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WARRIORS IN HEART OF DARKNESS : THE NANDI RESISTANCE 1850 1897

by Dennis Bishop

PROLOGUE: THE ARAB TRADER WARS

Isolated from the outside world, one might only speculate at the wonder of the first Nandi warriors who discovered the Arab caravan in the 1850's. Those warriors might not have known of earlier Arab caravans, because this was the first notable one in Nandi oral tradition. It was the time when the Sawe sub-sets were warriors and by 1854, the name Marmar ("to ornament a dress") had been conveyed upon a sub-set. The significance of this title might be derived from the major Arab defeat at Kipsoboi, but may have been attributed to the very successful raiding of Arab caravans by the Nandi. These were good years for the Nandi.

Part of the reason for the Nandi success was the limited access. The easiest approach was from the north-east, but a caravan had to travel two or three days before reaching principal Nandi settlements. This evidently was not preferable as the Arab caravans diverted east to Kavirondo and Mumias where food and protection was located. Since direct trade contact was not possible, the caravans after the 1850's rarely entered or camped in Nandi, a strange "middle man" system evolved.

Due to the casualties to the caravans, trusted Sotik and Dorobo agents were employed to act as "middle men". These agents would trade ivory and other coastal goods for cattle to the Nandi for a large commission. Enterprising Arab traders hoping to circumvent this arrangement often fell victims to a Nandi ploy. A few old Nandi warriors would meet the armed caravan and tell them that a large supply of ivory was only two or three days journey from the caravan. However, the Nandi were only willing to entertain a small Arab party to negotiate a trade. Dutifully, a party of twenty men would be dispatched with cloth, wire, and other trade goods only to be ambushed by the Nandi and massacred. Another ruse used by the Nandi was to send a small party of warriors to lead the prospective caravan into the depths of Nandi by the wrong road and then conduct a night attack. The Arab traders even attempted a tactic that had worked with other tribes, blood brotherhood. This consisted of sitting opposite one another, cutting the back of each other's hand and sucking the blood from one another's hand. The Nandi held no credence to such a foreign ceremony, and it only became another ploy to easily acquire coastal goods.

The Nandi developed tactics to overcome the effectiveness of a large number firearms during this time. Like the Masai, the warriors drew the enemy's fire by a sudden rush at which time they went "go to ground." Then the warriors charged the caravan porters before the muzzle loading weapons could be recharged. The porters bolted into the reloading riflemen followed closely by the Nandi warriors. In the confusion, the Nandi warriors could spear the panicked men. This tactic worked until the battle of Kimondi in 1895.

Frustrated by failures, the Arab traders attempted one last tactic. They established a series of fortified stations at Kimatke, Kibigori, Chemelil, Kipsoboi, and Kobujoi, and began a campaign of intimidation. Donkeys were let loose to trample the millet fields, Nandi warriors were humilitated, Nandi boys were imprisoned, and Nandi women and girls were compromised. At Kipsoboi four Nandi shields were propped against a tree and the Nandi were offered the chance to shoot arrows into the shields. Once this was accomplished, the Arabs fired musket balls through the shields that had stopped the arrows. The Arabs then poured gruel over the attending Nandi's heads and shaved off their cherished locks.

The Nandi warriors had had enough. They sought permission from the Kaptalam liabon (leading ritual expert) to kill the Arabs. He gave permission, and the post was stormed. Some accounts credit the laibon with making the defender's ammunition disappear, while others credit the error of the garrison commander to provide ammunition to the riflemen. Regardless of the reason, the garrison was destroyed. The Nandi kiptaiyat (raiding bands) then successfully attacked and slaughtered the garrison at Kobujoi. This was enough to force the Arab traders to withdraw from Nandi and to avoid the area.

The defeat of the Arabs created the "Nandi legend." The Nandi were undefeatable. Porters could not be hired and expeditions could not be launched into Nandi for nearly forty years. The Nandi warriors stood proudly aloof from the events that were swirling around them confident to defend their independence.

DOOMED CARAVANS AND FAILED EXPEDITIONS

Like many of indigenous cultures, several Kalenjin prophets foretold the coming of the white man. Among the Nandi, the prophesies of Mongo and Kimnyole are best examples. However, it was only Mongo who foretold the arrival of white people who possessed a great power, and warned against fighting against them. Kimnyole, before his assassination, only predicted that the confrontation would have a significant effect upon the peoples of Nandi. Flushed with the victories against the other tribes and Arabs, the Nandi warriors believed that they would succeed in protecting their homeland.

