Why the Native Regiments and Askari Corps of Africa fought

Colonialism as an institution has been blamed for almost every ill affecting the developing world, particularly Africa, which has limped along with the aid of this crutch for two generations. Africa’s imperial history is as varied as every other aspect of its history, and the colonial experience itself varied from territory to territory.

The Germans were probably among the more able and sophisticated of the European colonisers of the late 18th and 19th centuries. In this regard they were similar to the British. The Germans were relative latecomers, but they contributed enormous resources to the development of their colonies in the short period that they owned them, and left behind relatively sophisticated social and economic infrastructures. Likewise the British, who were regarded as being the fairest minded and most ‘civilized’ of the ‘civilizers’ . This is in contrast to the Portuguese, who were guilty of some of the worst colonial practices, coupled with a distinct development lethargy, and the Belgians, who perhaps bear the most damning legacy of abuse against the people of the Congo, despite carving a very functional, ordered and attractive colony out of one of Africa’s most challenging regions.

What interests me, in the light of all this, is how the colonial militias and native police were formed and deployed in an environment where the governing institutions were apparently universally despised. The answer is, obviously, that those institutions were not as despised as popular African history would have us believe. In fact colonialism offered relief from many of the dreadful difficulties of life in Africa prior to the Industrial Revolution. Military service within an ordered, disciplined and professional force, be it police or military, offered order and security in an extremely disordered world. Contrary to the utopian theory of pre-colonial Africa, life in 17th and 18th century Africa was often uncertain, violent and short.

There were many other reasons too, of course, and since so much of what is written in this blog is pertaining to the East Africa Campaign, I was interested to stumble on a Google e-book published in 1914, and entitled The Prussian Lash in Africa. The book was written anonymously by ‘Africanus’, and detailed, obviously for the sake of propaganda, the many atrocities committed by the Germans during their period of occupation of several African territories. The authorship was English and the book was written when the future of the German African territories was being decided by War. It also came at a time when the ongoing bickering between the estranged global powers of Europe was evolving into, global conflict, so as a consequence the most scandalous accusations were exchanged in a slough of publications, most of which needed to be taken with a pinch of salt. The Prussian Lash in Africa has the feel about it of The Beastly Hun

While the Germans did have a reputation at times for overtly cruel administrations in East and West Africa,  particularly in the matter of forced labour, which is, of course, luridly described by Africanus, the loyalty of the German Schutztruppe, or Askari Corps, almost never faltered during the East Africa Campaign, even when any hope of victory had long evaporated.The British made use of native units during the East Africa Campaign, utilizing Nigerians, Nyasa, Rhodesians and Somalis, but only after the lessons of tropical warfare on a massive scale had been learned at the cost of vast numbers of white deaths and casualties as a consequence of disease and deprivation. The Germans, however, fought from beginning to end with native units commanded by highly skilled and professional German officers. The Campaign ranged over vast swathes of East Africa. Colonel Paul von Lettow Vorbeck, throughout this time, experienced no indiscipline, no meaningful desertions and no disintegration of the esprit de corps of his beleaguered units. Bearing in mind that this was a white man’s war, this was either a feat of extraordinary leadership, or a display of unthinking loyalty on the part of the troops…probably both.

The title page of The Prussian Lash in Africa has written in hand upon it an angry but interesting comment by some past reader, which states thus:

A collection of lies typical of a ratty Englishman. The author is afraid to identify his lies which amount to a crime against the American intellect. The person who believes it is a fool and a swine and not worth the trouble to ……. ?

Presumably this book was sourced and scanned from a US library, and perhaps offended some Teutonic derivative whose forefathers had been party to the colonisation of Africa.  A failing of the colonial powers has always tended to be their inability to see the wrong of their system, quite as a failing of the colonised has been an inability to see any good. Others pondering the German experience in retrospect tended to be more thoughtful. A certain Professor Bonn, in a 1914 lecture delivered to the Royal Colonial Institute, had this to say:

We tried to assume to ourselves the functions of providence, and we tried to exterminate a native race whom our lack of wisdom had goaded into rebellion. We succeeded in breaking up the native tribes, but we have not yet succeeded in creating a new Germany

Delivered to the Royal Colonial Institute, later renamed the Royal Commonwealth Society, it is not surprising that this sort of intellectual self laceration would be played out to the satisfaction of a British audience. The fact remains, however, that black refugees  fleeing from both German and Portuguese labour practices in their respective colonies all tended to move into British territories. Even to South Africa. Likewise those fleeing Belgian labour exploitation in the Belgian Congo would arrive most frequently in German East Africa, only thereafter, one assumes, looking around for greener pastures in Rhodesia, Nyasaland or South Africa. Both Rhodesia and Nyasaland tended to benefit from labour migration to their territories, and if Africanus states that black workers fled the Prussian Lash, then the numbers of these people that migrated to the British territories would tend at least to confirm some truth in the propaganda.

