The Hehe and the Kaiser

Askari soldiers under German command (1906)

Warriors from Kondoa (1906)

In taking over the southern portion of East Africa while leaving the Kenya Highlands to the British, the Germans seem to have got the worst of the bargain. Despite their proximity to the equator, the highlands around Iringa in what is now southern Tanzania are not very productive for agriculture, and can be surprisingly cold and bleak. Several early European explorers complained of the incessant cold and rain when crossing this district. The population has always struggled to support itself from its own resources, and in the early nineteenth century the people were known to the outside world mainly as cattle thieves. In the 1840s the hills became a refuge for people driven off the plains by Ngoni and Masai invaders, including elements of the Sango, Bena, Gogo and Kimbu tribes. The first two of these had adopted some of the Zulu-inspired weapons and tactics introduced by the Ngoni, but most of the highland peoples remained militarily insignificant until the 1860s, when a Sango warrior named Munyigumba organized them into a formidable private army. He led them first against the Bena, who were defeated in a battle at Mugoda Mutitu and driven out of the highlands altogether, then turned against the Sango and forced them in turn to withdraw north-westwards into the Kimbu country.

Munyigumba’s army appears to have been the foundation of what became known as the kingdom of the Hehe. Before this time the Hehe were probably not a distinct ethnic or political group at all; their name is not recorded until the 1860s, and is said to be derived from a war-cry: ‘Hee! Hee! Vatavagu twihoma! Ehee!’ (Reusch). The German anthropologist E Nigmann, writing in 1908, admitted that there was no such thing as a ‘pure’ Hehe, and other twentieth-century scholars identified twenty-nine once-independent tribes which made up the confederation. It seems that the defining characteristic of the Hehe was allegiance to the dynasty established by Munyigumba (to which he gave the name of ‘Vamuyinga’, after a legendary founder named Muyinga), and that it was not until the colonial period that a cohesive Hehe ‘nation’ really came into being. This process is by no means unusual in African history, and we have already seen how similar melting pots gave rise to the Zulus, Matabele and Ngoni.

Under Munyigumba the Hehe, like Shaka’s Zulus, quickly gained a formidable reputation out of all proportion to their numbers. Joseph Thomson, who visited them in 1879, says that they were once ‘a very insignificant tribe’ (Thomson, 1881), but they had already made an impression on Verney Cameron, who encountered a group of Hehe warriors in 1873 during his crossing of the continent. ‘Such is their reputation for courage and skill in the use of their weapons,’ he wrote, ‘that none of the tribes on whom they habitually make their raids ever dare to resist them.’ Not long before his death in 1879 Munyigumba fought his last campaign against the dreaded Ngoni, who had sent a raiding army into the heart of Hehe territory. There, at the Battle of Nyamulenge, the invaders were defeated and their chief Chipeta, a man notorious for his cruelty, was killed. The German missionary Richard Reusch records a Hehe tradition that Munyigumba personally killed the enemy commander in single combat. ‘This fight of the two chiefs was so grand,’ he says, ‘that both hosts stopped to watch it in deadly silence, until it was over and Chipeta fell down with the sword of his great enemy in his heart.’

The Organization of the Hehe Kingdom

Munyigumba’s new kingdom was well organized, and subject to a strict code of laws. During his reign he established his authority over at least fifteen neighbouring chiefdoms, whose rulers either accepted his overlordship or were replaced with Hehe appointees. The plateau of Wota on the northern edge of the highlands, which was inhabited by refugees from further south who had settled there early in the century, was also occupied and placed under an appointed governor. This official seems to have had the extra responsibilities of reporting on events along the caravan route from Zanzibar, and of defending the northern frontier against the Masai. The Hehe king, or mutwa, owed his pre-eminence partly to his real or alleged royal birth, and partly to his role as an intermediary with the spirits of dead chiefs. He was also believed to possess a powerful magic charm, the amahomelo, which protected him in battle and helped him to defeat his enemies. It seems that this charm may have been regarded as an essential part of the king’s authority to rule, and his success in war strengthened his legitimacy by proving the effectiveness of the magic. Whatever the true reasons, the kingship established by Munyigumba seems quickly to have gained the sort of prestige which inspired the notoriously individualistic highland warriors to fight and die for it.

