Joanna Lewis praises Michelle Moyd’s book Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa as a fascinating exploration into the lives of the African soldiers who served under German colonisers in the late nineteenth century.
“As long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve led a life of war, and I am often surprised that I still exist”.
So wrote Abdulcher Farrag, a senior Sudanese soldier serving in the German colonial army during the late nineteenth century. Farrag served under Captain August Leue, who interviewed Farrag as part of his memoir. But how much more interesting and relevant would a full length Farrag autobiography have been instead. For he had been involved in many of the major military battles for eastern Africa during “the Scramble” and beyond. His career included fighting with the Egyptian army during the Urabi Revolt against the Khedive (1879-82); opposing the ferocious millenarian Islamic movement, the Mahdiyya in Sudan; and he fought in the coastal wars of the 1890s to consolidate German imperialism. He even survived a punitive expedition against the Hehe; his German commander did not. His luck finally ran out in 1894, ironically during a minor bush skirmish in Tabora (in today’s Tanzania).
Men like Farrag are the focus of Michelle’s Moyd’s fascinating and scholarly study of African soldiers in the German Schutztruppe, and their role in establishing German colonial rule in eastern Africa. Moyd’s central argument is that African soldiers were at the heart of establishing colonies not just in battle but also in key administrative rule after conquest: they were “primary state making agents” (p18). Military garrisons, with their wives and extended families living around them, became pioneering nodes of local governance. Soldiers worked as tax collectors, translators, as well as in policing and punitive roles.
Despite the lack of detailed sources especially from African soldiers themselves, Moyd mines largely German records. These range from observations by German soldiers, explorers and administrators, to military manuals and Kiswahili dictionaries. Chapters cover how men became askaris; their patterns of fighting; life in the garrison; and their post-conflict roles. Inevitably there are fewer details about areas like drug taking and violence against women; the German officers preferred not to dwell on such aspects to avoid negative propaganda.
What is distinctive about this study is the way Moyd includes the pre-colonial history and situation of these soldiers. She argues that pre-existing warfare, enslavement practices and spreading violence before colonial rule must be factored into recruitment and warfare. Also, she shows how African soldiers went through a number of stages in their military training which had an important social dimension and reach. Their power and role as the new “big men”, in turn went on to shape newly emerging colonial African societies.
There are familiar stories here about masculinity and violence. Ali Mzee, in another rare memoir from a soldier in early colonial central Africa, recalled as a young adolescent in the 1880s, his enjoyment when his father trained him to use a muzzleloader: “I was becoming a man, partaking in the business of men”(p72). As a Nyamwezi, using guns to manage long distance caravan journeys, which included capturing and selling slaves, was fairly typical. Training like that made men like him very attractive to the German authorities.
However far too much was demanded of these men in relation to dispatching the violence of the everyday on behalf of the “intimate outsiders”, Marcia Wright’s description of first wave colonialists (p25). In the absence of resources and legitimacy, the thin white German line needed African soldiers to engage in symbolic acts of excessive violence as a deterrent. Periodic displays of force – marches and flag-raising as well as punitive campaigns – were all vital.
What we can also glimpse here is the emotional suffering of African soldiers. They were not fighting machines but men who could be uncomfortable at the sight of a “bloodbath” and who experienced combat stress. Farrag could not forget “the groaning of the wounded animals, along with the whimpering and screaming of the wounded” which was “dreadful” (p55). It is a timely reminder that those caught up in Africa’s contemporary conflicts are often not given enough help with post-traumatic stress, sometimes because of the same racist assumptions of the colonial period; namely that they are used to violence. They are not.
Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa
Michelle R Moyd
New African Studies Series. Ohio University Press; Athens, Ohio. 2014.
Dr Joanna Lewis is an Assistant Professor in LSE’s Department Of International History.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.