The outbreak and development of the Maji Maji War; 1905-1907

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University of Dar es Salaam
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 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 emphasized. 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 for such innovation had to be based on those ideas, 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 systematized on a supra-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 guerrilla 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 terribly suppressed. Traditional methods of warfare became of 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. 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 fright-fullness 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 utilized 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 organized 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. 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 mobilization 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 legitimatized 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 organized messenger system spread plans between areas. The use of a 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 Germany had not comprehended fully the initial preparations for the war. The Maji Maji organizers 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 emphasize conventional battle warfare in which they normally attacked from three fronts. When the strengthened German forces began systematic suppression the Africans changed to various guerrilla 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. 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.
Maji maji war (1905-1907)
Gwassa, G. C. K. (1973) The outbreak and development of the Maji Maji War; 1905-1907, PhD dissertation,University of Dar es Salaam. Available at