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German adventures

Witu (Wituland)

In 1867 – before the real scramble for Africa and before the unification of Germany – Sultan Ahmed of Witu met with the German Africa explorer Richard Brenner. Sultan Ahmed asked Brenner to pass on his desire to receive Prussian protection to the Prussian King so that he “finally has relief from the attacks of Zanzibar warriors.” Prussia was however not interested in African territories at this time; it was concentrating its effort in unifying Germany (completed in 1871).

Following a  move by the German adverturer Carl Peters who in 1884 had made local chiefs in Tanganyika sign papers declaring their land under German protection, the German brothers Clemens and Gustav Denhardt negotiated a treaty with AhmedIbn Fumo Bakari, the first mfalme (Swahili for sultan or king) of Witu. Mfalme Bakari ceded, on 8 April 1885, 25 square miles of territory to the brothers’ “Tana Company”, and the remainder of the Wituland became the German Protectorate of Wituland (Deutsch-Witu) on 27 May 1885. The Reich was represented there by the German Residents: Gustav Denhardt (1856–1917; in office 8 April 1885 – 1 July 1890) and his deputy Clemens Andreas Denhardt (1852–1928).

The Denhardt brothers then asked the German government to protect their interests. The timing was perfect. The famous German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was in the middle of his one and only year of interest in African territories. Bismarck sent the warship SMS Gneisenau to River Tana. “There, a terrestrial command of 3 officers and 30 soldiers marched 3 days through the bush towards Witu and were received in a friendly way.”.The German Protectorate Wituland was established on 27 May 1885.

Clemens Denhardt was solemnly appointed Minister of Home and External Affairs by Sultan Ahmed of Witu in appreciation for his success in achieving German protection and a strong personal friendship between the two men developed. A few German soldiers were stationed in Wituland to establish German sovereignty and protect against Zanzibar attacks, while Sultan Ahmed and his predecessor, Sultan Fumo Bakari, continued to rule the small Sultanate.

The Denhardt brothers  tried to make monetary value out of “their” colony. In Germany, they were able to achieve funding for their ‘German Witu Society’ in a period of colonial enthusiasm. The company was established in 1887 and was to trade on the protectorate. It was however a complete failure; with closely nothing to trade, the company made a profit of 4,120 marks in its first one-and-a-half year. The company was only saved from bankruptcy by being incorporated into the bigger German East Africa Company.

German rule was relatively mild, and the territory continued being a haven for escaped slaves.

They built a post office on Lamu island which linked to Malindi and Mombasa via telegraph. The German Post Office of Lamu is a museum today.

Just as German Wituland had been established due to a Berlin mood, it was dismantled for the same reason. Bismarck had demonstrated that the new Germany was one of the great powers through its participation in the scramble for Africa. Now, as the costs of actually establishing German power in these territories and building a basic infrastructure and administration to be able to exploit their economic recourses were presented, Bismarck lost his interest. From 1889, he gave primary attention to the improvement of German-British relations, soured by colonial rivalry.

German-British colonial rivalry on the African continent was indeed mounting. The British dreamt of their Cape to Cairo empire and German colonial enthusiasts wanted their central African empire, uniting Cameroon and German East Africa. Most border questions between German and British colonies were unresolved. German and British “men on the spot” rivalled for their nations’ interest in Uganda, Sudan, Somalia and Zanzibar. Secret negotiations between Berlin and London were initiated.

In 1890, the so-called Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty was arrived at on top diplomatic level. Germany agreed to back down from all claims in Zanzibar, Uganda and on the Kenyan and Somali coast. Wituland and Zanzibar became British. Colonial borders were defined. In exchange, the tiny North Sea island of Heligoland, off the German coast, was transferred to Germany and South-West Africa (Namibia) got its access to the Zambezi River through the ‘Caprivi Strip’.

German colonial enthusiasts were outraged by the treaty; Germany had “given up kingdoms (Uganda, Witu, and Zanzibar) for a bathtub (Heligoland).” Actually, it showed up to be a good deal as Heligoland is the only new German territory that survived the Versailles Treaty of 1919 and still remains part of Germany.

In German Wituland, reactions were even stronger than in Germany. The disappointment was enormous as the Germans announced they will not stand by their protection obligations. Violent upheavals were immediately initiated and several Germans are killed in the riot. The Denhardt brothers barely managde to flee the disappointed mob. They later died disappointed and impoverished in Germany.

