German East Africa

By James B. MacDonald

[The American Review of Reviews, August 1916]

Cut off from the world for nearly two years and assailed on all sides by enemies, the Germans in East Africa have made a gallant fight. They are defending a country almost-twice the size of Germany, itself, densely populated by natives who only a few years ago tried to drive them into the sea. Out of this unpromising material they have drilled and armed a large native army.

The war opened with British cruisers bombarding the wireless station and government buildings at Dar-es-Salaam. A German cruiser returned the call, and sank a small British war vessel dismantled in Zanzibar harbor. Some skirmishing on land took place on the northern frontier. Troops from the German military station at Moshi occupied Tayeta, and held it until recently. They also threatened Mombasa, the seaport and terminus of the British Uganda Railway; and, to hold them in check, Indian troops were sent from Egypt. So matters remained on this front all during 1915.

The British, having no troops available for an invasion, had to content themselves with declaring a blockade of the whole coast. In July of that year their monitors destroyed the German cruiser Königsberg, which had taken refuge up the Rufiji River, but her guns and crew had previously been removed to assist in the defense of the colony.

During the same month, a German force invaded Nyassaland—a British crown colony sparsely populated by missionaries and coffee planters—and militia had to be sent from South Africa to repel them.

On Lake Tanganyika two German gunboats dominated the shipping, and were facetiously known as the "Dreadnoughts of the Lake." To combat them the British shipped two armed motorboats from England and railed them over the South African and Rhodesian railways to the point furthest north from whence they were transshipped on traction wagons 166 miles through the wilds of northern Rhodesia until they reached the Lualaba River. Here they were commissioned and taken over by twenty-eight officers and men sent by the Admiralty. On Christmas last, they ran their trial trip on the lake, and next day one of the German gunboats got a shock when she met them unexpectedly without her escort. Some weeks later, the adventurers chased and sank the other!


On March 9 of the present year, Germany declared war on Portugal, and the colony of Mozambique immediately became a party to the war in Africa. The Portuguese promptly seized Kionga, on the coast, and the strip of land on the south side of the Rovuma River, which the Germans had dispossessed them of in 1894. This front, however, is inconvenient to both combatants, besides being inhabited by unconquered natives hostile to all white men.

Meanwhile, the Belgians and the British had organized simultaneous invasions from the north, west, and south. On the southern front, between Lake Tanganyika and Lake Nyassa, a force of Rhodesians and Transvaalers under Brigadier-General Northey entered the German colony and captured Neu Langenberg, with large quantities of ammunition and stores. Afterwards the important town of Bismarckburg, at the foot of Lake Tanganyika, was occupied.

The Belgians entered the province of Ruanda in two columns, under the command of General Tombeur, from either end of Lake Kivu and supported by their gunboats. After several skirmishes, the German forces retreated in the direction of Lake Victoria Nyanza before the converging columns. The Belgians have since occupied Kigali, the principal town in the province.


The main advance, however, has come from the north—from British East Africa, where a composite force of some 25,000 British, Colonial, and Indian troops was brought together under the command of General Jan Christian Smuts. Fifteen years ago, General Smuts headed a Boer commando in a raid through Cape Colony, and last year led the southern army through German West Africa. He has had a wonderful career. Educated in Cape Colony, he passed through Cambridge University in England and qualified as a barrister in London.

At twenty-eight years of age he was attorney-general of the Transvaal Republic under President Kruger and took a prominent part during those historic times. Since Louis Botha became Premier of the Transvaal, and afterwards of South Africa, Smuts has been the minister to whom was assigned, as a matter of course, the most difficult and contentious portfolio, and on one occasion he assumed three simultaneously. Botha without Smuts would be greatly handicapped; yet the latter has not the complete confidence of his own people, although both they and the British element recognize that he is the ablest statesman in the country. He is a clever man, born in South Africa in the wrong generation. In any other country, he would have made his mark even more quickly.

