BY JINGO - Colonial History & Wargames Page

Descriptions Of The Various States Of British West Africa

By Leon Kriser

Comprising Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast and Gambia, British West Africa was the scene of many small wars and several large ones against the Ashanti. But on the whole it was a region of small bush wars.

Being an impoverished area and also being known as the 'White Mans Graveyard' London had little interest in it and tried on one occasion to sell some of it off. But a combination of businessmen and anti-slavery groups always stopped any pullout.

Few Imperial soldiers were sent out, except against the Ashanti, so it was up to whatever local forces could be scrounged up. Usually a column consisted of some companies of the West Indies regiments. Native constabulary, company troops and any local tribes backed up with Royal marines and sailors from the West African station who would be followed by long lines of native porters.

Most of the encounters seem to have been skirmishes with extensive use of gunboats and river craft.

For wargamers there are many options of teaming with or against the French in West Africa and the Germans in Togo and Cameroon.

Here is an overview of some of the campaigns.


1861 the slave-port of Lagos is captured after a naval bombardment.
1882 the United Africa Company depot is attacked at Aboh on the river Niger. British warships are summoned and after a landing party is ambushed the ships shell the town.
1885 the coastal territories are placed under the Oil River Protectorate. By
1893 it had a force of over 500 native constables with machine guns and a flotilla of steamboats.

Further north was controlled by the Royal Niger Company by 1896 it had over a thousand constables with machine guns and steamers. Typical Warrior Costume

In May 1892 the Lagos Colony government sent a small force with Machine guns against it's northern neighbors the Ijebu, The Ijebus were quickly beaten with heavy losses. The next year another expedition was sent into Yorubaland and after a demonstration of the maxim machine gun firepower the region was brought under British rule.

In 1896 a small armed force from the Oil River Protectorate led by the governor entered Bini territory to talk to their ruler about ending slavery and human sacrifice, outside the capital Benin they were ambushed with only two men getting away. Within the month some 1500 men including naval landing parties had been formed to punish the Bini. Despite Bini ambushes on the columns within three weeks they were in the capital Benin along the route of the advance they found the remains of hundreds of men and women sacrificed to the Bini gods. In the capital they found crucified victims and blood stained alters. Ibo Warrior

In 1899 another force was sent out to stop Bini human sacrifice. From 1901 to 1902 over 17,000 men in five columns were sent in to what was now the Colony of Nigeria, to force the Ibo to renounce slavery. It was a hard fought campaign, the soldiers having to take one fortified village after another and face ambushes by the spear and blowgun armed Ibos.

In 1905 a white doctor was killed and eaten in the belief that it would protect the warriors from bullets. It didn't around 5,000 Ibo warriors who attacked a column were mown down by machine gun fire.

Between 1900 and 1906, in a series of campaigns, the British suppressed the Tivs after they ambushed a party setting up telegraph lines.

The Royal Niger Company

In 1886 the company depot at Patani was attacked and looted by local tribesmen, Naval landing parties were called in and the rebellious villages were shelled.

In 1894 two Company steamers were attacked by the canon of a local chieftain and business rival Nana. Royal naval landing parties were called in and headed for Nana's capital Ebrohimi which was protected by canon and one machine gun. After some success Nana was betrayed by one of his tribesmen who guided landing parties through the swamps to enable them to take Ebrohimi. Another chieftain, Koko of the Brassmen attacked a Company factory at Akassa in 1895. The navy was called in and shelled his capital Brass. Nigerian Chainmailed Cavalry

In 1885 Britain claimed a loose protectorate of a group of Muslim princedoms under the Caliph of Sokoto.

In 1896 the Company decided to enforce the protectorate and invaded two of the princedoms, Ilorin and Bida. A flotilla landed the force on the upper Niger and they set out to attack the fortified cities of Kabba, Bida and Ilorin.

Kabba fell easily in 1897 but outside of Bida 500 of the Companies Haussa infantry faced 15,000 Nupe warriors. In reality a feudal horde of mail clad, lance armed knights and their dismounted retainers. Machine guns and modern artillery cut them to pieces. The 8,000 warriors of Ilorin fared no better and the city was shelled into submission.

All that stood between the total conquest of Sokoto was a diplomatic crisis with France over the region of Borgu and the river port city of Bussa in particular. While London and Paris tried to work out an agreement the Companies Haussas and the French Senegalese tirailleurs stared at each other in the villages of Borgu. An Anglo-French accord was reached and no shots were fired.

In 1900 the various holdings were transformed with the Lagos colony and Oil River Protectorate becoming Southern Nigeria and the Royal Niger Company being merged with the still unconquered Caliphate of Sokoto to become Northern Nigeria.