A book such as this this would not be complete without a blanching examination of the fate of the Hereros, a kindred language group of the Bushmen, or San, living nowadays in some social isolation within Namibia. The fate of the Herero people during the German occupation of South West Africa is a genuine case of colonial excess, genocide and gratuitous cruelty, and even the American intellectual reader/commentator, whoever he might have been, would have been hard pressed to deny it.

The Germans officially claimed South West Africa as a territory in 1884. The first colonists and commercial land companies began to arrive shortly afterwards, very quickly assuming control of the best land and resources, and alienating the local natives who, unlike the more pliable Bantu, where unwilling to countenance any adaptation of their geographic range or lifestyle. When viewed through a prism of social Darwinism, the Herero were indeed very primitive, and in view of the growth of a capital society, very uncooperative. To add injury to insult, the Herero and Nama peoples launched a rebellion in 1904, which was primarily motivated, as reported by Africanus, not because of land appropriation, but because of the forced sale of their cattle, which would have been the obvious next step to make way for white owned livestock.

Initially, thanks to surprise, the Herero and their allies were successful, and a good number of Germans were put to the spear, often with the addition of some of the more creative flourishes of African bloodshed. A superb comment from Africanus follows, regarding the response of General von Trotha, the  German military supremo at the time. ‘

…the reply of General von Trotha, the Military Commander, was the reply not of a civilized man to the people under his care, but of savage to savage.

Von Trotha ordained either removal or eradication for the Herero. Whichever would suit them better. Should they choose to leave German dominion, they could do so, but should they stay they would be annihilated. This proclamation was followed up by appropriate action, and although statistics vary, by 1907 only an estimated 15,000 Herero from an original population of 80,000 remained on the landscape. This was quite definitely a systematic and pre-planned genocide of an entire people. History has unearthed nothing redeeming in the massacre. It has attracted huge disapprobation over the years, and has quite rightly been the subject of ongoing litigation in various local and international tribunals.

The Germans also owned one of nicer of the African Colonial territories in the Cameroon, or Kamerun. This was an aggregation of tribal territories that reached from the Bight of Benin to Lake Chad, and offered the only true hill station suitable to the European temper in West Africa. If anywhere in German administered Africa offered the possibility of permanent settlement on the scale of Kenya, Rhodesia or indeed South Arica, then this was it.

Africanus, however, reports German usage of the Cameroon as little more than ‘…one long crime committed in the name of German Kultur.’ Again, one has to take this sort of thing with a pinch of salt, in particular, since, once again, the German Schutztruppe was manned primarily by blacks, and was loyal to the last as the British and Allied forces expelled the Germans from both the Cameroon and Togoland, their two West African Territories.

However, one particular story that delighted Africanus, and which did indeed take place, was that of a delegation of tribal worthies of the Akwa tripe, en-route to present a series of grievances to the Rheichstag in Berlin, and travelling by way of London, escaped their German chaperone and sought refuge in the  British Colonial Office where they begged officials to declare Cameroon as a British colony or protectorate.

The Prussian Lash in Africa ends with a long indictment on Karl Peters, the Cecil John Rhodes of German colonial expansion, and the father of the movement of German exploitation, in particular, of East Africa. Karl Peters certainly was no saint, but neither was Rhodes, and in many ways neither was David Livingstone, a particularly flawed purveyor of Christianity and civilisation to the natives, but he also did not really wield the lash in the way that he is portrayed, both here and elsewhere.

In a nutshell The Prussian Lash in Africa does nothing to shed light on how, in general terms, the colonial military forces of Africa survived with its rank and file so ostensibly against it, and indeed fought many wars and campaigns. The answer probably lies in the fact that militias and askari units were formed from tribes and nations originating outside the territory in which they served, thus liberating them from any inconvenient loyalties. One thing that the black man in Africa was able to do then then, as now, and with a consummate lack of conscience, was kill and exploit other blacks. The Indian and Atlantic Ocean Slave Trades bear testimony to this. The native has always seemed more than willing to assist the colonist in the exploitation of his own people and landscape, and if opportunity existed for personal gain, then all the better.

