British Empire Article

By Ian H Grant
Nyanza Watering Place
Richard Grant
Early in the 1820s David Napier conceived the grand notion of the Firth of Clyde 'Watering-places' which, for more than a century, were to occupy a special affection in the hearts of Scots in general and Clydesiders in particular, and the nostalgia of the trips 'doon the watter' lingers on. At this time Napier was the acknowledged genius of the steamship constructors but was frustrated by the reluctance of sailing ship owners and operators to change, and by the temerity of potential passengers. He had already resorted to ownership of vessels which he had equipped with his steam engines and set up a steam packet service between the Clyde and Ulster. He then determined to create a market for pleasure passengers and to introduce them to the benefits and safety of steam navigation. His initial venture was the construction of a pier at Kilmun and the establishment of the first watering-place there was the start of a more ambitious tourist trail. He designed a small iron-hulled steamship, the S.S. Aglaia, built her at his Lancefield yard and transported the parts for assembly at the southern end of Loch Eck; in all probability this was the first steam propelled iron ship. There were overland coach connections between Kilmun and the Loch, then a similar link at the north to Strachur, and a steamer connection was run across Loch Fyne to Inveraray and other points. The Crinan Canal was a later extension of this road to the Isles. However, such initiatives seldom bring immediate reward and, impatient with the lack of co-operation locally, David Napier disposed of his interests in Clyde shipping and in the early 1830s transferred his activities to the Thames. Fortunately an even more worthy successor was already emerging in the person of his cousin (and brother-in-law), Robert Napier, and over the next fifty years he led Scotland's steam and iron shipbuilding to a level of pre-eminence which was little short of astounding. In voyaging to the four corners of the world, these steamships were to carry Scots engineers, their skills and their manufactures to hitherto remote and unknown locations. After a full century of dominance, steam was to give way to the internal combustion engine and motor vehicles were swiftly followed by aircraft. Locked into the speed of progress, is the speed of obsolescence.

Nyanza Watering Place
Kisumu Port
Even today one can see, deep in Africa, steamships which had their origin, over a century ago, on the Clyde. There is a dockyard equipped with working machinery from that time and staffed by Kenyan engineers who have had their skills handed down to them from Scots shipbuilders. To some extent this inland facility has been retained in a state of suspended animation over the last few decades as a result of politico-economic stagnation. For over half a century the Lake Victoria Marine showed the way, and hopefully the will is not entirely lost.

Kisumu is an African watering-place, the provincial centre of the vast Nyanza territories of western Kenya, which at a guess supports something in the region of a quarter of a million Kenyans, the majority of Luo extraction and descendants of a Nilotic people who first migrated to these lands some three centuries ago by way of the Sudan. However, until the advent of the Europeans, the site of Kisumu was barren and uninhabited. It owes its existence as a metropolis to steamships, the railroad and a Scottish marine engineer who, as it happens, was directly descended from the Napiers of Dumbarton.
Nyanza Watering Place
1906 Map of East Africa
Kisumu stands at the head of the Winam (formerly Kavirondo) Gulf whose map reference is on the Equator and between the east meridians of 34 degrees and 35 degrees, six hundred miles inland from the Indian Ocean. An appreciation of scale may be derived from equating this gulf in extent with the Firth of Clyde, whilst beyond its narrow entrance (say Arran and Kintyre) stretches the great freshwater Lake Victoria, which in itself would accommodate not only the Irish Sea but the greater part of Ireland itself. With its surface at 3,700 feet above sea level it is an appropriate source of the White Nile which carries its waters thousands of miles across Africa before depositing them in the Mediterranean. As yet Kisumu does not enjoy the doubtful advantage of being included in the packaged tours of the 'Safari Trail' but a countryside with such mountains, lakes, rainfall and verdant foliage has great geographical attraction, and it has certainly outgrown the reputation, which it had in its early days of settlement, of being a thoroughly unhealthy spot.

In this area of East Africa recorded history by European standards is but a century and a half old. In this time men of Scots origin have been surprisingly prominent; many gave their lives and others the greater part of their working lives to what was considered the improvement of conditions under which the Africans then subsisted. A backward glance of pride may be an indulgence, but looking back in anger is usually a subterfuge for escaping current responsibilities.

Dr David Livingstone was a legend in his lifetime, but more importantly set an example which many Scots were proud to follow. Dr John Kirk (Forfarshire) accompanied Livingstone on his Zambezi Expedition (1858-63) and soon after became Surgeon and Political Agent to the Sultanate of Zanzibar, remaining there for some twenty years. He exercised a wide influence over the mainland Tanganyika country, curtailing the Arab slave-trade and cementing the initiatives of the expeditions of explorers such as Burton, Speke, Grant, Cameron and Stanley. It was with the facility of the Zanzibar base and the Tanganyika route to Lake Victoria that the age-old mystery of the source of the White Nile was resolved. On this epic journey in 1862 Speke was accompanied by James Augustus Grant (Nairn), and thereafter Scottish and English Missionary Societies were encouraged to send their representatives to Uganda, hoping that from there they would be able to suppress at least one major source of the slave-trade.
Nyanza Watering Place
Alexander Mackay
The most renowned of the early missionaries, until his death after thirteen years' service around Lake Victoria, was Alexander Mackay. He was the son of a minister, born in an Aberdeenshire manse. After graduating in engineering at Edinburgh, he joined the church missionary service and died in similar circumstances to those of his mentor, David Livingstone, some eighteen years earlier on the shores of Lake Tanganyika farther south. Five years after Mackay's arrival in Uganda the hitherto unexplored route from Mombasa to the northern shore of Lake Victoria was covered by Joseph Thomson (Dumfriesshire), though he was unable to progress through Usoga to Uganda, and it was not until seven years later, in 1890, that this direct route became known to Europeans. During this interval East Africa (named Kenya 35 years later) was tentatively explored and assessed by a small company which had grudgingly been given a charter by the British Government to implement trading and administrative rights over the territories inland from Mombasa which had been proffered by the Sultan of Zanzibar. This was almost entirely a Scottish initiative, advocated by John Kirk and implemented by William Mackinnon, and was similar to a previous venture which these gentlemen had floated some years earlier. At that time the territory was inland from Dar-es-Salaam to Lake Tanganyika, but the British Government had refused to support the proposals, though finance was not a requirement. Imperial Germany was not so reluctant. She sent in her emissaries and simply took it over as German East Africa, regardless of the objections of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
Nyanza Watering Place
William Mackinnon
This brought home to the European governments a realisation that some consensus of agreement on spheres of influence in Africa had to be arrived at if wars in these desolate regions were to be avoided. The notorious partitioning by drawing lines across the rudimentary maps of the continent was the result. It can be criticised on many counts but in the haste and ignorance at that time, and distance, no better way could be found.