This faith was substantiated in November 1883 when a European caravan under Joseph Thomson crossed Masailand into North Nandi. Thomson was part of a Royal Geographical Society expedition that numbered 100 men in a pioneer company. The confused and sketchy evidence of this expedition stopped the dispatch of European caravans from Mombasa from 1883 84.

Evidently, Thomson had negotiated the west wall of the Kerio Valley and reached the top of the Elgeyo escarpment shortly after leaving Njemps on 16 November 1883. Thomson sent out scouts to prevent his caravan from being surprised as he continued forward five days without contacting any Nandi. However, the column must have been attacked by Masai seeking revenge for the cattle disease spread from European bovines in the area. This insignificant event attributed to a Nandi attack, actually broke the back of the Masai without any acknowledgement. Thomson returned to Naivasha in March 1884, and Nandi remained a blank spot on the European colonial maps.

The next European to cross Nandi was James Hannington, the first Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa. Hannington was an experienced explorer and employed the aid of other explorers like Thomson and Jones. The caravan left Rabai in July 1885, and arrived in Kabras on October 3. He left soon after to enter Nandi, but never returned. Thinking that he was opening a road to salvation for the Buganda, he could not know that his christian goals were the cause of his murder. The Mwanga believed that such an establishment of contact would open the Buganda to an invasion from the east.

Independently, Dr. Gustav Fischer entered North Nandi unobserved and passed through unmolested in March 1886. This was the first German expedition into Nandi and was so rushed that no notes were kept regarding the Nandi. The German Colonial Office also launched a powerful caravan led by Count Teleki and Hauptman Hohnel in 1887-88 that turned back before entering Nandi.

Three small European caravans had entered Nandi, but the only solid information was gathered from the Masai who Hannington related regarded the Nandi tribes "to be the most difficult to deal with from its fighting powers." Seven years passed before the next Church Missionary Society (CMS) caravan crossed Nandi.

Part of the reason that the Nandi were ignored during this period was that Emin Pasha and Stanley had to be retrieved and that used up the military, porters, and supply available in the area. Another part of the reason was that the British sphere of influence beyond the land of the Masai was being attempted.

The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) launched a 535 man caravan led by F. J. Jackson into the unexplored area on August 6, 1889. The Sotik were friendly at first, but later attacked the caravan. The Sotik were defeated losing 40 warriors and forfeiting 170 head of cattle and 2000 sheep and goats. Jackson then continued to Mumias on November 7, 1889. Refusing to help the Mumia against the Ugenya, Jackson continued to Turkana to collect ivory to defray the cost of the expedition.

When the Jackson expedition reached the land of the Sebei it became acquainted with the Nandi. The expedition happened to be in the exact area that was being raided by Nandi kiptaiyat numbering possibly 1000 warriors. The Nandi attacked several Sebei villages and carried off 200 to 300 head of cattle in one day. The villages attacked were destroyed and the inhabitants killed. The expedition's hopes of being attacked by the Nandi never developed, and with the area devastated, the expedition had no hopes of remaining. It returned to Mumias on March 4, 1890. It was at Mumias that Jackson negotiated a treaty that replaced the German flag with the British flag.

In 1892, the railway survey party was appointed to determine the possibility of expanding the rail system through Nandi. The survey went slowly as the surveyors were in constant peril. It was estimated by some that "men armed with Winchester rifles would have to be stationed at every 100 yards in order to keep off the attacks of the natives."

The Europeans created a large amount of movement on the periphery of Nandi between 1890 and 1895. For instance, in 1894 twenty-six caravans passed through North Nandi and in the latter half of 1895 more than forty passed over the same tracks unmolested. The Nandi may have ignored this movement because it didn't directly threaten them or because the caravans did not offer enough plunder to make them worthwhile attacking. However, the Nandi watched the caravans with a suspicious eye. The coming of war was only a matter of time.

THE UNLIKELY BEGINNING OF A WAR

The unlikely beginning of a war began with two British adventurers, Peter West and Andrew Dick. West arrived at Mumias on March 20, 1895. He was a continual drunk and had been accused of being a gun-runner. He entered into a trading partnership with the choleric Dick who had already established a chain of stores and transport posts from the coast to Lake Victoria. These two men set about to independently establish domination and a trade monopoly with the Nandi.

The two began this escapade on June 23, 1895 by organizing two caravans. The expeditions began poorly when three rifles were stolen from Dick by the Kikelewa and one of West's men was murdered. Dick drew first blood when two Nandi warriors surrendered and he had them whipped. Later, Dick had the warriors bound and drowned. A Nandi reconnaissance party was later fired upon by Dick and dispersed after losing one warrior.

