In West Africa in1892 the British authorities were encountering problems in their dealings with the Ijebu tribe. The tribe, proud, isolated and determined, lived between 50 and 60 miles north-east of Lagos on the Magbon River, and Jebu Ode was the tribal capital.
The tribal lands straddled important trade routes from the interior and the tribe received an income by charging customs dues. The Ijebu, a Yoruba-speaking tribe, did not want foreigners to cross the tribal territory.
In 1890 the Egirin market a few miles west of Epe on Lagos Lagoon had been closed by the Awujale, ruler of the Ijebu, cutting off the Lagos people from a source of up-country goods and commodities. Lagos had been a Crown Colony since 1886 and although envoys from the British Governor in Lagos persuaded the ruler to re-open the market, a mood of hostility towards the British prevailed amongst the Ijebu.
In May 1891 the British Acting Governor, Captain C.M. Denton C.M.G., left Lagos with an escort of Hausa constables (Hausas are from the Islamic north of Nigeria) to visit Jebu Ode to make agreements allowing the free passage of trade goods through Ijebu territory. However the Awujale refused to agree to the British requests and he also rejected the British presents given to him by Denton, doubtless fearing that to accept them would obligate him in some way.
London then instructed Lagos to obtain an apology from the Awujale for the perceived “insult” to Denton, and to insist on free right of way through the Awujale’s territory. In January 1892 a representative of the Awujale went to Lagos to agree to the British demands, and in return the British granted the Ijebu 500 pounds annually to compensate for the loss of customs revenue. However the tribe was unhappy with this outcome as it did not wish to change its traditional methods and practices, particularly when threatened by foreigners.
A white missionary was allowed through Jebu territory but the second one who tried received a rough time and was sent back, as was a party of Ibadan porters attempting to come south through Jebu Ode. London now authorized the use of force, quickly sending out some special service officers from England to act as a military staff. One of these was Captain Edward Roderick (“Roddy”) Owen of the Lancashire Fusiliers, a famous jockey at British race meetings.
Troops from along the West African coast were concentrated at Lagos. The Gold Coast Constabulary sent 150 men from Accra, the 1st Battalion The West India Regiment (the British garrison regiment for West Africa) sent a company from Sierra Leone. These troops joined 150 “Lagos Hausas” (mainly escaped slaves from the north of Nigeria that had been recruited and trained into an efficient unit now titled the Lagos Constabulary) and some irregulars from Ibadan, north of Jebu country.
The Inspector-General of The Gold Coast Constabulary, Colonel F.C. Scott C.B., was the force commander and on 12th May 1892 he moved his 450 armed men and 340 carriers by a flotilla of vessels and canoes up Lagos Lagoon, and landed at Epe without opposition. Scott’s men had three 7-pounder field guns, two Nordenfeldt guns (hand-cranked multi-barrel weapons that fired in waves of rounds), two rocket troughs and a Maxim gun as fire support. At Leckie, near Epe, another 186 carriers were recruited.
(The West Indians were expert at using rockets, either for drawing enemy fire by firing them into likely ambush locations, or for setting village thatched roofs alight.)
The Jebus were believed to have up to 8,000 men and some old Snider rifles, but the tribe was not rated highly as fighters. This assumption was mistaken. The British left Epe on 16th May and marched to Pobo where it burned four villages but took 8 casualties. The next day the force reached Atumba and had to fight hard for half an hour. One Briton was killed and one wounded whilst 12 Africans were wounded. The Jebus lost heavily to machine-gun fire.
The advance continued with the Ibadan irregulars scouting ahead and the Gold Coasters and Lagos Hausa alternating daily as Advance and Rear guard. All Jebu villages found were torched. Colonel Scott was anxious to prove that the Gold Coasters and Hausas could fight as effectively as the regular West Indians, and so the latter were kept tucked away in the Main Column.
The track to Jebu Ode that the British were following was the main trade route, and the outer edges where feet had tramped for hundreds of years were well rutted down, leaving a triangle of earth in the middle which had to be straddled by the marchers. Thick bush on either side forced the British column into a single file two miles long, allowing the Jebu to easily pick off soldiers and then disappear, leaving a corpse or wounded man blocking the track. As yet no white man had ever used this route and the Jebu fought hard to preserve that tradition.
On 19th May the Jebu made a determined stand on the north bank of a ford over the Yemoyi River, five miles south of Jebu Ode. The river here was 40 yards wide and sometimes over 4 feet deep (the Jebu had dug it deeper for this battle to create a difficult obstacle), and above and below the ford the river narrowed and ran through impenetrable bush. The southern approach to the ford ran through a gorge that prevented the British from manoeuvring off the track. The enemy warriors were located on both sides of the river, and the narrowness of the track being used made it extremely difficult for the British to bring up and concentrate their heavy weapons. The Ijebu were determined to prevent the British from crossing the ford and as warriors were shot down or ran out of bullets fresh relays of men from the rear replaced them.
Scott ordered his Hausa advance guard across the river but they did not want to move. It was believed that the Jebu had made a human sacrifice to the goddess of the river in order to obtain the goddess’ support in repelling the invaders. Finally a machine gun was brought up to the river bank and Scott ordered the West Indian Regiment company under Major George Colquhoun Madden to storm the ford. The crossing was successful, and once the Hausa had observed that the river goddess was inactive then they too crossed and engaged the Jebu. By now the guns and rockets had struggled up the congested track and these fired into likely Jebu positions until resistance ceased.
The remainder of the force now crossed the ford and advanced half a mile to Imagbodon village where Scott took stock of the situation. Since they had left Epe the British had lost 56 men killed and 30 more wounded including three white officers, one of them being Roddy Owen at the river crossing. Although the Jebu had lost around 700 warriors at the ford, mainly to machine-gun fire, thousands more remained at large ready to fight.
Therefore next morning as the march resumed Scott’s Advance Guard was surprised to meet envoys from the Awujale offering submission. The Ijebu admitted to losing a thousand warriors and seven chiefs and were anxious to stop the burning of any more villages. The tribe accepted defeat and, in the words of the Awujale, they were “no fit for fight with white man”.
A few hours later Jebu Ode had a Union Flag flying over it, the Awujale’s palace was being used as the British officers’ mess and the surrounding buildings housed the soldiers. Scott banned looting but this order antagonised the Ibadan irregulars who had to be disarmed. Flying columns marched along the trade routes declaring them open, Roddy Owen commanding the one that went north to Oru to destroy the Ijebu toll gates there. The West Indians marched back to Lagos declaring that south-westerly route open