With the Boer war raging London was in no mood for a new colonial war but the new high commissioner for Northern Nigeria Frederick Lugard was determined to bring Sokoto under Nigerian control. In 1903 after the murder of a British officer the newly formed West African Frontier Force marched out against the cities of Kano and Sokoto, Kano quickly fell on Feb 3. But at Sokoto on Mar 15 the Caliphate launched it's last great charge. Thousands of horsemen and their footmen armed with swords lances and bows, blowing horns beating drums and shouting verses from the Koran, were annihilated by the WAFFs modern rifles, machine guns and artillery. Sokoto was brought into Nigeria followed, in 1901, by the Aros tribe and the provinces of Bauchi Bornu and Nassarawa in 1902.


Between 1891 and 1894 two local chieftains rebelled, Foda Cabbah and Foda Sillah these were put down by the Royal Navy and the West Indies regiment. It was mostly a war against musket armed Africans.

In 1891 France recognized British claims to both banks of the Gambia River. Soon after there was friction between France and the Mandingo and Fulani tribes. As a result Foda Cabbah was exiled to Mali where He directed operations against the British. Eventually French operations from West Africa and British operations in Gambia ended His rebellion.

In 1893 Foda Sillah inflicted heavy losses on an expedition sent against him before being driven into French territory where He died.

Sierra Leone

Frustrated by years of the local chief breaking their word over slavery in 1887 the Government decided to make an example of one tribe the Yonni sending a force of West Indies and R.N. sailors with rockets against them. After some skirmishes, one column was ambushed six times in two miles, and the use of the rockets the Yonni surrendered. In 1891 another expedition operated from gunboats along the Scarcies River

The most serious threat to Sierra Leone came from the Sofas under their chief Samori Toure'. Driven out of their native West Africa by the French, the Sofas migrated into eastern Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Gold Coast. They traded for modern guns and began launching slave raids against their neighbors.

Two columns, about 500 men total were sent in a pincher movement to drive them out of Sierra Leone. After burning Sofa camps and numerous firefights the biggest battle took place at Tungea where 1500 constables and native auxiliaries defeated the Sofas.

One incident in this war was the accidental clash between British and French forces. A French officer leading his Senegalese tirailleures was mislead to believe that a group of Sofas were camped near by. Leading his men to the camp he attacked what was in reality a detachment of the West Indies Regiment. 17 were killed including the French officer.

In 1898 the tribes rose in rebellion against the 'Hut Tax', a tax on dwellings. Massacring some white missionaries before being put down.

Gold Coast

The Ashanti Ashanti Warrior There seems to be so many clashes with the Ashanti it is difficult to keep them strait but here goes.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century the Ashanti controlled a territory as large as modern Ghana and were challenging the Fanta States for control of the coast. This lead to much hostilities between the two states with the Fanta supporting the Dankyera, Akyem and other states in rebellion against the Ashanti.

The Ashanti responded by launching three invasions of Fanta territory, 1807, 1811 and 1816 and by 1820 the Ashanti were the strongest state in West Africa.

The Ashanti army, which achieved these and many other victories relied on troops mobilized for specific campaigns rather than a standing army. Evasion of military service was punishable by death. The army, which lacked cavalry, had excellent infantry comprising musketeers, bowman and spearmen. There were also units of scouts, Akwansraf, advanced guard, Twaf, a main force, Adonte, the King's personnel bodyguard, Gyas, rear guard, Kyido, and two wings left, Benku and right, Nif. The army also had a medical corp, Esumankwaf.

In 1824 ,after the Ashanti executed a Fanta serving in a British garrison for insulting the Ashanti king, the British launched an expedition against a 10,000 man Ashanti force near Bonsaso. The Ashanti encircled the force and killed the governor Charles MacCarthy, who in the best example of the "stiff upper lip" was standing at attention while His band played "God Save The Queen" expecting the Ashanti to join Him, they didn't, His head was taken back to the Ashanti capital. Eventually the Ashanti were driven off.

In 1826 a reorganized and re-equipped Ashanti force invaded the coastal regions and attacked British allies. During the fighting on Accra Plains the British used Congreve rockets, which frightened the Ashanti warriors, who fled back to Kumasi. In 1831 the Ashanti recognized the independence of the Coastal tribes. First Ashanti War 1863-1864 Started when the Governor refused to return an escaped slave boy to the Ashantis. The king tried to negotiate but when this failed He sent His warriors into the colony and burned 30 villages of tribes friendly to the British.

The Governor asked for troops but was told by London to use the West Indies Regiment. These were deployed along the Prah (Pra) River where they built blockhouses. It returned home without having engaged the Ashanti but somehow lost all it's guns, ammunition and supplies. Second Ashanti War 1873-1874 This was the most famous of the Ashanti Wars. It began as a result of the Ashanti to preserve their last trade outlet to the sea at the old slave fort Elmina which had come into British possession in 1872. In early 1873 the Ashanti crossed the Prah River and invaded the colony with a force somewhere between 12,000 and 60,000 warriors.