When he embarked on this venture in East Africa, William Mackinnon was already an old man with little experience of Africa, but a long and successful career east of Suez. He left Kintyre as a young man and set up a shipping agency in India, from which he expanded into ship-owning and founded the British India Steamship Company, which was to become the largest merchant fleet in the world. Apart from considerable financial and practical support to the British Missionary Societies he ploughed large sums into the fledgling Imperial British East Africa Company, with very little prospect of commercial gain but great confidence that, by creating arteries of trade under stable administration, the oppression by the slave-traders could be terminated. Accepting that education was the sphere of the missionaries, his experience told him that a swift improvement in trade and communications could only be achieved by the introduction of steam locomotion by rail and ship. The railway was to prove a contentious, costly and extremely difficult venture which did not materialise in his lifetime -- or in that of the Company, but in 1889 he ordered two steamships for East Africa.

Nyanza Watering Place
The first of these, ordered by the Company from Kincaid & Co. of Greenock, a sternwheel paddle-steamer named the Kenia, was dispatched in knocked-down form to Mombasa. She was assembled there and sent up the coast on a precarious voyage to the mouth of the Tana River which an early explorer had assessed and advocated as a large waterway to the interior. Unfortunately the river proved to be unnavigable and pestilential, and the adventure foundered on impracticability. The second vessel was a 70-ton single-screw steamer, specially designed with overland transportation in mind, but it never became practicable during the life of the Company to effect her carriage to Lake Victoria. She remained in Glasgow at the Pointhouse Yard of her builders, A. & J. Inglis, for five years until offered for sale by the liquidator of the now defunct company.
Nyanza Watering Place
Pointhouse Yard
She was removed from her packing-cases, reassembled on shore and purchased by the Crown Agents on behalf of the Uganda Protectorate administration who were by then desperately anxious to have this facility on Lake Victoria. She was bought at her original cost price of 4,456 pounds and reduced to some 3,000 parts and packages. 'Only two engine pieces exceed the porter weight of 60 lbs., a marvel of workmanship and a thoroughly good job in every respect'. The name S.S. William Mackinnon was retained and she was dismantled, re-marked, and dispatched to Mombasa in 1895. There the real problems began.

Transportation across six hundred miles of equatorial Africa would be by ill-defined trails over desert and tundra, down precipitous escarpments to the Rift Valley, over 10,000-feet mountains and along forest and river trails which as yet had not even been explored. Getting the action started was even more problematical. Most of the packages comprised hull framing, plating, boiler, propulsion machinery, auxiliaries and fittings, and additionally there were the tools and equipment essential to establishing a dockyard on a remote and isolated lake shore. These latter were earmarked for earliest dispatch, and some hundreds did, in the course of the next three years, start on the precarious up-country journey, but many of them stopped far short of their final destination, relegated to corners of grass huts when more vital supplies had to go forward, or abandoned in bush or desert when the human or animal bearers expired or deserted.
Nyanza Watering Place
1906 Map of East Africa
Some eventually reached Port Victoria, a grandly named but now almost untraceable shore where the Nzoia River enters the north of the lake, close to the present boundary between Kenya and Uganda, but the effort was overtaken by events.

The British Government, having been granted the influential status over Uganda and the East Africa territory, was at first noticeably reluctant to become involved, either financially or administratively. Whilst the Charter Company had embarked on the concession, covering the country between Mombasa and the Rift Valley, increasingly pressure was placed on them to extend their administrative and policing oversight right through Uganda and as far as the Ruwenzori Mountains, for the Foreign Office had no representation in either of these territories. Surprisingly enough this seemingly impossible task was accomplished by the Company's officers, led by Frederick Jackson, Frederick Lugard and his assistant William Grant, but it was an intolerable strain on their limited financial and staffing resources. The Company had been led to understand that Treasury financing would be made available for the construction of a railway to Uganda if they would assist with this administrative responsibility, but by 1892 no such funds had been allocated. The Company had to declare their intention to withdraw from Uganda and the Foreign Office was forced to take it over as a Protectorate.
Nyanza Watering Place
British East Africa Protectorate Plaque
By 1895 there was still nothing definite on the railway appropriations and, having used up all their capital, the Company was forced to go into liquidation, and Britain to declare a Protectorate over British East Africa. At last, in August 1896 the Uganda Railway Bill was passed by the British Parliament, the Empire had expanded, and all credit went to the politicians.

Within the Protectorates responsibility still devolved mainly on ex-officials of the Company, who became District or Provincial Officers, which in most cases proved beneficial for newly appointed Commissioners; promoted from other colonial spheres with established lines of administration, they were often fish out of water in this essentially new context. Foreign Office officials in Whitehall set to with a will to exert their influence over these new East African possessions. Urgent telegraphic communications could be delivered to Mombasa within a matter of days (the placing of the S.S. William Mackinnon on Lake Victoria was one of their higher priorities) but at first they were unable to comprehend that their messages might take six further months to reach Kampala, and as long for a reply. The British supply route started with a sharp rise from Mombasa to a table-land and a hundred-mile crossing of the parched Taru Desert, then as many miles over the arid plains of Ukamba, until rising to the more pleasant hill station at Machakos. It then returned to the flatter plains and the next station at Fort Smith (near the present city of Nairobi) before a further rise to the top of the Kikuyu Escarpment, followed by a steep 2,000-foot descent to the floor of the Rift Valley and, as earlier termed, Masailand. A further hundred miles across the scorching valley and past the alkali lakes of Elementitia and Nakuru, then a sharper rise to Ravine and a trail between the Mau and Kamasia Mountains, lifted the traveller up to the Uasin Gishu Plains, avoiding a more dangerous trail through Nandi country, to the Mumias station. The country from Ravine onward was, until 1902, administered by the Uganda Protectorate, though that amounted to little more than guarding caravans on the so-called 'Road'. There then followed two, often precarious, river crossings of the Nazoia and Sio and on to Usoga country and Lubwa's which was a lightly fortified administrative post. It was then necessary to make a crossing of the Napoleon Gulf, as the outfalls of the Nile from the lake via the Ripon Falls were virtually impassable, and native canoes were employed for the purpose. At last the traveller arrived in Uganda proper, though very many did not survive to see it.

