Maji Maji Rebellion
|History of Tanzania|
This article is part of a series
|History of Zanzibar|
|Scramble for Africa|
|Maji Maji Rebellion|
|East African Campaign|
|British East Africa|
The Maji Maji Rebellion, sometimes called the Maji Maji War, was a violent African resistance to colonial rule in the German colony of Tanganyika, an uprising by several African indigenous communities in German East Africa against the German rule in response to a German policy designed to force African peoples to grow cotton for export, lasting from 1905 to 1907.
After the Scramble for Africa among the major European powers in the 1880s, Germany had reinforced its hold on several formal African colonies. These were German East Africa (now Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique), German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), Cameroon, and Togoland (today split between Ghana and Togo). The Germans had a relatively weak hold on German East Africa, but they did maintain a system of forts throughout the interior of the territory and were able to exert some control over it. Since their hold on the colony was weak, they resorted to using violently repressive tactics to control the population.
Germany began levying head taxes in 1898, and relied heavily on forced labor to build roads and accomplish various other tasks. In 1902, the governor also ordered villages to grow cotton as a cash crop. Each village was charged with producing a common plot of cotton. The Headmen of the village were left in charge of overseeing the production; a position that left them vulnerable to criticism and rage from the population. The use of regular villagers, who had other things to do, to produce cotton was extremely unpopular across Tanzania. In many places the villagers simply refused to work the land, or refused payment.
These German policies were not only unpopular, they also had serious effects on the lives of Africans. The social fabric of society was being changed rapidly. The social roles of men and women were being changed to face the needs of the communities. Since men were forced away from their homes to work, women were forced to assume some of the traditional male roles. Not only that, but the fact that men were away strained the resources of the village and the peoples– ability to deal with their environment and remain self sufficient. These effects created a lot of animosity against the government at this period. In 1905, a drought threatened the region. This, combined with opposition to the government's agricultural and labor policies, led to open rebellion against the Germans in July.
The insurgents turned to magic to drive out the German colonizers and used it as a unifying force in the rebellion. A spirit medium named Kinjikitile Ngwale claimed to be possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo. Ngwale began calling himself Bokero and developed a belief that the people of German East Africa had been called upon to eliminate the Germans. German anthropologists recorded that he gave his followers war medicine that would turn German bullets into water. This "war medicine" was in fact water (maji in Swahili) mixed with castor oil and millet seeds. Empowered with this new liquid, Bokero's followers began what would become known as the Maji Maji Rebellion.
The followers of Bokero's movement were poorly armed with cap guns, spears, and arrows, sometimes poisoned. However, they were numerous and believed that they could not be harmed because the German's bullets would turn to water. They marched from their villages wearing millet stalks around their foreheads. Initially they attacked small outposts and damaged cotton plants. On July 31, 1905, Matumbi tribesmen marched on Samanga and destroyed the cotton crop as well as a trading post. Kinjikitile was arrested and hanged for treason. Before his execution, he declared that he had spread the medicine of the rebellion throughout the region. On August 14, 1905, Ngindo tribesmen attacked a small party of missionaries on a safari; all five, including Bishop Spiss (the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dar es Salaam) were speared to death.
Throughout August, the rebels moved from the Matumbi Hills in the southern part of what is now Tanzania and attacked German garrisons throughout the colony. The attack on Ifakara, on August 16, destroyed the small German garrison and opened the way to the key fortification at Mahenge. Though the southern garrison was quite small (there were but 458 European and 588 local soldiers in the entire area), their fortifications and modern weapons gave them an advantage. At Mahenge, several thousand Maji Maji warriors (led by another spirit medium, not Bokero) marched on the German cantonment, which was defended by Lieutenant von Hassel with sixty African soldiers, a few hundred loyal tribesmen, and two machine guns. The two attacking tribes disagreed on when to attack and were unable to cordinate. The first attack was met with gunfire from 1000 meters, and after the tribesmen had stood firm for about a quarter hour they broke and retreated. After the first attack, a second column of 1,200 men advanced from the east. Some of these attackers were able to get within three paces of the firing line before they were killed.
