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Africa During the Scramble: Scorch the Earth

By Gary Oswald

Flag of the German East Africa Company

In 1885 German gunships pulled into the Omani island of Zanzibar and demanded that the Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, sell them his rights to some of his territory in mainland Tanzania. The Zanzibari control of East Africa tended to exist more in theory than practice, the cities on the Kenyan coast were constantly rebelling and Zanzibari Somalia was one house in Mogadishu where their agent would trade with the Somali tribes. But Tanzania, and in particular the coastline of Tanzania, while still somewhat neglected was different. It was the heart of the Sultan's power. Even outside of his island capital of Zanzibar, he had two major cities on the continent, Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo and a few other nearby ports such as Tanga, Pangani and the islands of Kilwa and Pemba, all of which were mainly occupied by Swahili and Arabic speaking Zanzibari loyalists. This infrastructure was not up for sale and would all remain Zanzibari, what the Germans were buying was simply rights to the lands beyond that.

What that mostly was, outside of that coast, was a number of independent African polities with regular slaving and trading expeditions into those polities made by essentially independent Swahili Merchant Princes and Warlords who owned plantations in the area. These Warlords often fought each other and waged private wars against African chiefs but they sold their goods (slaves, spices and ivory) in Zanzibar and worked under the Zanzibari flag. The theory was that if this land was sold to Germany then those men would still bring their goods to Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo to sell and so Barghash wasn't really being asked to give up anything he actually controlled apart from a handful of forts and villages in the interior which protected the main ivory trade route.

The Germans were there largely at the behest of a man called Carl Peters, who had founded the 'Society for German Colonization' with the aim of pressuring the German government into taking their slice of Africa. He had first arrived in Zanzibar a year earlier, in 1884, and had signed a series of treaties with the interior polities on the caravan routes used by the Zanzibari traders. These treaties were empty even by the standards of the time, not only did the native leaders have no idea what they were signing but the German Government themselves had given Peters no backing and told him flatly that they would not uphold any agreement he made and that he should stay out of Africa.

Nonetheless, Peters returned to Berlin in late 1884 with a set of agreements and the backing of a number of German capitalists. He founded the German East Africa Company and went to Bismarck (during the conclusions of the Berlin Conference) asking for a government charter to operate a corporate colony. Which, crucially, Peters insisted would be self funding and require no money from the German government, though as ever with this promise, that didn't prove to be the case. To push the needle further, if Bismarck said no, Peters made it clear that he would be happy to make the same offer to Leopold of Belgium instead.

This is an interesting POD in itself. Peters probably would have been warmly received by the Belgian King had Bismarck refused him but the British and Zanzibari probably would have put up a much bigger fight against Leopold's intrusion as he lacked his own navy.

In OTL, however Bismarck gave Peters his backing. Peters immediately came back to East Africa and began provoking the Zanzibari, both by sending men to march up and down land that the Sultan claimed and by making private deals with Barghash's governors and rebellious subjects without paying a share to the Sultan, in particular buying land from Ahmed ibn Fumo Bakari of Witu, in Modern day Kenya. Barghash reacted by claiming that Bakari had no right to sell land that he only ran on Zanzibar's behalf and sent out his own army to reconquer the land in a display of power which he hoped would both scare off Peters and humble Bakari. Peters complained to Berlin and Bismarck, in turn, sent out the German Navy. Zanzibar is a small enough island that you can shoot at any part of it from the sea and the five German warships that arrived aimed their guns aimed squarely at the Palace. There they demanded that the Sultan not only recognised the purchase of Wituland but also cede all his land claims in what would become the interior of Tanganyika to Peters.

Barghash turned to help from the British diplomats who had been his allies and advisors for years and had helped put down rebellions against him when he had banned the export of slaves at their request. But they had been told by London to appease Germany in every way possible on this matter to avoid a confrontation and advised the Sultan that if he refused the German ultimatum they would not help him. Friendless, the Sultan had no choice to back down. Germany, Zanzibar and Britain would agree an 1886 treaty in which Zanzibar kept control of the Islands and a small strip on the coast (containing the Arab cities) while the rest, their paper empire which they had never exploited, would be divided between German and British companies. The problem was because Zanzibar kept their ports, the new land that Germany had gained had no coastal access and so the Company was soon losing money hand over fist. As the Germans were cut off from the global markets, it was clear that the colony had no future without a new deal, which Barghash was unwilling to make.