The new British administrative powers inaugurated its Witu mandate with a punitive mission, violently crushing the upheaval. Sultan Fuma Bakari was replaced, arrested and shortly thereafter died of poison while detained. Witu thus become an integrated part of British East Africa.

The rarity of German Wituland probably has not left a significant impact on German, Kenyan or Witu history. It is however a powerful illustration of these irrational years when the European powers established their colonial empires in Africa.

German Missionaries
In 1842, Dr. Ludwig Krapf, a German Christian missionary, linguist, explorer and traveller came to the East African Coast (EAC) sent by the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). After a failed attempt to preach Protestantism at Aduwa in Northern Ethiopia (the Coptic Church discouraged the flock from paying much attention and succeeded) Krapf was expelled by the ruler of the province of Tigre. He tried to set up in the kingdom of Shoa and after a brief reception, the French Consul persuaded the King of Shoa to ban Protestants from the kingdom. With thirty chests full of Bibles he set off for Zeila, Somalia where he was again turned away. By this time he had mastered Amharic and Galla languages. He set sail from Aden on 11th November 1843 on a sturdy Arabian dhow navigated by an incompetent captain and headed for Zanzibar. Alas the overloaded dhow almost capsized and they tried their luck 4 days later on another dhow. On this voyage, he was able to examine several ports and towns between Mogadishu and Pangani. On 28th December he landed at Takaungu, 30 miles north of Mombasa where he received a warm welcome. On 3rd January 1844 he went off to meet the governor of Mombasa, Ali-Bin-Nassir. On the 7th he landed at Zanzibar where he was received by the British Consul, Major Atkins Hamerton. He stayed in Zanzibar for three months where every Sunday he conducted church services for the small Christian community. At the beginning of May 1844 he was back in Mombasa with a letter of protection from the sultan of Zanzibar to set up a mission at the coastal city of Mombasa.

“This comes from Seyyid Said Sultan.

Greetings all our subjects, friends and Governors. This letter is written on behalf of Dr Krapf, the German, a good man who wishes to convert the world to God. Behave well to him, and be everywhere serviceable to him.”

After the death of his wife and daughter from Malaria, Krapf moved to Rabai on the coastal hills and started a mission station at Rabai. He learnt the languages of the Mijikenda and Swahili and wrote the first dictionary and grammar of the Swahili language.

On June 10, 1846 Krapf was joined by another southwest German Lutheran missionary, Johannes Rebmann, also sent by the CMS. Together they set up a mission station at Rabai Mpya (New or Little Rabai). They arrived at Rabai of August 25, 1846 where they dwelt for the next three and a half years (August 1846-April 1850).

On May 11, 1848 Rebmann became the first European to see Mt. Kilimanjaro. Rebmann and  local caravan leader named Bwana Kheri left on a journey to the land of the Jagga (today known as Chagga) people on the slopes of Kilimanjaro on April 27, 1848.

After 4 years of preaching, teaching and all manner of persuasions, the first individual at Rabai to believe in Christian teachings was a cripple called Mringi in 1848.

On December 3, 1849 Krapf became the first European to see Mt. Kenya. He sighted the mountain from Kitui, a town 160 kilometres away. Krapf and Rebmann sent reports of their finding the mountains but they were met with disbelief at first. In May 1849, Rebmann’s observations were published by the Church Missionary Intelligencer, but the findings were not truly accepted by most of the scientific community at the time. In the years that followed, however, the reports did trigger European exploration expeditions in Africa.

In 1849, the Society (CMS) responded to Krapf and Rebmann’s appeals for more missionaries in order to strengthen the mission by sending Rev. Jacob Erhardt and Mr. Johannes Wagner. They arrived in Mombasa in June 10, 1849.

In 1861 Krapf and a Mr. Wakefield opened the Methodist Mission Station at Ribe.

Up to 1864 there was very little progress in the growth of the church at Rabai, and the Church Missionary Society thought of abandoning it, but in 1864 Rebmann was joined by William Jones, a blacksmith, Ishmael Semlar, a carpenter, and George David with a view to the founding of a Christian Industrial Village for slaves freed from Arab dhows by the British Navy. As a result of renewed missionary activity in England following Livingstone’s death, and Sir Bartle Frere’s representations in London to the C.M.S. that Society sent out Mr. Salter Price in 1874 with instructions to develop Rabai as a Christian village, and to establish an industrial settlement near Mombasa for freed slaves. He succeeded Rebmann at Rabai, and established Freretown (Kisauni) in honour of Sir Bartle Frere during a period of two years’ service.

In 1887, the Church at Rabai was officially dedicated and it stands to this day.


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