Mutiny at Kumassi – the West African Regiment, 1901
During the period of the European “scramble” for Africa and particularly for West Africa after 1885, Britain deployed a very limited range of military forces to establish and enforce her rule. Apart from calling into action actual British regiments and units as needed (as was done, for example, in the Ashantee campaign of 1873-74 and in 1896), Britain often relied, especially as a “first response”, on naval landing parties drawn largely from the ships of the Cape Squadron on duty off West Africa or on the West India Regiment. This interesting unit was raised as long ago as 1795 with eight (later 12) battalions, most of them initially employing freed slaves. In its later two-battalion form, it saw extensive service in West Africa over the next a hundred years. As its name implies, it was raised in the West Indies, with its major depot at Up Park Camp in Jamaica and in Freetown in Sierra Leone, from where it could be deployed along the West African coast as needed. Its officers and men moved between Jamaica and stations in the West Indies and in Sierra Leone on a regular rota basis. Medals to the 1st and 2nd Battalions can be found from Ashantee 1873-4 onwards and include many of the East and West Africa medals with dated clasps; they also served in the Boer War!
Apart from naval contingents and the West India Regiment, Britain established a series of colonial para-military police forces in the different territories – the Gold Coast Constabulary (1879), the Sierra Leone Protectorate Police (1890), the Niger Coast Constabulary (1891), the Royal Niger Constabulary (1886) etc. – and relied on these on-the-spot forces for much of the military action that was deemed necessary. These police forces became the basis for the later local regiments of Northern Nigeria, Southern Nigeria, Gold Coast, Lagos and Sierra Leone which eventually formed the West African Frontier Force.
In fact, it was fairly late on in the process of British expansion in West Africa before fully professional infantry units, recruiting West African men, were established, such as the Northern Nigeria and Southern Nigeria regiments. The impetus to the raising of stronger military units was the experience of the Benin campaign of 1897 and the increasing fear of French advances in the hinterlands of British “spheres of interest”. As has been mentioned, The West African Frontier Force, incorporating a number of the separate colonial “police” forces from four territories (Sierra Leone, the Gambia, the Gold Coast and Lagos/Nigeria), was a later amalgamation of some of these regiments to form a more unified and professional force.
As part of this expansion, the West African Regiment (WAR) was raised at Freetown in Sierra Leone in April 1898, largely from among the local Mende and Temne comunities and some others; they had no common language other than the English words of command. A full battalion was completed by October 1898 under Colonel E. R. P. Woodgate, with 19 British officers and NCOs, 9 African NCOs and over 1,000 men. It was a large battalion – the aim was actually to raise 1,400 men. The regiment was pitched quickly into active service, being deployed during the latter stages of the “Hut Tax War” in Sierra Leone, where its men earned their first campaign medal – the East and West Africa Medal with clasp Sierra Leone 1897-98 – and “A” Company actually captured the main rebel leader, Bai Bureh.
In March 1900, the newly-acquired Asante (Ashanti) kingdom, taken by the British in a bloodless campaign 1896, erupted into what turned out to be the biggest and most serious of the West African colonial conflicts. Since no British units as a whole were available for action – the Boer War and the Boxer Rebellion were going on at the same time – it was down to local African constabularies and forces to restore the situation. Apart from Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and Nigerian units, men of the Central African Rifles were brought as far as from Nyasaland and all were under the command of Colonel James Willcocks.
The WAR under Colonel C. A. P. Burroughs, an ex-officer of the South Lancs brought out of retirement at the age of 51, played a very active and highly-regarded part in the campaign to relieve the besieged Residency at Kumassi (Kumase) and to put down the rebellion and was described by one participant as “one of the best bodies of men in the relief column as far as the fighting was concerned”; they lost several men in action, including at the unsuccessful attack on Kokofu.
When some degree of order had been re-established, elements of the WAR were based around Asante as part of a temporary occupation force. Four companies (450 men) were stationed at Kumassi and two at Kwisa on the main road to the coast. Most of these men had been away from home for nearly two years and despite a promise in December 1900 that they would be back home “in six weeks” there was a widespread feeling that the men were in fact to be retained on duty in Asante for up to six years – according to rumour.
At the same time, the WAR expressed several other grievances – their pay was well in arrears and the men were short of money to buy food in the local markets; they claimed that their food was of poor quality and in short supply, that their quarters were poor and leaked and that medical and hospital treatment (at a time when sickness was rife) were inadequate. After their long and arduous service, their uniforms were in tatters and their weapons in bad condition. In addition, the town of Kumassi – where the men might have found some relief from the daily boredom of their dilapidated barracks – was placed “out of bounds” to the soldiers to avoid potential trouble with the locals. Harsh punishments, most notably severe flogging and beatings, were meted out rather too frequently to deal with minor infringements. It really does seem that the WAR was in a bad way!
In the end, much of what was wrong with the WAR was laid at the door of its commanding officer, Colonel “Charley” Burroughs, who had been brought out of retirement to serve with the WAR in Asante – his first and last campaign service. Many of his junior officers were inexperienced with African troops, ignorant of the nuances of their languages and neglectful of the welfare and discipline of their men.
Things came to a head in terms of discontent when the promised relief of the WAR companies at Kumassi – anxious to get back at long last to Sierra Leone – was long delayed by the failure of their relief, the 2nd Central African Rifles, to arrive on time, since they had been deflected en route to serve in the Gambia campaign.On 18th March 1901, when Burroughs had announced that he was taking early leave, no fewer than 178 men of ‘A’ Company failed to turn out for parade and left, taking their arms and ammunition with them. Burroughs failed to report this desertion to the colonial authorities, later stating that some men had done this before and had simply turned up again a few days later. Some of the clearly literate NCOs and men left letters expressing their need for money and their desire simply to go home.