While Dick was busy antagonizing the Nandi, West had pitched his camp two hours from the nearest Nandi houses. West's total arms included fifteen guns, two privately owned rifles, and a revolver. West unsuccessful attempted to negotiate for the ivory that he sought upon his first contact with the Nandi. Although warned of the Nandi, West persisted in his attempts to negotiate by treating the Nandi delegates well.

West's efforts were repaid at two o'clock on the morning of July 16th, when the camp was rushed by Nandi warriors and all but eight of the expedition were killed without a shot being fired. West's last words were reported as, "Give me my gun." West's unprotected camp of fifty individuals, twenty-five head of cattle and forty-six sheep and goats had occupied the unprotected camp in safety for twenty days. West's death can only be contributed to his partner being a Dick.

The East Africa Protectorate, Foreign Office, and missionary societies administrations had no choice but to react militarily to West's murder. All roads bordering the Nandi were closed until military escorts could be organized from the scant resources at Mumias and Ravine. This disrupted several commercial enterprises and two major missionary efforts.

Before West's murder the various European administrations were content to ignore the unknown Nandi, and the Nandi were content to ignore the Europeans. After West's murder, the Nandi tribal morale and self-confidence increased. The Nandi warriors had proven that the European guns were no match for the Nandi spears. The warriors must have believed that the Laibon had rendered the guns useless. Maybe the ancient prophesy meant that the Nandi would begin the end of the "white man" in sub-Sahara Africa. This idea was reinforced by the reactions of neighboring tribes, most notably the Wanga and Kabras. The other tribes to join included the Kamasia, Kitosh and Kikelelwa.

The Ravine garrison received news of West's murder on July 30, 1895. The commander, Martin, had only a staff of forty invalided porters and a partly completed fort defended by ten askari. Fearing an attack, J. Martin enlisted seven Sudanese "settlers" and sent for help from Mumias. C. W. Hobley at Mumias could not comply because his scant military assets were being thinly spread. Port Victoria under A. Brown of Smith had been attacked on July 13, 1895. Hobley was forced to send twenty five askari of The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) to support Brown of Smith. William Grant had been ordered to assist Hobley, but Grant was busy restoring order in Kavirondo. F. J. Jackson at Entebbe was also able to offer little help. Acting Commissioner Hobley did put together fifty Sudanese askaris of the IBEAC and some Baganda irregulars who he sent to aid Grant. Twenty-five reservists were enlisted in Singo to replace those men sent to Grant, and Singo became defended by released prisoners from Kampala. This was all that could be done.

Meanwhile, the Nandi roamed freely seeking likely targets. On July 15, a caravan under G. W. Lewis of Smith, Mackenzie and Company left Ravine with two European mechanics, twenty Indian artisans and over 400 porters. The caravan finally reached Mumias on July 26 having lost over twenty loads to a Nandi attack on the Uasin Gishu Plateau. Another Nandi ambush captured two rifles, a shotgun and a loaded donkey from the Uganda Commissioner's caravan near Kabras. Still another ambush on Bishop H. Hanlon's caravan captured the religious relics of Father Prendergast. News of these ambushes did not reach Ravine in time to stop a small advance party of the Boustead, Ridley and Company from departing with beads to purchase food for the Church Missionary Society main caravan of T. Munro and urgent letters for Mengo. The advance party consisted of twenty-five contract men and six porters. Two hundred Nandi warriors ambushed the unprotected camp at 2:00AM on August 22. Only seven members of the party survived and reached safety.

By July 30, the IBEAC agents knew that the Nandi had been incited to a war and took the appropriate measures, but could not warn other caravans in time. On October 2, a caravan under Mohamed Bau consisting of thirty rifles, two loads of spare ammunition, fifty head of cattle and twenty sheep and goats left Guasa Masa for Ravine. Two days out from Ravine the caravan was attacked during the night by ten Nandi warriors and suffered the loss of eight porters and a woman. Six men were wounded and four guns captured with 250 rounds of ammunition after only ten shots had been fired. Forty-two of the cattle were captured with the small stock and mail. The mail was returned sixteen days after the disaster.

Another well armed caravan under F. Pordage of 160 men were threatened by a large Nandi kiptaiyat on October 13 at their camp on the Kamasai River. During the night of October 14-15 the camp was surrounded by Nandi warriors, but Pordage was up to the task and order three volleys fired into the darkness by his askari. The result was the confirmation of two dead Nandi and several blood trails. After leaving Guasa Masa, ten Sudanese askari joined the caravan on the 15th and when the Portage caravan camped, several Nandi were discovered attempting to set fire to the grass surrounding the caravan.

