1886 Maasai warriors, armed with long heavy spears and terrible clubs, met Methodist missionaries, John and Annie Houghton, just outside the stockade of their mission station at Golbanti on the Tana River. A second group of Maasai joined the first on the open road and surrounded the Houghtons.
John Houghton, born in Sherington, Lancashire on March 26, 1858, had become involved with the Methodist Church at the age of 15. At 22 years of age he became a full time working member. In July 1884 the Methodist Church set of goal to raise a special fund of 1,000 pounds Sterling to place European missionaries in Galla country in East Africa. The missionary committee of the Methodist Church issued an appeal for men to apply for this service. John Houghton volunteered and was accepted.
At the time he was engaged to be married to Miss Annie Brown of Craigmore, Denton, Lancashire, who was also a church member. She readily agreed with his decision to go as missionaries to the Galla in East Africa. They married on September 4, 1884, and departed for Mombasa on October 22, 1884, on board the SS Kerbela. The journey through the Suez Canal took five weeks.
The Houghtons first went to the mission station at Jomvu not far from Mombasa until April 1885. They then volunteered to take charge of the mission station at Ribe, where they stayed until their move to Golbanti in January 1886. They enjoyed their work at Ribe. In a letter Annie Houghton sent home from Ribe on May 5, 1885, she wrote, “We are now settled down in a good six-roomed house with a very large garden…We have some very beautiful flowers all around us…We have, too, the prettiest little chapel in East Africa, and a number of excellent rooms for joiner’s shop, stores, etc. We are very comfortable, and should like you to see our house with its pictures (minus frames) antimacassars, etc. and piano. The piano was the first Mrs. Wakefield’s, but the rats have eaten the inside away. We have varnished it and made a pretty piece of furniture of it, on which we put our musical box, which plays ‘Grandfather’s Clock,’ to the no small amusement of our African friends. A couple of days after we got here Bishop Hannington came to see us. Ribe is as bonny a place as you would wish to see. It is on a hill, and from our front verandah we look across…right to the sea, and it is possible to see ships near the coast, as they sail along. There are not many people here, for the famine last year has decimated the inland countries for hundreds of miles. We hope for better things with this year’s harvest.”
The Houghtons would not stay long at Ribe. Their goal was to work with the Galla. The Methodist Church was determined to establish a mission station in the Galla area at the urging of Ludwig Krapf, a German missionary. Krapf, born in Tubingen just south of Stuttgart in 1810, had started his missionary work in Abyssinia, but political difficulties made him shift his sphere of activity to Mombasa in 1844. Krapf and another missionary, Johannes Rebman, were both at Ribe in 1848. They decided to survey the area inland from the coast to know where to establish mission stations. The two explorers set off in different directions. Rebman discovered Mt. Kilimanjaro and Krapf discovered Mt. Kenya.
Krapf came back with a singular mania for the Galla. He baptised the country between the Tana River and the Juba River in Somali as “Ormania” or Gallaland. It was thought at the time the Galla had a population of 6 to 8 million and were the most powerful tribe in Africa. Krapf thought if the Galla converted to Christianity, Africa would become a Christian continent. (Author’s Note: I use the term Galla because history and history books have used this name for centuries to describe Hamitic people in Africa who followed no recognised religion. The Galla near the Tana River, mainly on the left bank, are now known as Orma. In the past Orma, Boran, Rendille and Somalis have all been called Galla. All these ethnic groups now despise the name Galla.)
Eventually Methodist missionaries Wakefield and New arrived in Kenya. Krapf joined the Methodists, and persuaded them to establish a mission station in Gallaland.
Under the leadership of Rev. William During, an African Christian from Sierra Leone, the Methodist Church established a mission station at Golbanti on the Tana River in 1883. During built an iron house to live in and began to build a church. But Methodist Church leaders in Europe felt a European should be in charge of a mission station in Africa.
