nairobi from what was humorously described as the Six Weeks' War. Anyway whatever jibes may have been made against this expedition it is significant that the Kisii have given no further trouble since and the result bears out the contention that if a tribe has got to be punished heavy punishment in the first instance minimizes trouble later."

But Captain FitzGerald was not quite correct. Six years later a battle at Kisii would result in the death of another officer from The Royal Lancaster Regiment, and give the Gusii people a chance to again vent their anger against British colonial rule.

Edited by Harry Fecitt

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