by Amanda Rohde
Standing on the steps of Ngome Kongwe (the Swahili name for this old fort) in Bagamoyo, Tanzania, it is difficult to fathom the breadth and depth of this building’s complex history. Erected in 1860 by the Baluchi Indian Abdallah Marhabi, this citadel was seized upon Tanzania’s colonization by the Germans. Selecting Bagamoyo as the colony’s first capital, the Germans claimed Ngome Kongwe as their own, making it the seat of their coastal defense. To a tourist, the old structure does not reveal much about this region’s history. Looking upon it within the context of the centennial of WWI, however, it becomes suddenly possible to build a link between history and dilapidated reality.
When the war broke out in 1914, much of East Africa was under the control of the German colonizers. This region —German East Africa — was comprised of present-day Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi. Surrounded by Allied colonies on all sides, the stage was set for battle: neighboring Kenya sat as a protectorate of the British, the Belgians controlled Congo to the west, and in the south, Mozambique was run by the Portuguese.
According to Brigadier-General C.P. Fendall’s accounts of the time leading up to the war, there was widespread belief that the war to the north would not reach the colonies; The Congo Act of 1885 had called for the neutrality of overseas territories in the event of war. The colonizers believed that their image of inviolability depended on their detachment from the affairs of the north. If East Africans were to fight against colonizers in battle — even if the colonizers were only leading armies of East Africans — they worried that their status would diminish and that they would lose the power they held over their colonies. Given the events that were to follow, this would indeed become a grounded concern.
When war broke out, however, it was clear that the colonies could not avoid the conflict. The colonizers living on the frontier between the territories feared for their lives because they felt a significant threat of enemy raids. This became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, as this fear — regardless of whether or not it was warranted — meant that they had to take measures to ensure the safety of their settlements.
In August of 1914 the British attacked German outposts near Lake Victoria, and East Africa became yet another front for the Great War. The fighting would continue for the duration, spreading across the region and into Portuguese East Africa. The Germans would not lay down their arms until they received word of the armistice in 1918. In the end, thousands of East African, British, German, Indian, and South African troops and carriers would give their lives for the cause, and the tropical Tanzanian landscape with its lush greenery and deep red earth would bear the scars of war for years to come.
The results of the war would extend even deeper into society. According to Dr. Wallace G. Mills of Saint Mary’s University, the effects on the East African land and people were profound. Economically, the war was devastating. Trade that had grown up between Europe and the African continent broke down during wartime. As a result, economies were inflated and incomes were unable to keep up with the rise of prices. Colonial governments raised taxes on the Africans, severely increasing the burdens they faced. Once the war ended, the colonies fell into depression. Suddenly, wartime jobs were gone and the people were returning home to higher prices and no sources of employment. The situation was bleak.
Disease was also a major issue. The Europeans had brought new illnesses to the continent, but with the outbreak of the war, people became more mobile, making the isolation of the health threats impossible. Other issues native to the continent presented an equally large threat due to pervasive war migration. Professor Christian Koller of Bangor University points to the spread of the tsetse fly and ensuing prevalence of sleeping sickness in East Africa as a result.
The end of the war also saw the beginning of a new ideological climate. The fight for democracy had found its way to Africa. Seeing the Allies fight for these ideals of freedom and self-determination gave East Africans a new perspective on their own situations. Ideas were forming and degrees of education were changing. Ideas of independence would begin to spread and create an impetus for people to crave the freedom that they knew they deserved.
Looking back upon memories of Bagamoyo through the lens of history, one no longer sees the fort as a run-down structure, slowly being worn away by the sands of time. On the contrary, it becomes a seat of power, in a region that became yet another front of the Great War. A front where the battle was fought by those who should not have had any stake in it. Looking back upon the First World War, it is often forgotten that it was fought on stages apart from Europe. WWI was truly a world war, and respect is due to all lands across the globe that paid a price.