DOZENS OF SIERRA LEONE TOWNS AND VILLAGES BURNED
[ 15 April 1898 ]
Few people in Britain have ever heard of the ‘Hut Tax War’ of 1898, provoked by the introduction on 1 January 1898 of an unprecedented five shillings tax on every Sierra Leone home with more than two rooms to cover the costs of colonial administration and trade. The local population viewed it as a violation of their property rights. In the northern areas of the country, the chiefs of the Temni ethnic group immediately refused to cooperate. Infuriated by such insubordination, the fifty eight year old British governor, Sir Frederick Cardew, arrested five of them, who were sentenced to hard labour and set to work breaking stones alongside other convicts at Freetown jail.
This only served to inflame growing anger against colonial rule. In February, Bai Bureh, a leading Temni chief, was still refusing to collect the tax, so the British dispatched troops to arrest him, provoking an uprising across a wide area around Port Lokko and Karene. The garrisons at these two towns soon found themselves surrounded and their communications with the colony’s main port of Freetown endangered. Initial attempts to reinforce them failed to secure the lines of communication, as the rebels resorted to guerrilla tactics, using the cover of the forests to retain the initiative. In March, a local British commander, Major Burke, attempted to regain control by burning all nearby villages which had demonstrated any sign of hostility, but this failed when it met determined and well organised resistance led by Bai Bureh.
On 1 April, Cardew dispatched Colonel John Marshall to take over command of the northern garrisons and, with 700 soldiers of the West Indian Regiment at his disposal, he decided on a new strategy of establishing two intermediate outposts at Romani and Kagbantama between Karene and Port Lokko. By 15 April, with the two settlements secured enabling shorter lines of communication, Marshall felt able to launch a systematic and devastating scorched-earth campaign to deprive the local population of all shelter and food. Historian Ian Hernon comments that as the countryside was ‘blackened by plumes of smoke and more and more villages were destroyed, the Temni resistance increased in determination and ferocity.’ Marshal himself described the continuing conflict after the 15th as ‘the most stubborn fighting that has been experienced in West Africa.’1
The entire district was put to the flame, including the town of Mafouri on 25 April after its inhabitants put up fierce but inevitably futile resistance against the overwhelming firepower of the British Army. At least one sick woman, unable to leave, was burned alive in her own home. The northern Sierra Leone towns of Maumera, Rolia, Forodugo and Ronula also suffered a similar fate, as did dozens, possibly hundreds, of villages. By early summer, the ruthless punitive measures had left vast areas devastated and the population effectively deprived of the food and shelter necessary for resistance, although a few, including Bai Bureh, still held out for some weeks in the forests.
Their continued defiance inspired an insurrection among the Mendi people in the south of the colony, which the British also struggled to subdue, resorting to the same indiscriminate scorched earth tactics. A Staffordshire newspaper, concerned about the impact of the conflict on Manchester’s trade with the area, reported that ‘until the hut tax was imposed this district was among the most peaceful on the coast,’ but the Mendi were ‘a turbulent and unsettled race, just the kind of people who would resent what they consider an injustice, regardless of the consequences.’ Their recalcitrance over paying the tax, as the Leek Post explained, soon turned to violence when they became ‘wildly excited over the burning of their villages.’ the paper also noted that ‘the town of Sulymah has been entirely destroyed’ and cited a local merchant who thought the hut tax should be temporarily suspended but was adamant that in the ‘meantime vigorous measures should be taken to restore order.’2
Once the rebellion had been crushed, the British government appointed a commission of inquiry under Sir David Chalmers which issued a damning report in July the following year, declaring that the hut tax and the unjust and brutal methods used to collect it had provoked the uprising. He reasoned that widespread poverty and the resentment any tax on local property would cause, meant that it should be abandoned as a means of raising revenue. The Colonial Office, however, refused to countenance any such climbdown and in 1900 the hut tax was reintroduced, albeit at a marginally lower rate of three shillings a year. To deter further dissent, Bai Bureh, who had been captured in November 1898, was sent into exile in the Gold Coast, while 96 other rebel leaders were hung.
- Ian Hernon, Britain’s Forgotten Wars: Colonial Campaigns of the 19th Century, The History Press, Stroud, 2008, p. 722.
- ‘Effect on Manchester Trade,’ The Leek Post, 14 May 1898, p. 5
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