I’ve always found World War I fascinating. Maybe it’s the immense social and technological changes that it heralded. Maybe it’s the tragic nature of the whole endeavor. Maybe it’s the continuing debate about how the whole thing got started. Despite my interest, though, I’ve never heard of Germans and British fighting each other in sub-Saharan Africa as depicted in The African Queen. It makes sense considering that World War I was a contest between colonial powers. It’s just something I’ve never heard about.

In fact, in my experience, the history of sub-Saharan Africa, is often a neglected topic. Precolonial African Kingdoms? Forget about it. Even when it comes to European activities on the continent, people rarely know much more than a hazy legacy of brutal colonization and the slave trade, the Boer War, and Apartheid.

So, as I watched Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn’s tumultuous voyage in The African Queen, the context of the film piqued my curiosity. What was going on in sub-Saharan Africa during World War I? Was the local population really pressed into service by the German military? Below, I seek to answer these burning questions on the context of The African Queen.

Was There Really a Conflict Between German and the U.K. in sub-Saharan Africa?

The British are famous for their empire, but what about the Germans? In fact, they, too, had substantial colonial holdings, mostly in Africa [see the gray areas in the map below]. Most importantly, for the context of The African Queen, by the time WWI broke out in 1914, they had a substantial colony called German East Africa, which encompassed parts of present day Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania. The Ulanga River, on which most of the film’s action takes place, is located within modern day Tanzania.

Map of Colonial Africa at the Start of World War I

Attribution: By davidjl123 / Somebody500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37125742

Attribution: By davidjl123 / Somebody500 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37125742

Throughout much of the war, the Germans were engaged in a guerrilla war against British colonial holdings. This set of battles, which lasted through the war, is generally referred to as the East Africa Campaign. Looking at the map above, we can see that German East Africa was largely surrounded by the British [In pink on the map above]. The German strategy during WWI was to use German East Africa as a base to tie down large numbers of British troops in defending their adjacent colonial holdings. This, in turn, would keep British troops from fighting in theaters the Germans considered more strategically important.

In fact, the fighting in East Africa, while poorly documented, resulted in significant casualties for the local population. It’s estimated that nearly 100,000 people, mostly local porters, died on the British side while there are no clear records on the German side. One estimate stated that up to 300,000 civilians may have died in German East Africa and nearby areas because of policies enacted by the colonial government at the time. While most of the fighting in WWI took place in Europe, the war also clearly caused major suffering in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, at the start of The African Queen, when a group of troops emerge from the jungle and attack the village where Rose Sayer [Katharine Hepburn] is a missionary, we’re likely seeing a German guerrilla raid on British territory. It’s likely that these sorts of raids were taking place throughout the area at that time.

What Was the Local Population’s Role in the East Africa Campaign?

At one point, early in the film, Humphrey Bogart’s Charlie Allnut hypothesizes that the German assault on Rose’s village was part of a German effort to press local populations into serving their cause. With Europe’s track record in Africa, this would come as no surprise, but is it true?

At the start of WWI, German East Africa had a small but effective military called the Askari backed up by a larger local group of porters. German officers oversaw this African force who were reputed to be highly effective and ruthless. Before the war, this force was utilized by the Germans to violently crush rebellions, police the local population, and expand German territory. They were also, by all accounts, paid highly and given a large set of privileges, which helped with morale.

Askari and German Officers During the East Africa Campaign

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R19361 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5368342

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R19361 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5368342

Still, at the start of WWI, this was a modest force with approximately 2,500 armed men and approximately another 11,500 support staff. This entire group was led by only 300 Germans. This force expanded significantly during the war. While I was not able to find any concrete numbers, there are several references to local populations being pressed into service or conscripted. By 1916, German forces, having difficulty finding volunteers started to depend more extensively on forced conscription.

So returning to Charlie Allnut’s hypothesis, it appears that local populations were indeed forcibly conscripted into the Askari, but that this was not likely to have happened in 1914 when The African Queen is set. From a historical standpoint, this type of activity on the part of the Germans wasn’t widespread until two years after the events depicted in the film.

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