“The Hut Tax War” in Sierra Leone
… a forgotten colonial campaign.
by Peter Duckers
Following the American Revolution (1776-1783), many British “loyalists” fled from the new USA. Many went to Canada or the West Indies and included thousands of black settlers and workers. More than 3,000 “Black Loyalists” settled in Nova Scotia, where they were granted land and founded Birchtown. But they found the climate and conditions there unworkable and pressed the British authorities for relief and aid. As a result, the British abolitionist John Clarkson and others founded “The Sierra Leone Company” specifically to relocate black loyalists who wanted to return to West Africa. In 1792, nearly 1200 such people from Nova Scotia crossed the Atlantic to found the colony of Sierra Leone, with its capital, the pointedly named “Freetown”. It was a harsh environment, with few facilities or much money and the continual threat of illegal slave raids and re-enslavement. From 1807, when Britain abolished the seaborne trade in slaves (and tried to force other nations to do so!) Britain maintained a naval squadron in the Bight of Benin aimed solely at intercepting slave vessels and freeing their “cargoes”. It was an expensive and (for the crews) dangerous and unpopular policy – service in “the white man’s grave” might earn higher pay but the death toll from tropical diseases and heatstroke was appalling. Over the next eighty years, British ships rescued and freed thousands of captured Africans, liberating them at Freetown. Although they came from all over sub-Saharan West Africa, most chose to remain in Sierra Leone. As the century progressed, they were joined by freed black Americans, refugees from the American-founded territory of Liberia, and particularly by West Indians. The new settlers were known as Creoles (or Krio).
Sierra Leone existed only as a small coastal enclave for most of the 19C. Like other British settlements along the West African coast, it was not until the 1890s that the colony was enlarged, during the greatest era of Britain’s expansion in tropical Africa, when all her coastal holdings were greatly increased in size. The urgent motive for this development was an aggressive French expansionist policy across the Sahara and in West Africa which threatened to cut off and limit Britain’s coastal holdings unless steps were taken to seize territory inland. Under the determined Conservative Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, a deliberate policy of “land grabbing” was begun after 1895, the idea being that Britain should annex territory in the hinterlands of its existing West African territories not on the basis that they had any immediate economic value but on the basis that they might have in the future – the “undeveloped estates” theory. Stake your claim before someone else does!
It was this policy which saw, for example, rapid expansion inland from the Niger Delta (what became the colony of Nigeria), along the Gambia and into the Ashanti Empire in 1896. Throughout the period 1895-1900, the British established by treaty, annexation or force a series of much larger colonies in West Africa, following the 1885 Berlin Conference’s requirement to demonstrate “effective occupation” of claimed territories. In 1896, a large swath of territory inland of the existing Sierra Leone frontier was annexed by Britain to form a much larger Protectorate. However, somewhat understandably, this was not popular amongst many local leaders and chiefs, since it interfered with their sovereignty and local standing as they simply became units within a new British colonial government.
It was a long-established principle of British colonial administration that colonies should contribute to their own government, defence and development – hence the imposition of taxes; it was this policy which had alienated the American colonists and fomented their Revolution in 1776. It was also a good way to get local people to work for their new rulers (e.g. on plantations or road making) since they would need cash to pay the taxes.
The new Governor of Sierra Leone, the experienced soldier Colonel Sir Frederick Cardew KCMG, followed exactly this policy. In January 1898, he imposed a new tax on dwellings (the “hut tax”), which was immediately unpopular not simply because no such imposition had ever been levied before but also because the taxes were deemed to be far too high – at between five and ten shillings per hut (depending on size), the annual assessment was often greater than the value of the dwelling. Almost immediately, 24 leading chiefs petitioned Cardew, to convince him that the tax was unfair. The failure of Cardew and the colonial government to respond sympathetically was the immediate cause of the Temne-Mende war, known to history as “the Hut Tax war” of 1898-99. This turned into one of the largest-scale anti-colonial revolts West Africa ever saw and fairly quickly drew in just about the whole of the new colony. The British authorities found themselves almost overwhelmed by the scale (and spread) of the opposition and what followed was a very fragmentary series of operations, largely relying on small columns of West African troops under British officers, operating in different districts and trying, with varying degrees of success, to keep the lids on several boiling pots at once.
