The Maji Maji Rebellion (German: Maji-Maji-Aufstand, Swahili: Vita vya Maji Maji), was an armed rebellion of Islamic and animist Africans against German colonial rule in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania). The war was triggered by German Colonial policies designed to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export. The war lasted from 1905 to 1907, during which 75,000 to 300,000 died, overwhelmingly from famine.


Maji Maji Rebellion
Part of Scramble for Africa

Battle of Mahenge, painting by Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert, 1908.
DateJuly 1905 – August 1907
Result German victory

German Empire Germany

Qadiriyya Brotherhood

Matumbi Ngindo, Ngoni, Yao tribes

other Tanganyikans
Commanders and leaders
c. 2,000 c. 90,000
Casualties and losses
15 Germans, 73 askari, and 316 ruga ruga[2] 75,000–300,000 total dead by famine, disease, and violence[3][4]

The Maji Maji Rebellion (German: Maji-Maji-Aufstand, Swahili: Vita vya Maji Maji), was an armed rebellion of Africans against German colonial rule in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania). The war was triggered by German colonial policies designed to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export. The war lasted from 1905 to 1907, during which 75,000 to 300,000 died, overwhelmingly from famine.[5] The end of the war was followed by a period of famine, known as the Great Hunger (ukame), caused in large part by the scorched-earth policies used by governor von Götzen to suppress the rebellion. These tactics have been described by scholars as genocidal.[6][7]


After the Scramble for Africa among the major European powers in the 1880s, Germany reinforced its hold on several formal African colonies. These were German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique), German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), Cameroon, and Togoland (today split between Ghana and Togo).

The Germans had a relatively weak hold on German East Africa. However, they maintained a system of forts throughout the interior of the territory and were able to exert some control over it. Since their hold on the colony was weak, they resorted to using violently repressive tactics to control the population.[8]

Germany levied head taxes in 1898 and relied heavily on forced labour to build roads and accomplish various other tasks. In 1902, governor of German East Africa, Gustav Adolf von Götzen ordered villages to grow cotton as a cash crop for export. Each village was charged with producing a quota of cotton. The headmen of the village were put in charge of overseeing the production, which set them against the rest of the population.[9] The German government also introduced laws to protect forests and wildlife. While these measures may have been desirable in theory, they led to great hardship for the African population, not least because of an increase in wild pigs, which did enormous damage to food crops.[10]

The German policies were very unpopular, as they had serious effects on the lives of local peoples. The social fabric of society was rapidly changing: as the roles of men and women were being changed, they had to adapt for the communities. Since men were forced away from their homes to work, women had to take on some of the traditional male roles. Also, the men's absence strained the resources of the village, and the people's ability to deal with their environment and remain self-sufficient. In 1905, a drought threatened the region. All that, as well as opposition to the government's agricultural and labour policies, led to open rebellion against the Germans in July.[11]

In the aftermath of the rebellion, Governor von Götzen initiated an inquiry into the causes of the rebellion.[12] Sunseri has summarised the results of the inquiry as follows:

Ultimately members of the commission disagreed on the nature of the uprising, dividing between those who saw it as an irrational movement spawned by sorcerers and headmen making use of maji water medicine, disgruntled because they had been steadily losing influence since the advent of colonial rule, and those who dismissed the role of spirit mediums and emphasized the burdens created by German administration. The governor's circle cultivated the image of an atavistic, superstitious movement rooted in traditional beliefs so as to insulate their policies from close scrutiny.[13]

In 1909 Götzen published a history of the rebellion.[14] John Iliffe has said of this work that it is "remarkable for containing no reference whatever to the cotton scheme which the author had initiated," and he calls it "an account of atavistic conspiracy."[15]

Map of German East Africa with the areas affected by the rebellion highlighted in red.


