A short-lived “place in the sun.” The young German Empire did not establish colonies until 1884, and then mostly in areas of little economic or strategic value. It took the expenditure of military resources both to found and to maintain Germany’s place in the sun.
Beginning in 1884 the German flag was raised over several territories in Africa: Togo, Cameroon, German Southwest Africa (Namibia), and German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi). In the Pacific, Germany also claimed possession of northeast New Guinea and the Marshall and Solomon Islands, with the close support of the German navy.
The first military action was in Cameroon in December 1884, when a naval landing party of 350 men defeated the forces of a pro-British chieftain. One of the leaders of this party was Lieutenant Reinhard Scheer, later commander of the High Seas Fleet during World War I.
The creation of German East Africa brought about more conflict, both with the sultan of Zanzibar and with Arab slave traders. A blockade of Zanzibar harbor in 1885 established the German presence. A subsequent blockade of the entire coast, this time in conjunction with the British Royal Navy in 1888, was directed against the slave trade.
As control of German territories extended further inland, it became necessary for the Germans to create a permanent protection force, the Schutztruppen. The Schutztruppen was composed mainly of native troops led by German officers.
In 1904, a large revolt by the Herero tribe broke out in southwest Africa. The Hereros were upset at losing their traditional pastures, and German traders had forced many Hereros into debt through unscrupulous practices. The impassable wastes between the Atlantic coast and the settled regions made transportation difficult: the Germans relied on a single narrow-gauge railway line that could support only one train per day. Through quick raids the Hereros were able to keep the Germans off balance.
The German public was shocked to hear of the revolt and were angry at the army’s inability to defeat the natives. This outcry led to 10,000 troops being shipped to southwest Africa. However, most of these troops were used just in pacifying the countryside. The only real battle of the revolt, at Waterberg on 11 August 1904, was fought before they arrived. A subsequent revolt in late 1904 by the Hottentots took nearly three years to quell simply because the vastly outnumbered natives used guerrilla tactics and avoided pitched battles.
Meanwhile, another revolt in East Africa was subdued with far fewer German soldiers. A number of tribes were persuaded of the magical properties of a potion of water, castor oil, and millet seeds. This “maji-maji” was said to turn German bullets to water. The uprising broke out in central East Africa in late July 1905.However,without any coordination between the various tribes, no serious threat was posed to German settlers. When the maji-maji was proven to be no defense against guns, the rebels quickly gave up the fight.
An unfortunate feature common to both uprisings was the harshness of German reprisals. In southwest Africa, the Herero population plummeted from 80,000 in 1904 to 15,000 in 1911. In East Africa, the rebelling tribes were punished by having their crops destroyed; the resulting famine killed between 250,000 and 300,000 people, more than 10 times the number of natives who had taken up arms.
The empire was in no position to defend itself against Allied assault when World War I began in 1914. In Oceania, the German island chains were unprotected and easily taken by Australian and Japanese forces. The only resistance of note was by the port of Tsingtao, taken from China in 1897. Although a Japanese force laid siege at the outbreak of war, Tsingtao was not taken until 7 November.
In Africa, Togo was quickly overrun, Cameroon offered little resistance, and German Southwest Africa was taken by South African units. However, German East Africa posed an unexpected obstacle. The German commander, Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, was a skilled jungle fighter. His Schutztruppen launched offenses against British-held Kenya. As well, the six-inch guns from a stranded German light cruiser were put to good use. The Schutztruppen in East Africa did not surrender until late November 1918 and the Armistice.
The German colonial empire produced no economic or political gain for Germany, rather the opposite when the costs of defense are weighed. Nevertheless, matters of honor dictated that Germans abroad should defend their newly acquired territories against both insurrection and foreign invasion. In the end, the German legacy in these areas vanished.
References and further reading: Bridgman, Jon M. The Revolt of the Hereros. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Farwell, Byron. The Great War in Africa, 1914–1918. London:W.W. Norton, 1986. Pakenham, Thomas. The Scramble for Africa, 1876–1912. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1991.