The rebellion against the new Hut Tax began in the Karene district, which became known as “the northern front”, where officials had been visiting Temne villages trying to raise the new tax in full, in part or in kind, but with little success. To provide a back-up to the process, a small force of the Sierra Leone Frontier Police (SLFP) under Major A. Tarbet was sent to support the District Commissioner Capt. Sharpe and try to arrest Bai Bureh, chief of Kasse, and regarded (unfairly as it now appears) as the leading instigator in the non-payment of the tax in that area. Bai Bureh – who unsuccessfully tried to make peace overtures throughout the spring of 1898 – quickly gained the support of several prominent chiefs, including the powerful Kissa chief Kai Londo and the Limba chief Suluku. Both sent their own warriors and weapons to aid Bai Bureh, who felt he had to defend himself against what he saw as unprovoked aggression. Other leaders who soon rose to the fore were chiefs Niagu of Paguma, chief Guburu of Bompe and Bai Sherbro of the Yonni tribe.
The 61-year old Bai Bureh was a powerful and well-regarded chief, not prepared to sit back and await arrest. Mobilising his followers, he fought the progress of the SLFP from the start, to the extent that Tarbet’s force was virtually isolated within Karene, since all the roads to Port Loko and Freetown were blocked by Bai Bureh’s men and passed through hostile territory. After two weeks of struggling to find Bai Bureh, and frequently attacked en route, they were joined by a company of 1st West India Regt. under Major Richard Norris DSO, who had reached them via a circuitous route to avoid potential ambushes.
On 3rd March, the combined force under Norris made a determined attempt to find and arrest Bai Bureh but from the moment they set out towards Port Loko, they came under continual harrassing attacks in the dense forest tracts and suffered considerable casualties; volley firing into the trees had little effect. Eventually reaching Port Loko, Major Norris took up a defensive position and summoned reinforcements from Freetown. On 6th March 1898, Norris was joined by 94 officers and men of the 1st West India Regt. under Major W. B. Stansfield who came up from Freetown. In the meantime, Bai Bureh’s supporters began to construct blockhouses, manned by only a few men, but skilfully constructed out of banana wood and hidden in the forests; from these almost invisible stockades, they could fire on passing columns and then flee into the woodlands before they could be surrounded and attacked. It was becoming clear that the “rebels” were gaining the upper hand – British firepower and superior armament was of little advantage in forests which completely hid the enemy – and the rebellion began to spread.
As the situation seemed to be worsening, naval forces from the Cape Squadron were brought into action, with brigades (amounting to about 250 men) landed at Bonthe from HMS Fox (Capt. F. H. Henderson), Blonde (Cdr. P. Hoskins) and Alecto (Lt. A. F. Holmes); these ships also conveyed reinforcements in the form of the 3rd West India Regiment, shipped from St. Helena, while a small detachment of Royal Artillery and other specialists (e.g. Royal Engineers) was sent from England. In total, including the Sierra Leone Police and “odd” detachments, some 2,500 men were immediately available to take the fight to Bai Bureh. It is believed that the timely arrival of these reinforcements was actually what saved the colony from being completely overrun; they were able, for example, to relieve Major Norris’s heavily-pressed column and get him back to Freetown. Bai Bureh was finally captured in October 1898 by a force under Col. E. R. P. Woodgate of the West Africa Regt. Bai Bureh and two colleagues were exiled to the Gold Coast, though he was allowed to return in 1905 and reassumed chieftaincy of Kasse.
However, the success of Bai Bureh encouraged others to rise against the government. The central Mende (or Mendi) tribe, under Momoh Jah, and tribes in the south of the colony (the “southern front”) showed a particular willingness to take on the British, aiming to drive them out of the country; merchants and civilians, both Europeans and those of mixed race deemed to be “westernised”, were attacked, with over 1000 estimated to have been killed. From April 1898, beginning from the district of Imperri, armed bands of Mende overran the coastal area, taking control of smaller ports as far as the Liberian frontier. Other rebel groups operated further inland and many SLFP posts and bases were attacked or besieged; even major towns like Bonthe and Waterloo were attacked.
