British Central African Protectorate Forces 1889-1901 Part 1

This is my attempt at a Field Force list for the British Central African protectorate (later to become Nyasaland and today known as Malawi) for The Men Who Would be Kings rules. As is usual I’ll start with a wargamers history (part 1) to give the field force some context and then give a selection of units and special rules to help build a (hopefully) historical field force (part 2).

In 1859 David Livingstone “discovered” one of the African great lakes which he named Lake Nyasa he also explored the southern and western regions around the lake and reported the area would be ideal for missionary work due to the climate and fertility of the area. The 1860s and 70s saw a steady but small influx of British missionaries and settlers moving into the area. In 1878 The African Lakes Company was formed in Glasgow with goal of setting up a trade and transport network in the area. The company had hoped to receive charted status from the British government however the company’s lacklustre performance in the Karonga (or Slaver) war between 1887 and 1889 persuade the British Government they weren’t up to the task of administering the area.

The Berlin conference of 1884 and the subsequent “Scramble for Africa” saw tensions in the area raise between the British settlers and the Portuguese who were trying to claim ownership of the area to the south and east of the lake, In particular the Shire River and Shire Highlands. To try and prove control of the area the Portuguese sent several expeditions, in the 1880s, into the area to try and make treaties with local chiefs. The British government at the time wasn’t keen to commit to taking responsibility for the area though paradoxically they didn’t want to cede control of the area to the Portuguese either. Under pressure from the British missionaries and settlers in the area the foreign office appointed a consul to Mozambique and the Interior the position came with no real power but a remit to see what the situation with the Portuguese in the area was. Britain’s choice for consul, Henry Hamilton Johnston, travelled to the area and 1889 and met with Major Serpa Pinto. Major Pinto was operating on behalf of the Portuguese government with a force of 800 “Zulu” soldiers, but Johnston warned him not cross the Ruo River into the Shire Highlands. Shortly after Johnston headed back to the coast and left John Buchanan a local settler as his deputy. When Major Pinto’s successor crossed the Ruo River in September 1889 and clashed with some local tribesman Buchanan, against foreign office orders, declared a British protectorate over the Shire Highlands. Shortly after that Johnston declared a second protectorate, again without foreign office approval, called the Nyasaland Districts Protectorate over territories to the area west of the lake. Bowing to popular pressure, and with an offer from Cecil Rhodes British South African Company to fund the administration of the new protectorate, the British Central African protectorate was endorsed by the Foreign Office in May 1891.

Johnston arrived in Chiromo, in the south of the new protectorate, on July 16th, 1891, as the protectorates first Commissioner. The reality was he controlled very little of the vast area now claimed by the British, but he now had access to resources and money provided by the British South African Company. Johnston’s main obstacles to imposing British rule were the Yao chiefs in the Shire Highlands, The Ngoni of which there were two main groups one in the south and one in the northwest and The Swahili slavers under Mlozi and the north end of the lake. Johnston realized he didn’t have the resources to deal with Mlozi in the north until he had secured the south of the protectorate, so he signed a truce with the northern slavers to concentrate on the Yao chiefs in the south. To facilitate this Johnston, need a military force which had to be built from scratch using three main elements Africans, Indian soldiers and European officers in addition the Royal Navy would provide additional military aid with several gunboats.

The first Africans recruited by Johnston were fifty Makua that he had picked up as guards and porters in Portuguese territory on his way back from the coast to take up his role of Commissioner once in post these Makua men were formed into a native police force. Further Africans were then recruited from among the Swahilis, a contingent of 150 being recruited in Zanzibar in 1891 and given Sikh NCOs. The Swahilis didn’t prove to be particularly good soldiers and 1893, when their enlistments expired, they were mostly sent home and local Africans, mainly lake Tonga, started to be recruited instead. The initial Lake Tonga soldiers had in fact been recruited by the African lakes company for their war with Mlozi at Karonga they weren’t uniformed and had little formal military training but were employed by the Protectorate authorities in 1893 for an expedition against Liwonde and were employed thereafter, as irregulars, until 1895 when they were formal recruited and trained. Enlistment was initially for a year at a time and for service only in the Protectorate.

