The German Colonies And Their Disposal

By William R. Shepherd

[The Nation; March 28, 1918]

Up to the break of the war Germany ranked fourth on the list of colonial Powers, coming after Great Britain, Russia, and France. Her possessions stretched over an area of 1,128,640 square miles, nearly six: times that of her territory in Europe. Those in Africa comprised Togo (more than a third the state of Oregon); Kamerun (somewhat smaller than Washington, Idaho, and Montana combined); South-West Africa (about as big as Texas and Georgia); and, latest of all, East Africa (approximately equal in extend to the Atlantic Coast States from Maine to Florida, except New York). In the southern Pacific they included, under the general designation of German New Guinea, the northeastern part of the Island of New Guinea, called Kaiser Wilhelm's Land, and certain groups of islands, such as the Bismarck Archipelago, the Caroline, Palau, Marianne, Solomon, and Marshall Island's, and a portion of the Samoan Islands. Their entire area was about four-fifths that of the Philippines. On the continent of Asia the only German possession was Kiao-chau, a district of some 200 square miles along the coast of the Chinese province of Shan-tung.

By treaties with the natives and by agreements with European Powers, Germany acquired the African territories between 1884 and 1890 and the Pacific islands between 1884 and 1899, Kiao-chau, seized in 1897 as a means of exacting reparation for the murder of German missionaries, was formally acquired from China in 1898 on the basis of a lease for ninety-nine years.

All of these areas, except about a third of East Africa, have fallen into the hands of the Allied Powers. In Africa Togo was captured by British and French forces in August, 1914; Kamerun by British, French, and Belgian troops in February, 1916, and South-West Africa by forces from the Union of South Africa and Rhodesia, with British assistance, in July, 1915. The last named are still engaged in the reduction of East Africa. The German possessions in the Pacific, however, were all lost before the close of 1914. Forces from New Zealand occupied German Samoa in August, and troops from Australia seized Kaiser Wilhelm's Land and the Bismarck Archipelago in September. The remaining groups of islands were taken a month later by Japan, and Kiao-chau surrendered to the same Power in November.

The total population of the German dependencies in 1914 was estimated at upwards of 12,000,000, or less than one-fifth of the number of inhabitants in Germany itself. Twenty-eight thousand of them were of European stock, and four-fifths of these were Germans. More than half of the European element was located in South-West Africa alone. In East Africa there were some 15,000 Arabs, Goanese, and other Asiatics, in addition to the native population. In 1912 the commerce of the German colonies, calculated roughly on the basis of four marks to the dollar, was valued at $115,000,000, of which $65,000,000 represented imports and $50,000,000 exports. The amount showed an increase of about $60,000,000 over the figures of 1907. More than half of the trade was carried on with Germany. The exports from the African possessions consisted chiefly of palm kernels and oil, sisal hemp, copper, lead, hides, cotton, rubber, cacao, and earth-nuts; those from the Pacific region of copra, phosphate of lime, and cacao; and those from Kiao-chau of straw braid, silk, bean oil, and earth-nuts.

To stimulate industrial and commercial development, notably in the African dependencies, plantations for the cultivation of palms, coffee, cacao, cotton, tobacco, rubber and other tropical products were laid out. Agricultural stations were erected. Many good roads and not a few railways were built. All of railways were paying investments. Subsidized steamship lines were another important factor of promotion.

Profitable though the colonies may have been to individual planters and merchants, like the vast majority of tropical colonies the world over, they had not become an economic asset to the mother country itself. None of them, except Togo and Samoa, where the receipts about balanced the expenditures was self-supporting. In 1914, accordingly, the German Treasury had to meet a deficit in the colonial budget of approximately $22,000,000, of which a third was devoted to the support of the military establishment. On the other hand, during the ten years that followed 1903 the expenses the expenses had gone up by only $2,000,000, while the receipts had increased by some $13,000,000.

For the maintenance of order in the colonies about 5,000 German and 4,700 native soldiers and 700 German and 5,600 native police were employed in 1914. More than half of the German force was stationed at Kiao-chau. Following the practice of other European nations, the native soldiers and police, known in East Africa by the Arab term "askaris," were recruited from among the more warlike elements of the population. In East Africa when the war began there were about 327 German and 4,612 native soldiers and police. All of the German dependencies were known as "Schutzgebiete" (protectorates). Except Kiao-chau, which was subject to the Naval Department, they had been under the control of a Colonial Minister since 1907. The administration was carried on by a governor, assisted by a small council, composed of prominent European residents. The management of local affairs was left largely to native chiefs, under the supervision of German officials. A late-comer on the scene of colonial expansion and forced to content herself with areas less desirable than those held by her predecessors, lacking the experience that had taught many a hard lesson to the other imperialistic nations of Europe, and having herself a political and social system ill adapted for transplantation to lands inhabited by aboriginal folk, Germany could hardly attain much success in thirty years. All of her possessions, except Kiao-chau and the southern part of South-West Africa, lay in the tropics, and hence were not suitable for settlement by Europeans in considerable numbers. The former already had a fairly dense Chinese population, and a large portion of the latter was unfit for human habitation. Efforts, also, to direct such German emigration as there was to the colonies, and to divert it from America, had comparatively scant result.