Only one of the artisans sent out with the cargo of the steamship parts was retained. He accompanied a caravan, carrying some of the first dockyard equipment, which was deposited at Port Victoria. Pending further deliveries this engineer, William Scott, went on to Kampala where he was required to fit up and commission the steam engine of a small launch which had been sailed and towed by dhow from the southern end of Lake Victoria. This had been wheeled and carted over the longer but well-established route through what was now German East Africa, and there was a number of quite efficient private contractors operating their transport services. Indeed, the Uganda Protectorate had for many years to rely on them for supplies, as had the missionary stations in Uganda. Scott put the steam engine in working order and took the launch 'Victoria' on her maiden voyage to the fort at Lubwa's. Unwittingly he sailed into an ambush, was taken captive with the British District Officer and the Garrison Commander, and later all three were murdered by their Sudanese militiamen. The rebels vandalised the engines and boiler of the launch, and though she remained afloat it was some two years before replacement parts could be obtained and fitted. More seriously, this event, in October 1897, marked the commencement of what was known as the Sudanese Mutiny, and had serious repercussions on the administrations of both Protectorates, rendering the transportation services almost impotent.

Nyanza Watering Place
Rail Laying
In deference to Whitehall instructions, the new B.E.A. Commissioner had, in 1895, set up a transport service which was to be under the charge of the experienced Captain Sclater, then working up-country on road improvements. Unfortunately, on his return to the coast he died of blackwater fever. Soon after, word came from the Rift Valley that one of their caravans, under the charge of an experienced Swahili leader, had been attacked and that the whole complement of 1,200 men had been killed. It later emerged that there had been provocation, but that was small comfort. Months passed before further journeys could safely be considered. By then Dr Archie Mackinnon, a long-serving officer with the former Company, returned from leave and was put in charge of the transport service. In the interval, agreements had been entered into with private contractors, who brought pack animals, such as donkeys, mules and camels, from Somalia and Egypt, confident in their ability to carry supplies the apparently modest distance of some 800 miles to Uganda. Unfortunately their arrival coincided with a plague of rinderpest disease which swept across Africa and virtually decimated the pack animals. Furthermore, a failure of the seasonal rains for two years, combined with the disease, eliminated much of the game which roamed the plains and was an important source of food to both the travellers and the natives. The effect on the Masai, a nomadic people whose economy was largely dependent on their large herds of cattle, was salutary. For the future, and until the mythical railway was completed, the transport service was forced to rely almost entirely on human porterage as the last resort. It was unsatisfactory, uneconomic, unhealthy and dehumanising for everyone involved. Those porters who were sufficiently experienced and willing to lend their services for a wage were mostly of Zanzibari origin, but the officials of the German East African territories did everything to obstruct the migration of these men to the British sphere, which was an understandably protectionist attitude for the preservation of their Tanganyika route to Uganda and the dues which they could levy on cargoes. The logistics of porter transportation were the allocation of a 60 to 70 lb load per experienced carrier, but transporting 300 loads almost invariably demanded a caravan of some 1,000 persons, and any more than that was no longer viable as regard protection and progress. The European leaders seldom numbered more than two or three, though each might have a cook, steward, gun-bearer and private porter. There was then the Swahili or Arabic caravan-master with his headmen, largely responsible for recruiting and controlling the men, each of whom had their own servants. The Askari guards, mostly of Somali or Sudanese origin, reported to the European leader, and each of them would have their own entourage. There were then miscellaneous carriers of food, water and supplies for the sustenance of the assembly, together with an assortment of women and children who, ving regard to an up-country absence of perhaps months, could not be entirely eliminated. Getting the show on the road was incredibly frustrating, but once going a steady progression as achieved, though possibly more in the interests of self-preservation than co-operation. Late in 1897 and early 1898 further strains were placed on the already sorely pressed transport service. The first was the arrival at Mombasa of a considerable party of military surveyors under Capt. J .R.L. Macdonald, on an expedition to Lake Rudolph where they hoped to locate the source of the Juba River which flowed into the sea on the Somali coast. The hope, which proved to be a forlorn one, was that this would provide an alternative supply route to the southern Sudan where Kitchener had recently relieved Khartoum and was casting around for some feasible method of exercising control over that barren and inhospitable land. Macdonald and his party were, on arrival in the Rift Valley, to make an unfortunate contribution to the events which caused the Sudanese militiamen in Uganda to mutiny. That in turn led to a call for reinforcements to be sent from India, and in February 1898 a thousand infantrymen of the 27th Baluchi Regiment arrived at Mombasa. Fortunately, by this time the railway line had been laid across the formidable Taru Desert to Voi, which was about one hundred miles inland. But for the next eighteen months getting them to Uganda and maintaining them in supplies was almost beyond the capabilities of the transport services.