So in February 1885, Wakefield took John Houghton on a journey to Golbanti to see the progress at the new Galla mission station. They travelled by dhow from Mombasa to Lamu, and then south by dhow to Kipini on the mouth of the River Ozi, then by smaller dhow upstream to Kau. From Kau the men travelled up the Belazoni Canal in small canoes. Once thorough the canal, they rowed up the Tana River in bigger canoes until they reached Golbanti, a journey which took many horrific days.
They found During living in his house of iron sheets and roofed with palm leaf thatch. The small two-roomed house had a verandah on two sides. Nearby stood a kitchen and storerooms. During had also completed a small neat chapel built of thin poles and plastered with mud; it was rudely furnished with a table and a few benches. During had stockaded the house with a stout fence of tree trunks twelve feet high making a circle of perhaps 40 yards in diameter. Wakefield and Houghton visited some Galla villages nearby.
Houghton and Wakefield returned safely to Ribe and the Houghtons began to prepare to take over the mission station at Golbanti. John and Annie Houghton left Ribe on January 17, 1886 and followed the same sea and river route to Golbanti. Annie spent most of her time lying seasick on the deck of the dhow.
When the Houghtons took over the work, Rev. During resigned from the Methodist mission and moved to Lamu where he set up a company to import supplies for missionaries.
The Houghtons had been at Golbanti less than a month when Maasai warriors raided the local Galla on February 24, 1886. The Maasai burned down a number of huts, stole cattle and killed between 40 and 50 of the Galla. The Houghtons kept guns at the Golbanti mission station for self protection. Some of the new Galla Christian converts, without the Houghtons’ knowledge, borrowed the guns and followed the Maasai in an attempt to retrieve their cattle. The Maasai turned and speared four of the men to death. The others threw down their guns and escaped. The Maasai left the area and the Galla around Golbanti hoped they would never return. (Author’s Note: Around this time, the Maasai cattle were dying from rinderpest, a disease that was killing cattle from Cairo to the Cape. Perhaps this was the reason for the Maasai attack on the Orma at Golbanti.)
The Maasai did return to Golbanti on May 3,1886, apparently in revenge for the gun attack by the Galla on February 24, 1886, which the Maasai felt had been organised by John and Annie Houghton.
At about 8 a.m. that morning Annie Houghton was baking bread as John Houghton plastered the walls in the new chapel. About 8:30 a.m. Annie Houghton went to the door of the kitchen to look for her cook Mbaji, who had gone to buy some eggs for making cakes. A young girl who helped in the kitchen saw Mrs. Houghton gazing intently at something in the distance. The girl looked steadily in the same direction, then screamed, “Yes, Bibi, those are Maasai!” She fled to the forest, which saved her life.
Annie Houghton immediately ran across the enclosure through the opening in the stockade and along the road towards the chapel to warn her husband. He had heard a commotion and had just stepped out of the chapel and saw his wife running towards him. They met and hurried back towards the house where they had firearms ready. Before they could reach the stockade and their weapons, the two groups of Maasai warriors converged around the Houghtons.
One of the warriors raised his spear and struck Annie Houghton in her side. She fell to the ground, mortally wounded.
The warriors turned and attacked John Houghton, spearing him in the side, back and in the neck. He fell dead on the road, only a few feet from the lifeless body of his wife.
The Maasai scattered around the mission and murdered whoever they found. A group of terrified Galla, some Christian converts, others not, gathered by the Tana River to escape to the other side. Four of the mission members who had, from a distance, witnessed the deaths of the missionaries, succeeded in swimming across the river to safety. A large number of others crowded into a canoe. As they crossed, one woman upset the canoe and it capsized. 14 people drowned. The woman who had capsized the boat managed to reach the bank on the Golbanti side of the river. As she stood waist deep in the water holding onto the riverbank, one of the Maasai spotted her and speared her to death.
Before leaving Golbanti, the Maasai destroyed the contents of the Houghton’s house. Having exhausted their desire for plunder and revenge, the Maasai left. The remaining Galla returned to the scene where they gathered up the bodies of their missionary friends and tenderly prepared them for burial.