On assuming command at Nairobi, the first move of General Smuts was to push a reconnaissance in force towards the southeast slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, to test the strength of the German position. Finding them in force there, he dispatched mounted and other troops with motor transports, machine guns, and a mountain battery, under Major-General Stewart, through Longido, to encircle the northern end of the mountain and attack Moshi from the west while he drove at it in a frontal attack. The Germans made a good fight in the dense woods, where artillery and bombs were useless, but they were unprepared for an attack in their rear, and left 380 dead and many prisoners. Some of their forces retired along the Tanga railway, while the main body retreated south to contest further General Smuts's advance toward Kilimatinde, the capital of the colony.

Military operations in these parts are conducted under difficulties—where the rains are tropical, crocodiles infest the rivers, wild elephants and rhinoceros charge the motor transport, giraffes object to the telephone wires, baboons protest against the shrapnel, and lions reconnoitre the outlying patrols. As one Tommy put it: "This is a blooming, zoo—without the cages."

Railway men from South Africa rapidly laid down rails linking up the Uganda railway at Taveta with the German terminus at Moshi. A force was detached to follow the latter line to the sea at Tanga and open up a new shipping base. They slowly captured station after station until they reached and occupied Tanga itself last month.

This left General Smuts free to push ahead with the main column across country to Kilimatinde, the seat of the German colonial government, which is on the main railway line midway between Dar-es-Salaam and Ujiji. After seizing Arusha, where important caravan routes meet, he pushed on to Kothersheim and Salanga.

Kondoa Irangi, about seventy-five miles from the main railway, was occupied by General Van Deventer on April 19, after a stiff fight. The Germans retired towards Kilimatinde, but, getting heavy reinforcements, returned to the attack under the personal direction of General Von Lettow-Vorbeck, commander of the German imperial troops in the colony. Following a heavy bombardment, the attack was continued during the 9th, 10th, and 11th of May, but was repulsed with heavy losses.

When the British forces gather in overwhelming numbers for the final advance on the railway, the fate of the colony will be determined; but the natives will have to be subdued and disarmed before a white man may walk through the country.


German East Africa is in extent about 384,000 square miles, and has now been under German rule for twenty-five years.

During that period the Germans built the railway from Dar-es-Salaam, on the coast, to Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika, which bisects the colony; and a short line near the British East African boundary from Tanga, on the coast, to Moshi. The latter is opposite the British town of Taveta, where there is a branch railway connecting with the trunk line through British East Africa. It is in this neighborhood that the colonial armies of Britain and Germany began to contend with each other.

A little beyond Moshi there is a Boer colony of "bitter-enders," who emigrated here after the British annexed the Transvaal and Orange Free State. So far as we know, this is the only bona-fide white settlement in the colony, apart from the government officials, traders, military, and missionaries. This, however, is not to be wondered at because the country is climatically unsuited to Europeans, or their domestic animals, except in favored parts near the British border. It is otherwise in the higher altitude and more fertile soil of the highlands of British East Africa.

The colony is unfortunate in having all "the plagues of Egypt" and many more of its own. It is the home of rinderpest, which devastated the cattle of South Africa until a preventative was found in arsenical dipping, which destroys the ticks or parasites which cause the trouble. It is the home of sleeping sickness, which carries off thousands of natives in this and the neighboring Congo Free State. It is the home of the tsetse fly, whose puncture is death to the horse or mule. Even donkeys die mysteriously. Apart from the usual malarial fever and occasional dysentery, Europeans who live long in the country are liable to get the dreaded blackwater fever.

In brief, tropical East Africa is only a shade less deadly than tropical West Africa; but the human seems to be able to adapt himself to any climatic conditions—for a time.

So far no payable minerals in any quantity have been found; and transportation away from either of the two railways is limited to human beasts of burden.

Dar-es-Salaam is the principal town and seaport of German East Africa. It is laid out in one long row of whitewashed stucco houses along the shore of the bay. Like Lorenzo Marques (Delagoa Bay), all business is transacted in the early morning and late afternoon, owing to the excessive moist heat.

As a government undertaking, the colony has never paid, although it is Germany's largest and most important one. Even with changed ownership, it holds out no prospect of developing on other lines than those of an important native trading center and a magnificent game preserve.


In 1849, Dr. Livingstone, starting from South Africa, crossed the Kalihari desert and came upon Lake Ugami; and between 1851 and 1856 he crossed the continent from the west coast to the east and discovered the Upper Zambezi river and the now far-famed Victoria Falls.

