The Outbreak and Development of the Maji Maji War 1905-1907

Doctoral thesis, accepted 1973 at the University of Dar es Salaam
Gwassa, Gilbert Clement Kamana
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The Outbreak and Development of the Maji Maji War 1905-1907

Author: Gilbert Clement Kamana Gwassa
Editor: Wolfgang Apelt
Series: InterCultura. Missions- und kulturgeschichtliche Forschungen Band 5
Publisher: Rüdiger Köppe Verlag
Köln, 2005
Soft cover, 16x24 cm, 330 pages, 2 maps

Editor's Preface:

In the time of preparing actions in connection with the anniversary of the Maji Maji War in the former colony "German-East-Africa" we encountered the doctoral thesis of Gilbert Clement Kamana Gwassa. We were amazed that it was not yet published although very often quoted.

"The outbreak and development of the Maji Maji War 1905-1907" was accepted 1973 at the University of Dar es Salaam. The basis of the work is "field research and archival work done between 1966 and 1969". Of course, since that time much has been published on the war but the work of Gilbert C.K. Gwassa is still the base where to start.

Therefore the idea was born to publish this work so that it might become more available for readers here in Germany and in Tanzania. The idea to translate it into German was abandoned because most people interested in Tanzania and her history will be able to read English - and for Tanzania in any case such translation would make no sense.

What kind of work is it? It is, of course, a dissertation with all the weakness such a work usually has. It makes not an easy reading. It is based on many oral sources which cannot be proved any longer because nobody can interview these people again. There was archival work done in Tanzania and the former GDR - but more recent works have improved on the side of archival research.

The book describes a failure of which perhaps many people would not like to be reminded. As Gwassa says "After the famine Maji Maji songs of blame began to be composed. The people then thought it had all been a swindle from which they had to run in future".

Of course, people will look differently at the war - many of them will deny the high figure of casualties Gwassa gives but an official German source gives for the financial year 1906/07 the figure of 75,000 dead people'.

We have to thank many people: First it is a pleasure to thank Mrs. Florence Gwassa who gave the permission to publish the work of her late husband. I also like to thank the preparation committee of a conference held at Wuppertal in November 2005. For all the members I will mention Michael Seitz who brought the copy from Tanzania and Johannes Paehl who met Mrs. Gwassa and talked also to Prof. B. Mapunda from the history department of the University of Dar es Salaam.

Bishop A. Malasusa send me an urgently needed page I lost per e-mail, Prof. Dr. W.J.G. Moehlig updated the bibliography and provided additional maps for this publication. Also to be thanked are the staff of the Ruediger Koeppe Verlag (Publishing house) who typed the manuscript and the Archives and Museum Foundation Wuppertal for accepting the book in its series.


Editor's Preface
Notes on the Edition

Chap. I: The Peoples of Southern Tanzania Before 1905
Chap. II: The Colonial Situation
Chap. Ill: Traditional Ideas, Maji Ideology and the War
Chap. IV: The Outbreak of War
Chap. V: War Defeat and Punishment
Chap. VI: Aftermath
Chap. VII: The Origins of Violence Reviewed
Chap. VIII: Colonialism and African Resistance - An Epilogue

App. A: Matumbi Calendar and Activities
App. B: An Example of Executions in Southwest Matumbiland
App. C: Recording and Preservation of Texts in the Field Bibliography

Supplementary Bibliography up to 2005
Map 1: Ethnic Groups involved in the Maji Maji Rebellion
Map 2: Place Names in Connection with Maji Maji


[iii] Wars of resistance against colonial rule in Africa cannot be viewed as an isolated and unique experience of the resistors. The mode of resistance and the strategy of violence was very much shaped by their previous historical experiences. Since the fifteenth century East African societies had been experiencing series of external impacts including the introduction of new forms of worship such as Islam and Christianity.

Eventually, the Oman Arabs and other Asians established themselves in Zanzibar and on coastal centres leading to the growth of the so-called Swahili culture in those areas. The resulting increase in long distance trade and slave trade had far reaching effects on the African societies. Kilwa and its hinterland was one of the most important bases of these developments on the mainland coast.

On the other hand African societies themselves were undergoing internal transformations and adjustments as a result of wars, migrations, trading and natural population increase or decrease as the case might be. These changes [iv] had important cultural implications particularly in connection with social values, norms and standards of the people as a whole.

