In July 1892, a man called Kamau wa Magata went to his in-law’s house to demand bride price for his daughter. But that triggered a chain of events that ended up with over 30 people dead.
Kamau Wa Magata was a discontented man. Elders had deliberated, beer consumed, food eaten, his daughter married; yet his in-laws were still evading him. All he wanted was for the agreement to be met. Fifty goats worth of dowry. Fifty goats! Mirongo itano! He should not have trusted people from Githiga. His in-law Kiarie had seemed so reasonable though. Kamau was going to show them what messing with him meant. He knew people. People with guns.
On July 18th, 1892, W.J. Purkiss, the commander at Fort Smith in Dagoretti received information that a caravan led by James Martin was on its way from Mombasa. He was also aware that another caravan consisting of Imperial British East African company officials was due from Uganda at any moment. The latter was lead by Captain James Ronald Leslie MacDonald who had been surveying for the railway’s most suitable route. Knowing these two groups would need to have their supplies replenished; Purkiss put together a team of fifty porters with his faithful servant Maktub in charge. Maktub was deputised by a man called Suleiman Belali.
Maktub, said to have been a former slave in Malawi, was from the coast and had worked under several white men. He may have been subservient in the presence of his masters, but it was a different case when he was in charge. The rest of his team knew he could hardly contain his temper and had a penchant for violence.
The mission was simple and neat. Maktub would lead his entourage to Wandenge’s village (Wandenge was a local elder in friendly terms with the Brits) where they would set up camp. The team was then to be split into two. Twenty men would accompany Maktub to Uthiru to purchase food, which they would bring back to the camp and hand over to Suleiman and the other thirty for delivery to the Fort, then head out for more. They stuck to the plan initially and by July 27th, they were ready for the last trip. The universe had other plans.
That evening, when the men were cracking jokes and harking back to their beloved humid hometowns, a man came to the camp. He was holding on to a staff he did not need, sturdy despite the fast settling age. The dark hide cloak around his shoulders concealed him well in the dark. The sentries didn’t notice him till he asked where their leader could be found. Maktub approached the mysterious figure in the dark with caution, only relaxing when he recognised Kamau. They had managed to strike a friendship in his constant ventures for supplies.
The old man had a problem… and a plan.
He told Maktub of his woes with his disrespectful in-laws. He had come to the right place. The other man was not one to miss an opportunity. Together, they crafted a deal. Maktub would help him recover his goats for a share of the spoils. Mabruk, his Gikuyu interpreter, was not excited by the idea of aiding Wamagata, explicitly warning his commander against disobeying Purkiss’s instructions. For his efforts, he got a rebuke and was labelled a coward.
The next day, Maktub put together a team of ten men, propped up by several from Wandenge’s village – including three of Wandenge’s sons. He armed them all with rifles and headed for Githiga. The rest were ordered to remain at Wandenge’s till he came back for the journey back to the fort. Kiarie received the surprise visitors graciously. He pleaded and tried to reason with Kamau. He even reminded him of the old adage “uthoni ndurangagwo” – one doesn’t step all over his in-laws. Wamagata would hear none of it. He wanted his fifty goats and he wanted them there and then. Maktub considered the back and forth a waste of time. The fact that he had to rely on an interpreter didn’t help things. As his temper flared, he declared the negotiations over. Then ordered his men to grab all the animals they could.
The villagers watched the ensuing drama in silence. They took Kamau’s use of force and armed mercenaries as an insult. He was not only stepping all over his in-laws, but also inviting strangers to do so. When Maktub gathered enough livestock, he headed out, leaving behind fuming villagers who, peculiarly, hadn’t even raised a finger. It had been so easy. Too easy. Maktub, who knew first-hand how ferocious the Gikuyu could be, must have wondered about it.
Once the troop covered a considerable distance, a war cry was issued behind them. Word spread from ridge to ridge. Warriors gathered their arrows, picked their spears and strapped swords in place.
Maktub’s retinue did not notice anything amiss until they followed the path down a rather silent ravine and a cloud of arrows whizzed from above them. They had strutted right into an ambush. Several arrows met their mark and drove the fear of Ngai right into procession. Maktub kept the panicked men in check. He instructed them to hold fire till the Gikuyu got within reasonable rifle range.
Usually, that was a great battle technique, but here it was a mistake. The warriors had expert knowledge of topography. Within minutes, more volleys of arrows and spears surprised the retinue from close by, taking out several men. Maktub responded by retreating, but was met by another formation that had been stalking him from behind all along. They dispatched him quickly, grabbed his rifle and proceeded to deal with the rest of his train ferociously.
All of Wandenge’s sons fell that day.
Purkiss got the information on 29th July 1892. Initially, he was told that all the porters had been wiped out. Hours later a few of them arrived, including the translator Mabruk, who was nursing injuries. Some would surface three days later with tales of the encounter.
That day near Githiga, the stolen livestock was recovered, pride was defended and one of the many stands by Kenyans against harassment that would follow was made.
It would cost them greatly later on, but it was a point worth making.