10 March 1906
On 10 March 1906, soldiers of the West African Frontier Force, led by Major R. H. Goodwin of the Royal Artillery, opened fire on a large gathering of peasants and fugitive slaves armed with hoes, hatches and other agricultural implements outside the village of Sitaru in north western Nigeria. The inhabitants had participated in a rebellion a month earlier, ambushing British and allied African troops in the open and killing three British officers. Frederick Lugard, High Commissioner for the Protectorate of Northern Nigeria, ordered a punitive expedition, which he planned as an exemplary act of terror in which the population should expect no mercy.1
According to historian Thomas Pakenham, the understanding was that ‘there was to be no negotiation, no attempt to separate the guilty from the innocent, or to save the women and children from the results of the menfolks’ folly. Lugard insisted on ‘annihilation.’ He wasn’t disappointed. His army of 500 men opened fire with modern rifles and Maxim machine guns.2 Within minutes those who survived had retreated into the village, which was heavily bombarded before troops entered to kill any man they found. The village huts were then torched, while mounted troops pursued those who had managed to flee into the surrounding bush.
Lugard estimated that about two thousand had been killed. Almost all the male prisoners taken faced immediate extrajudicial execution, and at least some of them were subsequently decapitated, their heads displayed on spikes in the nearby market town of Sokoto . Of the women and children, some three thousand were taken prisoner, of whom many were sold into slavery. Major Alder Burdon, the local British representative, was able to telegraph Lugard two days later to reassure him that Sitaru had been ‘razed to the ground. No wall or tree left standing.’3 There had also, he reported, been casualties on the attacking side, one British officer wounded ‘now doing well and a number of native rank and file slightly wounded.’4
Lugard received no censure or penalty for the atrocity, and in fact the British press praised ‘the great slaughter’ which ‘was done among the enemy’ who were ‘almost annihilated.’5 A few years later, in recognition of his role in serving the expansion of the British Empire and crushing all resistance to it, he was honoured by being appointed to the Privy Council in 1920 and finally by being elevated to the peerage in 1928.
- Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble For Africa, 1876-1912, Abacus, 2003, London p. 652 and Paul E. Lovejoy and J. S. Hogendorn, ‘Revolutionary Mahdism and Resistance to Colonial Rule in the Sokoto Caliphate, 1905-6,’ The Journal of African History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (1990), Cambridge University Press pp. 217- 226 accessed online at http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/amcdouga/Hist347/additional%20rdgs/case%20studies/sokoto/mahdism_sokoto.pdf See also Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble For Africa, 1876-1912, Abacus, 2003, London p. 652.
- Various sources cite the strength of Goodwin’s force as between 500 and 650. A correspondent for The Daily Mail mentioned it was equipped with ‘Maxims’ but didn’t specify how many. Correspondent cited in ‘Fighting in Nigeria,’ The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 17 March 1906, p. 11.
- Burdon cited in Paul E. Lovejoy and J. S. Hogendorn, ‘Revolutionary Mahdism and Resistance to Colonial Rule in the Sokoto Caliphate, 1905-6,’ The Journal of African History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (1990), Cambridge University Press p. 226 accessed online at http://www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/amcdouga/Hist347/additional%20rdgs/case%20studies/sokoto/mahdism_sokoto.pdf
- Burdon cited in ‘The Rising in Nigeria,’ The Army and Navy Gazette, 24 March 1906, p. 4.
- ‘The Sokoto Revolt,’ The Birmingham Daily Mail, 16 March 1906, p. 3, ‘Sokoto Rebels: Town Taken with the Bayonet,’ The Gloucester Citizen, 16 March 1906, p. 3, ‘Nigerian Battle – A Town Taken,’ The Hampshire Telegraph, 17 March 1906 p. 4 and ‘Heavy Fighting in Sokoto,’ The Belfast News-letter, 16 March 1906, p. 10 .
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