German West Africa

German West Africa (Deutsch-Westafrika) was an informal designation for the areas in West Africa that were part of the German Colonial Empire between 1884 and 1919. The term was normally used for the territories of Cameroon and Togo. German West Africa was not an administrative unit. However, in trade and in the vernacular the term was sometimes in use.

German West Africa
Flag of German West Africa
Coats of arms of German West Africa
Coats of arms
Colonial Africa 1913 Kamerun map.svg
StatusGerman colony
Indigenous beliefs
Historical eraScramble for Africa
• Established
28 June 1919
1912 (Including Togo)879,510 km2 (339,580 sq mi)
• 1912 (Including Togo)

German interests in West Africa before 1884Edit

1885 map showing German interests in West Africa (Kapitaï and Koba appear as ‘Dubrica’)

German interest in West Africa dated from the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Duchy of Courland and Brandenburg-Prussia established fortifications and trading posts in the region. After 1720 there was no German presence in West Africa until the middle of the 19th century, when German trading companies including C. Woermann, Jantzen & Thormählen, Wölber & Brohm and GL Gaiser became active on the West African coast.[1][2] German missionaries, such as the North German Missionary Society, were also present from the mid 19th century.[3][4]

By the early 1880s German interests in West Africa consisted of:

The Anglo-French Convention of 1882 led to concerns among Hamburg merchants that their interests would be threatened, and they began to seek the protection of the German Empire for their activities.[5]: 32–34  At the same time as established German commercial interests in West Africa were seeking government and naval support, the broader social movement in favour of colonisation was gaining ground. The German Colonial Society (“Deutscher Kolonialvereinl”) was founded on December 6, 1882, in Frankfurt am Main with Hermann, Prince of Hohenlohe-Langenburg as its first president, and soon had about 15,000 members.[6]

Imperial Commissioner for West AfricaEdit

European claims in West Africa 1885: Rivières du Sud and Kapitaï & Koba were disputed between Germany and France.

Chancellor Otto von Bismarck asked for views on potential German intervention in West Africa from the senates of Lübeck, Hamburg and Bremen. In response, Woermann submitted to the Chancellor plans for the establishment of a German-West African trade colony in 1883, which Bismarck initially received with some reservations.[7] In December 1883 however the government undertook to take action to protect German traders by sending an Imperial Commissioner for West Africa to enter into formal treaties with local rulers.[8][5]: 35 

In May 1884 Bismarck decided to appoint Gustav Nachtigal as Imperial Commissioner. His mission was to sail right down the Atlantic coast of the continent, to explore and test the existing a German claims in the region, and where possible to establish new ones.[9] Bismarck's plan was to use Nachitigal's treaties to establish German sovereignty over key areas in West Africa, which would then be governed indirectly, with administration undertaken mainly by a commercial company.[10][5]: 39 

In June 1884 Nachtigal reached Sangareya bay and the Los islands. He sent a party ashore to seek treaties with the rulers of Kapitaï and Koba.[11] However, by the time he arrived the local chiefs had already reached agreements with France, and did not want to sign any new treaties.[12] Nachtigal therefore steamed on to the German trading posts on the Bight of Benin.[8]

On 5 July 1884 Nachtigal signed a treaty with Mlapa III, ruler of Togo (a village known today as Togoville) establishing a German protectorate over a stretch of coastal territory.[13] This formed the basis of the future German colony of Togoland.[14] On 14 July 14, 1884 Nachtigal raised the German flag in Bell town and signed treaties placing under German protection the areas which became the colony of Kamerun.[5]: 41  He spent some weeks visiting various ports around the Bight of Biafra before sailing south to Gabon, Angola and South West Africa. He steamed back to Kamerun in December 1884 and the Niger Delta in January 1885.[15] On 29 January 1885 he signed a treaty which brought Mahinland under German protection.[16] After this Nachtigal began his return journey to Germany but succumbed to malaria and died off the coast of Guinea in April.[17]

