Pacification of Colonial Africa 1885–1914

Once the diplomats had stopped haggling and Africa’s new frontiers had been agreed, the generals took over. They were ordered to enforce partition, win over collaborators and chastise any Africans who objected. Whatever their nationality, soldiers followed the strategic principle tersely summarised by Rhodes on the eve of the 1893 Ndebele War: ‘If you strike, strike hard.’

What Rhodes meant by striking hard was modern total war waged with the latest and most lethal military technology. Firepower cleared the way for the new political settlement: defiant Africans faced bombardment by long-range artillery firing explosive shells, machine-guns and magazine rifles which, together, created a killing zone of over a mile in depth. Recalling this hurricane of missiles, one stunned survivor of a German assault on an East African stockade recalled the moment of terror: ‘whenever I put my hand up there is a bullet’. Each new contrivance of death was speedily introduced to the African battlefield; in 1912 the French and Italians deployed aircraft in Morocco and Libya, where Sanussi tribesmen were bombed. Superior weaponry kindled an overweening confidence, such as that of a young trooper who had just joined the British South Africa Company’s gendarmerie, whose job it was to turn Rhodes’s theory into practice. He told his parents: ‘Active service won’t be much of a picnic though I reckon the Maxims will make short work of the niggers.’

Of course they did, but superior weaponry never compensated for blundering generals. Occasionally Africans did win battles, most spectacularly in 1896 when a 30,000-strong Italian army – over two-thirds of them Eritrean askaris (native soldiers) – was trounced by the Emperor Menelik II at Adwa. Hubris, poor intelligence and ignorance of the terrain did for the Italians, but heavy Abyssinian casualties ruled out a counter-offensive into their colony of Eritrea. On a smaller scale, Mkwana, an East African chief and slaver, encircled a German punitive column in 1891 and killed 300 Schutztruppen. His own losses were three times that number, but he managed to capture two machine-guns. Without ammunition, spare parts and trained gunners they were valueless. Within two years the Germans were back and he was defeated. Rhodes’s theory of African warfare was applied throughout the continent. Hammer blows, repeatedly struck, produced the desired result of cowed and biddable subjects. Overawed by the deadly efficiency of the European war machine and demoralised by heavy casualties, Africans submitted and collaborated. Everywhere, piles of corpses testified to the hopelessness of further resistance, which seemed tantamount to mass suicide.

A few of the defeated did actually choose suicide as an alternative to subjection. In East Africa, large numbers of Hutu took their own lives rather than continue resisting the Germans. After his defeat at Omdurman, the Khalifa Abdullahi fled with nearly 10,000 of his followers (two-thirds of them women and children) and planned a counter-attack on Khartoum. His forces were cornered at Um Debreikat in November 1899 and crushed by an Anglo-Egyptian force. As his army dissolved, he gathered his closest followers together, knelt in prayer and waited until they were shot to pieces in what was a public suicide. Six hundred dervishes died with him; British losses were four dead.

The ability to unleash total war was an essential ingredient for upholding that crucial element in imperial rule: prestige. Africans, it was imagined, respected the iron fist and treated hesitancy or forbearance as evidence of a faltering will. This was the lesson the British had learned in India and the French in Algeria. Ideally, submission had always to be total, although there were many occasions when more than one hard knock was needed to secure it. There were over 300 punitive operations in German East Africa between 1889 and 1903, and it required two campaigns in 1895 and 1900 to bring the Asante of the Gold Coast finally to heel.

It was easy to find pretexts for the minor wars of coercion and retribution that proliferated across Africa between 1885 and 1914. New regimes brought with them unwelcome and sometimes intolerable rules. Slave-trading and slavery were outlawed, and the rulers of the slaving polities in East, Central and West Africa and their Arab accomplices fought desperately to defend their profits. Africa was well rid of them and their victims welcomed their overthrow. In Baghirimi (Chad) there was heartfelt rejoicing when the brutal, slaving warlord Rabah Zubayr was defeated by the French, captured and executed at Fort-Lamy (N’Djamena) in 1900.

The commonest cause of wars was the belated discovery by chiefs that the concessions made in treaties coaxed out of them by the likes of Peters and Rhodes went far beyond what they had intended. Wars to recover relinquished autonomy were treated as rebellions by treacherous rulers. Another frequent cause of insurrection was the imposition of hut and poll taxes, novelties that were universally detested. At home, these small wars were celebrated as the victories of civilisation over barbarism. In 1891 Le Petit Journal vilified the Tokolors of Upper Senegal as a breed of voracious parasites who lived ‘solely from wars and the captives of slave trades. They neglect herding and agriculture, and feed themselves by extortion, the ransoming of caravans and the selling of slaves.’8 The German conquest of Cameroon, as described in a popular contemporary adventure story, Kamerun, was a struggle between civilisation and the Duala, who were ‘the worst savages known to this globe’.