After attacking the Fantas, a tribe under British protection, they headed for the coast. The Royal Navy was called in and sent some marines and sailors to man the old slave forts. Elmina was held against a furious Ashanti assault. A river reconnaissance up the Prah was ambushed at Chamah and forced to retreat. A number of landings and naval bombardments were able to slow the Ashanti but not stop them. London realized that an army would have to sent out to deal with the situation.

Sir Garnet Wolseley was named to head the expedition. Upon landing Wolseley demanded that the coastal tribes provide assistance, some more afraid of the Ashanti refused and one the Essaman rebelled. With a force of 500 West Indies, marines and sailors Wolseley dispersed the Essaman after a short fight. British Infantry

In Dec. 1874 British troops arrived and were transported up river. About 4,000 men from the Black Watch, Rifle Brigade, Welsh Fusiliers, the 2nd West Indies, marines and sailors plus two units comprised of coastal tribesmen. Wolseley ordered his troops to give up their red and green coats and even the 42nd's kilts for a 'homespun' material, a water color painting I saw of the 42nd showed them in brown jackets with khaki breeches and puttees. They headed for the Ashanti capital Kumasi and fought numerous skirmishes at the village of Amoafo the Ashanti attacked attempting turn their flanks the British formed a large square and drove them off.

After another battle outside of Ordahsu the British entered the capital Kumasi, everywhere there was evidence of human sacrifice, and burnt it. Though the king escaped the British won, but in defeating the Ashanti they had unwittingly destabilized the whole region.

Years of civil wars and rebellions followed in Ashantiland with the northern states of Brong, Gonja, and Dagomba rebelling.

The Gold Coast Colony was established on July 24 1874 and stretched from the coast to the ill defined borders of Ashantiland.

Third Ashanti 1893-1894
The new Ashanti king Prempah, perhaps to prop up his kingdom, sent raiding parties into British territory. Fearful that the French in Ivory Coast or the Germans in Togo might move in London decided to bring the Ashantis under British control. After a number of bloody skirmishes The British forced Prempah to accept protectorate status.

Fourth Ashanti 1895-1896
No sooner had the British pulled out than Prempah refused to honor the treaty. The British re-invaded, captured Kumasi exiled Prempah to the Seychelles and formed a formal protectorate.

Ashanti Uprising 1900
The Ashanti briefly reasserted their independence and besieged the British Governor in a fort in Kumasi, after he tried to take possession of the Golden Stool the symbol of Ashanti power and independence, defended by his escort with machine guns.

A force was sent out to lift the siege but proved to be to small after some firefights 800 fought their into the fort. This proved to be to many people for their supplies so the governor left a small force to hold the fort and led a break out that fought it's way to friendly territory. A larger force was sent out to relive the fort and after severe fighting broke through to Kumasi. At Aboasa they clashed with the Ashanti, who abandoning their skirmishing ways rushed headlong into the British machine guns.

Description of Uniforms of British troops in British West Africa

The West Indies regiments were recruited in the Caribbean and served in West Africa. Dress uniform was of Zouave style: White sleeved waist coats scarlet jackets with yellow braid blue Zouave trousers with a yellow seam stripe white turban around a red fez and white gaiters. White officers wore the line uniform with white facings for the 1st and yellow for the 2nd. The field uniform was the same but in dark material perhaps even black. Royal Niger Company Hausa

The Gold Coast Hausas wore similar field dress Royal Niger Hausas (1,000 men) in the service of the Royal Niger Company 1897 Khaki jacket and long shorts tucked into dark puttees a dark blue pill box cap with pompom. The equipment was of brown leather. They were armed with muzzle loading Enfields even at this late date. They looked like Gurkhas without the knife.

For Further reading about British West Africa

The Savage Wars; British Campaigns in Africa 1870-1920 By Lawrence James
(This was THE main book I used.)
The Horizon History of Africa By American Heritage
Queen Victoria's Little Wars By Byron Farwell
(I used for antidotes)
The Dictionary of Wars By George C Kohn
The Harper Encyclopedia of Military History By R Ernest and Trevor Dupuy
Military History Magazine August 1989; Empire's Chief Defender By Harold E Raugh Jr.
The African Encyclopedia From Oxford University Press
The Horizon History of the British Empire From American Heritage
Uniforms Illustrated; The Victorian Colonial Uniforms By Philip J Haythornthwait
Africa A Biography By John Reader
Infantry Uniforms Of Britain And The Commonwealth 1855-1939 By Christopher Wilkinson-Latham
Land Forces Of Britain, The Empire And The Commonwealth Online
The U S Library of Congress Online had many interesting articles

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