The most significant African challenge to German colonial rule during the brief period when Germany had African colonies was the Maji Maji Uprising in Tanganyika. The Uprising involved indigenous African people living inside over 10,000 square miles and lasted two years.
During the “scramble for Africa” that took place in Berlin in 1885, European powers invaded and dominated much of Africa, carving out vast territories as their own and establishing brutal and tyrannical regimes to enforce their rule. Four major regions had been colonized by Germany, including Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), Togo, Cameroon, and Namibia. Tanzania had been acquired largely through the efforts of the German Colonization Society, founded by Dr. Karl Peters.
By 1898 when Germany established its control over Tanganyika, it imposed a deeply violent regime in order to control the population and included a policy of killing kings who resisted German terrorism and occupation. Dr. Karl Peters was now the Tanganyika colonial governor, and this brutal policy earned him the name, “Milkono wa Damu,” meaning “Man with Blood on His Hands.”
The African population was subjected to high taxation and a system of forced labor, in which they were required to grow cotton and build roads for their European occupiers throughout this period of German occupation.
The oppressive regime bred discontent and disenchantment among the Africans, and the resentment reached a fever pitch in 1905 when drought hit the region. A prophet named Kinjikitile Ngwale emerged. He claimed to know a secret sacred liquid that had the power to repel German bullets. The sacred liquid was called, “Maji Maji,” which means “sacred water.” The first warriors of the rebellion began to move against the Germans, armed with arrows, spears and doused with Maji Maji water.
They were attacking at first only small German outposts, such as at Samanga, and destroying cotton crops. The rebellion spread throughout the colony, eventually involving 20 different ethnic groups all of whom wished to dispel the German colonizers. Therefore it became the first significant example of interethnic cooperation in the battle against colonial control.
The rebellion reached a peak at Mahenge in August 1905 where several thousand Maji Maji warriors attacked but failed to overrun a German stronghold. The Germans retaliated on October 21, 1905, with an attack on the camp of the unsuspecting Ngoni people who had recently joined the rebellion. The Germans killed hundreds of men, women, and children. This attack was the beginning of a brutal counteroffensive that ultimately left an estimated 75,000 Maji Maji warriors dead by 1907. Famine was also adopted by the Germans as a weapon, purposely destroying the crops of suspected Maji Maji supporters.
The Maji Maji Uprising was ultimately unsuccessful but it forced Kaiser Wilhelm’s government in Berlin to begin instituting reforms in their African colonies as they realized the potential cost of their brutality. Also, the uprising would become an inspiration for later 20th Century freedom fighters who called for similar interethnic unity as they struggled against European colonial rule.