In Britain the Foreign Office officials appear to have been blissfully unaware of these problems, for they engaged three shipbuilders from the Clyde and sent them to Mombasa. They were under contract to the Uganda Protectorate for the purpose of 'putting together' the S.S. William Mackinnon on Lake Victoria, and on disembarking at Mombasa in March 1898 the improbability of their commission became only too obvious. The senior engineer was Richard (Dick) Grant an able and experienced manager, and his assistants were Robert Brownlee, ironfitter, and John MacMillan, carpenter. The local administrators were able to direct them to the objects of their employment - decomposing heaps of steamer parts where they lay in leaky grass huts at Kilindini and the even less welcome intelligence that a further unknown number was scattered along the interminable road to Uganda. Nothing daunted, Dick set his assistants to the work of examining, restoring where possible and checking every one of the stored loads against the inventory, whilst he himself set off up-country to locate as many as possible of the loads which had been sent off during the previous three years, and make his own assessment of the proposed launching site at Port Victoria. He was fortunate to join a caravan led by Dr Archie Mackinnon, who was reviewing the state of the transportation service, and in the company of his fellow Scot he gained invaluable knowledge and experience of the country, its perils and its possibilities. On leaving school Dick had spent two years as a medical student at Glasgow University until a defect in his vision enforced a change to a shipbuilding apprenticeship, and this forged an additional bond between the two men. At the time, tropical medicine was very much in its infancy, there was little authentic knowledge of the causes of the multitudes of fevers and endemic diseases, and quinine was the only and often ineffective palliative. Whilst Dr Mackinnon had been engaged as a medical officer, the unsettled state of the country had so far prevented him from establishing a formal medical service, but after ten years in the environment his findings and advice had significantly improved the health and life expectancy of incomers and inhabitants.

Nyanza Watering Place
The Vice-Admiral
Some nine years earlier, Dr Mackinnon had accompanied Frederick Jackson on an expedition of exploration for the Charter Company, and their route to the lake had taken them round the southern end of the Mau Range and over the flat lands at the base of the Nandi Escarpment, though at that time there was no reason or opportunity to explore the potential of the Kavirondo Gulf, which appeared to all intents to be just another inland lake. However, he appreciated that Dick's primary consideration, if, as seemed increasingly likely, the steamer loads had to be carried by porter, was to establish a dockyard and slipway at the most easterly point on Lake Victoria. He already knew, and Dick was soon to find out, that Port Victoria did not measure up to that criterion, and, in the course of the journey the question was raised and discussed with various long-serving officers and others who knew something of the country. At Fort Smith they met Blacket, who was in charge of the advance railway survey section, and when informed that there was a possible, but as yet unexplored route over a saddle to the north of the Mau he undertook to raise the matter with his chief engineer, George Whitehouse, as an alternative railway route. Blacket was soon instructed to investigate the possibility and reported a likely reduction of at least a hundred miles of railway, but the difficulties in construction were formidable. Some six months later Whitehouse inspected the area and was able to sail from Port Victoria, down the coast, through the narrow Rusinga Channel into the Kavirondo Gulf, and establish that Kisumu Bay was at the eastern extremity of Lake Victoria. The north side of the Bay, accessible from the flatlands of the Kano Plains, appeared to be a practicable location for the end of the rail line and he named it Port Florence after his wife who had bravely accompanied the chief engineer's caravan.

Nyanza Watering Place
A. & J. Inglis
During this time Dick had returned to Mombasa, reconciled his inventories and ordered the considerable number of replacement parts from the builders, A. & J. Inglis, in Glasgow. Inevitably these were a long time in arriving. Mackinnon had to advise the Commissioner that it was impossible to ascertain when, if ever, his transport service could undertake the delivery of the steamship parts, as at least ten special caravans would be needed for that purpose alone. Dick kept his options open by offering their services to the railway constructors, who were delighted to accept, as they were also experiencing dire staffing problems. Brownlee and MacMillan were seconded to the locomotive workshops at Kilindini and Dick undertook the overhaul of their steam traction engines. These huge road vehicles had been brought over from India where they had already seen considerable service, but in Africa had fallen into disuse because of a lack of skilled maintenance and supervision in operation. This involved a considerable amount of time spent at the railhead, two hundred miles inland at Tsavo, and their re-commissioning greatly assisted the work of the rail-layers. Tsavo was, however, just entering a prolonged period during which the workers were terrorised and reduced to near panic by the attentions of man-eating lions, and it became a wild-west-style stockaded encampment. Apart from the fear engendered by the lions, the cramped conditions which the Indian coolies sought for self-protection made it a singularly unhealthy station, and Dick was delighted to return to the coast at the request of George Whitehouse.

By virtue of the Parliamentary Bill the Uganda Railway had an autonomy of its own, controlled by a committee in London and exercised in the territory by the chief engineer. They were given full administrative and policing authority over a two-mile-wide corridor along the length of the line, wherever that might be, and operated entirely independently as regards staffing, construction and law-making. The engineers mostly had previous experience in British India and , as it was virtually impossible to recruit labourers locally, most of these had to be brought over from the sub-continent, with resultant variations in race, religion, ethics and language. Internal and external frictions were inevitable in spite of genuine efforts at a higher level of co-operation between railway staff and administrators. A particular difficulty was in swift communication, where the railway had the advantage of the telegraph whose line followed theirs and sometimes was in advance of the plate-layers, whilst the administration could only consign confidential reports to mail runners or caravan leaders.

Nyanza Watering Place
Kisumu Slipway
In February 1899 the chief engineer received instructions to assume responsibility for transportation of the steamer to the lake. It was politic to accept, as he was endeavouring to convince his committee, that the new-found shorter route should be adopted, and it was already becoming clear that the authorised expenditure of 3 million pounds would soon be exceeded. Having had no concern with the steamer up to this time he called in Richard Grant for a briefing and was relieved to learn that he was already assisting his locomotive department. The up shot was that Dick would lead a caravan, which the Railway would endeavour to assemble at railhead, to transport the equipment needed to set up the building and launching facility at Kisumu Bay, and the balance of the loads would follow as soon as practicable. By the end of the month Dick, accompanied by Brownlee and MacMillan, set off for Tsavo, though from then on he had to rely on his own devices to raise the necessary porterage. This would have been virtually impossible without the assistance of his friend Mackinnon, John Ainsworth, the District Officer at Machakos, and Frank Hall at Fort Smith. It was at this point that Dick had his first meeting with his clansman, William Grant, then District Officer in charge of Usoga. Ten years earlier he had left his native Kintyre to join the Charter Company. He was Capt. Lugard's right-hand man during his two years in Uganda, and continued in the administration there for many years. At the time of the meeting he was engaged on the least pleasant assignment of his career. On instructions from the Uganda Commissioner he had assembled 3,700 men in Usoga, few of whom had ever ventured far from their fertile district, to transport the equipment, supplies and infantrymen of the Baluchi Regiment back to railhead after the suppression of the mutiny. The Busoga had suffered terribly under this unaccustomed work and hostile climate; dysentery and fevers were spreading alarmingly and many had already been left along the way. There was little relief for them even at railhead, and their return journey back to Usoga compounded the disaster, as it was thought that fewer than a quarter survived to see their homeland.