The British press carried detailed accounts of “the Coomassie Mutiny”; see for example, one full version in The Aberdeen Press and Journal on 25th April 1901 and in more specialist media like The Army and Navy Gazette 6th April 1901.
By 19th March, 242 men were absent (more than half the WAR contingent in Kumassi) and stated to be marching for the coast. Some of their company commanders, sent in pursuit to convince the men to return, got as far as Kwisa only to find that many of the WAR garrison there had joined the others despite a direct plea from their commanding officer, Lt. Tremearne, that they should remain where they were and obey orders. The European officers were fired on when they tried to intervene and stop the men, now about 400 in number, heading for Cape Coast Castle. They were followed by Colonel Burroughs and the remnant of the WAR in forced marches from Kumassi, anxious to reach Cape Coast Castle as quickly as possible to try to forestall any military clash or the stirring up of a wider agitation in the colony. There was a serious worry that the fact of the mutiny – and the accompanying reduction in garrison forces – would re-kindle the Asante rebellion, with all the serious consequences that would follow. [“Since yesterday this town has been threatened by some 600 [or 300 or 800!] soldiers of the West African Regiment, who appear to have mutinied in the interior. They refuse to lay down their arms unless they receive in full their arrears of pay”.]
In the event, the mutinous soldiers of the WAR, heading for the coast, seem to have behaved with discipline and in good order, with ‘companies’ being formed under ad-hoc officers who even disciplined their own men by flogging for drunkenness or disorderly conduct. The mutineers reached Cape Coast Castle on 26th March 1901 and took up quarters in the school building, to find something of a state of panic in the rather un-defended town; European residents and merchants had taken shelter in Cape Castle. Burroughs arrived in the town later the same day and on the 27th set out to talk to the men, trying to convince them to give up their weapons and board the steamer Sherbro, which, he promised, would take the men home to Sierra Leone. Only about 40 fell in with this before the rest, under Pte. Mandingo (who had emerged as a major ringleader) blocked the beach and prevented any further departures. The men were convinced that once aboard ship and disarmed they would be taken into a distant exile.
Offers of a full settlement of pay arrears were quickly made but rejected and relations worsened – there was clearly a major lack of trust between the men and their officers and by now other forces (like the Gold Coast Constabulary) were assembling near the town, threatening a military strike against the mutineers. Indeed, Pte. Mandingo was seized, tried by a hastily-convened court martial and then shot by men of the GCC ( “a man named Mandingo, having been tried and found guilty by court martial was publicly shot outside the Castle”).
The other mutineers of the WAR agreed to parade by Cape Coast Castle (accompanied by their colleagues who had not deserted) and in the face of armed opposition and without their leader, finally agreed to accept their back pay and board the Sherbro for dispatch to Sierra Leone. 188 deserters and 178 loyal soldiers of the WAR were thus returned home. On arrival, 21 mutineers were handcuffed and confied, the rest sent to Wilberforce Barracks. However, at Cape Coast 160 of the remaining deserters simply marched out led by Corporal Amara and took the road to Axim via Elmina, where they arrived on 3rd April; it was apparently their intention to walk all the way back to Sierra Leone.
Complaints of their looting and plundering (if true, probably the result of their desparate plight as much as anything else) quickly reached the authorities and detachments of men, including the GCC, were landed from HMS Forte and a colonial cruiser near Axim; a contingent of the CAR was also landed later. In the face of this force, entrenched across the main road that the WAR men would have to take, the mutineers were given the final offer to lay down their arms, accept their pay and then be shipped to Freetown. They again refused and a brief fire-fight actually took place, with several of the mutineers killed and wounded. As they dispersed, they were followed by shells and machine gun fire from Forte – serious business.
With their routes blocked and about twelve men killed and wounded, the mutineers simply fled into the surrounding bush, where most of them were eventually rounded up; these were taken aboard HMS Forte next day and most of the rest seized over the next few days by local people. [“The remainder of the deserters from the West African Regiment from Kumassi have been captured near Bayin by a force landed from His Majesty’s cruiser Forte and the Central African Regiment … About dozen of the mutineers were shot, while 128 surrendered and delivered up their arms.”]
The whole affair was quickly brought before a Court of Inquiry in Freetown, which sat for three days and heard evidence from British officers, NCOs and some men of the WAR. The plight of the men was fully debated; not unexpectedly, the strongest criticism was directed against the leadership of Colonel Burroughs who was “[considered] to a great extent answerable for the outbreak” because of his harsh and unsympathetic treatment of his own men. His announcement of his own early leave from Kumassi was particularly criticised in the face of the fact that his men were long overdue leave but could not go. In the end, a call for his court martial was dropped and he was instead severely reprimanded by Lord Roberts as C-in-C and was “removed from the command” and retired on half-pay. It was also decreed that in future, officers chosen to work with any West African forces should be more carefully screened and selected.
The troops were tried under the Army Act of 1881 and of course, the penalty for a proven case of mutiny was death. But in the end, only six of the WAR mutineers, considered to be ring-leaders, were actually sentenced to death (all commuted to life imprisonment) and three NCOs and ten men were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment in Sierra Leone.
Interestingly, the WAR medal roll for the Ashanti Medal of 1900-01 identifies those men who mutined (marked as “mutineer”) and these men, as was usual in such cases, forfeited the Ashanti medal. It is for this reason that medals for Ashanti 1900-01 to the WAR are scarcer than they should be, given the number of men employed – though it has to be said that medals to the WAR in general are not at all common! They went on to serve in WW1, in West Africa (German Togoland and Cameroons) and were disbanded in 1928 as part of a general cost-cutting excercise.