In September 1872, the Thomas Mitchell, a lone British ship, left Brazil with sand ballast.
He docked at the African port of Ambriz in Angola, which was then famous for ivory, coffee and slaves.
Little is known about this vessel, only that it was built in Dumbarton on the River Clyde in 1851 and was owned by T. Mitchell, a shipping company based in Glasgow – the British city built on the fortunes of the slave trade .
It was the ship that brought jiggers to Africa 150 years ago – and this story reminds colonial powers that we have not forgotten this piece of history.
If there is an Africa-wide campaign that should be made, it is to force the nations that led to the dumping of this vermin on the continent to fund its eradication.
Today, jiggers remain a symbol of British commercialism as the scourge continues to ravage the poor.
They are a permanent imprint on the continent and testify to the recklessness of colonial attempts and racism.
Very little has been written about this incident and one has to go through the early records to find out the truth about the introduction of these vermin into Africa. The silence was strong and wanting.
We will never know if this was a deliberate act, but what we do know is that after all these years, jiggers have become an unrecognized tragedy and hardly feature in political and health discourse. No one ever bothered to apologize either.
The Thomas Mitchell had dropped its cargo of coal in Brazil from Britain (some record sources claim that its voyage carried slaves) and since there was no cargo destined for Africa, it had carried sand ballast used to add weight to the ship so that “when the wind hits its sails, it does not capsize.
Some of the ships, especially during the slave trade era, were known to carry rocks to stabilize the ship, but Thomas Mitchell on this voyage carried sand.
It was this sand that carried the fleas known as chigoe to South America: – the only place where jiggers had been reported.
That a vermin introduced by British traders would later spread throughout tropical Africa has yet to attract attention – and may have been overshadowed by demands for an apology from Britain and other nations involved in the transatlantic slave trade.
In April 2022, Glasgow, where Thomas Mitchell is from, formally apologized for the city’s role in the Atlantic slave trade, admitting the practice’s money ‘tentacles’ reached all the corners of Scotland’s largest city.
“It is clear…that the blood of trafficked and enslaved Africans, their children and their children’s children is written in the very bones of this city,” the apology statement said.
Glasgow’s shipping industry grew out of the slave trade, and historians have always questioned the morality of Barclays Bank – among others – which financed plantations in the Caribbean.
The Liverpool tycoons involved in the slave trade had set up their own bank, Heywoods Bank, which offered loans to slave traders.
Apologies from Lloyds
It was this bank that was later taken over by Barclays. Other companies spun off from this trade include Lloyds, the giant British insurance company, which has apologized for its role.
In its recent apology, following the Black Lives Matter campaign, Lloyds acknowledged that its “customers have been shipowners and businessmen, many of whom have amassed their fortunes in the same way Britain has enriched at the time – thanks to the extractive economy of the empire”.
He further admitted: “… Britain’s vast maritime industry propelled this empire. And Lloyd’s was the world center for shipping insurance. During this appalling and shameful time in history, slaves were transported as freight and insured as freight on Lloyd’s Market.
It was in this context that jiggers were introduced to Africa – at a time when Africans were treated like ‘freighters’.
A statement on this incident written by J. Monteiro in 1872 blamed the merchants who “contrary to instructions, the sand is unloaded on the shore instead of thrown into the sea, and so the chigoes land…in a short time , everyone in Ambriz had them in their feet and hands.
Although Britain outlawed slavery in 1833, it was not until 1890 that the Brussels Conference Act, a set of anti-slavery measures, ended the slave trade on land. and at sea and thus stopped kidnappings in the Congo Basin, and the current markets of the East African coast.
The same year the sand fleas were dumped in Ambriz, they were also reported in Gorée and Dakar, which had contact with Congo – and Brazil.
From there it began to spread to West Africa and was reported in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where it first appeared in Monrovia in 1879, and in Cameroon.
There was never an attempt to stop the spread, and its spread was facilitated by infected shipments or by ships arriving from infected ports. There are suggestions that it followed the Congo River, and in 1883 it was reported from eastern Congo – modern day DRC.
It was not until 1904 that Nubian soldiers stationed in the Congo brought the jiggers further into the Sudan. In the Belgian Congo at the time, local troops who had jiggers were nicknamed tuk tuk, a name which was also chosen by the Zande tribe for the jigger.
Closer to home in 1891, a caravan of Henry Morton Stanley is said to have introduced jiggers into the Buganda kingdom in 1891, and in 1904 it was reported in the Busoga kingdom.
At this time, there were reports of vermin in Bukoba and Mwanza in modern Tanzania, where caravan traders helped spread it on trade routes.
In Kenya, some of the earliest reports of jiggers were at Machakos, which was on a caravan route.
The first case occurred around 1896, around the time of the construction of the Mombasa-Uganda Railway.
During this period, jiggers reached Kikuyuland, where an 1897 age group is named ndutu – a new name for jiggers. In 1899 jiggers first appeared in Mombasa – and there are various reports of jiggers spreading to Kijabe in 1910, possibly aided by the railway.
As jiggers coincided with the arrival of European colonies, it has always been thought that settlers brought vermin into the country.
This is not the case. It took 24 years for the fleas to spread from the Angolan port to Kenya. But in between, there is a long history of destroyed communities and loss of labour.
Today, 150 years later, many communities are still ravaged by jiggers, and silence still reigns inside and out.
The few attempts made by some civil society groups are not enough. The plague of jiggers is a continental problem and after 150 years we need a conversation and a plan. But first an apology.
Muhotetu Farm Saga
In my article last week on Kedong Ranch, I insinuated that the former president of Muhotetu Farmers, the late James Mwaniki Imunyo, who was later murdered, was for the sale of the farm.
His daughter, Helen Mwaniki, clarified that the quoted sale of 360 million shillings “was a different sale and had already been made earlier”.
She says “Mr. Imunyo was totally against any sale of Muhotetu Farmers Ltd shares to anyone and that is why he was killed.”