Throughout the country, people were under arms and out of (government) control. Captain C. B. Wallis with only 28 men of the SLFP was attacked at Kambia, forcing him to fall back to Bonthe, with all his ammunition gone. Lt. Col. Cunningham, DSO, serving with the West Africa Regt., re-took Kambia in May, then proceeded along the Jong river to Mafwe, whose civilian post had been attacked and destroyed. Here, he was attacked by over 1000 Mendes, driven off with heavy casualties, as was another attack soon afterwards. Cunningham then captured two solid, well-hidden stockades – impervious even to artillery fire – near the town of Bumpe.
One of the besieged government posts was Panguma in the eastern central area of the country. Sir Frederick Carew ordered that Panguma be relieved immediately by a column from Badajuma, itself defended by only 50 SLFP under Capt. Eames and a good four day’s march away. Accordingly, on 9th June, a force of only 45 SLFP – far too few – set off to reach the town. Under attack from the start, they got as far as Doja, 30 miles from Bandajuma, before the refusal of their porters to continue forced them to turn back. Another attempt at relief was made on 12th June when a column of 75 men of the SLFP with 300 “friendly” natives under Major E. D. H. Fairtlough set out from Kwalu. This force also had a 7-pounder field gun, manned by the artillery section of the SLFP. The column came under serious attack at Gagboro, but succeeded in driving off the enemy, capturing three stockades and entering the town. Fairtlough came under continual harrassing attack as he edged towards Panguma, but defeated another major assault at Dodo and finally reached the besieged town on 23rd June. They found the defenders under Capt. J. E. C. Blakeney in a bad way – they had defended their stockaded position for over two months, under almost daily attack from over 2000 rebels and had just about run out of ammunition and food (down to meagre rations, chiefly of rice) when relieved.
However, this particular ordeal was not yet over. The combined column now had to fight its way out, under ambush and passing (and usually capturing) many hidden blockhouses. The greatest action took place at Yomundu on 6th July. This large town was well-defended by a triple stockade but the 7-pounder gun made a world of difference. Three columns attacked different points – Captain H. de L. Ferguson to the right, Major Fairtlough on the left and the third, comprising largely the “friendlies”, attacked the centre. When the stockade was breached, hand-to-hand fighting took place in the town, the end result being being the death of three local chiefs and 115 of their supporters.
By this time – early July 1898 – six separate SLFP and WIR columns were criss-crossing the country, burning “rebel” villages, trying to reimpose order, and some chiefs were beginning to offer their submission. Though a number of raiders and marauding bands remained at large for some time, no further large-scale opposition developed and gradually units of the SLFP were able to round-up rebel leaders and re-establish government authority. Officially, the operations were not deemed to be over until 9th March 1899.
The campaign in Sierra Leone was one of the largest fought during the early days of Britian’s conquest of a new West African empire. The extent of the rebellion, in terms of the territory it affected and the number of people who rose in rebellion, was far greater than in other colonial uprisings. The colony’s slender military resources were stretched to the limit and only the involvement of outside forces, like the small RN and RM brigades, with reinforcements, landed from warships enabled the government to suppress the uprising. Colonel Marshal, the British commander-in-chief, said that the operations in 1898, involved “some of the most stubborn fighting that has been seen in West Africa. No such continuity of opposition had at any previous time been experienced on this part of the coast.”
Army Order 152 of 1899 authorised the award of what was then called “the West Africa Medal” with clasp Sierra Leone 1898-99 to the following units, the figures taken from Magor’s African General Service Medals and British Battles and Medals” which differ only slightly from each other.
