I never thought that bombing, grenades, and warships had been used in wars in Africa prior to the 20th century. Little did I know that it had been in use in the 19th century, during the European invasion of Africa that is known as the scramble for Africa. Today we will talk about the first bombings on Cameroonian soil which occurred on 22 December 1884, when Germans on warships SMS Bismarck and SMS Olga bombed Hickory Town (Bonabéri) in Cameroons Town (modern-day Douala). What might have caused these bombings by German forces on Cameroonian soil, long before the area was ever known as Kamerun?
Well, when the 12 July 1884 Germano – Duala Treaty was signed between the representatives of the Jantzen & Thormählen firm and some of the Douala kings, King Ndumbé Lobé Bell and King Akwa, it was not a unanimous choice among the locals. As a matter of fact, most of the population was against the treaty, and sided with Kum’a Mbappé also known as Lock Priso, King of Hickorytown. The other kings had signed treaties ceding their lands to the Germans without consulting with the others. Kum’a Mbappé refused to sign the treaty. On that fateful day, when the Germans raised their flag in Hickory Town, after raising it in Joss Town, Kum’a Mbappé reacted by writing to the German consul: “Pull that flag down. No man buy we. They want to give us plenty dash, we tell them no. Leave us free and not make us plenty trouble.” The Germans, of course, did not heed the warning, and Kum’a Mbappé ordered the flag to be taken down and the mast ripped apart, a German merchant was killed in the fightings that ensued.
Kum’a Mbappé and his people courageously resisted and defeated the German army. The Germans were outnumbered. After this defeat, German consul Max Buchner wrote to Germany to send troops with real armament, cannons, bombs, grenades, in order to level out Hickory Town and kill Kum’a Mbappé who was a thorn on his side.
Opposition to German rule followed the annexation of July 1884. Lock Priso still favored the British and staged a rebellion in December 1884. Around this same time, King Bell faced off against his own people, who were largely opposed to the German rule. Bell then found himself up against the other Duala chiefs in the Duala War, which was fought over the killing of a Bonabéri Duala and Bell’s alleged refusal to share his profits with the other sub-lineages. Germans played the competitors against one another – this is a classic technique used by Europeans: divide-and-conquer. They supported the weaker King Bell to counter the powerful King Akwa.
From December 20th – 22nd, Commander Eduard von Knorr sent by Berlin decided to intervene immediately, and sent ashore a landing party of some three hundred men from warships SMS Bismarck and SMS Olga to arrest the leaders of the anti-German tribes and destroy their villages. The troops from SMS Bismarck that went ashore and landed north of Hickorytown, while the men from SMS Olga went ashore south of the village. The Germans fought their way into the town, forcing the local forces to retreat into the mangrove forest, where they could not easily be pursued. While this operation was underway, Knorr received word that other hostile locals had attacked the trading post operated by Jantzen & Thormählen in Joss Town and had captured the company’s local manager. Knorr sent SMS Olga upriver to shell enemy positions, and on 22 December, the landing parties returned to their ships, having lost one man killed aboard SMS Olga and eight men wounded between the two ships. German sailors descended on Bonabéri, and burnt the city down; the deluge of fire was endless and lasted several days. They also stole the princely bow or Tangué from Kum’a Mbappé’s ship, considered the symbol of the Belé-Belé people (people of Hickory-Town): the Tangué is a sort of a bow, carved and personalized, sort of a pennant that identifies a king among the people of these water tribes. The German consul Max Buchner wrote in his war diary,
“Lock Priso’s palace is plundered, a colorful and striking image. We set it on fire. But I have asked all the houses to be inspected before to find ethnographic treasures. My main booty is a great wooden carved work, the princely bow (tangué) of Lock Priso, which will be sent to Munich.” [“Le palais de Lock Priso est mis à sac, une image colorée et saisissante. Nous y mettons le feu. Mais j’ai demandé avant d’inspecter toutes les maisons pour trouver des trésors ethnographiques. Mon butin principal est une grande œuvre sculptée en bois, la proue princière (tangué or tangu’a bolo, in Duala language) de Lock Priso, qui sera envoyée à Munich.”]
After several days of fighting, the German army won because of their superior arms, and also the help sent by other Duala kings. Negotiations went on, and a peace treaty (i.e. a treaty acknowledging defeat) was finalized on 13 January 1885, forcing Kum’a Mbappé to accept German rule in Hickory Town. This hero of Cameroonian resistance, passed away in 1916.
The symbol of the Belé-Belé people, the Tangué, was only returned over 100 years later, after tireless work from one Kum’a Mbappé’s grandsons, Prince and professor Kum’a Ndumbe III and others. To learn more, please read the book Kum’a Mbappé Bonabéri 1884 Liberté! by Enoh Meyomesse, and visit the website of this proud descendant of Kum’a Mbappé, Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III at AfricAvenir.
One thought on “German Warfare in Africa: 1884 Bombings in Kamerun and The Defiance of Kum’a Mbappé”
This was a surprise to me, too. I wasn’t aware that those things were used in wars before the 20th century. It’s a shame that the Scramble for Africa even happened to begin with. The Cameroonians much let alone the Africans as a whole deserved so much better.