The insurgents turned to magic to drive out the German colonizers and used it as a unifying force in the rebellion. A spirit medium named Kinjikitile Ngwale, who practiced folk Islam that incorporated animist beliefs, claimed to be possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo.[16] Ngwale began calling himself Bokero and developed a belief that the people of East Africa had been called upon to eliminate the Germans. German anthropologists recorded that he gave his followers war medicine that would turn German bullets into water. This "war medicine" was in fact water (maji in Kiswahili) mixed with castor oil and millet seeds.[16] Empowered with this new liquid, Bokero's followers began what would become known as the Maji Maji Rebellion.

The followers of Bokero's movement were poorly armed with spears and arrows, sometimes poisoned.[17] However, they were numerous and believed that they could not be harmed because the Germans' bullets would turn to water.[16] They marched from their villages wearing millet stalks around their foreheads. Initially, they attacked small outposts and damaged cotton plants. On 31 July 1905, Matumbi tribesmen marched on Samanga and destroyed the cotton crop as well as a trading post. Kinjikitile was arrested and hanged for treason. Before his execution, he declared that he had spread the medicine of the rebellion throughout the region.[16] On 14 August 1905, Ngindo tribesmen attacked a small party of missionaries on a safari; all five, including Bishop Spiss (the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dar es Salaam) were speared to death.[16]

Soon the Yao tribes started participating and throughout August the rebels moved from the Matumbi Hills in the southern part of what is now Tanzania and attacked German garrisons throughout the colony. The attack on Ifakara, on 16 August, destroyed the small German garrison and opened the way to the key fortification at Mahenge. Though the southern garrison was quite small (there were but 458 European and 588 native soldiers in the entire area), their fortifications and modern weapons gave them an advantage. At Mahenge, several thousand Maji Maji warriors (led by another spirit medium; not Bokero) marched on the German cantonment, which was defended by Lieutenant Theodor von Hassel with sixty native soldiers, a few hundred loyal tribesmen, and two machine guns.[16] The two attacking tribes disagreed on when to attack and were unable to co-ordinate. The first attack was met with gunfire from 1000 meters; the tribesmen stood firm for about fifteen minutes, then broke and retreated. After the first attack, a second column of 1,200 men advanced from the east. Some of these attackers were able to get within three paces of the firing line before they were killed.[16]

While this was the apex of the uprising, the Ngoni people decided to join in the revolt with a force of 5,000. The Gwangara Ngoni were relatively recent arrivals in the region, descendants of a remnant of the Ndwandwe confederation defeated by the Zulus in 1818 (other Ngoni states were formed in Malawi, Zambia, and north-central Tanzania). German troops, armed with machine guns, departed from Mahenge to the Ngoni camp, which they attacked on 21 October. The Ngoni soldiers retreated, throwing away their bottles of war medicine and crying, "The maji is a lie!"[18] Upon the outbreak of the fighting, Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen, governor of German East Africa, had requested reinforcements from the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm immediately ordered two cruisers with their Marine complements to the troubled colony.[16] Reinforcements also arrived from as far away as New Guinea. When 1,000 regular soldiers from Germany arrived in October, Götzen felt he could go on the offensive and restore order in the south.[19]

Maji Maji warriors before hanging in February 1906

Three columns moved into the rebellious South. They destroyed villages, crops, and other food sources used by the rebels. They made effective use of their firepower to break up rebel attacks. A successful ambush of a German column crossing the Rufiji River by the Bena kept the rebellion alive in the southwest, but the Germans were not denied for long. By April 1906, the southwest had been pacified. However, elsewhere the fighting was bitter. A column under Lieutenant Gustav von Blumenthal (1879–1913, buried at Lindi) consisting of himself, one other European and 46 Askaris fell under continuous attack as it marched in early May 1906, from Songea to Mahenge. The Germans decided to concentrate at Kitanda, where Major Kurt Johannes, Lieutenants von Blumenthal and Friedrich Wilhelm von Lindeiner-Wildau eventually gathered. Von Blumenthal was then sent along the Luwegu River, partly by boat. The southeast campaign degenerated into a guerrilla war that brought with it a devastating famine.[16]