In the course of the journey Dick had ensured that the parts which he had located at various isolated points during his earlier trip were uplifted and, when they could not be accommodated in the caravan, concentrated at a few central stations from which they could be brought on by subsequent railway caravans. Finally they reached Nakuru, a desolate outpost where the far advanced railway surveyors had stopped, as there had been no firm decision on the farther routing. The original proposal would have taken the line north to Ravine and over the Uasin Gishu, but this was the turning off point to the west, should the new route over the Mau and down the Nyando Valley be chosen. For Dick the latter was the only choice, and as his was the first caravan to venture down this route to Kisumu (the previous railway expedition having wended its way up from the Lake), it called for careful consideration. Nothing would induce the Kamba and Kikuyu tribemen to venture into this unknown country. The Masai had no such fears, but as they always confined themselves to a guiding and guarding role, the load-bearing element was reduced to the seasoned Zanzibari and Swahili, the latter being largely the men selected to remain at Kisumu and to become involved in the shipbuilding operations. The slimmed down caravan advanced up the steep 2,000 feet to Mau Summit and was launched into the dense Mau forest. For what seemed an interminable number of days and freezing nights they hacked their way through dense jungle, dank rain forest, up and down precipitous ravines and across raging streams, until at last the trail opened out on the fertile Lumbwa plains. Added to the ever-present hordes of flying and crawling insects was the often heard, though unseen, presence of wild animals, such as leopards and elephants, and the forest dwellers of the Dorobo tribe, reputedly highly efficient with bows and poisoned arrows. The Lumbwa peoples, though surprised at the travellers, were co-operative in bartering very welcome supplies of food and giving directions as to the best route down the Nyando River valley to reach the plains and the lake shore. Overall the descent was 4,000 feet and after the cold and damp mountain the burning heat of the plains, though familiar, was little comfort to the fatigued walkers who would have disputed the measurement of 120 miles from the Summit. Their arrival at Kisumu Bay on 1 May 1899 introduced them to an uninhabited and inhospitable flat shoreline, papyrus-clad, and adjacent to a reed-filled swamp which should have been the outflow of the Nyando to the head of the Bay, but the waters appeared to merge across a huge area of flat land. It was in fact a magnificent breeding ground for the mosquito and tsetse fly and some decades were to elapse before adequate draining and treatment effectively controlled these pests.

The site on the northern shore of the bay, which Whitehouse had selected and named Port Florence, may have been a suitable railhead but Dick could find nothing to recommend it as a launching place or port. He quickly ascertained that the southern shore suggested deeper water, as it lay below a clearly defined ridge of higher ground. That in itself held better prospects for a camp and for the later development of more permanent housing on higher ground, which might mitigate the voracious attentions of the mosquito. It was their good fortune to receive a friendly and co-operative welcome from the Luo chief of the nearest village. He put his fishermen and their canoes at Dick's disposal. With this facility they were able to take soundings around the bay, and were shown a route through the marshy ground of the headwaters which could be made up to an acceptably firm causeway. The Luo people assisted with the erection of grass and mud huts, a site for the launching way was selected, and Brownlee and MacMillan were left in charge of laying out the dockyard site, whilst Dick set out on a further hazardous journey with his porters.

Nyanza Watering Place
SS William Mackinnon
With the help of Luo guides they set off through what was then termed Kavirondo country, entirely unexplored by the Europeans in the administration, their destination being the Protectorate Station at Mumias where it was hoped assistance would be given to transport the steamship loads which were collected at Port Victoria. On arrival he encountered a surprised and unhelpful district officer, Charles Hobley, whom Dick knew from his previous visit, and who had been less than pleased when the latter made his way back to the coast, insisting that his objective would be better served in doing so and re-ordering replacements from the U.K., rather than follow Hobley's suggestion that he proceed to Kampala and report to the Commissioner, which would have meant a further unnecessary delay of at least a couple of months. He found Hobley labouring under severe difficulties with the transportation problems, particularly with the distressed Busoga men from William Grant's column endeavouring to return to their country. Dick's intimation of his intention of setting up the shipyard at the hitherto unknown Kisumu and transferring the equipment from Port Victoria was entirely new to him; moreover, the likelihood of the railway line being diverted to that area was bound to undermine the status of Mumias which, over the years, had been raised to an established and reasonably comfortable billet. He was aware of Dick's contractual obligation to the Uganda Protectorate, the consignees of the S.S. William Mackinnon and endeavoured to pull rank and withhold his permission until confirmation could be obtained from Kampala. Dick was equally adamant that his commission was to put the steamship on Lake Victoria, regardless of actual location, and he was about to collect the parts from Port Victoria, with or without his assistance. Hobley established quite a reputation for never letting himself in for anything, and it was a policy which did him no apparent harm during the course of some thirty years of service in East Africa administration. By doing absolutely nothing in this eventuality he did nothing to hinder his promotion to Provincial Commissioner of Nyanza, when a year later he was instructed to transfer his headquarters to Port Florence. It is unlikely that he forgave Dick, for, in writing many years later of this removal, he fails to give the shipbuilding establishment a mention, other than that he launched the 'William Mackinnon' on arrival, and his arms-length association with the ship and railway constructors clearly contributed to the mistake of setting the headquarters of the administration on the low-lying and very unhealthy north-shore flats.