There are no reliable figures for the total manpower available to the Hehe kings. After the German conquest in 1898 it was estimated that the ‘nation’ numbered about 50,000 people altogether, but this does not include many non-Hehe who had been incorporated into the realm, and who sometimes fought in their own styles alongside the Hehe proper. The army fighting in Usango in 1877, for example, included a high proportion of Bena auxiliaries who were armed and equipped like Ngoni. Subordinate chiefs known as vanzagila were responsible for raising their own regiments in time of war. Like the king himself, many of them maintained small standing armies. These consisted of two categories of warriors: older men known as vatambule, or veterans, who served as subordinate officers, and the young men in training, or vigendo. Munyigumba also introduced the practice of establishing military colonies of young men of between twelve and twenty years of age in the territories of subjugated tribes. These various regular units formed the permanent cadres of regiments or wajinga, often named in Ngoni style, into which all the unmarried men could be enrolled in time of war.

As among the Zulus and Ngoni, each regiment was formed from the men of a particular age group, who were not allowed to marry until they had proved themselves in combat. One senior unit, the Vatengelamutwa (‘those who stand firm by their chief’), acted as a royal bodyguard in battle. Regiments were further divided into companies, known as fipuka, though their tactical role, if any, is not clear. Men who particularly distinguished themselves were additionally rewarded with gifts of cloth, slaves and cattle, while cowards were humiliated by being forced to work as porters. Food production, supply columns and even medical services were also well organized. Several German observers described this system as identical to that of the Zulus, but it is not known whether it was directly inspired by the Zulu example (perhaps transmitted by the Ngoni) or was simply a development of local practice. Some Hehe regimental names were identical with those known among the Sango, so it is possible that these rather than the Ngoni may have been the model for the Hehe regimental organization.

The life of the Hehe soldier, as recalled by veterans interviewed in the twentieth century, has echoes of the Viking sagas. Between campaigns they caroused in beer halls, singing and boasting of their past and future exploits. Munyigumba’s successor Mkwawa also employed a professional praise singer of Sango origin, who made speeches to inspire the men before a battle. Many warriors adopted picturesque praise names or noms de guerre describing their achievements or ambitions. Recorded examples include Mudenye-wa-ndembo, or ‘breaker of elephants’; Muhayanga-danda-ya-tangu, ‘drinker of his enemies’ blood’; and Mugopisala-amandusi-sinagope, which meant, perhaps prophetically in view of the events of Mkwawa’s reign, ‘he fears the spear, but not the big guns’ (Redmayne).

The Reign of Mkwawa and the Arrival of the Germans

After Munyigumba’s death a struggle for power erupted between his son Mkwawa and his son-in-law Mwambambe. Hehe tradition describes Mkwawa as tall and well built, ‘with the neck of a bull and the muscles of a lion’ (Reusch), but it was not so much his physical strength as his persistence that won him the throne. At one point he was forced into exile, but eventually he returned and drove out his rival. Mwambambe in turn fled, and was given refuge among the neighbouring Kimbu. In 1881 Mkwawa turned on the Ngoni and defeated them again, forcing them to agree to a truce until the sons of the current warriors had come of age. This truce was faithfully observed until the arrival of German rule, which prevented any attempt to resume the war. Meanwhile Mwambambe had returned with an army which included many men armed with muskets. Although Mkwawa’s warriors had very few guns, they defeated the invaders in a bloody battle at a place later known as Ilundamatwe, ‘the place where many heads are piled up’. Mwambambe and most of his supporters were killed, leaving his rival unchallenged. In the early 1880s the Hehe clashed with a horde of Masai, probably members of the Parakuyo clan which had been defeated and displaced in the Masai civil wars. According to Hehe oral tradition the invaders collected a large herd of stolen cattle, but as they were returning home the Hehe attacked and drove them into a patch of quicksand, where many Masai perished.