It is also a fact that militias were recruited from those groups with the most obvious propensity for war. These were sometimes  described, often fancifully, as cannibals, particularly in Central Africa, and many are the tales in Imperial histories of burial sites of the recently killed being guarded by whites against pagan black appetites.

These, probably, are also just stories, based on some truth, or some observation, but hardly wholesale. I think, however, the loyalty and superb soldering accomplishments of the Askari Corps, and later such august regiments as the Kings African Rifles, the Rhodesia African Rifles and the West African Frontier Force, testify at the very least to this. Why natives, as was the case with a great many Indian colonial regiments, should serve their colonial masters unto the death in the way that so many did, is a mystery to me. India provided more men to the machine of slaughter that was WWI than any other nation on earth. Africa likewise.

The fact, however, remains, and the histories of the native regiments of Imperial Africa will stand as an authentic chapter in the military history of the continent, and, at the risk of howling disapprobation, the colonial regiments were arguably better equipped, better trained, better led and better disciplined than any force currently active in sub-Saharan Africa. I look forward to the comment that this post will generate.

  • http://streamsandforests.com Jenny Bennett

    Colonialism in Africa is such a gigantic subject, one that creates many traps for the casual observer. I myself have barely scratched the surface. I admire your genuinely grand effort to tackle some parts of it. The Askari troops were an enigma, and I think their performance in German East Africa must have had much to do with the particular skill and personality of von Lettow Vorbeck. His compatriots in German South West were not of such high caliber.

    Regarding books on the subject, I’m sure you must be familiar with the wonderful “Scramble for Africa” by Pakenham. Another book that touches on the subject of Belgian colonialism in a highly eccentric but intriguing way is W. G. Sebald’s “Rings of Saturn.”

  • Peter Baxter

    Thanks Jenny, I like you comments

  • Pingback: Was the Rhodesian War a Race War

  • Mlungu

    Very good article. I am fascinated by the colonial and military past of Africa, but my personal preference and one could say professional leaning, is towards the missionary effort and evangelisation of Africa.

    I am actually living at the moment in Germany, in the former Kolonial Missionschule which belonged to the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, and formed missionaries for German South West Africa in particular.

    Despite the German atrocities in that colony, the missionaries enjoyed relative success, and the Catholic Church, while not quite flourishing in modern Namibia, does have a fairly large minority. As far as I can determine, and I am open to correction, the Catholic priests had little to do with the Herero affair. Whilst the more active Lutheran missionaries did. Yet that Church suffered no significant loss in converts, as far as I am aware.

    As far as German East Africa is concerned, I do know that certain French missionaries en route to Nyasaland through German territory, were horrified by German cruel treatment of the baggage porters they used. The missionaries recorded seeing scores of Africans dead or dying along the route they took; these being the porters who could no longer carry their loads, being simply left to die while their load was forced onto another. This particular case was when the colonial government used porters to carry piece by piece, from the coast to Lake Tanganyika, all the parts for a steam ship. Come hell or high water they got the ship there, at the loss of a significant number of porters lives.

    It is also of note that one of these French missionaries later on became, through an interesting series of events, the King of a tribe in Nyasaland. He took up the post temporarily due to force of circumstances. If memory serves correct, it was also during this time that German and British agents were pressing the late King to place himself under the protection of their respective governments. When the French missionary became King, he convinced the people to opt for British, instead of German protection. The fact that he was French may allay any nationalist bias to one particular side; the memory of German cruelty perhaps being the more decisive factor in his decision.

    However, excepting the case of the Herero war and subsequent genocide, I do not think the Germans can be blamed for worse excesses than any other colonial power. And while it is interesting that many Africans associated British rule with fair treatment, it was only by a slight margin and a case of ‘lesser of two evils’ in my opinion.

    Not to make this comment longer than it already is, but I find your idea concerning the readiness of native militia to harm other Africans, even if this means helping to further colonial enterprise, an interesting one. Certainly I find it fantastic, in the case of the Belgian Congo, for example, that there were 200+ various tribes in the country, all of various sizes and considerable power. Despite a number of uprisings by invidual tribes, all proving to be difficult but not overwhelming to Belgian colonial control, none of these tribes, or rather very few, banded together to fight the ‘common enemy’. Belgian military power was not that significant in the early days, and it was Belgian policy to ally with tribes historically hostile to the rebels. Had Africans put aside tribal differences in the dawning day of colonialism, and made common effort against the ‘white invader’ perhaps African history would be much different? And this example, in my opinion, holds true for much of colonial Africa.

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