Maji Maji Revolt, Africa

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Maji Maji Revolt, Africa

The Maji Maji Revolt (1905–1907) was a pivotal event in the history of early colonial Tanzania. The revolt was the first manifestation of a united, interethnic opposition to colonial rule in Africa. Though the rebellion failed to oust the Germans from East Africa, it led the colonial administration to implement a series of reforms. The Maji Maji Revolt further engendered a protonationalist tradition that was tapped into in the 1950s during the country's modern nationalist period.

Following the Berlin Conference (1884–1885), Germany acquired several colonies in Africa, including the present-day countries of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and part of Mozambique. Like other colonial powers, Germany aimed to maximize the economic potential of its African colonies. In East Africa, the Germans exerted control through violent repressive tactics. They introduced a head tax in 1898 imposed on adult males to raise revenue for their administration. Like many other colonial powers, Germany relied on forced labor to build roads and other infrastructure. In 1902 the governor of German East Africa, Count Adolf von Götzen (1866–1910), ordered Tanzanian villagers to grow cotton as cash crop. Tanzanians resented so strongly this order because of the back-breaking work involved in cotton cultivation. These German policies were highly unpopular, and some villagers refused to work the land or pay the taxes. German policies also disrupted African social and economic relations as many men were forced away from their homes to work, and rural women were forced to assume new roles and contribute more to subsistence. The difficult conditions to which the natives were subjected were exacerbated by a drought that threatened the region in 1905. These circumstances, in combination with the effects of the government's agricultural, forest, and labor policies, led to open rebellion in July 1905.

The native Tanzanians turned to African spirituality and magic to drive the Germans out of Tanzania. The leader of the rebellion was a spirit medium named Kinjikitile Ngwale (d. 1905), who called himself Bokero and claimed to be possessed by a snake spirit called Hongo. Bokero began to spread the idea that the people had been called upon to eliminate the Germans. The revolt was named after a medicine called maji that purportedly gave African fighters immunity to German bullets. Although this "war medicine" was in fact nothing but water mixed with castor oil and millet, the dissemination of the maji ideology spread a message of common opposition and resistance to German colonial rule.

Believing themselves empowered with this medicine, Bokero's followers began the Maji Maji Revolt. Armed with cap guns, spears, and arrows, and wearing millet stalks around their heads, they set out from the Matumbi Hills in southern Tanzania and attacked German garrisons throughout the colony. Along with the Matumbi, the Mbunga, Kichi, Ngoni, Ngindo, and Pogoro joined the rebellion in German East Africa. Although fewer in number, German forces of European and native soldiers used superior firepower to their advantage, and several thousand Maji rebels were cut down by machine-gun fire. The magic water that they thought would protect them from the German guns failed. However, the fight in several areas was bitter.

When Kinjikitile Ngwale was executed by German troops on August 4, 1905, another spirit medium continued to lead the revolt. The rebellion continued when the Ngoni people joined in the revolt with a force of 5,000 but they were no match to German guns when they were attacked. The Germans destroyed villages, crops, and other food sources used by the rebels in a scorched-earth policy, leading to the deaths of an estimated 250,000 from famine. The defeat of the Ngoni marked the end of any serious resistance. By April 1906, the southwest of German East Africa was pacified, but it was not until August of 1907 that the rebellion was effectively stamped out.

The aftermath of Maji Maji Revolt had important implications for German rule until the end of World War I in 1918, when the area became British territory. The rebellion, which led to the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, was a major challenge to German colonial rule in Africa. The colonial government instituted important administrative reforms in the wake of the rebellion. For the Africans in the region, the rebellion raised a nationalist consciousness that was called upon during the decolonization period.

see also Berlin Conference; Germany's African Colonies.


Iliffe, John. "The Organization of the Maji Maji Rebellion." Journal of African History 8 (1967): 495-512.

Iliffe, John, and G. C. K. Gwassa, eds. Records of the Maji Maji Rising. Dar es Salaam, Tanzania: East African Publishing House, 1967.

Sunseri, Thaddeus. "Reinterpreting a Colonial Rebellion: Forestry and Social Control in German East Africa, 1874–1915." Environmental History 8 (3) (2003): 430-451. Available from