In 1891, Germany was expanding into Africa and establishing a commercial base on the continent in Tanzania particularly. The Hehe Rebellion headed up by Chief Mkwawa saw the euonymus group resist German expansion while also expanding its own influence in the Tabora region.
The Hehe Rebellion
Initially, the Hehe targeted groups in Tabora who were allied with Germany. They were aggressive in their approach to stamping out these groups, looting them, and destroying German influence deeper into Tabora. The whole time, Germany attempted to negotiate with them with no luck. As a result, the green light was given for Commander Emil von Zelewski to head in bring the Hehe underfoot.
On August 17, 1891, the German Schutzruppe—or colonial troops—bolstered by African Askari troops burned down a village and killed a few warriors. The Hehe fled when the Germans first came through. Once the Germans advanced further, they ran into a larger number of armed Hehe and were rushed.
The pack donkeys the Germans used were startled in the chaos and ran into another group of German military. Following were the Askari forces who also stampeded the Germans in fleeing. This opening allowed for the Hehe to overwhelm the colonial forces. A young Hehe warrior killed Commander Zelewski by spearing him in the confusion. During this encounter, most of the German forces had been wiped out with only a few escaping.
In different accounts, the Germans took a number major losses but also inaccurately mentioned that it had taken out most of the Hehe chiefs. The result was the same: the perception of German power in East Africa was damaged.
The colonial governor turned down the notion of retaliation against the Hehe believing it would’ve been best to lock down the coast prior to moving in deeper. This put a freeze on any expeditions for a year and a half.
When the colonial governor Julius von Soden left the region two years later, a new, more aggressive governor by the name of Colonel Freiherr von Schele pushed for expeditions to resume. Peace talks were pursued initially but the Hehe continued to raid German caravans going through the area. Conflict broke out again as the Germans attempted to take Chief Mkwawa’s main town of Iringa.
Even with over 600 Askari and heavy artillery raining on Iringa, Mkwawa still managed to escape. On the loose, the attacks on caravans continued. Despite this, with Iringa taken there were awards and back-patting among the German forces for the expedition.
The Hehe broke up into those supporting Mkwawa and those wanting peace with the Germans. With war ramping up the Germans took a policy of enforcing the death penalty for anyone loyal to and helping Chief Mkwawa. His end came in 1898 after being cornered by German forces and killing himself.
The Germans would take Chief Mkwawa’s head as a trophy. There was a campaign to have the skull returned to the Hehe to keep the peace between the two sides. Mkwawa’s skull wouldn’t return to Tanzania until 1956. There is speculation that this skull doesn’t belong to the Hehe chief.
Today Chief Mkwawa is viewed as a national hero in Tanzania.