Memories of first ship carried on foot from Mombasa to Kisumu

Saturday July 20 2019

SS William Mackinnon, the first steamer ship to ply Lake Victoria. The ship was sunk in the lake in 1929. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


By next Sunday, it will have been exactly 90 years since a flotilla of military boats left Kisumu port to escort SS William Mackinnon, Lake Victoria’s first steamer ship, on its last voyage and after 30 years of service.

The international and local press had assembled there to witness the scuttling of one of the first steamships in inland Africa amid fanfare in the deep-waters near Mfangano Island.

Today, that chunk of history still lies at the bottom of the lake. Some nations would have kept it as a relic but SS William Mackinnon was liked and hated in equal measure. The haters nicknamed it “The Emetic” – thanks to the love-hate relationship.


This is the story of SS William Mackinnon. Somehow, shipping fascinates me – the stories, the thrill, the drama. But no story beats SS William Mackinnon. Not because it was the first steamer ship to ply Lake Victoria – a water body that still bears the name of one of UK’s longest-reigning monarchs; the feminist Queen Victoria – but because of the drama.

But this story is not about her. It is about a ship that was carried on foot, and in parts, from Mombasa to Kisumu after a long journey from Glasgow, where the parts were assembled.


Had SS William Mackinnon been retained, it would be one of the historical totems of the steamship history on Lake Victoria; – perhaps in Africa.

When the story of the opening up of international commerce in the region is told, SS William Mackinnon fades away; eclipsed by the tragic tales of the building of the railway, which are well documented in The Man-eaters of Tsavo – the 1907 classic by John Henry Patterson.

While the building of the railway from Mombasa to Uganda in early 1900 was a great triumph in infrastructure development and engineering, the transportation of The Emetic was more lethargic.

At no point in history had human beings decided to transport 70-tonne cargo on foot and through the Kenyan Nyika plains teeming with wild animals, mosquitoes, and where they were at the mercy of local warriors.


In 1894, British Parliament had passed a budget to put a steamship on Lake Victoria that would mark its control of the headwaters of the Nile. But since the railway was still in its infancy (it was started two years later), one of the questions asked was how the cargo would reach Lake Victoria, a distance of more than 933 kilometres.

The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA) led by the ageing sea and inland trader William Mackinnon, who had won the royal charter to collect taxes in the region on behalf of the British government, had earlier been misinformed that Tana River was navigable and had brought a knocked-down vessel MV Kenia believing the words of an early explorer who had described it as a “large waterway” into the interior. As Mr MacKinnon would painfully learn later, Tana was not only unnavigable but was passing through uncommercial plains into the hills. Mackinnon had invested in a lie.


Mackinnon had also commissioned another 70-tonne single-screw steamer vessel – with his name emblazoned on the side – to ply Lake Victoria but before he paid for it, his company went into bankruptcy in 1895 and the vessel remained at a yard in Glasgow where it was at the mercy of liquidators and auctioneers.

Thus, for five years, SS William Mackinnon was at A. & J. Inglis builder’s yard in Glasgow until the Colonial Office made an offer of $4,426 in 1895 on behalf of the Uganda Protectorate. It was during a period that Britain was going through a long depression and an emerging German empire. Taking over Lake Victoria had become a necessity and could not await the building of the Uganda railway.

SS William Mackinnon was the signature project that would showcase the British determination to colonise eastern Africa.


At first, the engineers cut the ship into 3,000 loads, with most not exceeding 27 kilogrammes for the overland journey from Mombasa. It was hailed as an engineering marvel since only two engine pieces exceeded the porter weight of 27kg.

In June 1895, two Scottish mechanics sailed to Mombasa with the entire cargo and the recruitment of Swahili porters to carry the load to Kisumu started. Mistake number one.

An inland warehouse had been built at Mazeras where the first caravan was to stop. But the engineers were shocked that most of the cargo had been abandoned along the route by tired porters. It was way bulkier than they had bargained for. A colonial dream was now at the mercy of porters.

The search for the missing cargo and taking stock took several months. But before they could leave, the Mazrui rebellion of 1896 broke out in which elements of the coastal Arab society reacted violently to the establishment of the East Africa Protectorate. More cargo was strewn at Mazeras and the transporter Smith Mackenzie was at pains to kick-start the caravan.

And when he did, the next fear was how the remaining cargo would pass through the Maasai territory and Uasin Gishu. Here, more cargo and porters disappeared and finally the British government decided to import camels and ox carts from Karachi to transport the remaining load.

In London, Smith Mackenzie was coming under pressure from another company, Bousted and Ridley, which wanted the cargo business. They suggested that they could use the Tanganyika route.


With the worry in London, a supervisor named James Martin was sent to follow the cargo on foot but he was sabotaged by Captain Sclater who was building the Nairobi to Mombasa Road.

Sclater had taken the imported animals for his road project and took more than 1,000 Kamba porters who had been recruited by Martin. They were employed by the railway project, which was now under way.

By 1897, when Sclater was asked to search for all the missing SS William Mackinnon cargo, strewn between Mazeras and Uasin Gishu – the Uganda mutiny broke and it appeared that this ship would never sail. Months later, in July 1897, Sclater died.

The arrival of two engineers in Kisumu to await the cargo was the first indicator that the British government was still serious on the project. The arrival of Mr MacMillan and Mr Brownlee in the company of a Mr Richard Grant and 200 porters signalled the building of SS William Mackinnon.

Richard Grant then left to fetch some cargo left in Nandi Escarpment but when he returned, he found that Macmillan had died and Brownlee was down with malaria.

It was engineer Barton Wright who finally managed to deliver the last cargo in 1900. But not everything. Engineers in Mombasa had to replace some missing pieces and the wood from Nandi would also take some time. But on October 30, 1900 SS William Mackinnon made its first sail.

It was a historic moment. A triumph against odds.

[email protected] @johnkamau1