At the same time, however, the growing technological gap and consequent economic dependency on the international capitalist system was increasingly being emphasised. These processes did not operate equally or in the same way and form everywhere. But they must be seen as important indicators of how a given society in East Africa could react against specific colonial pressures.

Thus, although the Maji Maji societies had to evolve a new ideology to unite the various ethnic groups against a technologically superior foe such innovation had to be based on those ides, beliefs and socio-historical experiences extant amongst those people. In other words, when the crisis of colonial exploitation and oppression made violence a necessity the people of Southern Tanzania possessed cultural potentialities which made such an innovation possible.

Similarly, although the military scale had to be enlarged and systematised on a supra- [v] ethnic level, once the war broke out it drew heavily on the resources of traditional methods of warfare of the various ethnic groups. The African use of traditional guerilla methods alarmed the German forces as their dependency on mercenaries and on a policy of total extermination became a dominant feature.

If previous experiences, beliefs and ideas were important, the people's techniques of liberation were subsequently conditioned by their experiences and outcome of these mass wars. The Maji Maji peoples had suffered a lot. Violence as a technique of liberation was thereafter suspected. Indeed examples elsewhere in Africa do not suggest a return to mass violence once the first attempt has been suppressed. Traditional methods of warfare became a less consequence as the mercenary principle became consolidated by the colonial system.

The Maji Maji war created several problems. Firstly, there was acute depopulation of Southern Tanzania. Secondly, a considerable generation gap was created and the birth rate was reduced, probably by 25%. As a result, the peasant economies of the people were distorted and weakened for a long time. [vi] The situation was aggravated by the effects of the First World War and labour migration in some of the Maji Maji areas.

Clearly then, the Maji Maji war affected the subsequent history of Southern Tanzania in particular and of the country as a whole. It was impossible for the people to forget the war and the frightfulness and ruthlessness of the colonial power. The fear of violence did not mean acceptance of the colonial system. The movement provided a potential appeal which could be utilised by future leadership both in mobilisation of the people into an alternative but more articulate technique of liberation and in providing legitimacy for the new technique.

When TANU organised on a mass principle and appealed to the Maji Maji war there were fears amongst colonial circles of possibility of a mass violence just as Africans suspected Nyerere was another Kinjikitile. The witchcraft eradication movements after the First World War and even Islamic revivalist movements were suppressed for fear they would turn into another Maji Maji.

[vii] In other words, a study of African wars of resistance is a study of violent manifestations of contradictions in colonialism as a system in its socio-economic spheres. It is also a study in the use of ideas in history and in the problem of the search for focus in the process of liberation. Extreme mass colonial pressure in Southern Tanzania led to mass violence once there was a promise that the technological superiority of the colonial rulers could be overcome by mass mobilisation and adaptation of traditional leadership and methods of warfare to the impending war.

This promise derived from the ideas of the people as shown above. In turn the new ideology raised the people's consciousness and commitment to the mass principle. The promise legitimised the war. These factors make the study of wars of resistance in colonial and ex-colonial countries both interesting and important.

The war, beginning in the middle of July 1905 spread very quickly throughout its area through a variety of factors. The ethnic intermixture of the area facilitated communication and exchange of news and ideas. Secondly, a highly organised messenger system spread plans between areas. The use of a [viii] war drum called lilunga or kilingondo, a technique that was traditional throughout the Maji Maji areas, announced successive outbreaks of warfare in various localities. In the dispersal area the so-called hongos were also an important factor in spreading the news of battlefields and the initial successes of the Maji Maji forces.

These factors were strengthened by other factors. The Germans had not comprehended fully the initial preparations for the war. The Maji Maji organisers had succeeded in keeping the real plans for war secret. Secondly, the Germans were relatively ignorant of Southern Tanzania and they were fewer there. Few askari were scattered in the area. They could not therefore check such a movement in its initial stages. Thirdly, once the movement was underway the Germans were frightened by it as they frantically tried to reinforce their force which would be formidable enough to face the mass challenge.

The Maji Maji forces won initial victories in the actual fighting. In this period the tendency was to emphasise conventional battle warfare in which they [ix] normally attacked from three fronts. When the strengthened German forces began systematic suppression the Africans changed to various guerilla methods which baffled the Germans.

In turn, the German forces embarked on systematic scorched earth policy and general harrying of each and every village and its people, fields, crops and domestic animals. The Africans in the end were weakened and overpowered. They were defeated terribly and fined heavily. The war was followed by a terrible famine and epidemics which killed many more. The people then thought it had all been a swindle from which they had to run in future.