In order to minimise the transportation distance Dick had once again to traverse unknown country by journeying directly east from Port Victoria, until they could rejoin the trail taken earlier to reach Mumias, passing through elephant grass often head high, in which restricted environment, heat and limited visibility led to worrying disorientation. One compensation was finding a small steel boat, with some of its crew, at Port Victoria. It had been left there by Commander Benjamin Whitehouse, who had accompanied his brother George when they visited some six months earlier. Whitehouse had intended to carry out a marine survey of the lake, but after three weeks he had become so ill that he had had to return to the coast. The boat had been loaded with some of the heavier items, including sheets of corrugated iron for sheds, and instructed to sail round the coast to Kisumu. It was to prove a useful asset during the launching and fitting out of the steamer. On his return he was to find that both Brownlee and MacMillan had experienced severe bouts of malaria and dysentery; indeed everyone was ill and debilitated to some degree, medical stores were alarmingly reduced and there was no sign of another caravan with loads and stores. Dick assembled the more able of the men and set off again up the Nyando to Nakuru. On arrival he was greatly relieved to find that the railway transport department had become organised and was preparing a caravan to take further loads over the Mau. A surveyor named Barton-Wright had been detailed to this duty and Dick was delighted to have his company on the return journey and to be able to introduce him to the niceties of the trail. Unfortunately, on arrival at Kisumu they were to learn that MacMillan had died two weeks previously, and Brownlee was so ill and distressed that he had to be carried away in Barton-Wright's returning caravan.

Though far from well himself, Dick remained to continue the work of preparation, but after a couple of months, dysentery, combined with malaria, reduced him to an almost comatose state. His life was undoubtedly saved by the action of his faithful servants who proceeded to implement his earlier instructions against this eventuality. He was placed in a litter and carried across the plains and up the escarpment to the district officer at the recently built Nandi station. He was cared for there until the next government caravan bound for Nairobi passed through. It was a long uncomfortable journey, of which he knew little and was seldom conscious, but as the railway had now reached Nairobi he was swiftly conveyed to the coast. A sea voyage was at the time regarded as a universal cure-all, and he was placed aboard the first departing steamship, as it happened bound for Bombay. Few had expectations that the emaciated body would return. Surprisingly, when the ship berthed again at Mombasa in November Dick was fully restored to health and willing to return to the work at Kisumu.

Whitehouse had requested replacement engineers to be sent out from Britain, but the news of the deaths of Scott and MacMillan and the illnesses of Brownlee and Grant had circulated in Glasgow, and the employment held no attractions. He did, however, detail a dozen of his Indian artisans from the locomotive workshops at Kilindini to be sent up as required. More acceptable was the recruitment of an English engineer named Cowham in Zanzibar. He had just returned there from Lake Victoria where he had been employed by a private firm, Boustead and Ridley, to operate a small steam launch for the Church Missionary Society. Cowham had found it an extremely hazardous engagement. The attentions of unfriendly natives in their war canoes, the vast expanse of water, prone to sudden and violent storms, and the stark isolation made the job highly undesirable. Soon after his departure the launch ran up on the rocks at Davera Island and was declared a total loss. She carried the name 'Ruwenzori' when owned by the C.M.S. but was salvaged in 1902, taken to Kisumu and overhauled, then recommissioned as the 'Kampala' and operated for some years by a trader named Clarke. Cowham was willing to accept more stable employment with the Uganda Marine Service and to assist with the assembly of the 'S.S. William Mackinnon' and her future navigation in waters where he was one of the few Europeans who had had experience.

Nairobi was by then being developed as the railway marshalling centre from which the precipitous descent of the Kikuyu Escarpment could be attacked. It required eighteen months to complete the permanent way, though a temporary system of cable-operated inclines permitted the continuation of the line across the Rift. On arrival at the end of 1899 the transport service was still involved in human porterage from Nairobi to Nakuru, and Dick joined up again with Barton-Wright and learned that he had only been able to complete one journey during his absence. That caravan had been afflicted with an outbreak of smallpox resulting in the deaths of thirty-six men, and although they had endeavoured to isolate the personnel from those at Kisumu, they would have to wait until their return before learning whether or not the disease had spread. In the event it was a healthy and delighted crew which welcomed Dick, having been convinced that they would never see him again.

Little progress had been made during his absence. However, the deliveries had been well stored and guarded, and the work of construction then progressed at a good pace. By the end of March the final steamship loads were brought down, the steelwork of the hull assembled and riveted together, the boiler and larger propulsion machinery installed, and the S.S. William Mackinnon was safely launched on 4 June 1900. Unfortunately, prior to this it was found that a number of vital parts of engine machinery had not arrived, but since George Whitehouse was visiting Kisumu on a tour of inspection at the time, Dick furnished him with detailed drawings and was assured that these would be taken back to Kilindini and made up at the loco workshops, the only place in the territory with machining equipment. No serious delay was anticipated as there was always a month or so required for fitting-out after launch.

Some weeks prior to the launch Cowham was sent to Nakuru to collect and check the made-up parts and other shipyard stores which had been ordered. Throughout the first year of its existence the shipbuilding operation had, apart from the intermittent caravan visits, operated in splendid isolation and remote from the human and political factions which were developing in the wake of what some labelled as the 'lunatic line'. It snaked its way across six hundred miles of virgin territory, apparently completely devoid of commercial or economic potential, with the sole justification of rapid communication between the coast and Uganda -- and certainly that necessity could have owed little to sound reasoning. With the reality of the steamship and the possibility of the new railway alignment Kisumu had taken on a sudden significance to local administrators and distant directors, and inevitably created a profusion of plans, most of them conflicting. Whilst pursuing his own objective, difficult enough in itself, Dick's efforts became increasingly affected by events over which he had no control.