Another story describes a battle between the Masai and a Hehe army led by Mkwawa’s sister, Mtage. Allegedly both armies were almost annihilated, only three men remaining alive at the end according to one version. This is obviously unlikely, but a hand-to-hand fight between Hehe warriors, who were trained to use stabbing spears in Zulu style, and the similarly equipped Masai may well have been bloody enough for the carnage to leave an indelible impression on both sides. Masai tradition, however, claims that the Hehe were frustrated by their failure to defeat them, and resorted to trying to terrorize them by roasting prisoners alive. The moran retaliated in kind until both sides tired of the slaughter and made peace. It is not clear whether all these accounts refer to the same campaign, but it is clear that the Masai ceased to threaten Mkwawa’s possessions after 1883, when two stone pillars were erected to mark a permanent border between the two tribes’ spheres of influence. Meanwhile Mkwawa continued to expand his kingdom in other directions. The main trading route inland from Zanzibar was regularly attacked by Hehe raiding parties based in Wota. In the course of the fighting many of the villages along the route were burnt and plundered, depriving the caravans of supplies. European observers in the late 1880s frequently complained that the trade route was almost closed by the combined depredations of Mkwawa, the Masai and a notorious Kimbu warlord named Nyungu-ya-Mawe. But this activity was to bring the Hehe into conflict with a far more formidable enemy than any they had encountered so far.

In 1884, as the European powers began their ‘scramble’ for colonial possessions in Africa, an unofficial action by a party of adventurers (including the notorious Carl Peters), backed by the Society for German Colonization, brought the chaotic hinterland of Zanzibar into the sphere of international power politics. Travelling in secret, and with no authority from their government, they persuaded or bribed ten local chiefs to sign treaties accepting German protection. Legally the chiefs were not free to make treaties as they were all subjects of the Sultan of Zanzibar, who in turn was under British protection. It seems unlikely, in fact, that they understood what they were signing; one man put his name to a document declaring that he had never heard of the sultan, even though he lived so close to the island of Zanzibar that it could be seen from his village. Nevertheless, despite the risk of provoking an incident with Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm I agreed to grant the society a Schutzbrief, or charter, which automatically granted German protection to any territory which it acquired. The British government was not particularly interested in the unproductive interior, and eventually agreed to accept the Kaiser’s claims in return for a free hand elsewhere. In 1885 an Anglo-German agreement conceded to Germany the entire hinterland of Zanzibar as far west as Lake Tanganyika, and the sultan had no choice but to accept the situation when a German naval squadron threatened to bombard his palace.

Authority in the new territory was vested in a commercial company, the Deutsch Ost-Afrika Gesellschaft or German East African Company, and its first years were turbulent. The local Arabs resented the Germans, who imposed restrictive laws and generally behaved as if they were in a conquered country. In 1888 fighting broke out when the German commander at the port of Pangani, Lieutenant von Zelewski, chopped down a pole bearing the all-red Zanzibari flag, despite an agreement that it should be flown side by side with the black, white and red German tricolour. This officer was already hated for his severity, which had earned him the Swahili nickname of ‘Nyundo’, ‘the hammer’, but this did not prevent his rapid promotion during and after the ensuing war. The conflict was known to the Germans as the ‘Abushiri Rebellion’ after the main Arab leader, although technically it was not a rebellion at all, as few if any of the participants had ever given their allegiance to Germany. German authority was eventually restored in 1890, but the discredited East African Company was replaced by direct German government control. In the following year a regular army was established, with the title of imperial Schutztruppe or ‘protection force’.

