Faith, as described by Martin Luther King Jr. is ‘taking the first step, even when you don’t see the full staircase’. Faith isn’t just a notion that people use to get through dark times, it gives us strength and helps in holding a community together. History is filled with narratives where people came together due to their common beliefs and brought about a change. One such story is about the Maji Maji uprising or the rebellion against the German colonizers. Their faith in Maji Maji (the sacred water) helped them to resist the oppression of Germans who were much superior militarily for roughly two years. This rebellion is considered by many to be the first of a kind where people from different ethnic groups came together to fight colonialism. This inspired many such revolutions against colonialism.
In this article we start by understanding what factors led to the Maji Maji uprising, then we look at how it spread and the major figures associated with it. Finally, we will try to understand why the rebellion was unsuccessful and what its impacts were.
The first interest shown by Germany to set up a colony in Africa was in 1884 by Carl Peters. This happened after the Scramble for Africa which was the division, occupation, and colonization of Africa by European powers. The Berlin conference of 1884, which regulated the trade in Africa of European countries is considered to be the starting point for this. It increased European control from 10 per cent in 1870 to 90 per cent in 1940. Its only motive was to control the rich natural resources of the continent.
Germany was not as strong as other countries militarily. It had a smaller army. It controlled present-day African countries like Rwanda, Tanzania, and Cameroon, etc. The story of the Maji Maji uprising took place in modern-day Tanzania.
What led to the rebellion?
Gilbert Gwassa did extensive research on understanding the reasons for the rebellion. He researched by recording the accounts from elder former participants in the rebellion in 1967-68. These are invaluable sources for understanding Maji Maji from the African perspective. These accounts reflect all the social, economic, and political reasons for the Maji Maji uprising
According to these sources, Germans in East Africa adopted repressive policies. There were several taxes- hut taxes, road tax, agriculture tax, taxes on the male members of the family just to increase the revenue. Matumbi people (the tribe of Tanganyika, present-day Tanzania) felt that since Germans are the ones who have come to their land they should be paying them up. They consistently rejected the taxes saying that they did not owe any debts to the Germans. To quote one of the respondent from Gwassa’s research “we, who have for so long been used to govern ourselves, find laws of these Germans very hard, especially the taxes because we black people have not money, our wealth consists of millet, maize, oil, and groundnuts.”
Cotton had become a major cash crop for the German. A policy that was implemented by Gustav Adolf Von Gotzen. They forced the people to stop cultivating maize, millets that formed a large part of their diet, and only grow cotton on their lands. Growing cotton was one of the major reasons for their distress. To grow these crops they were tortured severely. An account by Mzee Njimbwi, interviewed on 24th September 1967, says-
“During the [cotton] cultivation there was much suffering. We, the labor conscripts, stayed in the front-line cultivating. Then behind us was an overseer whose work it was to whip us. Behind the over-seer, there was a jumbe [official], and every jumbe stood behind his fifty men. Then, behold death there! And then as you till the land from the beginning to end your footprints must not be seen save those of the jumbe. The overseer, had a whip, and he was extremely cruel. His work was to whip the conscripts if they rose or tried to rest, or if they left a trail of their footprints behind them.”
Another reason that played a major role in the Maji Maji uprising can be traced to headmen Aksari. They were essential pillars in managing the German administration. They exploited the natives sexually and reduced them to forced labor without any pay. Though Germans were aware of it they could not speak about it in public. Anything against the Aksaris would have been suicidal for Germans.
These were the major reasons for their distress and inspired people to join the Maji Maji uprising. But, the rebellion could not have taken place without the rise of a Prophet named Kinjikitile (who called himself Bokero) who invoked the spiritual faith of people and helped in organizing the rebellion.
Prophet Kinjikitle (will be referred to as Bokero from here upon) and Maji Maji
The birth of Bokero is not known, but there is a famous story of how he rose to become a Prophet. It is said that he was possessed by a spirit named Hongo. The legend goes that a snake (which was Hongo) took him into the river and he came out alive, as if untouched by the water after 24hrs. After that, he started prophesying. He instilled the people of Mugambi that he had created a sacred potion that can turn the German bullets into water. That sacred water was called the Maji Maji, which was actually a mixture of millets, castor oil, and plain water. But, Bokero was able to instill the faith in the Matumbi people that this will indeed protect them from German guns and they have a chance to win their independence.
Maji became their rallying hope and within days people started organizing themselves and attacking small colonial outposts. On 31st of July 1905, Matumbi tribesmen reached Samanga destroying cotton crops and a trading post. Following these events, Bokero was hung for treason on 4th August 1905. But before he died he made a statement that he had spread the sacred potion of rebellion throughout the region. He wasn’t wrong. The movement spread over one hundred thousand square miles. People from different tribes also started joining the force. The millennial nature of the movement is stressed in records is evident in the following-
“The movement had begun in answer to the religious message of the prophet. The power of Maji over European weapons- It is likely that people of Tanzania had such kind of teaching before, but only as attacks on witchcraft. Now this religious tradition was mobilized against the Germans.”
Why was the Maji Maji rebellion unsuccessful? What were its impacts?
Once the rebellion started to grow, the German started to deploy their army in more areas. On August 25th, several thousand warriors armed with spears and arrows attacked the German Cantonment in Mahenge. They killed two bishops. After which the Germans opened fire on them. This killed thousands of warriors. This was when the people realized that the Maji Maji potion cannot really turn the bullets into the water. But, the people were courageous and they kept fighting for roughly two years from 1905-07.
Another reason that the uprising started to die down is because of the “scorched earth policy” undertaken by Gustav Adolf Von Gotzen. The Germans decided to starve all those who were a part of the rebellion. They burned down the crops (that were already less due to cotton plantations) and then salted the soil. Which degrades the soil quality even in the long run. About 200,000 to 300,000 Africans died due to starvation (official estimates of 75,000 by German records ignores death by famine). Some scholars consider this a genocide.
Though the uprising was unsuccessful, it did have an impact. Firstly, the Germans were forced to revise their policies. Secondly, it inspired many revolts against colonialism. It is considered to be one of the first movements against colonialism that unified people from different ethnic groups.
The story of Maji Maji is not just about the struggle for independence. Some can see it as a failed uprising of oppressed people. However, it is also about persistence and people’s faith in an ordinary potion. The spiritual belief may not have been enough for them to defeat the troops but, it inspired them to get back 45% of their land from the Germans. This relationship between collective faith and spiritualism with activism, though quite messy, turned out to be a powerful tool. .
- The causes of Maji Maji rebellion in German East Africa (Tanzania)- The Official Reports of the German Colonial Government- Translated with an Introduction by John W. East
- Violence in twentieth century Africa- The Maji Maji Rebellion- Scholars blog article
- The Maji Maji Uprising- Devyn Springer
- Maji Maji Revolt, Africa, dated October 14 2020- Article from Encylopedia.com
- Making History, Historical Narratives of the Maji Maji- Elijah Greenstein- University of Pennsylvania history review
- REACTIONS TO COLONIALISM: THE NORTH AMERICAN GHOST DANCE AND EAST AFRICAN MAJI‐MAJI REBELLIONS- Dominic J. Capeci Jr. Jack C. Knight- published August 1990
The other articles in the series are: