German Colonialism: Early Colonial Structures, 1870-1919 

German Colonial Power in Africa

A brief note:
I wrote this for a class and submitted it as a quick paper on March 19, 2020. This is the fourth of eight total German colonialism papers.


Structures, Application, and Engagement

The structures of German colonial society and its governance, differed in a variety of ways. Per Sebastian Conrad, colonial power structures “varied according to regional differences and different types of colony,” and “they were also affected by local geography and by the dynamics of local societies.”[1] Moreover, the German colonial state exercised varying degrees of control depending on its given objectives.[2] These factors that Conrad outlines serve as the foundational base for understanding German colonial society and governance, and how colonized subjects engaged with the structures present in their region. Through Sebastian Conrad’s proposed thoughts regarding continuities of rule, islands of power, the struggle for legitimacy, and the use of violence against colonized subjects, it can be understood how colonized subjects reacted to structures of German colonial society in positive, passive, and negative ways.


When Violence Fails

It might first be worth looking to German East Africa, particularly Zanzibar from 1885-1887, as an interesting early case study. Colonial endeavors there example German colonial power structures as relative to German colonial society and governance, and how they affected colonized subjects. At the time, Zanzibar was already engaged in trade (unrelated to colonialism) with Hamburg merchants, whose “profits relied heavily on friendly relations with the Sultan.”[3] According to Arne Perras, the German government, through Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, initially intended to “bring about a fusion of interests” between Carl Peters’s German East Africa Company (DOAG) and the “Hamburg trading houses operating in Zanzibar.”[4] This ultimately led to failure and the breakdown of relations with the Sultanate as the German government increasingly involved itself with the DOAG. Later, as Germany laid claim to larger areas of Zanzibari lands and threatened the Sultanate with warships, the Sultan, Said Bargash, formally protested.[5] However, the Sultan was eventually coerced into accepting a protectorate status, and violence soon became the norm.

Once Germany was in “control,” there was hardly a thing to show for it other than a few sporadic and distantly connected DOAG stations.[6] Initially, Africans were not necessarily opposed to working for the Germans, but German aggression changed this. As Perras notes, “German frustration” over the lack of a permanent labor force combined with German-held prejudices, thus leading them to “educate” Africans on how to work.[7] This “education” was often done through the use of violence, souring what little initial willingness the Africans might have had. Although some Africans took advantage of the German presence–seeing them as allies against rival groups–there was still a general and “widespread anti-German feeling in the region.”[8] Once German colonial ambitions led them to take administrative control over the coast, rebellion broke out in 1888.[9] This early colonial endeavor examples how German colonialists attempted to utilize the Sultanate to extend their power. They failed in doing so, and thus struggled to enact legitimate rule. They then resorted to more violence means of controlling colonial subjects, garnering the ire of the local population, and spawning a rebellion.


On Whose Authority?

Perhaps a more refined example of both German colonial society and governance, as well as how the native population interacted in their new colonial environment, can be found in the roles fulfilled by the Askari troops in the early 1900s. Michelle Moyd calls the Askari the agents of everyday colonialism, and through this definition they certainly demonstrate how the German colonial society utilized continuities of power. They were, however, restricted to islands of power and therefore limited in their legitimacy. The German colonial establishment resorted to violence through the use of Askari troops to maintain what little precarious authority it had. While serving as a structure of German colonial governance, the Askari example an interesting reaction to and engagement with German colonial society.

The Askari served as reminders of colonial power and authority while present at local shauri, thereby engaging in continuities of rule on behalf of the German colonial government.[10] While the Askari served to represent the legitimate authority of German colonial rule, they also represented its weakness. Though they served the colonial state at the shauri, as messengers, and as tax collectors, their use of violence against other Africans was due in part because they had little colonial oversight.[11] The need for and use of the Askari demonstrated “a weakness in the colonial state—its reliance on mobility and ‘theatrical’ performances of power.”[12] Thus, it might be argued that the Askari, acting as “colonial intermediaries,” were the only legitimate authority in Germany’s African holdings as it was the “constant threat of Askari violence that underwrote colonial claims to vast numbers of people and amounts of space.”[13] As Sebastian Conrad notes, the “few administrative stations within the country were ‘islands of power’…that struggled to maintain a semblance of authority.”[14] The stations in German East Africa were indeed “islands of power” from which the Askari spread over the surrounding lands to enforce state authority.


Driving a Wedge

Further insight into Sebastian Conrad’s notions regarding islands of power, the struggle for legitimacy, and the use of violence, can be gleaned from investigating the Herero Genocide and the Maji Maji War. Conrad states that colonial governors were both “the head of the colonial administration and commander-in-chief of the colonial military,” while the German Foreign Office (and later the Reich Colonial Office) “had very little control over the governors’ actions.”[15] For example, in the case of the Herero Genocide, colonial Governor Leutwein believed extermination of the Herero to be “a grave mistake from an economic point of view,” yet he was replaced by General Lothar von Trotha, whose “exterminationist policy was approved at the highest levels.”[16] According to Conrad, the Herero Genocide in German Southwest Africa was “commanded from Berlin,” whereas the Maji Maji War in German East Africa was more internally controlled “within the colony.”[17] This difference in control demonstrates how different structures of colonial governance led to a difference in the causes of rebellion, although the subsequent use of violence to quell rebellions meant that the violent outcomes were quite similar. There were, however, some similarities between the two regions’ colonial structures that had driven the colonized subjects towards rebellion.