Misc. civilians, surgeons, officials etc 109
Misc. British officers 9
Royal Garrison Artillery 85
Sierra Leone RGA 184 (Magor = 177)
Royal Engineers 56
Army Service Corps 29 + local labourers
Army Medical services 44
Army Ordnance Corps 16
Army Pay Corps 4
1st West India Regt. 1123
2nd West India Regt. 594
3rd West India Regt. 159
West Africa Regt. 895
Sierra Leone Volunteers 126
Waterloo Volunteer Corps 61
Sierra Leone Frontier Police 553
Colonial steamer Countess of Derby 19
HMS Blonde 124 (Magor = 117)
HMS Alecto 51 (Magor = 34)
HMS Fox 95 (Magor = 87)
The differences for the naval issues may simply reflect the inclusion of awards to native kroomen. Interestingly, there is no record of medals to personnel from HM ships Blake, Phoebe and Tartar which landed men in May 1898. These ships are mentioned in the official dispatches – as are some of their officers – published in The London Gazette; perhaps they were not deemed to have complied with the award regulations, which stipulated that medals were only granted to naval personnel who actually took part in shore operations or in boat expeditions which came under fire along various rivers; these included the River Lokko on March 5th 1898, in the Sherbro hinterland 1-15th May, in the expedition along the Boom-Kittam river, 16th May, and along the Bumpe River, 11-14th May.
In all, about 4,000 men were eventually involved, mostly in the small columns which ranged around the colony restoring order. This is quite a large number for this sort of campaign, but the medal is quite scarce. As can be seen, medals will be more common to the West India Regiment and to the SLFP, with awards to some of the smaller detachments being rare. With 66 killed and 186 wounded (mostly in Karene district) casualties were significantly high for a colonial campaign:
Imperial forces – 4 officers 17 men killed; 16 officers and 94 men wounded
The Sierra Leone Frontier Police – 46 killed and 76 wounded.
In addition, among locally-hired porters and bearers, there were 50 killed and 96 wounded.
Medal rolls are in series WO.100/92 for military personnel and ADM.171/45 for the navy. The London Gazette of 29th December 1899 has the main dispatches on the campaign.
Officers and Men mentioned in Dispatches :
Col. E. R. P. Woodgate (appointed CB and KCMG)
Bvt. Col. G. G. Cunningham, DSO, Derbys. and West African Regts.
Lt. Col. W. J. A. Marshall, West India Regt.
Capt. N. J. Goodwyn, West India Regt. (awarded DSO)
Capt. F. M. Carleton, West African Regt.
Major C. B. Morgan, West India Regt. (awarded DSO)
Lt. H. D. Russell, West India Regt. (awarded DSO)
Major A. H. Thomas, ASC att’d West India Regt. (awarded DSO)
Major R. Crofts, RAMC. (awarded DSO)
Lt. W. R. Howell, 1/ Glamorgan Arty. Vols. att’d Sierra Leone Vols. (awarded DSO)
Major H. G. de L. Ferguson, 4/ Norfolks and SLFP. (awarded DSO)
Major E. C. D. Fairtlough, DSO, 4/ Ryl Dublin Fus.; District Commissioner. (appointed CMG)
Capt. W. S. Sharpe, 4/ Ryl. Irish Rifles; District Commissioner. (appointed CMG)
Major A. F. Tarbet, 3/ S. Lancs; Inspector General, SLFP. (appointed CMG)
Major A. R. Stuart, RA; commanding RA.
Major E. S. C. Kennedy, Brigade Major, West India Regt.
Major H. C. Buck, West India Regt.
Lt. H. T. Eckersley, West India Regt.
Lt. N. E. F. Safford, West India Regt.
Capt. O. H. E. Marescaux, Shrops. L. I., att’d West African Regt.
Capt. C. Dalton, RAMC.
Capt. J. M. Harrison, RAMC.
Corpl. Greenidge, 1st West India Regt.
Pte. Grant, 3rd West India Regt.
Sgt. A. G. Wells, ASC.
Sgt. B. Thomas, West African Regt.
Capt. A.L. Winsloe, HMS Blake.
Capt. F. H. Henderson, HMS Fox (appointed CMG)
Capt. R. L. Rolleston, HMS Phoebe
Lt. F. K. C. Gibbons, HMS Fox.
Cdr. P. Hoskyns, MVO, HMS Blonde (appointed CMG)
Lt. Cdr. Holmes, HMS Alecto.
Lt. E. O. Gladstone, HMS Alecto.
Lt. W. F. Benwell, HMS Fox.
Lt. G. H. Welch, HMS Blonde.
Chf. Engr. W. W. Hardwick, HMS Blonde.