In the hope, nevertheless, of carrying on "scientific" colonization, the Germans devoted careful study to the work of other European countries in the oversea dominions, explored the new lands thoroughly, and noted the conditions among their inhabitants in detail. The result showed many a contribution to scientific knowledge, but not much evidence of effective colonization. Though efforts were made to educate the natives, chiefly under the guidance of missionaries, the policy of the German Government and the behavior of officials and colonists, particularly in South-West and East Africa, were provocative of trouble for many years after 1884. German methods of administration were introduced in more or less rigid fashion, chieftains were deposed, and tribal lands were seized and granted in huge amounts to companies and individuals, with but slight regard for native rights, customs, and prejudices. Though the slave trade still prevailing in East Africa was abolished, here and elsewhere in the continental colonies the scarcity of labor for employment on the European model was met by the imposition of methods that aroused great resentment. The feeling was heightened by the arrogant attitude of many of the Germans, who seemed constitutionally unable to understand native sentiments and allow for them.

Of the rebellions that broke out in consequence of such mismanagement the most serious was that of the semi-civilized Herreros and other tribes in South-West Africa, lasting from 1903 to 1907, despite the brutal orders for extermination issued by the German military commander. Not until barbarities of this sort had been forbidden by the home Government and conciliatory measures adopted instead, was it possible to bring the struggle to a close. During its course probably half of the native population perished, and a large number of Europeans also. The lesson proved quite effective. After 1907 the Germans appreciated, far more than they had ever done before, the wisdom of adopting a policy that would put the relations between the rulers and the ruled on a basis of mutual understanding and confidence.

Assuming, now, that her oversea possessions are not to be returned to Germany, and that none of them is to be given its earlier independence of foreign ownership, their disposal constitutes one of the hardest problems that the peace conference will have to face. Three solutions of it may be offered. Of these one would assign the German dependencies to the respective Powers that have captured or hold nearly all of them. In this partition, not only Great Britain and her three colonies, the Union of South Africa, the Commonwealth of Australia, and the Dominion of New Zealand, but France, Belgium, and Japan would have to be reckoned. But an adoption of this plan violates one great ideal for which our own country stands: the abolition of the process of territorial enrichment of one nation at the expense of another, and regardless of the welfare of the native inhabitants of the areas concerned, except as that welfare may be determined by the nation thus favored.

Excellent though the colonial policy of Great Britain or France may be, however marked its superiority to that of Germany, and apart entirely from doubts about the wisdom of enlarging oversea dominions already huge, any principle which recognizes that regions inhabited by non-Europeans and unable to preserve their independence shall no longer be subject to distribution at the will of foreign masters would be brought absolutely to naught by any such arrangement. In the same connection, for Germany to exchange her colonies for areas now possessed by other nations would not make the situation more acceptable. Annexation or exchange simply perpetuates the old imperialistic idea.

Another solution rests on the principle of the self-determination of the native peoples. Theoretically such an adjustment might be reached only in the case of the African and Polynesian areas; for the disposal of the German leasehold in China, now under the control of Japan, is a matter presumably to be settled by agreement between the two countries concerned. Let it be taken for granted that an effort to ascertain the wishes of the Africans and Polynesians would be made in absolute good faith. The question to be answered would be, whether these people prefer a foreign ownership other than German. Locally they are subject to tribal chiefs, some hereditary, some self-chosen, some elected by lower dignitaries. Neither rulers nor ruled have the slightest notion of the meaning of popular self-determination, in the European sense. At best, all that could be secured would be the opinion, or rather the decision, of the chiefs themselves.

Inherently, the idea of "taking a vote" among uncivilized folk is absurd. More than that, it raises the whole question as to the justice of the existing relationship to their European owners of all colonies and dependencies in the tropics and elsewhere inhabited mainly by peoples not of European stock. If in one particular instance their alleged "representatives" are to be asked whether they prefer to be subject to one foreign ruler rather than another, why should not the same principle in fairness be applied to all such cases?

Were a league of peoples to be formed after the war, one of its proper functions would be that of exercising a common control over the former German dependencies in Africa and Polynesia, taking substantially as its pattern the "General Act" devised at the Berlin Congress of 1884-1885, with reference to the joint supervision of the "Congo Independent State." This guaranteed the perpetual neutrality of the "State," and provided for freedom of trade in the basin of the Congo River, for freedom of navigation on that river, its tributaries and the lakes and canals connecting with it, and for the protection and welfare of the natives. It also obligated the signatory Powers to accept the mediation of a friendly government or governments in the event of any dispute regarding the territory included within the "conventional" basin of the Congo. This procedure and later acts determined the international standing of the "State" until its absorption by Belgium in 1908.

But here again the adoption of any such expedient suggests the desirability of considering its extension to all dependent areas of the kind described, as a possible means of warding off jealousies that might lead to armed conflict similar, in its colonial and commercial phases at least, to the present one. Ideally this might seem to be the solution of the difficulties hitherto created by the practice of exclusive ownership of oversea areas tenanted by folk commonly regarded as uncivilized. Freedom of access to colonial markets for all peoples on terms of absolute equality, and joint supervision and control of all matters concerning this privilege and the relationship of the natives to the Europeans, would help to remove such areas from the arena of strife.

Accordingly, the two tenable solutions of the problem of the disposal of the German oversea possessions are: either the continuance of the old system of partition and distribution, or the establishment of joint management. Both are part and parcel of the two basic ideas now locked in struggle. One is national aggrandizement, with all that it savors of imperialism, of commercial selfishness, of militarism, and of future wars. The other is international adjustment, with all that it promises of coöperation and future peace—the principle of an unimperialistic settlement.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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