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Colonial disasters you (probably) haven’t heard of


Isandlwana was the best known disaster to befall the British Army in Africa in the era of colonial conquest before the First World War, but it was not the only one, and other European powers suffered their defeats too. Here are a few you might not have heard of.

Intombe Drift, 12 March 1879

More than six weeks after Isandlwana the British suffered another defeat in Zululand, when Mbilini waMswati’s warriors surprised a supply column which had unwisely halted for the night when half way across the Intombe River. The Zulus wiped out the 80 soldiers on their side of the river, then waded across and surrounded the survivors on the other bank. The British officer in command decided to ride off to get help on the only available horse, but the men he had abandoned managed to fight their way out under the command of an NCO.

Elbejet, December 1889

The German explorer Carl Peters had been sent to Uganda in an attempt to seize it from the British, but on the way he launched an unprovoked attack on a village of the Laikipiak Masai on a hill known as Elbejet. Peters and 35 ‘askaris’ – locally raised African soldiers - attacked at dawn while the unsuspecting Masai were asleep, and succeeded in capturing the village and 2,000 cattle. However the warriors regrouped at the bottom of the hill and threatened Peters’ camp, forcing him to fall back to defend it. The camp was struck and the expedition began a fighting retreat, pursued by the Masai, who speared several of the askaris and came near to killing Peters himself. Peters later tried to portray the fight as a victory, but he had been forced to abandon most of the cattle and had only saved the expedition by a hurried escape.

Rugaro River, 17 August 1891

Hauptmann von Zelewski, a ruthless officer nicknamed ‘The Hammer’, was leading a German punitive expedition into the lands of the Hehe people in what is now Tanzania when he was ambushed by 3,000 warriors. The Germans had about 450 men – mostly locally recruited askaris – supported by field guns and Maxim machine guns, but the artillery was being carried dismantled on pack animals and never got into action. The Hehe fired one shot as a signal, then charged with spears. More than 250 Germans and askaris were killed, and the rest were forced into a hurried retreat. Zelewski himself was speared by a sixteen year old boy, who was richly rewarded for his exploit.

Minonge Ravine, 5 November 1891

Later in what was becoming an ‘annus horribilis’ for the German Kaiser, Hauptmann von Gravenreuth embarked on an ambitious expedition inland from the west coast near Mount Cameroon. He only got a couple of miles before the local Bakweri charged down the slope of the mountain wielding spears and muskets. Caught as it was crossing a deep ravine, the German column was routed and Gravenreuth was killed.

Fort Johnstone, February 1892

Zarafi, a chief of the powerful Yao people, was besieging the British post at Fort Johnston in what is now Malawi. The fort’s civilian commander, a Mr King, persuaded some Ngoni spearmen who were based nearby to join him in a sortie, but as soon as the Yao fired their muskets the Ngoni changed their minds and ran away. King was badly wounded, but the remaining troops managed to retreat into the fort covered by a naval officer named Inge, who held off the Yao with a single 7-pounder gun until his ammunition ran out. Inge got away, but Zarafi’s men captured the gun.

The Franqui Expedition, 11 February 1895

Lieutenant Franqui, an officer in the Belgian King Leopold’s misnamed private army, the ‘Force Publique’, was leading a column of 700 African askaris plus local allies through the territory of the Azande in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. An Azande chief named Bafuka refused his permission to pass through his lands, but Franqui ignored him and kept going. Bafuka’s men lined both sides of the road under cover of tall elephant grass, and took the column completely by surprise. The fight went on all day, but by nightfall the surviving askaris were in full flight, Franqui had been wounded, and the Azande had collected large numbers of abandoned rifles.

Pembe Drift, 28 September 1904

During the ‘Scramble for Africa’ Portugal tried to establish its authority over its colony of Angola, but their task was made harder because many of the native peoples were well armed with smuggled rifles. When a column under Captain de Aguiar ran into resistance in thick thorn bush, Captain Pinto de Almeida was sent forward with 500 Portuguese soldiers to reconnoitre. Almeida came under fire from hidden Kwamato snipers and halted in a clearing to form a defensive square. However the Portuguese could not see their assailants in the dense bush, and wasted most of their ammunition while the Kwamato continued to pick them off from cover. When the square finally broke more than half the soldiers were dead, and the extent of the losses forced Aguiar’s whole force to retreat.

By Chris Peers

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