How jiggers were brought to Africa 150 years ago and why we need an apology

National Social security Fund and Ahadi Kenya officials treat school children in Bamba ward who are infested with jiggers during the anti-jigger campaign at Mabathani Primary School in Ganze Constituency, Kilifi County on December 6, 2018.

What you need to know:

  • The Thomas Mitchell brought jiggers to Africa 150 years ago – and this story reminds the colonial powers that we have not forgotten this piece of history. 
  • Today, the jiggers remain a symbol of British mercantilism as the scourge continues ravaging the poor.
  • In the same year that the sand fleas were dumped in Ambriz, they were also reported in Goree and Dakar, which had contacts with Congo – and Brazil.

In September 1872, the Thomas Mitchell, a lone British vessel, sailed from Brazil carrying sand ballast.

It docked at the African port of Ambriz in Angola, which was then famous for ivory, coffee, and slaves.

Little is known about this ship, only that it was built at Dumbarton on the River Clyde in 1851 and was owned by T. Mitchell, a shipping company based in Glasgow – the British city built from the fortunes of trading in slaves.

This is the ship that brought jiggers to Africa 150 years ago – and this story reminds the colonial powers that we have not forgotten this piece of history. 

If there is one Africa-wide campaign that should be done, it is to force those nations that led to the dumping of this vermin on the continent to finance its eradication.

Today, the jiggers remain a symbol of British mercantilism as the scourge continues ravaging the poor.

They are a permanent imprint on the continent and exhibit the carelessness of colonial endeavours and racism.

Very little has been written about this incident and one has to scour through early records to get the truth behind the introduction of these vermin in Africa. The silence has been loud and wanting.

We shall never know whether this was a deliberate act, but what we know is that after all those years, jiggers have become an ignored tragedy and hardly features in the political and health discourse. No one has ever bothered to apologise, either.

The Thomas Mitchell had dropped its cargo of coal in Brazil from Britain (some archival sources claim its voyage carried slaves) and since there was no cargo destined for Africa, it had carried sand ballast used to add weight to the vessel so that “when the wind hits its sails it does not capsize.”

Some of the ships, especially during the days of the slave trade, were known to carry boulders to stabilise the vessel, but Thomas Mitchell, on this voyage, carried sand.

It was this sand that carried the fleas known as chigoe in South America: – the only place the jiggers had been reported.

That a vermin introduced by British traders would later spread throughout tropical Africa has yet to attract attention – and has, perhaps, been overshadowed by the demands on Britain, and other nations involved in the transatlantic slave trade, to apologise. 

In April 2022, Glasgow, where the Thomas Mitchell came from, officially apologised for the role the city played in the Atlantic slave trade, admitting that the “tentacles” of money from the practice reached every corner of Scotland’s biggest city.

“It’s clear … that the blood of trafficked and enslaved African people, their children and their children’s children is built into the very bones of this city,” said the statement of apology.

The shipping industry in Glasgow grew out of the slave trade, and historians have always questioned the morality of Barclays bank – among others — which used to finance plantations in the Caribbean.

The Liverpool tycoons involved in the slave trade had formed their own bank, Heywoods Bank, which used to offer loans to slave traders.

Lloyds apology

It was this bank that was later bought by Barclays. Other companies that grew out of this trade include Lloyds – the giant British insurance company, which has apologised for its role.

In its recent apology, following the Black Lives Matter campaign, Lloyds acknowledged that its “customers were ship owners and businesspeople, many of whom amassed their fortunes in the same way that Britain enriched itself at the time – through the extractive economics of empire”.

It further admitted: “... Britain’s vast shipping industry powered that empire. And Lloyd’s was the global centre for insuring shipping. During this appalling and shameful period of history, enslaved people were transported as cargo, and insured as cargo in the Lloyd’s market.”

It was in this context that jiggers were introduced to Africa – at a time when Africans were treated as “cargo”.

Anti-jigger campaign.

National Social Security Fund Administration Manager Susan Murila (left) Ahadi Kenya Trust Chief Executive Officer Stanley Kamau and Anti-jigger ambassador Cecilia Mwangi at St Marks Ngelechom Primary School in Teso South, Busia county during National Jigger Awareness Day on March 3, 2022.

Photo credit: Pool

A statement about this incident written by J. Monteiro in 1872 blamed the merchants who “contrary to instructions the sand is unloaded on the shore instead of being dumped in the sea, and so the chigoes come ashore … in a short time, everyone in Ambriz had them in their feet and hands.”

Though Britain banned slavery in 1833, it was not until 1890 that the Brussels Conference Act, a collection of anti-slavery measures, put an end to the slave trade on land and sea and thus stopped the kidnappings in the Congo Basin, and the existing markets on the East African coast.

In the same year that the sand fleas were dumped in Ambriz, they were also reported in Goree and Dakar, which had contacts with Congo – and Brazil.

From there, it started spreading in West Africa and was reported in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where they first appeared in Monrovia in 1879, and also in Cameroon.

There was never any attempt to stop the spread, and its spread was aided by infected cargo or by ships arriving from infected ports. There are suggestions that it followed the Congo River, and by 1883 it was reported in eastern Congo — the modern-day DRC.

It was not until 1904 that some Nubian soldiers who were stationed in Congo brought the jiggers further into Sudan. In the then Belgian Congo, the local troops who had jiggers were nicknamed tuk tuk, a name which was also picked by the Zande tribe for the jigger.

Closer home in 1891, a caravan of Henry Morton Stanley is believed to have introduced jiggers to the Buganda Kingdom in 1891, and by 1904, it had been reported in the Busoga kingdom.

By this time, there were reports of the vermin in both Bukoba and Mwanza in modern-day Tanzania, where the caravan traders helped to spread it across the trade routes.

In Kenya, some of the early reports of jiggers were in Machakos, which was on a caravan route.

The first case occurred around 1896, just about the time that the Mombasa-Uganda railway was being built.

During this period, the jiggers reached Kikuyuland, where an 1897 age-set is named ndutu — a new name for jiggers. By 1899, the jiggers appeared in Mombasa for the first time – and there are various reports on the jiggers spreading towards Kijabe in 1910, perhaps aided by the railway.

Since the jiggers coincided with the arrival of European settlements, it was always thought that the settlers introduced vermin into the country.

That is not so. It took the fleas 24 years to spread from the Angolan port to Kenya. But in between, there is a long history of communities destroyed and of loss of labour.

Today, 150 years later – many communities are still being ravaged by jiggers, and there is still silence from within and without.

The few attempts made by some civil society groups are not enough. The scourge 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 chairman of Muhotetu Farmers the late James Mwaniki Imunyo, who was later murdered, was for the sale of the farm.

His daughter, Helen Mwaniki, has clarified that the quoted sale of Sh360 million “was a different sale and was already effected earlier on”.

She says that “Mr Imunyo was completely against any sale of the Muhotetu Farmers Ltd shares to anybody and that is why he was killed.”

[email protected] @johnkamau1


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