The Maji Maji Rebellion (German: Maji-Maji-Aufstand), sometimes called the Maji Maji War (Swahili: Vita vya Maji Maji, Maji-Maji-Krieg), was an armed rebellion against German colonial rule in German East Africa (modern-day Tanzania). The war was triggered by a German policy designed to force the indigenous population to grow cotton for export, and lasted from 1905 to 1907.
After the Scramble for Africa among the major European powers in the 1880s, Germany had reinforced its hold on several formal African colonies. These were German East Africa (now Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique), German Southwest Africa (present-day Namibia), Cameroon, and Togoland (today split between Ghana and Togo). The Germans had a relatively weak hold on German East Africa. However, they did maintain a system of forts throughout the interior of the territory and were able to exert some control over it. Since their hold on the colony was weak, they resorted to using violently repressive tactics to control the population.
Germany began levying head taxes in 1898, and relied heavily on forced labor to build roads and accomplish various other tasks. In 1902, Carl Peters ordered villages to grow cotton as a cash crop (for export). Each village was charged with producing a quota of cotton. The headmen of the village were left in charge of overseeing the production, which set them against the rest of the population.
The German policies were not only unpopular, as they had serious effects on the lives of the natives. The social fabric of society was being changed rapidly. The social roles of men and women were being changed to face the needs of the communities. Since men were forced away from their homes to work, women were forced to assume some of the traditional male roles. Also, the fact that men were away strained the resources of the village and the people's ability to deal with their environment and remain self-sufficient. There was thus a lot of animosity against the government at this period. In 1905, a drought threatened the region. All that as well as opposition to the government's agricultural and labor policies led to open rebellion against the Germans in July.
The insurgents turned to magic to drive out the German colonizers and used it as a unifying force in the rebellion. A spirit medium named Kinjikitile Ngwale claimed to be possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo. Ngwale began calling himself Bokero and developed a belief that the people of German East Africa had been called upon to eliminate the Germans. German anthropologists recorded that he gave his followers war medicine that would turn German bullets into water. This "war medicine" was in fact water (maji in Kiswahili) mixed with castor oil and millet seeds. Empowered with this new liquid, Bokero's followers began what would become known as the Maji Maji Rebellion.
The end of the war was followed by a period of famine, known as the Great Hunger (njaa), caused in large part by the scorched-earth policy advocated by Gustav Adolf von Götzen.
The followers of Bokero's movement were poorly armed with spears and arrows, sometimes poisoned. However, they were numerous and believed that they could not be harmed because the Germans' bullets would turn to water. They marched from their villages wearing millet stalks around their foreheads. Initially, they attacked small outposts and damaged cotton plants. On July 31, 1905, Matumbi tribesmen marched on Samanga and destroyed the cotton crop as well as a trading post. Kinjikitile was arrested and hanged for treason. Before his execution, he declared that he had spread the medicine of the rebellion throughout the region. On August 14, 1905, Ngindo tribesmen attacked a small party of missionaries on a safari; all five, including Bishop Spiss (the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dar es Salaam) were speared to death.
Throughout August the rebels moved from the Matumbi Hills in the southern part of what is now Tanzania and attacked German garrisons throughout the colony. The attack on Ifakara, on August 16, destroyed the small German garrison and opened the way to the key fortification at Mahenge. Though the southern garrison was quite small (there were but 458 European and 588 native soldiers in the entire area), their fortifications and modern weapons gave them an advantage. At Mahenge, several thousand Maji Maji warriors (led by another spirit medium, not Bokero) marched on the German cantonment, which was defended by Lieutenant Theodor von Hassel with sixty native soldiers, a few hundred loyal tribesmen, and two machine guns. The two attacking tribes disagreed on when to attack and were unable to co-ordinate. The first attack was met with gunfire from 1000 m; the tribesmen stood firm for about fifteen minutes, then they broke and retreated. After the first attack, a second column of 1,200 men advanced from the east. Some of these attackers were able to get within three paces of the firing line before they were killed.
While this was the apex of the uprising, the Ngoni people decided to join in the revolt with a force of 5,000. The Muslim Gwangara Ngoni were relatively recent arrivals in the region, descendants of a remnant of the Ndwandwe confederation defeated by the Zulus in 1818 (other Ngoni states were formed in Malawi, Zambia, and north-central Tanzania). German troops, armed with machine guns, departed from Mahenge to the Ngoni camp, which they attacked on October 21. The Ngoni soldiers retreated, throwing away their bottles of war medicine and crying, "The maji is a lie!" Upon the outbreak of the fighting, Count Gustav Adolf von Götzen, governor of German East Africa, had requested reinforcements from the German government. Kaiser Wilhelm immediately ordered two cruisers with their Marine complements to the troubled colony. Reinforcements also arrived from as far away as New Guinea. When 1,000 regular soldiers from Germany arrived in October, Götzen felt he could go on the offensive and restore order in the south.
Three columns moved into the rebellious South. They destroyed villages, crops, and other food sources used by the rebels. They made effective use of their firepower to break up rebel attacks. A successful ambush of a German column crossing the Rufiji River by the Bena kept the rebellion alive in the southwest, but the Germans were not to be denied for long. By April 1906, the southwest had been pacified. However, elsewhere the fighting was bitter. A column under Lt. Gustav von Blumenthal (1879–1913, buried at Lindi) consisting of himself, one other European and 46 Askaris fell under continuous attack as it marched in early May 1906, from Songea to Mahenge. The Germans decided to concentrate at Kitanda, where Major Johannes, Lt. von Blumenthal and Lt. von Lindeiner-Wildau eventually gathered. Von Blumenthal was then sent along the Luwegu River, partly by boat. The southeast campaign degenerated into a guerrilla war that brought with it a devastating famine.
The famine following the Maji Maji Rebellion was partly deliberate. Von Götzen was willing to pardon the common soldiers who gave up their weapons, leaders and witch doctors. However, he also needed to flush out the remaining rebels and so chose famine. In 1905, one of the leaders of German troops in the colony, Captain Wangenheim, wrote to von Götzen, "Only hunger and want can bring about a final submission. Military actions alone will remain more or less a drop in the ocean".
Not until August 1907 were the last embers of rebellion extinguished. In its wake, the rebellion had left 15 Europeans and 389 native soldiers and tens or even hundreds of thousands of insurgents and innocent bystanders dead. It also broke the spirit of the people to resist, and the colony remained calm, partly because of a new governor, who brought a more enlightened regime, until the outbreak of World War I. Lions in the area developed a taste for human flesh in the wake of the slaughter, and the Songea region is still plagued by man-eaters.
The Wahehe Rebellion of 1891-1898 is viewed by historians as a precursor of the Maji Maji uprising. The suppression of the Maji Maji people changed the history of southern Tanzania. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people died or were displaced from their homes. In the wake of the war, the imperial government instituted administrative reforms, and by the outbreak of the First World War, Tanganyika could be said to be among the better-administered European colonies in Africa. The rebellion became a focal point in the history of the region. Later Tanzanian nationalists used it as an example of the first stirrings of Tanzanian nationalism, a unifying experience that brought together all the different peoples of Tanzania under one leader, in an attempt to establish a nation free from foreign domination.
Later historians have challenged that view and claimed that the rebellion cannot be seen as a unified movement but rather a series of revolts conducted for a wide range of reasons, including religion. The Muslim Ngoni chiefs were offered Christian baptism before execution. Many people in the area itself saw the revolt as one part of a longer series of wars continuing since long before the arrival of Germans in the region. They cite the alliance of some groups with the Germans to further their own agendas.