By 1896 the now formally titled Central African Rifles there were 3 companies of Tonga (A, D and E coys) 2 companies of Yao (B and C coys) and one company of mixed Chewa and Ngoni men (F coy). In later year the British tended to favour the recruitment of men from the Ngoni and the Yao tribes these being considered the most warlike tribes and thus the best soldiers.                      Each company was stationed at its own fort or Boma. A company was made up of 108 African soldiers 6 African sergeants, six African corporals and a British officer a Sikh colour sergeant and several Sikh drill instructors.                                                                                                                                         

 By 1898 the number of companies had been increased to eight as the need arose for border forts in Northern Rhodesia to be garrisoned (it should be noted North-eastern Rhodesia had no army units and only a constabulary thus it fell on the Central African Protectorate to provide military forces as needed in North Rhodesia). 1898 was also the year it was decided to use the Central African rifles for overseas service. First attempts to gain volunteers from the existing companies to serve against the Ashanti resulted in mass desertion of the African troops (remember these men had signed up for local service). On the back of this episode a 2nd regiment of Central African rifles was raised with new enlistment requirements of three years’ service with up to two years served overseas. The 2nd regiment was then sent to Mauritius in 1899.                                                                                                                         

In 1900 the two regiments were recombined and re-named the Central African Regiment. The 2nd battalion was then split half going to Somaliland while the other half of the 2nd battalion and half the first battalion were sent to west Africa in various campaigns. Finally in 1901 the Central African battalions become part of the Kings African Rifles and started a new chapter in their history. Uniforms were provided to African troops in the form of a khaki shirts, three-quarter length trousers and a black fez. Belts and equipment were provided in brown leather.  An undress uniform of blue with a red fez was also provided to the recruits. The khaki uniform was replaced once a year for free, but the dress uniform was only provided once and the soldiers becoming financially responsible for its upkeep. To start with armament was the aging but still effective Snider Enfield rifle. When they were first recruited by the African Lakes Company half of the lake Tonga were armed with muzzle loading Enfield rifles and it is not clear if they continued to use these early in their British service but by 1896 at the latest the snider was in use by all. The snider was replaced in 1899 with the Martini-Henry Enfield rifle firing smokeless .303 rounds. Interestingly a Captain Manning reported that initially the upgrading to Martini rifles caused a drop of in musketry standards as the African troops were in awe of the new weapon and confused by the lack of smoke, kick and barely perceptible puff of dust the bullet kicked up.

   Initially NCOs were provided by the Sikh soldiers but by the end of the period, as the gained more experience, local Africans provided most of the NCO positions. One incident that may well have pushed this development came from Captain Percival the commanding officer at Fort Mangoche in 1898 he was attempting to stop raids, by men loyal to the chief Zarafi, and having trouble pinning these raiders down he petitioned his commanding officer to drop the standing order that African troops were to always be accompanied by a Sikh NCO. He then organised small aggressive patrols of only African troops who lived of the land and as such were able to hunt down the raiders far more effectively than if they were accompanied by Sikhs and Europeans who couldn’t live of the land or move as fast through the terrain.


The Indian recruits were provided by an initial contingent of 40 Sikh infantry and 20 Muslim lancer cavalry under a captain Maguire in 1891. The cavalry proved to be of little use as their horses were quickly lost to tsetse fly and they had little training in fighting dismounted. So much of the early fighting fell on the shoulders of the Sikhs. The Sikhs proved so successful that when the original Indian soldier’s enlistments ended in 1893, they were replaced by a new contingent of 200 Sikh soldiers. The Sikhs were employed not only as frontline infantry but as NCOs and drill instructors, for the African soldiers, and technical specialists operating artillery and machineguns. As mentioned above Sikhs were attached to every African company as drill instructors, they also carried out other roles in the company including overseeing supplies and stores, guard duties, escort duties, running the fort in the absence of a British officer and being put in charge of any detachment of African soldiers without a British officer. As well as those Sikhs attached to each African company around 100 Sikhs in their own company were, in 1896, stationed at the military headquarters at Zomba were they seemed to have formed a strategic reserve. In 1898 with the increase in African companies and a reorganisation of the forts a detachment of 40 Sikhs were sent to garrison Fort Maguire.     