In 1888 however, Barghash died and the German East Africa Company were instead able to deal with his brother the new sultan, Khalifah bin Said, who was more tractable. The Company asked to lease the administration of the coastal cities from Zanzibar, as a way to link their new land to the maritime trade. In return they promised that they would pay rent to the Sultan and act only under his name and his flag, in the same way the Swahili merchant warlords did. The deal was agreed but was then ignored by the Germans in practice. Once invited into the port cities, the Germans tore down the Sultans flag and put up their own. They also insulted the local Arabs, set up a strict bureaucracy with large taxes and confiscated property that wasn't registered with them.

The residents of the mainland, who had often spent years refusing to pay tax to Zanzibar, were unwilling to cooperate with this new, harsher, administration, with the pagan tribes in the interior in particular furious at attempts to remove their ability to collect tolls. Within days 6,000 armed men marched from Usambara to Pangani to register their protest. The Germans reacted by blaming the Zanzibari officials for not properly cooperating with them, they arrested the Sultan's man at Pangani, smashed up his house and cut down the Zanzibari flag when attempts were made to re-hoist it. Khalifah, cowed by the German Navy, refused to respond to these insults but all that did was remove any sense of authority he had on the mainland. Less than a month after the new deal, there was a widespread armed rebellion against it.

Abushiri ibn Salim al-Harthi

The leader of the rebels was Abushiri ibn Salim al-Harthi, a wealthy merchant and slave-owning plantation owner whose father had been Omani and his mother Oromo. He had been an open rebel against Zanzibar for years and would treat these new overlords no differently. In September 1888, he held a meeting in his sugar plantation, there he gathered all of the notables in the region, whether Swahili, Arab or from the interior, whether rebel or loyal to Zanzibar and formed a coalition of them. This included the Pagans of Usambara as well as the Muslims of Dar es Salaam and freed slaves as well as slavers. It is a tribute to both the misrule of the German East Africa Company and the charisma of Abushiri that such a coalition was able to be formed so quickly, when so often in Africa disunity prevented it.

20,000 men were ultimately gathered with the aim of driving out the Germans and forming their own independent Empire. At first, this was an unstoppable force. There were barely any Germans outside the coast, and those that were were isolated and killed. German warships patrolled the coast, shelling coastal villages and protecting Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo from a direct attack, forcing the rebels to instead besiege both by digging trenches, but the interior belonged to Abushiri and any men the Navy dropped off were quickly killed.

The Sultan attempted to reach out to broker a peace, offering to retake control of the coastal cities from the Company if the rebels would give up their arms, but by that point Abushiri was in no mode to accept conciliation. He was instead thinking of what to do to ensure a long term victory. He had a number of problems, there was a growing split between Omani loyalists who wished to restore Zanzibari rule and those who wished to create a new African Empire. There were also still thousand of missionaries and British Indian traders operating in his new land and despite the fanatics in his army chanting 'Death to all Europeans', Abushiri was not willing to suffer the PR disaster of harming them. Instead he intervened personally to ensure that the missionaries were protected and could tell that story to their governments. The traders were less kindly treated but while, desperately short of cash, Abushiri claimed ransoms for a number of them, very few were killed. And, with trade cut off, lack of funds quickly became his biggest problem. Abushiri couldn't afford to buy either the food or ammunition he needed to keep his army intact and he didn't want them to just start looting the Empire he hoped to rule.

Despite these difficulties, the German East Africa Company had essentially lost the war, they had lost access to all their plantations and could no longer make money. It was not far off having to shut down. And it is not impossible at this point, for them to be allowed to do so at which point Abushiri could do the hard job of gaining recognition for his empire, reopening trade and breaking up his army. Instead however, the German Empire resolved to interfere to save their company and they asked the British to aid them in doing so.