The Schutztruppe

This quickly established itself as one of the most professional armed forces in Africa. All the officers, NCOs and military specialists were white, and the other ranks exclusively African. At first many of the latter were enlisted in the Sudan, Somalia and Mozambique, the last-named including some Shangaan who had passed themselves off as Zulus and were formed into what became known as the ‘Zulu company’. As time went on these men were supplemented by increasing numbers of local recruits, mostly from tribes with well-known military reputations such as the Hehe, Ngoni and Nyamwezi. The askaris were trained with characteristic German professionalism, well treated and well paid. In 1898, for example, a private soldier received 30 rupees a month, compared with 16 rupees in British East Africa. Each man was also provided at government expense with a servant to carry his kit and cook his food. The result was that although German rule was unpopular with the mass of the people, morale in the Schutztruppe was extremely high and there was never any shortage of volunteers. In contrast, several European visitors remarked on the poor quality of the junior officers and NCOs seconded from the regular army. All too often these were men whose superiors were happy to be rid of them, and like their equivalents in the Congo Free State (see Chapter 6) they were given too much freedom of action without supervision in isolated posts. Inevitably they robbed and otherwise oppressed the local people, and failed to discipline their askaris if they did the same. Senior officials such as Zelewski and the former explorer Carl Peters also set an example of indiscriminate brutality.

Unlike the British, who usually equipped their askaris with obsolete weapons discarded by the white soldiers, the Germans issued the same weapons as those used by the army in Germany. By 1891 these included the Model 1871/84 11mm rifle – a magazine conversion of a single-shot breech-loader – and the improved 7.92mm calibre 1888 Commission model, which was a modern bolt-action rifle using smokeless powder cartridges. This was at a time when the East African Rifles, precursor of the King’s African Rifles, still carried single-shot Sniders which had been replaced in British front-line service more than twenty years previously. In fact the Model 71/84 remained in use until the First World War, not for want of anything better but because its large 11mm calibre round was considered to be better for bush fighting than its 7.92mm replacement because of its greater stopping power. The Germans were slower than the British to adopt machine guns, and the Maxim gun was not officially taken into service by the army until 1899. However, individual officers were usually able to acquire such weapons from unofficial sources, and contemporary accounts describe Maxims in action with German forces in Africa as early as 1889.

In 1890, with the war against Abushiri concluded, the new governor of German East Africa, Freiherr von Soden, wished to extend German influence further inland by peaceful means. He established forts at Mpwapwa and Kilosa to protect the caravan route and proposed negotiations with Mkwawa to bring Hehe raids to an end, but this initiative was pre-empted from an unexpected quarter. Zelewski, ‘the hammer’, far from being disciplined for his role in starting the recent war, was now commander-in-chief of the Schutztruppe, with the rank of Hauptmann or major. In June 1891 he led an expedition out of Kilosa to the border of Hehe country to pacify a band of Ngoni who had been raiding for slaves in association with some renegade Hehe. Zelewski’s force consisted of five companies, each comprising about ninety askaris, plus three field guns and two Maxim guns. One company, the 8th, was commanded by a young half-Scottish lieutenant named Tom Prince and was composed of ‘Zulus’, the rest of the rank and file being Sudanese. There were also about 170 locally recruited porters. The Ngoni easily avoided contact with Zelewski, who contented himself with burning a few Hehe border villages. He then advanced up the Kitonga gorge towards the highlands, probably aiming for a fort which Mkwawa had built at Kalenga, of which he had been informed by the Arabs. Zelewski had no orders to invade Mkwawa’s kingdom, and because he did not survive to give an account of his actions it is impossible to be sure whether or not he intended to provoke another war. Certainly, though, he shared with his colleague Peters both a firm belief in the use of ruthless methods, and a deep contempt for the fighting qualities of Africans. According to Lieutenant Prince he had been advised that the Hehe were dangerous, but had dismissed the warning on the grounds that as they did not possess firearms they could not seriously threaten a well-equipped expedition.