 Captain Percival who arrived in 1898 to command a fort made some interesting observations about the Sikhs including that they had much of their rations imported from India which had to be transported with them and that they tended to pick up a large following of non-combatants including tailors and cobblers all of which tended to be a supply burden when on campaign especially when compared to the African soldiers who were paid a few pence a day to buy food locally. 

   Harry Johnstone is said to have designed a fetching undress uniform for the Sikh soldiers which included a black turban and Zouave jacket with yellow trim, a white shirt and cummerbund and yellow trousers. Sadly however, for miniature painters, in the field the Sikhs wore the usual khaki Indian field dress and brown leather equipment though it seems that they retained the black turban. Like the Africans the Sikhs were initially equipped with Snider rifles latter upgrading to Martini Enfield’s firing smokeless .303 rounds.

The British officers came from a variety of sources many, like Captain Maguire of the Hyderabad lancers, were seconded from the Indian army, but captains Gough and Percival were both officers in the Rifle Brigade. In 1898 when Percival arrived in the Protectorate the regiment was under command of a Major H.E Brake of the Royal Artillery. Several officers were based at the military headquarters first at Blantyre and then from 1895 at Zomba while every African company had a single British officer in charge. It is interesting comparing the experiences of the officers in Zomba, like Gough, and those sent to command companies at forts on the frontiers like Percival. Gough mentions the good shops in Blantyre, the good hunting to be had outside Zomba he also mentions the gymkhana club were officers played football and cricket and the pool table at the mess. Meanwhile Percival talks about the loneliness of being the only English speaker at his fort the inability to get even simple supplies like string (while head quarters officers can decorate their houses with also sorts of modern luxuries) and the lack of medical support with only four qualified doctors in the whole protectorate and none stationed outside the main towns.

    Percival gives a good description of the duties company officers were supposed to carry out in addition to their military duties. The British had introduced Collectors, who were responsible for the civil administration in the protectorate, and the company commanders were expected to support the local Collector as required. However often the Collector post was unfilled, and the commander of the local fort was required to take on the collectors’ duties to. Percival lists the civil duties he was required to carry out during his two years as company commander which included road building, bridge building, post office services, law and order, running a prison service, collecting hut tax and dealing with refugees at the border and administrating a smallpox vaccine program. On top of that he had his usual military duties that included monthly fort accounts in triplicate, pay for the men, ordering of supplies, the upkeep and maintenance of the fort, recruitment and training of men and the suppression of the slave trade and raiders. Uniform wise there seems to have been some leniency on uniform for the British officers but as a rule khaki uniform with a sun helmet seems to have been the order of the day.

One of the advantages the British enjoyed over their various native opponents was in artillery. There was no dedicated artillery unit in the Central African Protectorate, but several guns and machineguns were available to the British forces and manned by men of the Central African Rifles. A few examples in some of the very early campaigns against the Yao in 1891 the British had access to 7pdr mountain gun. A second 7pdr gun was captured by the Yao chief Zarafi in 1892 after he defeated a mixed British/Ngoni force outside Fort Johnston. In 1895 the British moved against the Arab slaver Mlozi with a large force that included according to Harry Johnston “a strong artillery contingent of several guns” Johnston doesn’t say how many guns were included in this contingent, but we do know that it included a 9pdr gun and a Nordenfelt machine gun both crewed by the royal navy. In 1896 a British force including a 7pdr gun was sent to the lake Shirwa to deal with slave raiders.  In 1898 the Central African Rifles were deployed into North-eastern Rhodesia to deal with the Ngoni kingdom of king Mpezeni with them they took two 7pdr guns and two Maxim guns. Percival mentions that in 1898 the company based at Fort manning was larger than the other companies and included a gun detachment equipped with an “antiquated gun”. In the years 1899-1900 the British undertook a joint expedition with the Portuguese along their mutual border the British force included two 7pdr guns and a maxim machine gun.