The Omani cities in modern day Kenya, where the British had forces stationed as part of their agreement with Zanzibar, had not joined the rebellion. They could have done, the Omani city of Mombasa fizzled with discontent over the British presence there and their efforts to end the Arabic slave trade, but the British did their best to redress their grievances before violence started. Nonetheless the British agreed to help blockade the German coast, firmly cutting Abushiri off from new supplies of ammunition, in return for the Germans disowning Carl Peters, who had ambitions in Uganda. Peters, and his deal with the Bugandan King, would be entirely rejected by Bismarck with the navy given orders to arrest him, thus paving the way for British control over that country. Once Abushiri's rebellion was crushed, Peters would later be reconciled with Germany but he had already earned a reputation for gratuitous cruelty, and would be eventually be dishonourably discharged in 1897 for killing black servants after provoking multiple rebellions due to senseless massacres. We will come back to that in the next article, which is about how the German Empire was discussed in Germany.

In March 1889, the German expeditionary forces, mostly made up of African mercenaries, 600 from Sudan, 350 from the Zulu and 50 Somali alongside 80 Germans, arrived in German East Africa. They found Dar es Salaam and Bagamoyo both under siege but still holding thanks to the German Navy and so they were able to land in friendly ports.

Abushiri sent a peace offer to them saying that he would happily accept German over-lordship and fly the German flag if he was recognised as ruler of German East Africa. The Germans would be allowed to settle, trade and travel in the area and could collect customs from the coast but could have no armed presence at all and could not restrict the trade in firearms to Abushiri. This would have been an astounding capitulation and the Germans refused outright. Abushiri then sent a second, less public, offer that if they simply gave him 100,000 rupees and safe passage, he'd move to India and abandon his rebels entirely. This was also refused outright.

And the Germans were right to be confident. Their mostly African army was well armed and disciplined. Between May and July they defeated the rebels in a series of pitched battles that saw them driven out of the coast and into the interior. Abushiri regathered an army primarily made up of troops from the interior, the Hehe and Maviti, but was once again unable to stand up to the Germans in pitched combat and lost another major battle at Nyombo in October. He was captured and killed in November 1889.

The rebellion continued without him but the Germans were gaining everywhere. The Saadani, in particular, fought on as guerrillas from their mountain fortresses until finally bought to ground in April 1890, when their leaders surrendered to German rule. By June 1890, there were no rebels left in the field. But the Company, having had all their infrastructure destroyed, was not recoverable. The German Government bought them out and began running Tanganyika directly rather than through a capitalist middleman. The Sultan of Zanzibar, then Ali bin Said after Khalifah had died in February 1890, was also cut out, the rebellion had been the end of any influence he had outside his Island. The Swahili coast of Tanganyika, and cities like Pangani and Dar es Salaam finally became German entirely, without any fig leaf of joint control, as a result of the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty of July 1890. This saw the British officially enforce a protectorate over Zanzibar and its Kenyan Cities and so German Tanganyika was fully separated from the Sultan as a result, though Wituland, Peters' original purchase, was returned to Zanzibar as compensation and is now in Modern day Kenya.

Chief Mkwawa

As part of their new control the Germans sent forces deep into the interior, to subdue the interior nations, who had never bowed to any Omani Sultan but who had contributed troops to Abushiri's rebellion. The largest of these were the Hehe who were led by Mkwawa, and were veterans of the constant warfare between different peoples in the Tanzanian highlands as the slave and ivory trades heated up. Mkwawa had won his throne in a civil war against his rival Mwambambe and had quickly established the Hehe as the prominent force in the region, using stone forts and guns to conquer new land and raid far beyond that. They were rich thanks to the ivory trade, military powerful and unified under a popular leader and were on course to form a state fit to rival Abushiri's.

The Hehe had experienced fighting the Germans alongside Abushiri and they saw the Germans as an enemy that must be destroyed. In June 1891, a German patrol was sent to punish Hehe raiders and burned various villages in their path. The patrol was ambushed at Lugalo by Mkwawa and was almost entirely destroyed, the Germans lost 200 men, and had three cannons and 30 horses stolen from them. The German rear-guard managed to retreat but the Hehe set fire to the grass around them so they could not rescue their injured. Shortly afterwards the Hehe destroyed a commercial caravan travelling through the area.

