CAPTAIN OWEN’S PROTECTORATE AT MOMBASA
New Bedford, MA
In 1741 as discussed previously, the Mazruis at Mombasa declared independence from Oman and this remained the situation for the rest of the century. The succeeding Imams at Muscat were however not blind to this act of defiance and were only prevented from taking effective action by the continual political and military turmoil that engulfed Oman through the end of the century.
Beginning in the early 19th century however, Oman began making moves towards recapturing Mombasa and its dependencies at Pemba, Lamu and Pate. It was during this twilight period of Mombasa's independence that an unusual event occurred that would delay Seyyid Said's plans for a number of years. This major event would be brought about by the act of a single British naval officer as we shall see.
About this period, the British were starting to get involved in the Indian Ocean especially in Southern Africa and the waters between India and the Persian Gulf. The thrust of their activities were first the war against the slave trade and secondly the Anglo-French wars. Due to these increased activities, it was found necessary to develop detailed and updated charts on the waters along the African East coast.
Thefore the Hydrographical Office in the British Admiralty decided in 1821 to send a survey fleet to thoroughly map the entire coast. The survey commander chosen was Captain William Fitz-William Owen at the head of two ships and he was given wide leeway in choosing where to terminate the survey. The two ships (the Leven and the Barracouta) were promptly fitted out and left England on February 13th 1822. While Captain Owen sailed in the Leven, the Barracouta was under Captain William Cutfield. Under these two were several assistants including Lieutenants Reitz and Vidal about whom we shall hear more later.
The fleet reached Cape Town on July 7th 1822 and the survey proper commenced on August 3rd. For the next number of months, they went about their business zigzagging and taking measurements along the coast. From the fleets extant logs and diaries, it is clear that the work was far from monotonous and not uneventful. But the happenings from this period however interesting to relate, fall outside the scope of this article.
One important development was the death of Captain Cutfield possibly from malaria somewhere off Mozambique, his position was taken over by Lieut. Vidal. On 15th October 1823. The fleet then divided at Mozambique with the Leven heading for Mumbai and Muscat while the Barracouta headed for Pate to start surveying from that end of the coastline. Capt. Owen at Muscat had an audience with Seyyid Said and the latter had much to complain over Capt Owen’s conduct here.
In the mean time, the Barracouta under Captain Vidal started her survey at Pate. Pate Island had been recently captured by Oman and it was noted that an Omani garrison was stationed there. Pate was "small and scattered, the houses and huts being in true Arab style of misery and filth". Next up was Lamu which the Barracouta reached on November 12th 1823. The island was also under Oman and its total population was estimated to be about 5,000 including "Sowhylese and slaves". Between November 20th and 25th, the ship left Lamu and passed by Malindi two days after. The survey then continued and by November 28th 1823, they were just about to enter Mombasa.
Upon arriving at Mombasa late on 3rd of December 1823, a red flag was found flying from "the old castle" (i.e. Fort Jesus) which meant that it was under the control of the Arabs. The residents also saw the British ship anchored off shore and recognized it as such for very early the following morning, Mbarak bin Ahmed (nephew to the current Sultan, Suleiman bin Ali Al-Mazrui) came on board the Barracouta with a sizeable entourage.
He met with Captain Vidal and "begged" him "to authorize them to hoist the English flag, and place their town and territory in the hands of his Britannic Majesty”. The request probably came as a surprise to Vidal who needed time to reflect on such an important matter. Therefore he asked Mbarak to wait until the following day. Since Captain Vidal was feeling seedy, he sent Lieut. Boteler the following morning to meet with the Mazrui rulers and discuss their offer in detail.
Lieut. Boteler met with Sultan Suleiman bin Ali al-Mazrui at Fort Jesus where they were joined by "a select few of his principle people". Speaking one at a time as soon as the doors were closed, they pleaded with Lieut. Boteler with a passion that came through in his journal. He must have been deeply impressed but he had direct orders from Captain Vidal not to raise the British flag over Mombasa.
He however told the Mazruis that he was willing to deliver their offer to higher authorities in the Mauritius, Mumbai or Cape Town. But so grave was the Mazruis' position that they were not to be easily dissuaded, they continued pleading with him and in the end left Captain Vidal with the impression that they may raise the flag whether he agreed to or not. After retiring to a meal, Captain Vidal returned to the Barracouta. He later weighed anchor and sailed away.
In the meantime, the Leven was sailing down the coast and reached Mombasa on February 7th. While the Leven was still off shore, the British flag was observed flying over Fort Jesus and a fleet of Seyyid Said’s ships blockading Mombasa. The commander of the blockading forces was Abdallah bin Suleyum and he must have been confused over what action to take. He probably did not expect the flag and due to the time it would take to send word to Muscat, he was at a loss. The people at Mombasa who were fully appreciative of the confusion the flag (though unauthorized) would cause had raised it; they also attempted firing on the Omani ships though the effect was minimal. While Captain Owen met with the blockading commander, Lieut. Reitz went ashore. He met with the leaders who repeated the request for a British protectorate and returned on the Leven with Mbarak bin Ahmad.
The following day Captain Owen met at Fort Jesus with the principal leaders of Mombasa who repeated yet again their offer of British sovereignty. They also acknowledged having raised the British flag without permission, but this was of no consequence because Captain Owen had already decided to accede to their wishes. He agreed to declare a British protectorate under the following seven conditions;
1. The return of all of Mombasa’s former possessions with the assistance of Britain
2. The Mazrui would continue as the rulers of Mombasa
3. A British agent would be stationed permanently at Mombasa
4. Customs revenue would be shared equally between Britain and the Mazrui
5. British subjects would be allowed to trade in the interior of Mombasa
6. The slave trade would be abolished in Mombasa.
At this, the Mazrui were more than willing to go along even though the declaration would be temporary being conditional to the agreement of the political authorities in London. For the first time in history, a British protectorate was therefore declared over what became Kenya. Though neither side could foresee it at that time, the first condition which in reality referred to the restoration of Pemba would remain unfulfilled and the Mazruis would make heavy weather of it. As will be related later, the Mazrui did not really care much about the last four conditions and were willing to give in as much as necessary for the fulfillment of the first one.
Next time, we will examine the circumstances, the interesting evolution and quick end of this protectorate.