Burton and Speke, in 1858, discovered Lake Tanganyika, some 400 miles long; and Speke sighted Lake Victoria Nyanza, the largest body of fresh water in Africa. Accompanied by Grant, Speke returned in 1862 and following the river which flowed out of Lake Victoria Nyanza down to Egypt proved it to be the Nile.

Sir Samuel Baker, in 1864, discovered Lake Albert Nyanza on another headwater of the Nile, and sighted the "blue mountains" which Stanley was later to locate in 1888 as the snowy peaks of Ruwenzori. The Duke of the Abruzzi, now in command of the Italian Fleet in the Adriatic, explored these mountains in 1906 and identified them as "the Mountains of the Moon" of Ptolemy—"the Egypt nurtured in the Snow" of Æschylus—and "the Mountain of Silver," the source of the Nile, of Aristotle.

In 1866, Dr. Livingstone started on the journey from which he never returned, and in the course of his wanderings discovered Lake Mweru, Lake Bangwenlu, and the upper reaches of the Congo River. The last mentioned is locally known as the Lualaba River, and Livingstone died in the belief that it was one of the headwaters of the Nile. It remained for Stanley, at a later period, to follow it to the sea and prove it to be the Congo.

In the meantime, Dr. Livingstone was lost to the world and Stanley was sent to find him.

Starting from Bagamoyo, on the mainland opposite Zanzibar, Stanley, in February, 1871, struck across country as direct as possible for Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika. There he found Livingstone, and returned with the news of the latter's discoveries. The route taken by Stanley in his plucky and adventurous journey is indicated to-day by the track of the principal railway in German East Africa. The latter, however, starts, not from Bagamoyo, but from the seaport of Dar-es-Salaam, a few miles farther south.


Stanley's discoveries, and the forming of the Congo State by Leopold II, King of the Belgians, brought about the partition of the unoccupied areas of Africa by the Great Powers.

Germany was the last to enter the field of colonial enterprise, but not the least eager.

The northern boundary of Portuguese East Africa had been recognized by Germany in 1866, and by Britain in 1891, as defined by the Rovuma river. To the north stretched a coast line of about 1000 miles, subject to the authority of the Sultan of Zanzibar, whose independence had been recognized by Britain and France in 1862.

Dr. Karl Peters, a German subject, landed on the mainland opposite Zanzibar in 1884 and proceeded to make "treaties" with the native chiefs on behalf of the German Colonization Society.

In 1885, the British ambassador in Berlin communicated to Prince Bismarck, the German Chancellor, the following despatch from his government:

The supposition that Her Majesty's Government have no intention of opposing the German scheme of colonization in the neighborhood of Zanzibar is absolutely correct.

Her Majesty's Government, on the contrary, view with favor these schemes, the realization of which will entail the civilization of large tracts over which hitherto no European influence has been exercised, the cooperation of Germany with Great Britain in the work of suppression of the slave gangs, and the encouragement of the efforts of the Sultan both in the extinction of the slave trade and in the commercial development of his dominions.

Bismarck contemplated initiating his colonial ventures tentatively on the lines of the earlier British chartered companies, such as "The East India Company" and "The Governor and Company of Adventurers of England trading with Hudson Bay" (commonly called the Hudson Bay Company). He intended that they should be administered by enterprising merchants, and that the obligations of the Imperial Government should be limited to protecting them against foreign interference.

In pursuance of these objects, the Deutsche-öst-Africa Gesellschaft was formed with a capital of $1,000,000 to take over the treaty" rights of Dr. Peters. A revolt of the slave-trading Arabs in 1888 attained such dimensions that the company's forces were driven back to the coast and held only the port of Dar-es-Salaam.

The Imperial Government thereupon intervened to suppress the rising, and latterly took over the administration of the whole country.

Meanwhile, in 1884, Sir Harry Johnston had concluded "treaties" with the Chief of Taveta, and this led to the formation of the Imperial British East Africa Company. After appointing a joint boundary commission, the governments of Britain and Germany came together on various occasions and, with the friendly aid of France, settled all differences by the creation of German East Africa, British East Africa, and British Uganda in 1890. As part of the deal, Britain ceded Heligoland, in the North Sea, to Germany, and acquired dominion over the Island of Zanzibar.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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