While this was the apex of the uprising, the Ngoni people decided to join in the revolt with a force of 5,000. The Muslim Gwangara Ngoni were relatively recent arrivals in the region, descendants of a remnant of the Ndwandwe confederation defeated by the Zulu in 1818 (other Ngoni states were formed in Malawi, Zambia, and north-central Tanzania). German troops, armed with machine guns, departed from Mahenge to the Ngoni camp, which they attacked on October 21. The Ngoni soldiers retreated, throwing away their bottles of war medicine and crying, "The maji is a lie!" Upon the outbreak of the fighting, Count Gustav Adolf von Gtzen, governor of East Africa, had requested reinforcements from the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm immediately ordered two cruisers with their Marine complements to the troubled colony. Reinforcements also arrived from as far away as New Guinea. When 1,000 regular soldiers from Germany arrived in October, Gtzen felt he could go on the offensive and restore order in the south.
Three columns moved into the rebellious South. They destroyed villages, crops, and other food sources used by the rebels. They made effective use of their firepower to break up any attacks the rebels might launch. A successful ambush of a German column crossing the Rufiji River by the Bena kept the rebellion alive in the southwest, but the Germans were not to be denied for long. By April 1906, the southwest had been pacified. However, elsewhere the fighting was bitter. A column under Lt. Gustav von Blumenthal (1879–1913, buried at Lindi) consisting of himself, one other European and 46 Askaris fell under continuous attack as it marched in early May, 1906, from Songea to Mahenge. The Germans decided to concentrate at Kitanda, where Major Johannes, Lt. von Blumenthal and Lt. von Lindeiner eventually gathered. Lt. von Blumenthal was then sent along the Luwegu River, partly by boat. The southeast campaign degenerated into a nasty guerrilla war that brought with it a devastating famine.
The famine following the Maji Maji Rebellion was partly planned. Von Gtzen was willing to pardon the common soldiers as long as they gave up their weapons, leaders and witch doctors. However, he also needed to flush out the remaining rebels and famine was the chosen weapon. In 1905 one of the leaders of German troops in the colony, Captain Wangenheim, wrote to von Gtzen, "Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean."
Not until August, 1907, were the last embers of rebellion extinguished. In its wake, the Maji-Maji rebellion left 15 Europeans and 389 African soldiers and between 200,000 and 300,000 insurgents dead. It also broke the spirit of the people to resist and the colony remained calm, thanks also to a change of governors which brought a more enlightened regime, until the outbreak of World War I. Lions in the area developed a taste for human flesh in the wake of the slaughter and the Songea region is still plagued by man-eaters.
The Maji Maji uprising was the greatest challenge to German colonial rule in Africa. Its suppression changed the history of southern Tanzania. Tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people died or were displaced from their homes. In the wake of the war, the imperial government instituted administrative reforms so that, by the outbreak of the First World War, Tanganyika could be said to be among the better-administered European colonies in Africa. The rebellion became a focal point in the history of the region. Later Tanzanian nationalists used it as an example of the first stirrings of Tanzanian nationalism, a unifying experience that brought together all the different peoples of Tanzania under one leader in an attempt to establish a nation free from foreign domination.
Later historians have challenged this view, claiming that the rebellion cannot be seen as a unified movement, but rather a series of revolts conducted for a wide range of reasons, including religion. The Muslim Ngoni chiefs were offered Christian baptism before execution. Many people in the area itself saw the revolt as one part of a longer series of wars continuing since long before the arrival of Germans in the region. They cite the alliance of some groups with the Germans in order to further their own agendas at the time. Today, the area in Tanzania where the Maji Maji war took place is one of the largest wildlife reserves in Africa. Kinjikitile "Bokero" Ngwale is revered as a hero by the people of Tanzania.
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