Such creatures exempted themselves from any humane considerations. African armies were torn apart by shells and bullets, the wounded were bayoneted, villages were burned, wells were blocked, livestock impounded and crops destroyed as a warning that resistance was futile and led to nothing but suffering. The man on the spot knew best, and felt free to choose any corrective he thought necessary to crush opposition. In 1888 General Joseph Gallieni told his subordinates to ignore instructions from Paris and go ahead with the elimination of the Tokolor chiefs, who were stumbling blocks to French rule and, it went without saying, civilisation.9 The nomadic tribes who lived by rustling and raids against their neighbours on the eastern marches of Chad were officially characterised as ‘congenital brigands’ in 1909. This was a licence to kill their menfolk, occupy or destroy their oases and kidnap their wives and children.

Extreme severity was justified by each colonial power as a lamentable necessity imposed on the civilisers by the obstinacy of the purblind who clung to the archaic African order. Once it had been swept away or reformed in accordance with European values, then Africans would find tranquillity and opportunities for enlightenment and prosperity. This was the message of the imagery on the obverse of the campaign medal awarded to British soldiers engaged in the pacification of Africa between 1900 and 1914. It showed a serene Britannia holding aloft a laurel garland against the background of a rising sun.

Each campaign in Africa, however small, was a magnet for ambitious young officers keen to make a name for themselves and pocket generous campaign allowances. A quarter of the German officers who served in East Africa were allowed to add a talismanic ‘von’ to their surnames, which officially distinguished them as gentlemen, and all got higher pay. Kitchener and Lugard got peerages for their African exertions, and French veterans of African campaigns like Gallieni and Charles Joffre (who captured Timbuktu in 1893) rose to occupy senior commands in the First World War.

Young, enthusiastic and daring officers keen for a scrap were not the invention of writers of British schoolboy fiction; they were everywhere in Africa. Typical was Lieutenant ‘Bobo’ Jelfs, an Old Etonian, who found himself besieged in Ladysmith in 1899. Are we ‘rotters’ or ‘heroes’, he asked his mother in a letter, adding that he was convinced that ‘we have played the game’ by keeping the Boers occupied. The games fetishism of Victorian public schools produced a breed of fellows who would man outposts or lead columns into the bush with the same jaunty spirit as they faced leg-breaks or tackled a beefy front-row forward.

These swashbucklers were as addicted to sport as they were to war, and were glad whenever the two could be combined. The result was a ghastly incident during the 1893 Ndebele War when several sportcrazed officers treated one skirmish as a big-game hunt, afterwards each adding up his ‘bag’ of dead tribesmen. One athletic warrior briefly dodged the fire of four machine-guns and was applauded when he finally fell. An attempt to photograph the corpse of ‘so plucky a fellow’ failed, depriving his killers of the big-game hunter’s object of desire, a trophy. Cries of ‘Tally Ho’ echoed across the veldt as Imperial Yeomanry troopers of the Northumberland Hussars set off in pursuit of Boer partisans in 1900. One huntsman in khaki remembered the ‘splendid exhilaration of the charge or the chase with “Brother Boer” as the quarry’.

It was perhaps natural for Africans for whom hunting was an economic necessity to admire sporting officers who stalked big game and were masters of bushcraft. The skills of Nimrod coupled with personal fearlessness won respect and enhanced an officer’s standing. British, German and French officers all imagined that they possessed those inner qualities of character that won the adulation and confidence of black soldiers.

Europe’s black armies were recruited from what were officially judged to be the most warlike tribes, whose genes and upbringing made them natural soldiers. Colonel Charles Mangin, a veteran of campaigns in West Africa, claimed that ‘warrior instincts’ remained ‘extremely powerful in primitive races’, whose peculiar nervous systems made them ‘resistant to pain’. Raw, atavistic impulses, tempered by strict discipline, would transform the African recruit into as hardy and brave a soldier as any European. He was conditioned to obey orders instantly through drill, which also taught him the complex manoeuvres that were vital for the most efficient application of firepower.

European officers were proud of their ability to bond with the African soldier. Many talked themselves into believing that they possessed a profound insight into his psyche, which was usually assumed to be wild, childlike and fickle, yet capable of intense loyalty. It was axiomatic that an African recruit with a warrior tradition fought well if treated with a paternal firmness exercised with a blend of astringency and fairness. He also adored and followed officers who showed outstanding bravery. French and Spanish officers who commanded Muslim troops in North Africa prided themselves on possession of the mystic quality of barraka, a rare divine favour that spared the lives of the audacious. After seeing him risk death on the battlefield, Moroccan infantrymen imagined that the young Francisco Franco, who served there between 1912 and 1917, was blessed with barraka.

With or without supernatural advantages, European officers were expected always to show a benevolent consideration for the welfare of the men they commanded. It was absent in Colonel Burroughs of the Sierra Leone Regiment, whose neglect and callousness provoked a mutiny and mass desertion in 1901. ‘He punish too much and flog plenty’, complained one soldier. Burroughs’s superiors in the War Office agreed, judged him ‘unfit to command’ and sacked him. The spiritual brotherhood of black Schutztruppen and their German officers was vividly expressed in a marching song of the 1890s. ‘Here we are marching side by side in the darkness of the night . . . brother and brother slaying beast and foes alike. Officers, askaris, and porters marching all together as one.’ According to one of their officers, these soldiers were men reborn as ‘Germanised blacks’ after having been ‘deethnicised and de-Arabised’. The Sudanese mercenaries, who made up a fifth of the East Africa Schutztruppen, had found a new homeland. Their sons and those of locally recruited askaris were given early training in military kindergarten so that, in time, they would follow their fathers into the army.

