How Africans held off German colonialists with spears and arrows for two years during the Maji Maji rebellion

Nii Ntreh October 23, 2019
The warriors of Tanganyika. Photo Credit:

A surprisingly powerful yet false narrative that supports white supremacy is that black people have never or rarely fought back against violent invasions by whites.

These claims of docility go far back to the pseudoscientific adventure of scientific racism of European enlightenment. Unfortunately, it is not hard to see black people parroting these talking points as did Kanye West in 2018.

The Maji Maji rebellion in the early 20th century should be one of the points of education for white and black people. The rebellion was a push back against German colonial rule in East Africa.

At the so-called Partitioning of Africa at the Berlin Conference in 1884, Europeans arrogated the right to divide sub-Saharan African lands among themselves.

African lands and resources were supposed to be the panacea to European economic and political problems. Great Britain, for instance at that time, had a growing deficit in the balance of trade.

The area of Tanganyika or modern-day Tanzania was entrusted to Germany. This was in addition to the areas that are now Rwanda and Burundi.

Immediately, the Germans set to work plundering. Over the course of their occupation, the Germans forced the locals to cultivate over 100,000 acres of sisal for European factories.

There were over two million coffee trees and over 200,000 rubber trees too. From East African lands, Germany profited immensely via the threat of their guns.

Tanganyika proved a successful commercial project for the Germans, thus, they felt they had to explore other crops to grow. They decided on cotton in 1905.

This was the immediate cause of the Maji Maji rebellion as tribesmen and women insisted they were not going to further kowtow to the Germans.

German commercial interests had hurt their way of life apart from dispossessing them of their lands. German colonisation also came with the undignified treatment of the locals.

The chief mastermind of German occupation in Africa, Karl Peters, was referred to by the locals in Tanganyika as “Mikono wa Damu”, meaning “Man with Blood on his Hands”.

Hence, fighting against an order to grow cotton was the proverbial last stand for the locals.

The locals, set in their faith, turned to a charismatic spiritualist, Kinjeketile Ngwale. People from different towns and tribes came together to fight the Germans, united by their hope of self-determination.

Ngwale, to help out the people of Tanganyika against the Germans, gave them ‘holy water’ called “maji ya uzima” (water of life). The war gets its name from “maji”, Kiswahili for “water”.

The people believed the water made them invincible. Once applied to the body, the bullets from the enemy would drop off without harming them. Another legend says the water had the power to “turn bullets into water”.

There were, however, guidelines from Ngwale. The people were to wait for his signal for the uprising to start. However, they became too impatient and decided to revolt in their own way: uprooting cotton.

Powered by this “weapon”, the different tribes conducted attacks in various towns, burning houses and killing government officials and business people.

The Germans fought back with their guns but the sheer numbers of the locals overwhelmed the colonialists. For close to a year, the German authority in East Africa were not finding headway against the people of Tanganyika.

But this also gave a false basis of belief in the “holy water” the locals had secured from Ngwale. However, the war began to turn, it brought a realisation of the truth.

Gustaf Adolf von Guten, German East African governor, got a reinforcement of over 1,000 soldiers. A little beyond the first year of the war, the writing was on the wall.

By 1907, the people of Tanganyika had been defeated. Some of the different tribes that joined the rebellion coalition were actually pacified by the colonial authorities into laying down their arms.

They thought they had been fighting with spiritual help but the locals had been pushing back against the Germans all by their simple human selves and their spears.

A belief in something outside of themselves had spurred them on, anyway.

But it would seem this is a story of all Africans and people of African descent. Reclaiming our own is a matter of self-belief and the lessons of Maji Maji should serve us well.

Last Edited by:Kent Mensah Updated: October 23, 2019


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