King Mkwawa and the First German Colonial Forces’ Defeat in Africa

King Mkwawa

Have you ever heard about the German Schutztruppe‘s first stinging defeat in Africa? Have you ever heard about the African Chief whose skull was part of the Treaty of Versailles’ negotiation? Have you ever heard of the Hehe Rebellion of 1891 and the German defeat at the hand of the fierce Hehe King Mkwawa in Lugalo?

King Mkwavinyika Munyigumba Mwamuyinga (known as Mkwawa) was born in Luhota in Iringa in the south of modern-day Tanzania, and was the son of Chief Munyigumba, who died in 1879. He was the leader of the Hehe people in German East Africa (now mostly the mainland part of Tanzania) who opposed the German colonization. The name “Mkwawa” is derived from Mukwava, itself a shortened form of Mukwavinyika, meaning “conqueror of many lands“.

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A Hehe warrior

Mkwawa was the chief of the Uhehe who won fame by defeating Germans at Lugalo on August 17th 1891 and maintaining the resistance for seven years. August 17th 1891 marks the first defeat of the German colonial troops or ‘Schutztruppe’ in Africa, at Africans’ hands. The devotion of the Hehe people to their King was unconditional to the point that when the German governor offered 5,000 rupees for his capture in 1898, no Hehe accepted it!

Emil von Zelewski

After the Germans had managed to colonize the coastal area of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), they started to move further inland. At that time the Hehe were also expanding towards the coast. Both sides tried some diplomacy to avoid war. However, all hopes were dashed, so the Germans decided the best way was to fight against Chief Mkwawa. In July 1891, the German commissioner, Emil von Zelewski, led a battalion of soldiers (320 askaris with officers and porters) to suppress the Hehe. On 17 August, they were attacked by Mkwawa’s 3,000-strong army at Lugalo, who, despite only being equipped with spears and a few guns, quickly overpowered the German force and killed Zelewski.

On 28 October 1894, the Germans, under the new commissioner Colonel Freiherr Friedrich von Schele, attacked Mkwawa’s fortress at Kalenga. Although they took the fort, Mkwawa managed to escape. Subsequently, Mkwawa conducted a campaign of guerrilla warfare, harassing the Germans until 1898 when, on 19 July, he was surrounded and he shot himself to avoid capture.

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Sir Edward Twining returning King Mkwawa’s skull in 1954

After his death, German soldiers removed Mkwawa’s head. The skull was sent to Berlin and ended up in the Übersee-Museum Bremen. In 1918 the then British Administrator of German East Africa H.A. Byatt proposed to his government that it should demand a return of the skull to Tanganyika in order to reward the Wahehe for their cooperation with the British during the war and in order to have a symbol assuring the locals of the definitive end of German power. The skull’s return was stipulated in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles:

ARTICLE 246. Within six months from the coming into force of the present Treaty, … Germany will hand over to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the skull of the Sultan Mkwawa which was removed from the Protectorate of German East Africa and taken to Germany.

The Germans disputed the removal of the said skull from East Africa and the British government took the position that the whereabouts could not be traced. However, after World War II, the Governor of Tanganyika, Sir Edward Twining, took up the issue again. After inquiries he was directed to the Bremen Museum which he visited himself in 1953. The Museum had a collection of 2000 skulls, 84 of which originated from the former German East Africa . He short-listed the ones which showed measurements similar to surviving relatives of Chief Mkwawa; from this selection he picked the only skull with a bullet-hole as the skull of chief Mkwawa.

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King Mkwawa’s skull in exposition at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Kalenga

The skull was finally returned on 9 July 1954, and now resides at the Mkwawa Memorial Museum in Kalenga, near the town of Iringa. Many believe that it is not King Mkwawa’ skull.

Here I salute King Mkwawa and the Hehe people who fought for their freedom and resisted for over 7 years. The defeat of the German colonial forces on 17th August 1891 in Lugalo, the destruction of the Hehe fort at Kalenga on the 30th of October 1894 and the death of Chief Mkwawa on the 19th of June 1898 were key events in the German colonization in East Africa. To learn more about this page of history, check out the website by King Mkwawa’s great-grandsonThe colonial wars of imperial Germany , and this article on King Mkwawa’s skull.