Notably, in both German Southwest and East Africa regions, there were laws enacted by the local German colonial governments on behalf of the respective local German colonial societies. For native populations in German Southwest Africa, this entailed German settlers coveting the land and cattle of the Herero people.[18] Increasingly offensive laws between 1885 and 1894, backed by the threat of violence, targeted Herero lands and cattle.[19] By late 1901, Governor Leutwein began the selection process for lands suitable for Herero reservations “following extensive lobbying by the Rhenish Missionary Society and with the support of civil servants in the colony.”[20] Faced with these prejudices and coupled with years of other forms of abuse and disparagement, the Herero rebelled.

Similarly, the German colonial government in German East Africa imposed a series of increasingly restrictive laws that favored German colonial society over natives, though in a less malicious manner than in German Southwest Africa. According to Thaddeus Sunseri, a growing wildlife preservation movement led to the 1900 London “Convention for the Preservation of Wild Animals, Birds, and Fish in Africa to endorse general wildlife protection policies.”[21] A prevailing European belief in wildlife conservation, including a German “ethos of sport hunting…that viewed the hunter as the ruler of nature…with a moral obligation to kill wild animals as quickly and humanely as possible,” is what led both sport hunters and “many members of the colonial administrative and military hierarchy” to believe that “African…hunting was unsportsmanlike.”[22]

Colonial laws created between 1896 and 1903 were intended to “eliminate African elephant hunting altogether.”[23] These laws had highly adverse effects for the local populations of native Africans, including a large reduction in revenue for local chiefs and the destruction of crops as a side-effect of the creation of wildlife preserves and the restrictions imposed against the native killing of Elephants.[24] Much as in the case of German Southwest Africa, these increasingly restrictive laws and their side-effects helped to push colonial subjects towards rebellion.

The difference in application of the law between natives and Germans is what Sebastian Conrad refers to as “‘native law’,” by which colonial governments attempted to “share in local structures of legitimacy” while simultaneously denying natives “full rights of participation in modern societies.”[25] This created the opposite of the desired effect—it served to further damage the colonial Germans’ own legitimacy. It is clear that in the case of German Southwest and East Africa, these “native laws” largely served to benefit German colonial society—though not necessarily benefiting German colonial governance—at the expense of native populations. Native laws upset local balances of power, and even when German colonialists attempted to utilize continuities of rule, increasingly oppressive native laws undermined the Germans’ own legitimacy as colonial rulers and threw the colonies into a greater state of violence.


In Sum…

For the sake of brevity, the colonial structures created by religious and/or educational institutions have been largely omitted in order to focus more directly on the colonial power structures that primarily led to conflict and had, arguably, a greater impact on the broader German colonial society across Germany’s various colonies. Sebastian Conrad’s belief in colonial Germans’ use of continuities of rule, islands of power, and their struggle for legitimacy and constant use of violence appears to hold true when analyzed through the findings of Arne Perras, Michelle Moyd, George Steinmetz, and Thaddeus Sunseri. Even when narrowing the focus to Germany’s colonial holdings in Africa, it is abundantly clear that the colonial structures of German colonial society and governance greatly impacted local populations in ways that were sometimes unpredictable. The DOAG and its agents, colonial outposts, Askari troops, and “native laws” were oppressive colonial structures that were imposed upon colonized subjects through the will of German colonial society. These structures, more often than not, led Germany’s colonized subjects to view Germans in a negative light, inevitably leading to rebellion and further violence.


[1] Sebastian Conrad, German Colonialism: A Short History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 66.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Arne Perras, “‘From the Nyassa to the Nile.’: Peters and the German East Africa Company (1885-1887),” in Carl Peters and German Imperialism 1856-1918: A Political Biography, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004), 70.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 101.

[6] Ibid., 113.

[7] Ibid., 115.

[8] Ibid., 116-117.

[9] Ibid., 126.

[10] Michelle Moyd, “Askari as Agents of Everyday Colonialism,” in Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2014), 185.

[11] Ibid., 184.

[12] Ibid., 188-189.

[13] Ibid., 191.

[14] Conrad, German Colonialism, 73.

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] George Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 192-195).

[17] Conrad, German Colonialism, 87.

[18] Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting, 186.

[19] Ibid., 185.

[20] Ibid., 187.

[21] Thaddeus Sunseri, “The War of the Hunters: Maji Maji and the Decline of the Ivory Trade,” in Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War, eds. James Giblin & Jamie Monson, (Boston: Brill, 2010), 131.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., 133.

[25] Conrad, German Colonialism, 78.


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