France was generous to its black soldiers. Senegalese tirailleurs were paid fifteen francs a month and were allowed to have up to four épouses libres who accompanied them on campaign and whom they were free to sell if they wished. ‘Wives’ were also commandeered on campaign. After their discharge veterans received pensions and were exempt from taxes and forced labour, and former NCOs were appointed as trustworthy village headmen. In Nigeria, the neighbours of the Hausa treated them with suspicion because they were the backbone of the colonial army and police.

War was creating a new elite in Africa. Of course, the soldier had always been a man who was respected (and feared) in native communities, and this tradition was turned to advantage by the new regimes. All were hastily assembling armies and gendarmeries, and shrewd and ambitious Africans recognised the benefits that flowed from active collaboration. Local power could be turned to personal profit. Bullying and extortion were applied by native troops serving as tax collectors in Cameroon in 1901. A missionary vainly protested that ‘injustice was done’ and ‘cruelties committed’.

Hausa troops and local levies plundered and fired the town of Satiru after crushing a Mahdist uprising in Northern Nigeria in 1906, killing anyone who got in their way. Operational necessity compelled white officers to overlook such behaviour, which was also common among white troops. African villages provided the Connaught Rangers with ‘pigs, potatoes, chickens and raw hides which we used as blankets’ as they marched towards the Tugela River in 1900. Boer farms produced better pickings and officers turned a blind eye or, on occasion, joined in.

African muscle powered the machinery of conquest in those malarial regions that were fatal for mules and oxen. On average, each fighting man required one or two porters to carry his food and ammunition, and, in turn, their own thin rations. Tests proved that one sturdy porter could carry forty pounds on his head, which represented 250 rounds of ammunition, and two porters could bear the mounting and barrel of a Maxim gun.

Native labourers laid railway tracks in the Sudan and South Africa and undertook the myriad heavy chores of base camps. They and the porters were paid for their drudgery but when demand outstripped supply, as it so often did, wages soared. During the Boer War, British army rates of pay were higher than those in the goldfields, which led to an exodus of black miners. Desertion was a constant nuisance, which was why, whenever possible, logistics officers imported men from distant areas who could not slip away easily to their homes.

Forced labour was frequently employed. Egyptians convicted of crimes during the Alexandrian riots were shipped to Sawakin in 1885 to unload ships. It was grinding work in oppressive heat, and one labourer tried to murder a British officer so as to get himself hanged. Discipline was harshly enforced with the whip: during the Boer War insubordinate labourers were given twelve lashes. Women were corralled into loading camels during campaigns in Somaliland, for local custom exempted men from such menial work. Their husbands received their wages, again in keeping with local practice.

In non-malarial zones, pack animals bore the brunt of carrying provender, equipment, ammunition and their own fodder. They were fed, watered and tended by locally recruited camel drivers and muleteers. Wastage rates were always shockingly high: during operations on the southern border of Algeria in 1900, nearly all the 35,000 camels commandeered by the French died from exhaustion. Over 400,000 horses, mules and donkeys were casualties of the Boer War. Many had been carried by sea from Australia and the United States.

Big armies stiffened with contingents of white troops were needed to defeat the larger and better-armed African states. France deployed 12,000 men in Dahomey during the 1890s, 18,000 against the Merina kingdom of Madagascar between 1894 and 1905, and more than 20,000 to impose a protectorate over Morocco in 1912. Italy fielded a force of 30,000 for its Abyssinian misadventure in 1896, and 35,000 for its invasion of Libya in 1911. Kitchener, who always erred on the side of safety, needed 15,000 British, Indian, Egyptian and Sudanese troops to reconquer the Sudan.

By far the largest concentration of white troops in Africa assembled in South Africa between 1899 and 1902. Four hundred and forty-five thousand British, Australian, New Zealand and Canadian soldiers and a substantial contingent of Boer turncoats were needed to subdue the Transvaal and Orange Free State and suppress a subsequent guerrilla insurgency.

The dominion contingents were volunteers, as were the Imperial Yeomanry, enthusiastic young horsemen and patriots who were raised in 1899. They were asked to sign a book on arrival at Cape Town and again on departure: one gave his reason for joining up as ‘patriotic fever’ and his reason for leaving as ‘enteric fever’. Death rates from disease among white soldiers fell during the last decade of the nineteenth century thanks to advances in preventive medicine. French troops in West Africa were ordered to drink only filtered water and were vaccinated against smallpox after an epidemic in Dahomey in 1892. Oddly, vaccination was voluntary for British forces ordered to South Africa, where contaminated water produced widespread outbreaks of typhoid and enteric fevers.

The conquest of Africa continued well after 1914 with large-scale French and Spanish operations in Morocco in the early 1920s and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935. These and the earlier wars of conquest and pacification gave the European powers what they wanted: secure colonies with obedient populations. They also confirmed what earlier generations of Africans had already surmised – that political power came from the barrel of a gun.

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