Once the area around lake Nyasa became an official protectorate the way was paved for the deployment of the Royal navy to the lake. Even before the protectorate was declared the Royal navy ran two gunboats (HMS herald and Mosquito) on the Zambezi River. The Zambezi River was connected to Lake Nyasa via the 250-mile-long Shire River in theory boats could travel up the Shire River to lake Nyasa but in practice the upper Shire was very shallow only navigable by boats with a shallow draft and the middle shire had a series of cataracts that were impassable to boats. This meant the Zambezi gunboats could offer only limited help along the lower shire river.

   On the lake itself the African Lakes company already ran the unarmed steam ships the Ilia and Domira, the university missionaries also had a steamboat, and the German anti-slavery society operated another steamboat on the north end of the lake. These could be pressed into service by the colonial authorities as transport and supply vessels. Sometime around 1892-93 the gunboat HMS Dove was sent to the Protectorate she was a shallow draft, side paddle ship. Armed with a 3pdr Quick fire gun and a maxim machine gun her main job was to patrol the upper shire river. In 1893 a royal naval contingent of 27 men lead by commander Chas Hope Robinson arrived with HMS Pioneer and Adventure. The two boats had been disassembled in the UK and had to be rebuilt at fort Johnston by their crews. Each boat had two 3pdr quick fire guns and a Maxim .303 machine gun. These two boats were then replaced by the HMS Guendolen and HMS Chauncy Maples around 1900. The royal navy and civilian steamboats gave the British the ability to move forces and supplies quickly around the lake as well combat the Dhows operated by Arab and Yao slavers. The Royal navy men were also occasionally found fighting on land as already mentioned they operated some of the artillery used to finally defeat Mlozi and in fact the whole artillery force in that campaign was commanded by a Commander Cullen of the Royal Navy. Another naval officer was at the British defeat by Yao chief Zarafi in 1892 outside Fort Johnston. Petty officer Inge bravely mounted a one-man rear guard using a 7pdr gun, in the face of 2000 Yao warriors to allow the rest of the British to retreat before he managed to make his escape unharmed.

Finally, I thought it would be useful to give a brief detail of some (certainly not all) the campaigns and battles involving the British forces of the protectorate. Between 1891 and 1901

One of the first tests for the protectorate’s new army came in 1891 against the Yao chief Mponda who was raiding for slaves and causing trouble with the local British settlers. Harry Johnston and captain Maguire led a force of 70 Sikhs, 9 Swahilis and a 7pdr gun to deal with him. Close to Mponda’s village they built a Boma that went on to become Fort Johnston and then proceeded on to Mponda’s village which they shelled with incendiary shells from the 7pdr. Amazingly Mponda had an artillery piece of his own, and antique muzzle loader, with which he attempted to return fire. However, the artillery duel favoured the British and Mponda sort terms the other Yao chiefs soon followed suit at least temporarily.

Zarafi one of the most powerful Yao chiefs rebelled in 1892 after the British had suffered some battlefield reverses in late 1891 against other Yao chiefs. Zarafi started a loose blockade of Fort Johnstone. The local civilian Collector at Fort Johnston a Mr King managed to forge an alliance with a group of Maseko Ngoni and together with the fort’s garrison marched out to confront Zarafi. Sadly, the Ngoni fled on contact with the Yao and Mr king was badly wounded by a musket ball early in the battle. The British were saved from a worst disaster by Petty officer Inge, of the Royal Navy, who maned the expeditions 7pdr gun as a rear guard until he ran out of ammunition.

