The Maji Maji Rebellion

Pre-Rebellion Conditions

The first interest for Germany in establishing a colony in East Africa came from Carl Peters who came to East Africa in 1884. With the backing of the German East African Company, they set up protectorates in the area through ‘treaties’ made with headman. The trading company was forced out by the native peoples and replaced by an army force led by Hermann von Wissmann, which assumed administrative control on January 1, 1891. Resistance early in the German colony was difficult due to lack of coordination between the tribes in the area.[1] This did not mean that the people of Tanganyika accepted the German rule. The Matumbi people felt like they were allowing the Europeans into their country, and because of that they should be the ones paying the people of Tanganyika. They consistently rejected things such as taxation believing that they did not have any debt owed to the Germans and that “we, who have for so long been used to govern ourselves, find laws of these Germans very hard, especially the taxes because we black people have not money, our wealth consists of millet, maize, oil, and groundnuts.”[2] Similarly, forced labor was another source of significant suffering under colonial rule. Cotton had become an important cash crop for Europeans, but for the people of Tanganyika it was not any way profitable as they were not compensated for their work and were tortured through whippings. They believed that it would be better to die than to suffer under the horrible conditions they were living under while cultivating and harvesting cotton for the Germans. [3]

A second reason for the Maji Maji uprising was because the Europeans had placed Arabs from other countries in the position of akidas, or native Africans or Arabs who were chosen as district administrators, who had some level of control over the people and “they began to seize people and reduce them to slavery; in fact they practiced complete fraud and extortion and tortured them unjustly. “[4] In 1904 the prophet Kinjikitile arose. Through Njqiywila, or secret communication, they were able to spread messages through the different tribes. The message that was sent by the prophet was meant to unify the tribes and included communications such as “This is a year of was, for there is a man at Ngarambe who has been possessed—he has Lilungu, Why? Because we are suffering like this and because…we are oppressed by the akidas. We work without payment. There is an expert in Ngarambe to help us. How? There is Jumbe Hongo!”  [5] The expert that they talked about was a medicine man who was gifted in Usinga medicine. Upon word of a magic medicine, people began traveling to this location in 1905. The medicine was believed to provide many benefits in terms of health and a good harvest. It was also trusted to “give invulnerability, acting in such a way that enemy bullets would fall from their targets like rain drops from a greased body.” [5]  Kinjikitile had prepared the people for war, but had instructed them to wait for his signal for the uprisings to begin. However, the Matumbi people grew tired of enduring the injustices of their “leaders” while they waited for the start of the rebellion. They took matters into their own hands and incited anger from the Germans by uprooting cotton, establishing themselves as the main group of people taking part in this rebellion. And so the war began. [6]

In debates summarized by John Iliffe (1967) the question comes up as to how the people of Tanganyika were able to organize for their uprising. Iliffe argues that it was possible that they were able to do this through prior political and cultural groupings and that alliances were formed as they had been in the past when faced with emergencies. Other scholars have argued that Tanganyikans organized based on their “sense of common grievance arising from the economic pressures of German rule.”[7] Finally, the aspect of religion was said to be a motivating force within the organization for the rebellion. From the discussion they came to the conclusion that organization may have started from a religious front with the use of the magic medicine and prophets. However, this was not enough to sustain the rebellion, which had to move more toward tribal organization. The unity that was once established by the religious connection was severed resulting in the movement losing some of its revolutionary character as they were no longer fighting as a collective unit. This weakened Tanganyikans in the face of European resistance as was seen through the rebellion.[8]


[1] Iliffe, John. Tanganyika under German Rule: 1905-1912. Nairobi: East African Publ. House, 1969. Print.
[2] Agnes Achitinao to Rev. C. C, Child, 14 March 1899 in Records of the Maji Maji Rising: Part One
[3] Gwassa, G. C. K., G. C. K. Gwassa, and John Iliffe. Records of the Maji Maji Rising: Part One. Nairobi: East African House, 1968. Print. (7)
[4] Mzee Ambrose Ngombale Mwiru of Kipatimu, interviewed 8 Aug. 1967. in Records of the Maji Maji Rising: Part One
[5] Mzee Mdundule Mangaya of Kipatimu, interviewed 7 Aug. 1967. in Records of the Maji Maji Rising: Part One
[6] Bw. Also Abdallah Kapungu of Kibata, interviewed 23 Aug. 1967. in Records of the Maji Maji Rising: Part One
[7] Iliffe, John. 1967. “The Organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion”. The Journal of African History 8 (3). Cambridge University Press: 495–512. (495)
[8] Iliffe, John. 1967. “The Organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion”. The Journal of African History 8 (3). Cambridge University Press: 495–512. (510)


The Maji Maji Rebellion

In late July 1905, The Matumbi people decided to declare war on the Germans by destroying a symbol of their oppression under German rule, the cotton plant. [9]  Armed with spears and arrows, on the 31st of July, 1905, Matumbi tribesmen marched on Samanga destroying the cotton crop and a trading post.  In the aftermath of the attack, on August 4th, Kinjikitle was hung for treason.  However, prior to his death Kinjikitle declared that the key to Tanganyika victory, the medicine that promised to turn German bullets into water, had spread as far as Kilosa and Mahenge. [10] After his death, on the 14th of August 1905, tribesmen attacked a small party of missionaries on a safari, spearing the missionaries to death.[11] One of the men killed was Catholic Bishop Caspian Spiss. The next day, one hundred miles away, rebels captured a German post at Liwale[12]. As Kinjikitle had promised before his death, news of and support for the rebellion spread across the territory. Rebels came together despite differences in culture and language to oppose German colonialism.[13] Throughout August the rebels attacked German garrisons throughout the colony, however they were unsuccessful in causing a large number of fatalities.  

