Germany began its conquest of East Africa in 1884 with little idea of the resources in the region. During the first decade of rule the colonial state relied on export tolls on products of inland caravan networks— especially wild rubber, ivory, copal, wax, and hides. Tolls were also exacted on imported goods, particularly Indian cotton cloth. After 1885 much of the trade in the colony was controlled by the German East Africa Corporation (DOAG), a charter company that ruled the coast until the German state took control in 1891 following the Abushiri rebellion. Local marketing in the colony was largely in the hands of Indian traders, whose networks predated colonial rule.
As the paucity of mineral resources in German East Africa became known in the 1890s, German rulers focused on fostering cash crops of value to the German market. Hoping to liberate the German textile industry from American cotton supplies, cotton seed was distributed to Arab and Swahili plantation owners along the southern coast, and to village headmen. The DOAG experimented with rubber, tobacco, coffee, tea, and cotton on a handful of estates in the northeast, the region of increasing European settlement in the late 1890s. Sisal, introduced in 1893, emerged over the next two decades as the major plantation cash-crop export from the colony.
The cash-crop policy opened the door to European settlement between 1896 and 1906. In that period some 100 settler estates and about 20 large plantations were founded, concentrated in the northeast mountains. Banking on German settlement as the economic base of the colony, the Usambara Railway, begun from the port city of Tanga in 1891, was extended toward Arusha in the next two decades, and thousands of acres of land were appropriated for white settlement in the northeast. Although Africans were never completely expropriated of their lands, land given over to Europeans in the densely populated and fertile mountains necessitated changes in African farming methods, gendered uses of land, and crop mixes. Chagga, Shambaa, and Arusha peoples, for example, began their first efforts at coffee growing, which they integrated with banana and maize farming.
Labor policy paralleled white settlement. In the first decade of German rule estate owners forced local villagers to work on their estates, hired porters on the coast awaiting the departure of new caravans, imported Asian indentured laborers, and hired slaves of Arab and Swahili coastal estate owners. Even at this early stage labor scarcity created a bottleneck for cash-crop production. The state implemented taxation in 1898 to compel villagers to work periodically for a wage and to draw villagers into a cash economy. Taxation marked the waning of trade in natural products as the state moved to diversify colonial revenues.
By 1900, poor economic returns led German policy makers to begin a massive program to invigorate cash-crop production. The administration of Governor von Gotzen began a cotton program that urged settlers and missionaries to take up the crop, and demanded that African villagers work for virtually no compensation on state-controlled fields. Meanwhile African agriculture was impaired by conservation ordinances that curtailed hunting, proscribed peasant use of forest reserves, and prohibited bush burning to open up new fields—the basis of peasant extensive agriculture for much of the colony. The pressures created by these measures led to the Maji Maji rebellion (1905-l907), which policy makers in Germany interpreted as stemming from the forced labor and agrarian policies of the previous decade.
With the appointment of Albrecht von Rechenberg as governor in 1906, economic priorities entered a new phase. European settlement, viewed as economically unpromising, was discouraged, though well-capitalized plantation corporations were welcomed, especially those that concentrated on the production of the industrial crops of sisal, cotton, and rubber. Forced labor, viewed as the cause of rebellion, was officially proscribed, and a free labor market was implemented with the labor ordinances of 1909. Rwanda and Burundi, where 40 per cent of the colony’s population resided, were closed to labor recruitment. Tax levels remained essentially unchanged despite incessant settler pressure for significant increases. The new program banked on African peasant production of cash crops. The semiofficial Colonial Economic Committee fostered peasant cotton growing by distributing seed, setting up ginning and marketing centers, and guaranteeing a minimum market price. The Central Railway, begun in 1905, was extended into the interior to Lake Tanganyika to foster peasant cash crop production and draw trade away from the Uganda railway in Kenya.
As the Usambara and Central Railways advanced, more settlers and plantation corporations arrived, totaling some 700 estates by 1912, creating great competition for already scarce labor. A vociferous lobby in Germany kept settler interests in the public eye, while a humanitarian lobby publicized abuses of workers on plantations. Labor policy and the question of whether German East Africa would be a settler or peasant colony were at the core of policy struggles in the colony until the end of German rule, and were issues that were never conclusively resolved.
Many significant changes accrued under German colonial rule. From being a major exporter of grain to Indian Ocean trade networks, German East Africa became an importer of food as coffee, sisal, and cotton replaced millet and rice as cash crops. Labor migration patterns upset village economies as fewer men were engaged in agricultural pursuits and women produced less grain for the market. Such household disruptions led to a general population decline, and contributed to the spreading of the tsetse belt (a region of SubSaharan Africa particularly afflicted by the tsetse fly, where livestock are especially vulnerable to disease carried by the insect), impairing the cattle economies of the interior. German policies that were expanded under British and postcolonial rule included the peasant adoption of coffee as a cash crop west of Victoria Nyanza and in the northeast mountains and cotton south of Victoria Nyanza, the expansion of sisal as a plantation crop, especially along the Central Railway, and the opening up of the colony through construction of the Usambara and Central Railways. The Germans also created forest and wildlife refuges that far exceeded European plantations in extent, hemming in peasant and pastoral economies significantly.
See also: Colonial European Administrations: Comparative Survey; Tanganyika (Tanzania): German Invasion and Resistance; Tanganyika (Tanzania): Maji Maji Rebellion, 1905-1907.
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