East Africa: How East Africans Countered Colonial Repression

In East Africa and the Great Lakes region, German colonial conquest spurred courageous resistance from many local East African groups against well-armed and violent colonial forces.

Why did Germany claim land in East Africa?

Initially, German presence in East Africa had been limited to land grabbing of private colonialists like Carl Peters. At the Berlin Conference in 1885, Germany claimed territories in today’s Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, which gave them the authority to establish, control and protect trading routes.

How did German colonialism become so violent?

In 1888, German settlements on the East African coast came under attack during the Abushiri, or Arab Uprising. This was a mix of actors on the Swahili coast with ties to local leader Abushiri bin Salim al Harth that did not want Germany to threaten their lucrative caravan, ivory and slave trading routes. Ironically, Germany justified using arms and ammunition as a means to end the slave trade. In reality, though, weapons and soldiers were used to protect German interests.

Did German have a military presence?

Initially, the notorious Wissmann Truppe, a precursor to the Schutztruppe (Protection Force), which was run by Hermann von Wissmann, rampaged through East Africa with modern, quick-firing weapons like the new Maxim machine gun. They had little accountability, and were not an official German militia, as most members were African recruits — or Askaris. These men, under the leadership of a few German officers, were crucial in carrying atrocities that characterized German rule in East Africa. Hangings, rape and plundering followed, and by 1890, the East African coast was under German control.

The colonists then looked inland toward Lake Tanganyika, where they encountered strong resistance. Perhaps none more famous than that of WaHehe leader Mkwawa.

Who was Chief Mkwawa?

He was the leader of the Hehe people based in the Iringa region of modern-day Tanzania. Mkwawa was an astute diplomat, and a great military tactician — probably best demonstrated in his confrontation with German colonial commander Emil Zelewski, who some historians argue triggered the Arab Revolt of 1888. Zelewski was tasked with destroying the Hehe, and he employed scorched earth tactics: Burning farms, killings and destroying livestock.

Armed with spears and a few guns, the Hehe surrounded and killed most of Zelewski’s forces, including Zelewski, in 1891. It was an embarrassing defeat the German colonialists would not forget. And though the Hehe fought a guerrilla war, Mkwawa was eventually surrounded, before choosing to take his own life in the Iringa region in 1898. So hated was Mkwawa by the German colonialist that after he was killed, Mkwawa’s head was taken to Berlin.

What happened to Mangi Meli?

Mangi Meli, a Chagga ruler from the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, was also attacked and forced to surrender. He, along with other Chaga noblemen, was hanged in 1900 for treason. The killings not only destroyed the fabric of local leadership but were exacerbated when German colonial authorities beheaded Mangi Meli and sent his skull to Berlin, allegedly for anthropological and scientific racism research. To this day, Mangi Meli’s skull has been preserved in a German museum.

What was the Maji Maji war?

In 1905, over 20 communities united under Kinjeketile Ngwale rose up to fight harsh German rule, taxation and forced labor. Kinjekitile is a somewhat controversial figure, because he relayed a prophecy that said indigenous fighters could expel the German invaders and should consume a potion of millet and water to turn the colonizers’ bullets into water. This inspired what became known as the Maji Maji rebellion, though some historians argue Kinjeketile’s prophecy came at a time when local people had no choice but to rebel against German rule.

While initial skirmishes saw some German missionaries and settlers killed, the Maji Maji rebellion became a series of punitive measures taken by the colonial authorities. Kinjeketile was also executed in 1905.

But even though Kinjeketile was dead, the Schutztruppe continued with scorched earth tactics, executions and terror in East Africa. And it was strategically planned this way.

The revolt lasted until 1907, and cost over 120,000 lives, with some estimates putting the number as high as 300,000, many dying of starvation and disease.

Shadows of German Colonialism is produced by DW, Germany’s international broadcaster with funding from Germany Federal Foreign Office (AA). Consulting was provided by Lily Mafela, Kwame Osei Kwarteng and Reginald Kirey.


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