During the afternoon of the 16th a water porter party was attacked by thirty Nandi warriors, but the rush was stopped by a volley from the five askari escorting the party. The Nandi retired without loss and contented themselves to watch the progress of the caravan outside of gunfire range until it reached Ravine on October 21, 1895.

Although there was one more successful attack by the Nandi on a fortified Kabras village, the Nandi appear to have been content with the success of their raids on the Uganda Road. The operations had been well planned and executed as the warriors had defeated several European caravans with the loss of only two warriors. When provided the opportunity, the warriors had decisively struck. When the Europeans had the advantage, the Nandi warriors possessed the discipline to avoid a costly attack. And all this was accomplished by raiding parties, not the combined might of the Nandi tribes.

The last months of the IBEAC forces was expended against the threats from tribes neighboring Nandi. The Protectorate military establishment numbered 1,200 Sudanese troops, 250 of which were reservists. The porter establishment was chaotic, and the arms and ammunition supply system was forwarded through Mumias from German East Africa or Kampala. Food stuffs were an entirely different problem as local purchases were minimal and the arrival of caravans was haphazard. The Nandi clearly presented a threat that the IBEAC could not effectively counter.

THE FIRST INVASION OF NANDI

In 1895, the crown took from the IBEAC the responsibility for the area including Nandi. Uganda became a separate protectorate and the Sudanese troops were reorganized into the Uganda Rifles Regiment (URR) under the Foreign Office administration. Established at 800 men, it was organized into ten companies. The 27th Bombay (Baluch) Light Infantry Regiment (BLI) was also deployed to the protectorate with ten companies.

After considering several options, Major G. G. Cunningham decided to invade Nandi with a field force of 400 askari of the I, IV, V, IX URR, with a Maxim, 600 porters, and 800 followers from Kampala. The huge caravan attracted a lot of attention as it marched to Mumias. The local natives were awed by the spectacle that was arrayed against the Nandi. At Mumias on October 29, Cunningham was joined by Dr. Mackinnon. The total column consisted then consisted of five Europeans, seven native officers, 367 askari, 23 Baganda "drilled and disciplined" auxiliaries, and a few armed "Swahili" porters in the Maxim detachment. After Captain C.H. Sitwell's column arrived, the number of askari increased to 428. This was more than one third of the total regular troops available in the protectorate.

All of the URR were rearmed with Martini-Henry rifles and one Maxim machinegun was allotted to each of the reorganized columns. There was plenty of ammunition and supplies, but one of the main problems was providing carriers. The local populations at Kavirondo and Mau were not willing to offer their services. In the end, only 110 Swahilis and 80 Lendus were available. As most of the Swahli were specialist carriers for the Maxim guns, and the logistics of supporting over a thousand people forced Cunningham to reduce the number of followers to 350. Even then, the size of the columns would force them to depend upon raiding ripened millet fields in Nandi.

Another problem Cunningham faced was the lack of irregulars acting as guides and a shield for the columns. Bribed with gifts of Nandi cattle, even the Masai refused to offer their services. This was most disconcerting as this had never before been a problem against other tribes neighboring the Nandi. Cunningham was forced to enter unexplored territory without the benefit of guides or skirmishers.

Undaunted, Major Cunningham sent the small force of a few Baganda irregulars under Sgt. Chongo with fifty Sudanese regulars to chastise the irreconcilables in the Kikelelwa forest. The forest was deserted and the houses were burned. The Nandi appear to have expanded to create a "burned" no man's land between the British protectorate and Nandi.

Cunningham then marched his column out of Mumias on November 4th. He detached F. G. Foaker with I Company (90 men), twenty reservists, and a number of porters to Guasa Masa as the main column continued east to the Kabras food depot. After marching south on November 8th, the column turned east again and reached the first Nandi huts on an escarpment 6,000 feet above the column. A patrol dispersed a number of Nandi warriors and continued southwards to a dense forest. This first encounter with the Nandi resulted in two askari shot, and sixteen Nandi cattle and nine goats captured.

On November 9th, the column retraced its path seeking a way either around the escarpment or the forest. Two miles to the north, Cunningham discovered a path which was used contested by Nandi snipers who rained arrows and rifle fire into the flanks of the column. Cunningham claimed four Nandi dead with a loss of one wounded Sudanese follower. However, Cunningham once he had reached the plateau, turned north and a party of Nandi were dispersed by his Maxim. He then sent a patrol to find Captain C. H. Sitwell's missing column.

