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Maji Maji Rebellion - 1905-1907

One major military action in German East Africa was the uprising known as the Maji Maji Rebellion. Again the harsh rule of the Germans was the cause of the trouble. Workers in the southern part of the colony, mostly work gangs of forced laborers, were encouraged by religious leaders to revolt. Distributing a liquid concoction that supposedly had magic qualities, the leaders convinced the rebels that drinking the magic liquid would protect them from enemies and even turn German bullets into water.

In 1888 the Sultan of Zanzibar ceded his possessions on the mainland (reduced already to a narrow strip along the coast) for an annual rental. This agreement was frustrated in practice, however, by an outbreak among the Coast Arabs; Germany lacked sufficient forces in the colony to put down the rebels, and they speedily made themselves masters of all but two of the seacoast towns.

Early in 1889 the company applied for aid to the Government of Germany, received the assistance of a military force, and put down the rebellion within the year. The Sultan of Zanzibar gave up all claim to his mainland possessions for the sum of $952,000, and on Jan. 1, 1891, the colony came definitely under the control of the German Government. Native uprisings in 1905 were followed by investigation and reform of the treatment of the natives.

In 1905 the Wamwera and Wangoni in the south-eastern and southern parts of the colony rose in arms. Driven to desperation, they had, in their extremity, found two capable and intrepid leaders. Seliman Mamba, head of the Wamwera, was, as his name suggests, a Mussulman, and his followers, racially related to the Swahili, were partly of that faith. The Germans, very ill-advisedly for themselves, had by this time formed the opinion that Mohammedanism and the labour trouble were linked together, and, though its upholders in Turkey, had shown themselves hostile to that faith. Their action blew the smouldering discontent into a flame. Shabruma, the leader of the Wangoni, was, like his tribe, of Bantu origin. His tacties were those of guerilla warfare, and he carried them out with great skill.

The uprising took place among a congeries of peoples, diverse in some respects, similar in others. Except for the Ngoni of the Songea area at the periphery of the region involved, most groups were matrilineal and politically fragmented. a situation that had been exacerbated by the depredations of the Yao and Ngoni slave raiders. A good deal of mixing had taken place, however, and most groups were able to communicate with one another directly or through a third party. Moreover their religious beliefs were similar in many respects.

Those beliefs were combined in a new way by a man named Kinjikitile who was not only a doctor (mganga), that is, a specialist in dealing with illness and witches, but was also believed to have been possessed by a spirit representing a major divinity.

The Swahili word for water, "maji", became the rallying cry of the workers-turned-warriors. The reason, it was said, for this desperation was the propagation among the revolted natives of the legend that according to a divine revelation every man who drank of the hot springs at Kimembara would become endowed with strength and courage enough to drive the Germans into the sea, and at the same time invulnerable to their bullets. On that account they called themselves the Majimaji, or "Magicwater men."

The importance of water had long been associated with that divinity, although it had not been used as protective medicine. There was, however, a widespread belief in the efficacy of various war and hunting medicines, each restricted to a specific group. Kinjikitile persuaded the people that the maji had universal applicability.

His emphasis on the universality of the maji was consistent with his teachings that all Africans were one, one of the major elements in his ideology. Beyond that, as the historian G.C.K.Dwassa summarizes it, Kinjikitile argued that Africans "... were free men, and that those who partook of the mail (water) would be immune from European bullets. The dead ancestors would assist them in a war which had been commanded by God."

The development of such an ideology was essential to the rising. Despite their sense of oppression and their desire to throw off the German yoke, it is unlikely that so politically fragmented a people would have been ready to undertake a rebellion unless they had assurance, consistent with their understanding of the nature of the world, that they had some chance of success.

The storm broke to all intents without warning. Before the German authorities could act, plantations, posts, and stations in this part of the country were swept over and destroyed. And the war, which lasted for more than a year, proved a very desperate business. From August until October of 1905 the rebels held sway in the southern part of the colony wreaking vengeance on all foreigners including missionaries.

The Wamwera fought with extraordinary valour, time and again, in one bitter battle after another, charging up to the machine-guns within spear's length, and stabbing the gunners. Nothing, in fact, but the mechanical superiority of their arms saved the Germans and their native auxiliaries.

In fact they had very little chance of success. The absence of political cohesion among the Africans of the southeastern quadrant made it difficult to organize and time the rising in various places, despite Kinjikitile's use of ambassadors. Moreover Kinjikitile, although a charismatic religious leader, was not himself an organizer. In any case he had no opportunity to exercise command after the first signs of rebellion broke out in July 1905 without his authorization. He was caught and hanged in August 1905.

The rebellion continued and spread. All Europeans, Arabs, and Swahili were attacked by warriors. Missionary establishments were destroyed and a Roman Catholic bishop killed. New forces were brought in by the Germans. and by the end of 1906 they controlled most of the important settlements in the area. The Ngoni of Songea continued to resist until 1907.

The suppression of the revolt was vigorously and brutally carried out. The rebel villages were burned and their harvests destroyed. The official German count of Africans killed was 26,000, but the destruction of the harvests and the otherwise difficult conditions under which the Africans lived probably means that thousands more died of hunger and sickness.

After the arrival of fresh troops from Germany, the tide of battle turned. Employing Sudanese and Zulu mercenaries, the Germans spent more than a year stamping out all vestiges of rebellion and punish¬ing the errant groups. About 120,000 lives were lost in the abortive attempt to overthrow the German colonial regime.

For the suppression of the German East African rebellion in 1905, the existence of the Uganda Railway proved also of great assistance. When riots broke out near Bukoba and Muansa, a naval detachment used this quick conveyance, and so, in a very short time, were enabled to restore order.




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Page last modified: 19-05-2015 20:17:10 ZULU