The German scorched earth policy deliberately caused famine among the population. Von Götzen was willing to pardon the common soldiers who gave up their weapons, leaders and traditional healers. However, he also needed to flush out the remaining rebels and so chose famine. In 1905, one of the leaders of German troops in the colony, Captain Wangenheim, wrote to von Götzen, "Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean."[20] Germany's tactics have been described as genocidal by scholars such as A. Dirk Moses and Klaus Bachmann.[6][7]

Not until August 1907 were the last embers of rebellion extinguished. In its wake, the rebellion had left 15 Germans, 73 askaris, 316 ruga ruga,[2] and tens or even hundreds of thousands of insurgents and local civilians dead.[21][22]

Aftermath and interpretation

The Abushiri revolt of 1888–1889 and the Wahehe Rebellion of 1891–1898 are viewed by historians as precursors of the Maji Maji uprising. The suppression of the Maji Maji people changed the history of southern Tanzania. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people died or were displaced from their homes. In the wake of the war, the imperial government instituted administrative reforms under the governorship of Albrecht von Rechenberg.[23] The rebellion became a focal point in the history of the region. Journalist John Gunther noted in 1953 that "even today the Southern Province of Tanganyika, the 'Cinderella Province,' has not fully recovered from the German terror half a century ago. The economy of the region has never been successfully rebuilt."[24] Later Tanzanian nationalists used it as an example of the first stirrings of Tanzanian nationalism, a unifying experience that brought together all the different peoples of Tanzania under one leader, in an attempt to establish a nation free from foreign domination.

Later historians have challenged that view and claimed that the rebellion cannot be seen as a unified movement but rather a series of revolts conducted for a wide range of reasons, including religion. The Ngoni chiefs were offered Christian baptism before execution. Many people in the area itself saw the revolt as one part of a longer series of wars continuing since long before the arrival of Germans in the region. They cite the alliance of some groups with the Germans to further their own agendas.

The role of Islam in the rebellion is a matter for debate. In a recent review of the evidence, Jörg Haustein concludes that the contention that Islam was a factor "is not warranted by historical sources and established scholarship about the Maji Maji War."[25]

John Iliffe interprets the rebellion as a "mass movement [which] originated in peasant grievances, was then sanctified and extended by prophetic religion, and finally crumbled as crisis compelled reliance on fundamental loyalties to kin and tribe".[26] Patrick Redmond describes the rebellion as "Tanzania's most spectacular manifestation of the rejection of colonial rule" but which had only a "slight chance of success".[27]