The Uganda administrators to the north were experiencing great difficulty in keeping the 'road' open as a result of increasingly frequent attacks on their caravans by the warriors of the Nandi tribe. It had already been decided to mobilise a large force and mount a punitive expedition which would penetrate to the heart of the country and subdue the rebels in their villages. The general concept of the rail and ship terminus at Kisumu, and the shorter and so far undisturbed Nyando/Mau trail, made this an appropriate military marshalling point from which to mount an attack from the south -- hence the transfer of the provincial headquarters to Kisumu Bay. At the same time it was planned to enter the Nandi country from the east, where Frederick Jackson was in charge at Ravine in the upper Rift Valley; but the tribesmen were forewarned by this visible activity and redoubled their guerilla activities, particularly on the vulnerable Nyando route. The unfortunate caravan which Cowham was conducting back to Kisumu suffered the first major attack. A number of porters were killed and their loads lost, and the other parts were buried in the forest as the survivors made a hasty dash for the nearest defended encampment. Cowham was instructed by the officer-in-charge to remain there, but after three weeks, and desperately short of food, he took his men back to the location of the ambush, where they recovered such loads as they could find and made their way to Kisumu. There it was discovered that the vital engine parts were amongst those that had been lost. Further disasters at this time included the loss of a column of twenty-five mail runners and their guards with the reports, mails etc. scattered to the winds. An Indian army unit was attacked in their overnight camp and the British officer and doctor killed. Dick did manage to get a message to Nakuru to repeat the order for the machined parts, but the mounting of the military offensive had to be delayed until fortified posts could be set up and manned along the supply route. From June onwards Sub-commissioner Hobley and Col. Evatt, military commander, were laying out headquarter buildings and living quarters, initially grass and mud huts, on the unhealthy north shore where they suffered infinitely more than their men at the hands of the Nandi. Dick fitted out the steamship as far as possible and found time to overhaul and re-commission the launch Victoria, which had been sailed and towed round the coast. In September he set off on a further crossing of the Mau to ensure that the long-awaited parts were to specification and safely escorted. A base had been established at Molo, near the Mau Summit, and the telegraph lines went back to Nakuru, then all the way to the coast. He was asked to take his column down to Nakuru and join up with Chief Engineer Whitehouse and a senior delegation of the Railway Committee who had come out from England to investigate the practicalities of the proposed new railway alignment. The leader was Sir Clement Hill, a member of the Committee and Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office with responsibility for East Africa. He was not at all happy with the train of events as they unfolded. Dick's review of the position along the Nyando route and at Kisumu did little to alleviate his gloom, except in so far as Whitehouse had the essential parts, and the 'William Mackinnon' would be operational within a few weeks of their return. It was a substantial and well-guarded caravan which conducted this important party down to Kisumu. However, they had plenty of time to assimilate the precariousness of the situation and the likely ineffectiveness of the proposed punitive measures. Clement Hill ordered the officials to suspend all expeditionary preparations and concentrate their forces on protecting the route and the future operations of the railway surveyors and plate-layers, whilst he embarked on the launch Victoria and made the precarious voyage to Kampala. There he reviewed the situation with the recently installed Special Commissioner, Sir Harry Johnstone; a few weeks later they were delighted by the arrival of the 'S.S. William Mackinnon' which Dick had brought in to Entebbe on her maiden voyage. Though by no means large and less than sumptuously equipped, this vessel did bring a new dimension of speed and ease of transport, covering some 250 miles in a couple of days, where previously a month's hard marching would have been necessary. In monetary terms all the effort of getting her there was little more than 20,000 pounds, whereas the appropriation of 3 million pounds had barely covered the cost of bringing the railway the 450 miles to the base of the Mau, and its final cost nearly doubled.

To Dick this was the culmination of his contract and he looked forward to returning to Scotland. However, the white knights were envisaging a fleet of bigger and better steamships connecting with the Uganda Railway and developing the only highway of trade which at that time seemed probable. Appreciative of Dick's valuable service, they pressed him to remain and advise on the requirements for berthing and jetties at Entebbe and Jinja and, on his return to the UK he would be given the responsibility of overseeing the construction of two 500-ton ships, already authorised; but placing of orders would have to await the final arrival of the railway on the shore of Lake Victoria. Transportation of the large sections left no other option.

Nyanza Watering Place
SS Winifred
By the spring of 1901 Dick was, after three years in Africa, home in Glasgow on a well-earned leave. Having reported to Sir Clement Hill at the Foreign Office, as requested, he was introduced to Sir E. J. Reed, the naval architect responsible for the design and specification of the new steamers, which were sister ships named the 'Winifred' and the 'Sybil'. The order for their construction had been won by the Paisley shipbuilders, Bow, McLachlan & Co., who, after various consultations and modifications, had the contract confirmed in September. The Railway Committee were confident of transportation over the full length of the line by the time the knocked down parts arrived at Mombasa. Dick was also given the opportunity to meet and select a team of artisans in Glasgow who would accompany the shipment to East Africa and assist him with the construction work. From their number he was subsequently able to form the core of the Marine Engineering Section of the East African Railways & Harbours Board. Dick returned to East Africa in November to put in hand the preparations for the rail transportation of what would be some very large and awkwardly shaped steamship sections, and their delivery to a new deep-water slipway at Kisumu. This was unwelcome news for George Whitehouse, already working under extreme pressure to complete the long-delayed arrival of the rail lines at the shores of Lake Victoria, which was achieved on 20 December 1901. But the final couple of hundred miles were only completed with the aid of numerous spurs, diversions, temporary bridging and every avoidance of obstructions which might delay plate-laying and, as it transpired, fully two years were to elapse before the railway could be turned over as completed to the Protectorate Administration. Even on the comparatively established length from Mombasa to Nakuru all sorts of structures such as water towers, station buildings and platform overhangs, bridge railings, rock and earth cuttings etc. might be scythed by a large three-bladed propeller. One rail traveller described the effect as reminiscent of a tornado which had swept the length of the line. The weight factor on the temporary bridges, the often unballasted sleepers and the cotton undersoil when these had to sustain long periods of tropical rain was alarming. The original slipway for the launch of the William Mackinnon had been extended and built up as the berthing pier for the ship, and the only option was to construct two new launching ways farther west for deeper water. Of necessity the point on the north shores of the bay reached by the line was abandoned as the site of Port Florence Station. Considerable drainage and infilling were necessary to divert the line around the head of the bay and bring it in on the south side where the station was established at the pier-head, with a spur to the shipyard further on. This left the administration's headquarters a couple of miles away from the action, and an irritated Hobley had to effect another removal, though all concerned were relieved to be resettled on the healthier Kisumu 'hill'. Among other administrative developments in 1902-3 were the establishment of the Uganda boundary along the line of the Sio River. Thus Kisumu and all the other country west of the Rift Valley were incorporated into the British East Africa Protectorate as a more workable administrative arrangement.