The Germans simultaneously reached out to Mkwawa to agree a peace, which he refused to do despite multiple entreaties, and reinforced their neighbouring garrisons. They made no further attacks on Hehe land though, largely because they were busy elsewhere, launching around ten other campaigns to pacify the other interior polities, with the Hehe being left to last. In 1894, the Germans launched their first attack on the Hehe since Lugalo and won a hard fought battle at Kalenga, destroying the fort there and wiping out Mkwawa's weapon supplies. Mkwawa attempted to ambush the German column as it left, but this time his men were spotted early and the attack was driven off, though it nonetheless prevented the Germans from holding Kalenga, and allowed Mkwaka to rebuild his fort. The loss of weapons was however a big blow.

In 1896 the Germans were secure enough elsewhere in the colony to launch a full out assault on the Hehe, helped by the El Niño famine their lands were suffering from. Mkwana put up resistance for two years of brutal guerrilla warfare, killing hundreds of German soldiers in his trademark ambushes from the forested areas, until he was at last surrounded in 1898, when he killed himself and Hehe resistance ended.

Mkwana's skull was taken back to Germany. In 1918 it was demanded by the British as part of the Treaty of Versailles, in Article 246, so they could reconcile the Hehe to British rule in Tanganyika. The Germans didn't hand it over as they claimed they couldn't find it. The British did eventually find a skull in Bremen in 1956 that they claimed was Mkwana's and gave it to the Hehe, but opinions vary as to whether it genuinely was his.

The death of Mkwana marked the end of serious resistance to German Rule in Tanganyika for another seven years. They spent those seven years increasing government control and hunting down less powerful polities who refused to recognise their rule such as Senteu's Masaai nomads. The towns swelled in size, education and literary skyrocketed, new head taxes were demanded and collected often in the form of forced labour, peasant access to forests and communal hunting was prescribed and, above all, cotton was planted.

The desire for raw cotton to be produced in their colonies had been a huge part of German policy towards Africa as it was a product where German demand vastly outweighed its supply and self sufficiency in Cotton became a Government priority. From 1902 communal cotton fields were planted around the major towns in German East Africa and village men were required to come labour on it for very small compensation, where they were whipped by their overseers and during which time their family farms were neglected. Alongside this came a reservation of the forests for big game hunting which banned their use for forestry and hunting for food which was of such importance to the native Africans. The El Niño droughts had also not ended, meaning crop failure was common and the neglect of the family farms led to starvation. The Germans, primarily concerned by their deficit, pushed for more and more taxes and their Arab and Swahili administrators were routinely corrupt and charged even more then asked with the difference pocketed.

Fort Bagamoyo, c. 1891

Anger and resentment grew all over the colony. In the North, the spirit medium, Kinjikitile Ngwale, started preaching a revolutionary doctrine of unification to drive out the Germans and he handed out maji medicine which would turn bullets into water. His followers were poorly armed and trained but they believed in the maji and were committed to the cause of rebellion. As Selamani Mamba put it 'With the maji it is not war. We shall not die. We shall only kill." In July 1905 the rebels began ripping up and burning cotton fields. The Germans reacted by arresting Kinjikitile and hanging him for treason, but by that point it was too late. The rebellion spread throughout the region, with Germans killed and colonial infrastructure destroyed.

But the maji did not turn bullets into water. Whenever the Germans could bring their machine guns to bear against the rebels such as at Mahenge in October 1905, the rebels suffered horrific casualties. However their existence bought more and more rebels into the fight, including the Yao, the Ngoni (who were descendants of the veterans of Shaka's wars and fought Zulu style) and the Sufi Muslims. The Maji Maji rebellion is remembered in modern Tanzania as the beginning on the unification of the country, the first moment where everyone within it fought together in one cause. That's an exaggeration, not every people rose up, the Hehe didn't, and there were many who still collaborated with the Germans, sometimes eagerly, but this was the biggest threat to German rule since the death of Abushiri. Especially since in 1905, most of their forces were tied up in South West Africa where they were genociding the Herero and Nama.

