Ivory Smuggling in Mombasa

Ivory Smuggling

When I was a child I would climb down the Ras Serani cliffs at Mombasa at low tide to swim and forage on the revealed coral reef.  There you could find chunks of ivory obviously thrown overboard from dhows when apprehended by customs boats. The Arab merchants of Mombasa had been running caravans inland for ivory and slaves for hundreds of years, but the slave trade had been successfully put an end to, so all that was left was for the caravans to stock up on ivory and bring it to the coast for export. This was highly illegal when the British took over governance of the area, and the police at Mombasa struggled to put an end to the trade.

James Robert Watcham took over command of Mombasa’s police in 1902.  He had excellent Arabic and Hindustani, having been brought up and schooled in Bangalore and elsewhere. What he would do was dress up as an Arab and frequent Mombasa’s Arab coffee houses to see if he could hear rumours of ivory caravans coming to the coast. He got wind of one’s imminent arrival and posted police at the two creeks leading inland from Mombasa island, where the dhows would go at night to load the ivory. He heard rumours that one batch of ivory was buried near Makupa bridge (the causeway was not built till later) and followed the two Arabs he had overheard to a house in Mombasa old town where he gleaned further details of the plan. Apparently the dhow was to go to Juma’s house at the mangrove swamp near Makupa bridge on the following night.

Watcham secreted his police in the area on the next evening: ‘We approached the rendezvous with caution and took up a position in the mangrove swamp so that we could obtain a good view of the hut and all that occurred.  The sound of voices was wafted to us on the still night air, the rattle of the chains from the creek proclaimed the presence of the dhow, and we could see men talking about near the hut.  Presently the sound of oars informed us that a boat was coming from the dhow to the landing place.  Lights appeared and men carried them towards the shore.  Men came out carrying ivory tusks on their shoulders.  We rose quietly from a cramped position in the leech infested swamp, much relieved to escape from the attentions of the millions of hungry mosquitoes, and we entered the building.  Two Arabs were inside sitting on a pile of ivory and we captured them without a struggle.’  Outside the Arabs advanced slowly towards the hut and Watcham’s askaris sprang at them and the fight was on.

The next day it was discovered that the ivory had been sawn in half. Where were the other halves of the tusks? The wife of one of the perpetrators was persuaded to disclose where they were – hidden in the godowns of two Indian merchants in Mombasa. A search of said godowns revealed nothing but casks of cement. Watcham decided to empty the casks and there, hidden within the cement, were the other halves of the tusks. All the accused were found guilty at trial and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment. The government profited to the extent of over five thousand pounds but the ivory smuggling trade was only temporarily demoralised. Unfortunately it still continues today. As for Watcham, he met an early death at the age of 44, in 1926. Possibly malaria carried him off, as it did so many of the young men who arrived in Kenya.

[This incident was recounted by Robert Foran in World Wide Magazine – date unknown]