Sitwell and Foaker left Guasa Masa on November 10th with 168 Sudanese askari, 51 porters, a Maxim, and a number of followers with directions to progress south for fifteen miles to join the Cunningham column at Kabiyet. Captain Sitwell was deceived by his Masai guides and ended his first day's march west instead of south. Sitwell believed that he had reached Kabiyet within a six hour march, and not finding Cunningham's main column, he camped over night.

While both Cunningham and Sitwell were ineffectively searching for each other's column, both became embroiled in increasing Nandi resistance. The Cunningham Column was running low on food by November 13th, and he decided to move back to where he thought the Sitwell Column might be. Patrols from Cunningham's column skirmished with Nandi attempting to protect the grain rich country the column had entered. The Nandi skirmished, but were dispersed by the Maxim losing one warrior killed by a patrol and another captured by foraging porters near Kombe, and foraging patrols accounted for three more warriors and one rifle southeast of the Kipsomoitei camp.

Then the Nandi Kiptaiyet main force fell upon the column near dark Company IV received the brunt of the Nandi attack when the Nandi got between a patrol sent west by that company and the company. The Company IV was forced to retire and send for reinforcements. IX Company was left to guard the camp and the battered IV and fresh V Company were sent to relieve the Baganda irregulars who had accompanied the IV company section southeast of the camp near the Kimondi River.

The relief companies could hear heavy firing as they neared the battlefield. Company V was held in reserve while a section of Company IV was detailed to secure the bridge across the river. The remaining three sections of IV Company covered by the Maxim crossed the bridge and began climbing up the left bank. It was then that the Nandi Kiptaiyet of 500 warrriors appeared. The warriors ran straight at IV Company wheeling to the left. Ignoring the effects of the Maxim, the warriors continued forward until just thirty yards from the Company IV line, they broke. The section left at the bridge crossed over at the first warning and fired into the fleeing warriors. V Company was sent to cut off the warrior's retreat, but was recalled due to the growing darkness.

It had been a near run battle. It had looked at the moment by observers that the IV Company sections would be over-run. But, the Sudanese askaris and their British officers had stood their ground and both participants had experienced the capabilities of the one another. The British learned something of the Nandi discipline, elan, and tactics, and the Nandi learned something about the effectiveness of the gunfire they had never experienced before. However, it had come at a cost to both sides. The Nandi lost over a hundred warriors killed and the British lost fourteen askaris and irregulars killed, including Sergeant Chongo.

On the morning of the 14th, IV and IX Companies were sent out, but saw few of the enemy. Cunningham decided to move his camp across the Kimondi to Kapkobis. The move was made with the loss of only one porter. The column constructed a a five foot thorn enclosure which proved invaluable.

Just before dawn on the 17th, an alarm was given by the sentries who discovered a large Nandi kiptaiyet that had crept within a hundred yards of the enclosure. Incredibly, the warriors were not impressed by the earlier battle, and were now attempting a night attack that had been so successful in the past. This time however, the Nandi discovered that the fire power and thorn enclosure was too much to overcome. Leaving one dead warrior, the Nandi retreated, but succeeded in carrying off the wounded into the night.

After determining that there were no Nandi close, the column moved again on the 17th to a camp at Kipture. At this point large numbers of Nandi warriors were seen, and the local villages were looted for food, but the Nandi did not attack the column as it moved. On the 18th large demonstrations were made by the Nandi that were dispersed by skirmishers as the column moved forward to cross the Mogong and Choimin Rivers. Pieces of bloodied cloth hung from the bridges as a sign of defiance by the Nandi. As the column climbed up the valley of the Choimin large bodies of Nandi were seen and disbursed by the Maxim and skirmishers from the IX Company. The column continued until it was in a heavily populated area and camped on Teito Hill. No attack was launched, but large herds of sheep and goats were seen moving away from the column.

The Nandi changed their tactics beginning on the 19th, when the warriors began harrassing the column as it moved east through thick forest., and wounded several animals and one man in an arrow attack on the column during the night. On the 20th, huge boulders were rolled upon the column as it descended down a narrow trail in the Sagane Valley. That evening arrows rained down upon the camp wounding one man and a cow. The Nandi arrows ceased when the Sudanese returned fire into the darkness. The Nandi managed to spear two followers at a water hole by evading the sentries on the 21st. Click Here View the rest of the story.... 1