Only 200 reinforcements could be spared by Berlin, leaving the Germans with only around 500 troops. Adolf Graf von Götzen, decided that victory could not be obtained by the bullet, he simply lacked the men to do so, it must be obtained by hunger. His plan was to scorch the earth and create a famine that would bring about a final submission, though he was prepared to be lenient to those who surrendered, as long as they gave up their weapons and their leaders and spirit mediums to be executed. The 500 men, alongside local recruits, formed three columns protected by their machine guns which the rebels, now they knew the bullets would not become water, had learned to avoid.

They acted in a brutal mockery of the rebels months earlier, where the rebels had uprooted and burned cotton fields, the Germans did the same for crops. As Götzen had predicted, the hunger ended the rebellion. By June 1906, all of the rebel leaders had been hung and the districts were at peace again. But it was the peace of the dead. After years of increasing taxes and poor rainfall, there simply wasn't any surplus food. As a result of burning the fields, the people of the rebel districts didn't just hunger, they starved.

The famine killed more than ten times the number of armed rebels, the exact figure is somewhere between 250,00 and 300,000. Götzen's burning of crops probably resulted in more deaths than the systematic destruction of the Herero and Nama in concentration camps did. Districts were reduced in population by a half or three quarters and forests grew over the maize fields and cotton plots. Areas that had once been teeming with people, became game parks full of animals instead.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, there were some attempts to reform and improve native conditions. New laws allowed Africans to grow cash crops of their own and reduced their requirements to labour on communal fields where they saw none of the profit. But crucially the peasants were still locked out of the forests and the final decades of German rule were marked by an increasing fight for those areas which were now centre of illegal hunting, lumberjacking and smuggling with arson also being increasingly common as a form or protest.

WWI started in 1914, less than a decade after the rebellion, and saw intense warfare between Germany and the UK, Belgium and Portugal in East Africa as the entente forces tried to capture German East Africa. The German forces under Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck fought a brilliant but brutal guerrilla campaign against them and was never actually defeated. Lettow-Vorbeck's campaign was hugely successful at tying up allied forces but was utterly devastating to the civilians of the region. He conscripted up to a million porters, most of whom died and he extorted supplies from civilians to establish food depots leaving the native villages without either food or manpower. And to deny resources for the invading armies he, much like Götzen, burned the crop fields in areas he retreated from.

The invading army under General Jan Smuts, resolved in equal part to go after Lettow-Vorbeck's food supply by burning crops the Germans might use. Both armies scorched the earth to make it harder for the other. As a result of the campaign, and poor rains in 1917, hundreds of thousands of Africans starved and hundreds of thousands more died when Spanish Flu hit the already devastated area.

The Earth had been well truly scorched, twice in a decade.

So can this all turn out differently? It is difficult to see the Maji Maji rebellion ever succeeding or for that matter the Hehe ever managing to drive out the Germans. Abushiri came a lot closer, though an owner of slave plantations is unlikely to be hugely humane himself, but the intervention of the German government did for him. Possibly the best bet for avoiding the German conquest and resulting famines is for Abushiri to agree to surrender to the Sultan of Zanzibar and have the Zanzibari retake the Tanzanian coast, while the German East Africa Company goes bust in a much less dramatic way or for no German East Africa Company to form at all but then that almost certainly ends up with the British taking over, which might result in similar consequences. Certainly Rhodesia, which bordered German East Africa, was equally brutal and, with no Germans blocking his way, Cecil Rhodes would push for a route through Tanzania to get his Cape-Cairo route.

Peters selling his claims to Leopold might, counter-intuitively given the crimes of the Free State, actually lead to a better fate for the Swahili if the lack of a Free State Navy and so no ability to come from the west, means the coastal cities remain with Zanzibar but that leaves the Hehe and their fellow interior nations at the tender mercies of the Force Publique. And, as I have discussed previously, Zanzibar was something of a ticking time bomb, due to it being run by a small minority of Arab slavers outnumbered by Black slaves and at the mercy of the British abolitionists who were their effective rulers, so a larger Zanzibar doesn't automatically mean a better fate either.


Gary Oswald is the editor of the 'Grapeshot and Guillotines' and 'Emerald Isles' Anthologies.


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