Though nothing would have been termed easy in equatorial Africa when hard physical effort was called for, the shipbuilding progressed favourably with the launching and commissioning of the S.S. Winifred in February 1903, followed by the S.S. Sybil a year later,. They were handsome vessels with comfortable cabins for a dozen first-class passengers, large cool saloons and dining rooms, electric light, awnings and mosquito screens, and excursions on the lake became a highly desirable diversion. The steam engines and twin screws produced a speed of 10 knots, but cargo capacity was restricted by the requirement to carry large quantities of wood-fuel. This was cheap and in apparent abundance locally, and until just before the First World War steamships and railway locomotives were fired by that method exclusively.

Nyanza Watering Place
SS Sybil
On completion of the building contract Dick was asked to join the staff of the railway, now part of the Protectorate Government under the Colonial Office, which incorporated the two recently added steamers, with the title of Marine Engineering Superintendent. For the next decade the railway had to look chiefly to trade with Uganda to justify itself as a commercially viable proposition and, in spite of an increasingly ambitious programme of shipbuilding, it never quite kept up with demand for cargo and passenger space. At Kilindini deepwater berthage had been constructed. The steam tug, Percy Anderson, and her lighters, which had done sterling service since 1895, off-loading railway cargoes from ships anchored in the bay, were surplus to requirements. Dick had these dismantled, transported by rail and reassembled at Kisumu whilst awaiting the arrival of a further much larger steamer which had been ordered from Paisley. As ske was of 1,100 deadweight tons the Traffic department were expecting a welcome increase in cargo capability but the 'S.S. Clement Hill' bore the unmistakable stamp of Whitehall and glorious Empire. Her cargo capacity was even less than that of Winifred or Sybil, but she was a fine ship, as attested by Winston S. Churchill when he sailed on her in 1908 in his capacity as visiting Secretary of State for the Colonies:
Nyanza Watering Place
SS Clement Hill

'I woke the next morning to find myself afloat on a magnificent ship. Its long and spacious decks are as snowy as those of a pleasure yacht. It is equipped with baths, electric light, and all modern necessities. There is an excellent table, also a well-selected library. Smart blue-jackets with ebony faces are polishing the brasswork, dapper white-clad British naval officers pace the bridge. We are steaming at ten knots across an immense sea of fresh water as big as Scotland, lifted higher than the summit of Ben Nevis. At times we are a complete circle of lake and sky, without a sign of land . . . the air is cool and fresh and the scenery splendid, and yet our route crosses the equator.'

Nyanza Watering Place
SS Nyanza
In the course of the next five years Dick completed a further three ships, each exceeding 1,000 tons -- the 'Nyanza', the 'Usoga' and the 'Rusinga', with better cargo capacity. The first two are still afloat at Kisumu. In addition there were tugs, lighters, dredgers and the infinitely more difficult tasks of carting and assembling the parts of stern-wheel paddle steamers to the Nile lakes of Kioga, Kiwana and Albert. The Uganda Protectorate named their craft after the famous explorers of the country, Lake Albert having the 'Samuel Baker', and Lake Kioga the 'Speke', 'Stanley' and 'Grant'. The last of these had the distinction of hosting a clan gathering in the heart of Africa, being named after James Augustus Grant, assisted overland by the Provincial Commissioner of Usoga, William Grant, and assembled and handed over by Richard Grant. It is not on record that the occasion was toasted in a bottle of 'Standfast' but certainly a Scotch libation would have been taken.

Around 1913 a programme of conversion of all the steamers to oil firing was undertaken, and then the start of the War called for the arming of a number of the vessels. There was to be but one naval encounter with the sole German steamer so far to be assembled on Lake Victoria, after which the S.S. Mwanza was withdrawn to their most southerly port where she remained for the duration. The fleet was very actively employed throughout the four years of the East African campaign, though staffing of the Marine became increasingly difficult as many of the European engineers and deck officers departed for Britain to join the colours. Much had to be settled after the armistice in implementing administration over the new British Protectorate of Tanganyika, and the Lake Victoria shores were now all under one flag. Dick remained at Kisumu till late in 1921 then took his overdue retirement.

British Empire Map
1906 Map of East Africa
Colony Profiles
Further Reading
The Konigsberg Adventure
by E Keble Chatterton

Mimi and Toutou Go Forth: The Bizzare Battle of Lake Tanganyika
by Giles Foden

John Ainsworth: Pioneer Kenya Administrator
by F.H. Goldsmith

Permanent Way: The story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway. Being the official history of the development of the Transport System in Kenya and Uganda.
by M.F. Hill

Kenya: Charter Company to Crown Colony
by C.W. Hobley

Early Days in East Africa
by Frederick Jackson

Rise of Our East African Empire
by F.J.D. Lugard

Imperial British East Africa Company
by P.L. McDermott

Nandi Resistance to British Rule
by A.T. Matson

Battle for the Bundu
by Charles Miller

Steamship Conquest of the World
by F. A. Talbot

History of Uganda Land & Surveys
by H.B. Thomas

The Clyde Passenger Steamer
by Captain J. Williamson

1961 Journal of East African Railways and Harbours
Naval Action on Lake Tanganyika
E Keble Chatterton gives an overview of the remarkable events on Lake Tanganyika in World War One when the Germans, Belgians and British vied for control of this vast interior lake. A supreme fight of logistics was employed to tip the balance in the allies favour by carrying boats thousands of miles through Southern and Central Africa.
Transport of S.S. William MacKinnon, Uganda
Also Published In
Review of Scottish Culture


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