1893 saw the arrival of the Royal Navy gunboats and Captain C.E. Johnson of the 36th Sikhs, to replace Captain Maguire who had been killed in action, as well as the arrival of more Sikhs bring their number up to 200. In 1894 these forces moved against the Yao chief Makanjira who had attacked the British ally the Arab Jumbe. Jumbe’s followers joined the British in an attack on the village of Chiwaura an ally of Makanjira which was stormed by the Sikhs after some hard fighting. This was the start of the end for Makanjira who by 1895 had been driven out of his land, by a Major Edwards leading a mixed column of Sikhs and Africans, and into Portuguese territory the British then built a fort on his lands.

1895 saw the final showdown between Mlozi and the British. Harry Johnston had been forced to sign a peace treaty with Mlozi in 1891, due to the weak nature of British military power at the time, by 1895 the British were in a much stronger position. In the intervening years Mlozi had continued to terrorise the Nkonde people, carried on with the slave trade, building new stockades and recruiting more men from the Bemba tribe of North-eastern Rhodesia. The British forces consisted of 10 British officers 100 Sikhs, 300 Africans and a strong force of artillery which included a 9pdr gun and a Nordenfelt Machine gun crewed by Royal Navy sailors. This force was given the title of the “Ever Victorious Army” by Harry Johnston. Unlike the earlier Karonga war, were the African Lakes Company tried and failed to take several slaver’s stockades the British, and their artillery, captured three stockades including Mlozi’s in one day. The first two Stockades were abandoned by the slavers after a short artillery bombardment and the slavers retreated to Mlozi’s main stockade. The British were now joined by a large force of several hundred Nkonde spearmen and in the afternoon attacked Mlozi with an artillery bombardment. The defending slavers probably numbering nearly 1000 men attempted a sortie but the Nkonde spearmen, without orders, counter charged and drove the slavers back into the stockade with heavy casualties. The Sikhs then went into the attack scaled the stockade walls and entered the stockade. Commander Cullen of the Royal Navy broke down one of the stockade gates with an axe and the Nkonde stormed into the stockade at which point slaver resistance crumbled. Mlozi was found hiding in a secret tunnel under his hut, where he was captured by a Tonga Askari sergeant called Bandawe, tried by drum court and hung on the spot.

In 1896 Captain Gough was part of expedition to the region around Lake Shirwa (Chilwa) on the border with Portuguese territory against slavers and raiders. The expedition consists of four companies of Africans 50 Sikhs and a 7pdr gun. Much to Goughs disappointment the raiders fled upon the approach of the British and there was quote “Not much of a show”

In 1898 war broke out in Northern eastern Rhodesia with the Ngoni Kingdom of Mpezeni (mostly thanks to the German Karl Peters) the locally raised Askari constabulary weren’t equipped to deal with several thousand Ngoni warriors so military support was requested from British central Africa. Captain H.E.J. Brake, Royal Artillery marched six rifle companies of Africans, 118 Sikhs, Maxim Guns and 2 7-pounder field guns into Mpezeni’s kingdom and in a short campaign defeated the Ngoni. It must be said that given the resistance shown by the Matabele and Zulu against the British the Ngoni of Rhodesia put up a very poor show often breaking contact after a couple of artillery shots.

1n late 1899 early 1900 the British and Portuguese launched a joint operation along their borders around lake Shirwa. The borders were a good place for rebels, slavers and raiders as they could dodge pursuit by slipping across the border where colonial forces couldn’t follow. In this joint operation the British deployed 10 British officers, 500 African Askari, 135 Sikhs 2 7pdr guns and a maxim guns. The Portuguese deployed 200 European regulars and several hundred African irregulars. The British officers were less than impressed with the Portuguese irregulars many of them being Angolan convicts. Percival comments that the irregulars were given old British military jackets by the Portuguese, to help distinguish them from the local Africans. He even saw one wearing a green rifles jacket and that Portuguese irregulars were often seen carrying slave sticks for their prisoners.

Part 2 coming soon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s