The common thread in many of the revolts, was the role of the maji; Kinjikitle’s medicine that promised to turn German bullets to water. [14]  This medicine was put to the test on August 25th, when several thousand warriors marched on the German cantonment at Mahenge, which was defended by Lieutenant von Hassel.  The two attacking tribes disagreed on when to attack, and this resulted in native casualties as the first attack was met with gunfire.  Furthermore, the killing of individuals in possession of the maji began to influence the masses that the maji was not able to protect them, as it was promised to do. [15]

In October, the German government sent 1,000 soldiers to the territory to quell the rebellion.  Bound for the Ngoni camp, the troops were to be utilized in the South to reinstate the German power structure.  Heavily armed, the German soldiers purposefully eradicated the rebels food sources, so as to weaken their men.  While not an initial tactic,  the famine following the Maji Maji Rebellion was orchestrated deliberately by German forces.  “In my view”, Wangenheim reported on 22 October, “only hunger and want can bring about final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean.”[16]  Fighting finally subsided two years later in 1907, when German soldiers suppressed the last of the Maji Maji rebellion.  While the death toll is a tangible expression of the loss suffered, the broken spirit of the natives was unquantifiable.  Due to no fault of their own, the people of Tanganyika, fell victim to modern weaponry and the sheer numbers of the German forces.      

[11] Iliffe, 172
[12] Giblin, J., Monson, J. Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War.  Brill, 2010. 6.
[13]Giblin, 8
[14] Iliffe, 177
[15]  Iliffe, 178

Post-Rebellion Conditions

The areas affected by the Maji Maji Rebellion were utterly destroyed in the aftermath of the war.Southern Usagara was described as wholly unpopulated. [17] Uvidunda lost half of its total population. [17] A missionary estimated that over three-quarters of the Pwanga died in the war. [1] The total amount of African revolutionary deaths was ambiguous in the aftermath of the war.  Anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000 Africans, or about one third of the area’s total population, perished throughout the course of the war. [17]

        This sad reality can be attributed to the fact that the German military’s institutional preference was to win the war with “total, unlimited force.” [18] The German military’s tendency to “gravitate towards final solutions,” rather than continue with lesser, more diplomatic operations was firmly ingrained in the psyche of the military’s hierarchy. [18] This meant that the rather than deal with the rebellion in a peaceful and diplomatic way, the Germans preferred the destruction of their African territory. The harmful racist ideologies that the Germans, and other European colonizers, possessed were more of a result of imperialism than a cause of it. [18] The heinous and brutal imperial practices that the Germans undertook to exploit resources from German East Africa developed the racist ideologies that justified the German Reich’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Africans, along with the post-war exploitation of the war’s survivors. [18] This was the root of the German troops’ “spiral of revenge” that they practiced during imperial rule. [18] Three factors encouraged this spiral of revenge: 1.) the difficulty and frustrations of colonial warfare made worse by structural deficits in planning and administration, 2.) the enemy’s strange or “exotic” fighting practices, and 3.) the difficulties distinguishing civilians from warriors in guerilla wars. [18]

        Along with that, there were no outside factors at the time to stop German atrocities on the rebelling regions of German East Africa during and after the war. [18] International law was widely thought of as inapplicable to a group of people that the western world believed were “expendable.” [18] Additionally, observers who did not hold these imperialistic, racist notions were largely absent, and, as a result, could not check the unrestrained violence the Germans committed on the Africans they subjugated prior to and in the aftermath of the Maji Maji Rebellion. [18]

        This culminated in not only the absolute wipeout of certain parts of the rebellion, but also continued imperialist racism in the years after the war. The atrocities committed by the Germans would continue well into the 20th century. [19]

        A famine swept across the Tanganyikan lands, proving the most costly in Ungoni and highland areas. [20] This famine was spurred on through institutional racism spearheaded by unremorseful officers of the German Army. For instance, Captain Richter, who administered Songea in the aftermath of the rebellion, who “prevented cultivation and appropriated all food for his troops” was quoted saying: “The fellows can just starve.” [20] This, too, was the result of imperialistic notions of African inferiority.

        After the war, local power was primarily bestowed upon those loyal to the Germans during the rebellion. Kalimoto, prior the war an irrelevant sub-chief who, during the war, betrayed the Mbunga rebellion, became a leading chief of Umbunga and married the sister of Mlolere, the leading the most prominent Pogoro loyalist. [20]  The Hehe, loyal to the Germans, regained control of Usagara and parts of the Usangu and the Ulanga Valley. [20]

        Most tragically, the survivors saw their old lands overtaken by forest and wildlife. [20] Elephants entered Matumbi for the first time in living memory. [20] [These wild animals brought disease with them, contributing, along with famine, to many deaths. In Ungindo, the British came to create the largest game park in the world. [20] Not only did the people of southern Tanganyika lose their battle to regain independence, but they lost their long, millennia old battle with nature in the process. [20]

[17] Iliffe, John. A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979. Print.
[18] Gellately, Robert, and Ben Kiernan. The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. Print.
[19]] Gwassa, G. C. K., G. C. K. Gwassa, and John Iliffe. Records of the Maji Maji Rising: Part One. Nairobi: East African House, 1968. Print.
[20]] Iliffe, John. A Modern History of Tanganyika. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1979. Print.