The Hehe Army

In fact Zelewski had been misled by his anonymous informant on two counts. The Hehe were by no means ignorant of firearms, but even if they had been they would still have been formidable opponents. Early in the twentieth century Nigmann interviewed Hehe veterans of the ensuing war about the tactics which Mkwawa’s armies had employed. Unlike many native forces they were accustomed to fight in both the dry and wet seasons, and Hehe armies often campaigned in several theatres simultaneously. According to Joseph Thomson, the warriors could travel at a trot for days without food. An expedition would be preceded by scouts or vatandisi, who might operate several days ahead of the main body. Then came an advance guard, the vandagandaga, which was strong enough to carry out surprise raids or pursue a fleeing enemy on its own, and could be quickly supported by the main body in the event of serious resistance. This main body would consist of one or more regiments and the supply train. Large numbers of prisoners of war accompanied the armies as labourers and porters. Munyigumba’s duel with the Ngoni Chipeta notwithstanding, a commander was not normally expected to lead the army into battle in person, but remained in the rear with his bodyguard. The reason for this was that the Hehe believed that the body of a chief was almost sacred, and it was feared that the troops would be demoralized if they saw his blood spilt.

The most interesting aspect of the tactics used against the Germans is that they seem to have represented a deliberate reversion to traditional methods. The main striking force of the army consisted of the wajinga regiments, which advanced to battle in dense formations, culminating with a charge to close quarters. According to Cameron and Thomson, writing in the 1870s, each man was equipped with a heavy Zulu-style spear with a short shaft and a long narrow head, for use as a thrusting weapon at close quarters, and between six and eight lighter throwing spears or assegais. Cameron claims that these missiles were accurate up to 50 yards. They seldom appear in battle accounts of the German war and may have largely gone out of use by this time, although in 1898 Tom Prince was wounded by a spear thrown from ambush. A short sword of Masai type, or what Thomson (1881) describes as ‘a hybrid article, between a billhook and an axe’, was sometimes carried as a sidearm. Shields were also similar to the Zulu type but could be very large, occasionally as tall as a man. The warriors seen by Cameron in 1873 carried huge bull-hide shields, up to 5 feet high by 3 feet wide, with a piece of wood running down the centre as a stiffener and curved outwards in the middle to act as a handgrip. It seems that at least in Mkwawa’s day units could be distinguished by the colours or patterns on their shields, and Tom Prince’s wife, Magdalene, who accompanied him on the campaign, recorded that at least one of the Hehe regiments in the war of the 1890s carried plain white shields. Following the Zulu precedent, this might have indicated elite status, but this cannot be confirmed from contemporary sources

If the warriors were armed with muskets, they would usually fire a single volley at close range before charging. But according to the testimony of the explorer J F Elton, who had been an eyewitness of Munyigumba’s campaign against the Sango in 1877, this had not been the practice at that time. Instead Elton describes a Hehe war-party besieging a fortified village for several days, trading abuse and long-range musketry, advancing cautiously and only under cover, and even entrenching them-selves for protection against the defenders’ bullets. Each night they lit fires, apparently to make the enemy think that they had burnt their temporary huts and left. After a few days they really broke off the siege and retired, pursued by the Sango. It may be that this unsuccessful record in siege warfare encouraged the Hehe in their reliance on their own fortifications like those at Kalenga in their struggle against the Germans. Guns seem always to have been in short supply and were mostly hoarded by the chiefs, who distributed them when required to favoured followers. In a group of warriors encountered by Lieutenant Tettenborn in the early 1890s a minority carried muskets, while the rest had only spears. Several hundred German rifles were captured in the battle at Lugalo, but it is not clear how many of them were used against their former owners. Mkwawa appears to have collected most of them in the fort at Kalenga, where they were recaptured after its fall in 1894. Magdalene Prince refers to others being returned to the Germans in 1896. Mkwawa himself owned a German army revolver, presumably captured, with which he is said to have committed suicide in 1898. After his death he was also found in possession of an old carbine, ‘considerably cracked at the muzzle’ (Iliffe), and a half-filled cartridge belt.

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