See also


  1. ^ Islam in Africa, p. 221
  2. ^ a b Koponen, Juhani (1995). Development for Exploitation: German Colonial Policies in Mainland Tanzania, 1884-1914. Distributor, Tiedekirja. p. 172. ISBN 978-3-8258-2006-0.
  3. ^ Walter Nuhn: Flammen über Deutsch-Ostafrika. Der Maji-Maji-Aufstand 1905/06. Die erste gemeinsame Erhebung schwarzafrikanischer Völker gegen weiße Kolonialherrschaft. ("Flames over German East Africa: The Maji Maji Uprising of 1905/06, the First Uprising of African People Against White Colonial Rule") Ein Beitrag zur deutschen Kolonialgeschichte ("A Contribution to German Colonial History"). Bernard & Graefe, Bonn 1998, ISBN 3-7637-5969-7.
  4. ^ Michelle Moyd “Genocide and War,” in Genocide: Key Themes, ed. Donald Bloxham and A. Dirk Moses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022), pp 242.
  5. ^ John Iliffe, "The Organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion". The Journal of African History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (1967), pp. 495–512 (p. 495). JSTOR 179833.
  6. ^ a b Schaller, Dominik J. (2010). "From Conquest to Genocide". In Moses, A. Dirk (ed.). From Conquest to Genocide: Colonial Rule in German Southwest Africa and German East Africa. Empire, Colony, Genocide: Conquest, Occupation, and Subaltern Resistance in World History. War and Genocide. Vol. 12 (1st ed.). New York City: Berghahn Books. p. 310. ISBN 978-1-84545-452-4. JSTOR j.ctt9qd5qb.16. [I]t is doubtlessly appropriate—probably even important—to understand the German suppression of the Maji-Maji Revolt as genocidal.
  7. ^ a b Bachmann, Klaus; Kemp, Gerhard (July 30, 2021). "Was Quashing the Maji-Maji Uprising Genocide? An Evaluation of Germany's Conduct through the Lens of International Criminal Law". Holocaust and Genocide Studies. 35 (2): 243. doi:10.1093/hgs/dcab032. If the German command's strategy was to destroy entire settlements (crops, harvests, and food), kill civilians along with combatants, coerce the surrender of entire groups through deliberate starvation, and to intentionally deprive ethnic groups of the leadership that was crucial to their survival — then Germany's conduct in East Africa deserves the label of genocide.
  8. ^ Natermann, Diana Miryong (2018). Pursuing whiteness in the colonies : private memories from the Congo Free State and German East Africa (1884-1914). Münster: Waxmann Verlag. p. 59. ISBN 978-3-8309-3690-9. OCLC 1037008514.
  9. ^ Iliffe, John (1969). Tanganyika Under German Rule, 1905-1912. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 23.
  10. ^ Thaddeus Sunseri, "Famine and Wild Pigs: Gender Struggles and the Outbreak of the Majimaji War in Uzaramo (Tanzania)," Journal of African History, vol.38 (1997), p.235-259.
  11. ^ Seel, Sarah-Jane (2014). The history and traditions of the Pimbwe. Mgawe, Peter,, Mulder, Monique Borgerhoff,, Pinda, Mizengo K. P. Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers. p. 35. ISBN 978-9987-08-286-5. OCLC 903052545.
  12. ^ John W. East (ed. and trans.), The Causes of the 1905 Maji Maji Rebellion in German East Africa (Tanzani): The Official Reports of the German Colonial Government (2019).
  13. ^ Thaddeus Sunseri, "Statist Narratives and Maji Maji Ellipses," International Journal of African Historical Studies, vol.33, no.3 (2000), p.569.
  14. ^ Graf von Götzen, Deutsch-Ostafrika im Aufstand 1905/06 (Berlin: D. Reimer, 1909), English translation: German East Africa in Rebellion, 1905/06 (2019).
  15. ^ John Iliffe, "The Effects of the Maji Maji Rebellion of 1905-1906 on German Occupation Policy in East Africa," in Prosser Gifford and William Roger Louis (eds), Britain and Germany in Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967), p.570.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i Pakenham, Thomas (1992). The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912. HarperCollins. pp. 616–621. ISBN 0380719991.
  17. ^ Petraitis, Richard (August 1998). "Bullets into Water: The Sorcerers of Africa". Retrieved 2008-11-30.
  18. ^ "Maji Maji revolt | the Polynational War Memorial". Retrieved 2019-12-13.
  19. ^ "The Maji Maji Rebellion | Violence in Twentieth Century Africa". Scholar Blogs. Retrieved 2019-12-14.
  20. ^ Pakenham, 622 quoting from Götzen, Gustav Adolf (1909). Deutsch Ostafrika im Aufstand 1905–6. Berlin. p. 149.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  21. ^ Gellately, Robert; Ben Kiernan (2003). The Specter of Genocide: Mass Murder in Historical Perspective. Published by Cambridge University Press. p. 161. ISBN 0-521-52750-3.
  22. ^ Hull, Isabel V. (2004). Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. p. 157.
  23. ^ John Iliffe, Tanganyika under German Rule, 1905-1912 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969).
  24. ^ Gunther, John (1955). Inside Africa. Harper & Brothers. p. 411. ISBN 0836981979.
  25. ^ Jörg Haustein, "Global Religious History as a Rhizome: Colonial Panics and Political Islam in German East Africa," Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, vol.33 (2021), p.321-344.
  26. ^ Iliffe, John (1967). "The Organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion". The Journal of African History. 8 (3): 495. doi:10.1017/S0021853700007982.
  27. ^ Redmond, Patrick M. (1975). "Maji Maji in Ungoni: A Reappraisal of Existing Historiography". International Journal of African Historical Studies. 8 (3): 407–424. doi:10.2307/217152. JSTOR 217152.

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