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German Wituland, a colonial rarity
German Wituland is a historic parenthesis at the northern coast of Kenya, not even one third the size of Burundi. The Sultan of Witu - which is localised close to the delta of the Tana River - in the 19th century had a long-standing conflict with the powerful Sultan of Zanzibar. The town lived under constant threat from Zanzibar attacks as it was a free haven for slaves fleeing from the island.
In 1867 - before the real scramble for Africa and before the unification of Germany - Sultan Ahmed of Witu meets with the German Africa explorer Richard Brenner. Sultan Ahmed asks 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).
While Brenner's request was not even taken seriously in Berlin in 1867, the two German travellers to Witu in 1878/79, the brothers Clemens and Gustav Denhardt, had more luck. In 1885, when Germany indeed was participating in the scramble for Africa, the Denhardt brothers concluded a treaty with Sultan Ahmed.
Sultan Ahmed conceded a coastal area of approximately 25 square kilometres to the newly established 'Tana Company' with "all the sovereignty and private rights attached to it." In addition, the Sultan agreed to "also place the rest of his territories under German protection." The Denhardt brothers thus 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," according to the Internet project 'Das Deutsche Kaiserreich'. 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 develops. 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 meanwhile 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.
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 Kamerun 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 is enormous as the Germans announce they will not stand by their protection obligations. Violent upheavals are immediately initiated and several Germans are killed in the riot. The Denhardt brothers barely manage to flee the disappointed mob. They later die disappointed and impoverished in Germany.
The new British administrative power inaugurates its Witu mandate with a punitive mission, violently crushing the upheaval. Sultan Fuma Bakari is replaced, arrested and shortly thereafter dies of poison while detained. Witu thus becomes an integrated part of British East Africa (Kenya).
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.
Sources: Based on 'Deutsches Kaiserreich',
Horst Gründer: "Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien" and afrol archives
By Rainer Chr Hennig
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