African resistance and rebellion: The other side of World War I

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On Sept. 15, 1914, barely six weeks after war broke out in Europe and was quickly exported to the eastern and western shores of Africa, something unexpected happened as it reached the southern tip of the continent. While troops from the South African dominion of the British Empire prepared to invade neighboring German South West Africa (now Namibia), Christiaan Frederick Beyers, the highest-ranking member and commandant of South Africa’s army, resigned.

“It is said that the war is being waged against the ‘barbarism’ of the Germans,” Beyers reportedly wrote to explain his decision. “We have forgiven but not forgotten all the barbarities committed in our own country during the South African War.” He was referring to the Second Anglo-Boer War, a brutal annexation campaign that the British launched and won against Afrikaners 12 years earlier.

His resignation marked the beginning of the Maritz rebellion, named after the general who allied with the Germans to boost its chances of success. Over the next five months, Beyers and a number of other military officers gathered 12,000 Afrikaner troops, proclaimed an independent South African republic and battled an army of 32,000 men — among them 20,000 Afrikaners loyal to the British crown — in hopes of toppling the acting South African government.

Though unsuccessful, the Maritz rebellion is a revealing episode of World War I in Africa. Far from an isolated incident, it is a symbol of the two wars that European empires fought in Africa during the first worldwide conflict in history. As the world reflects on the legacy of Europe’s Great War over the next four years of centenary commemorations, we should question why only one side of Africa’s involvement is publicly acknowledged.

Across the Mediterranean, European powers fought one another to defend their prized possessions and grab new ones when opportunities arose. But there was another, lesser-known side of the war, with colonial powers — with their extraordinary demands in men, money and resources — in opposition to the African populations that resisted colonial rule. The better-known side is an episode of European military history fought across imperial boundaries; the other represents important moments of African sociopolitical histories played out within the limits of future national borders. Only the first registers in public discourse, if briefly, whereas the second remains forgotten.

European powers often claimed the African soldiers fighting for them were nothing but loyal and aspired to serve in their respective armies. Yet colonial administrators spent much of the war coping with local resistance and rebellion, particularly in French West Africa. From individuals feigning illnesses to entire villages fleeing, Africans routinely evaded conscription, something to which only France resorted. Where the French were considered especially vulnerable, locals seized the opportunity to revolt, in northern Dahomey (now Benin), north of Bamako (now in Mali) and in the southern desert of French Sudan (now in Niger).

While West African troops fought on the western front under French colors, France nonetheless faced the most serious challenge to its colonial rule in West Africa. From November 1915 to September 1916, a large alliance of fortified villages between the Volta and Bani rivers (now in Burkina Faso) assembled to drive the French out. With an armed coalition of 20,000 men at its peak, the revolt became an all-out anti-colonial war. Only after committing overwhelming military resources, bombarding and sacking entire villages did France manage to stop the revolt, with great loss of lives on both sides.

In the words of historian Gregory Mann, the war of Volta-Bani altered the very fabric of relations between the colonial administration and local populations, forcing France to adopt a “language of mutual obligation.” Though different in context and numbers, the Chilembwe uprising in Nyasaland (now Malawi) in January 1915 had a lasting impact as well, so much so that the pastor who led the charge against the British has over the years become a national hero, whose face can be seen on today’s 500 kwacha banknote.

On the face of colonial maps, the scramble for Africa may have been over in 1914. Except for Liberia and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), the European powers had divided up the continent among themselves 30 years earlier, with only minor changes since. On the ground, however, the colonial invasion continued through World War I, lowering the veil of its benevolence and revealing its exploitative face.

Why, then, does the resistance of Africans to Europe’s Great War remain so absent from the collective consciousness of African and non-African citizens alike?

The African side of World War I does have its historians. Since African nations gained independence, they have flipped the mirror, investigating the blind spots of colonial archives and piecing together the significance and legacy of the white man’s war on the continent. Yet the color of memory remains essentially white, despite the global turn in historical studies of World War I.

The vocabulary commemorating the role of Africans is deeply rooted in the colonial past, which tied Africa and Europe together. Terms such as “allegiance,” “bravery” and “service rendered” reflect a Eurocentric perspective and need to be assessed in the context of their production. Left unchallenged, they otherwise turn history into myth and help maintain a patronizing colonial narrative. The language of remembrance should not abide by the rules of commemoration, lest we forget what Africans made happen for themselves during World War I.

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