West African squadron, 1884–85Edit

SMS Olga at the bombardment of Hickorytown (Douala), 21 December 1884
The storming of Belltown by a landing party from SMS Olga, December 1884 (depiction by Carl Saltzmann, 1885)

After Nachtigal had completed his mission of establishing German rights in West Africa, there was a need for naval support to reinforce them. On September 30, 1884 Emperor Wilhelm I issued an order establishing a West African squadron under the command of the Chief of the Staff of the Admiralty, Rear Admiral Eduard von Knorr.[18] The squadron was composed of the corvettes SMS Bismarck (flagship), SMS Gneisenau, SMS Ariadne, SMS Olga and the steam tender Adler. The squadron departed for West Africa on October 30. On reaching the Cape Verde Islands, it dispatched the Ariadne to Liberia and the Guinea coast and the Gneisenau was sent to East Africa. On December 18, the Bismarck and the Olga reached the Cameroon River.[19]

Shortly before the squadron arrived, the settlement of chief Manga Ndumbe Bell, who had signed a treaty with Nachtigal, had been burned down and the German flag removed. Admiral Knorr decided on immediate intervention and sent landing parties ashore to destroy the villages of the rebels and arrest their chiefs. Two coastal steamers, the Fan and the Dualla were used as landing craft to bring 307 soldiers ashore at Hickorytown on 20 December. The landing party received word that rioters on the opposite bank had attacked the Jantzen & Thormählen factories and carried off their managers, and they stormed Joss town to try and recover them. The next day the Olga steamed upriver on the rising tide and bombarded the local villages. The landing party returned to their ships on 22 December. The Olga, with Rear Admiral Knorr on board, remained in the area where the anti-German uprising had taken place. Calm was gradually restored; in January 1885 the violence ended and in March the murderer of the factory manager was handed over for execution.[19]

On March 23, 1885 the gunboat SMS Habicht [de] arrived to replace the Olga at its permanent station in the river, allowing the Olga to return home together with the Adler. Meanwhile, the Bismarck cruised up and down the coast, hoisting the German flag in a number of places. Following the arrival of the first Imperial Governor of Kamerun, Julius von Soden on 7 July 1885, the Bismarck received orders to sail for East Africa while the gunboat Cyclop took up its position as the second gunboat on the West Africa station.[18] After pacification of tribal feuds and unrest in the area under German protection, the West African Squadron was dissolved in July 1885.

However, in September 1885 Captain Karl Paschen [de] was commanded to re-form the squadron with SMS Stosch, SMS Prinz Adalbert and SMS Gneisenau, deployed under Rear Admiral Knorr in East Africa, and return to the coast of West Africa. In the event, the multiple demand on Germany's small force of gunboats meant that on reaching Cape Town, the Gneisenau was ordered back to East Africa, leaving only the Prince Adalbert and the Stosch to continue to West Africa before proceeding back to Germany, and the West African squadron was finally dissolved in December 1885.[20] After this the Imperial German Navy established the West African Station, covering the maritime area off the coast of West Africa. Warships were assigned to the ports of the new German colonies.[21]

The West Africa Conference and territorial adjustmentsEdit

Cartoon of Bismarck dividing Africa at the Berlin Conference, 1885

Having staked its claims with Nachtigal and backed them up with naval force by dispatching the West Africa Squadron, Germany needed to secure international recognition of its position in the region. Bismarck believed that the acquisition of colonies, while expensive and of no real economic or military interest, was beneficial in terms of gaining bargaining power with other governments.[22] His foreign policy goal was to secure an international agreement that would place a check on the extensive ‘informal empire’ that Britain had built up. With French support, he, therefore, convened a conference in Berlin which would place Germany's acquisitions in Africa on an internationally recognised footing and would establish the rules that all powers would follow in future when making territorial claims in the continent.[23]

The Berlin Conference (known as the ‘West Africa Conference’[24][25][26] or the ‘Congo Conference’) convened in November 1884, and remained in session until February 1885.[27] The General Act of the conference made no mention of Togo, Kamerun or any specific territory other than the basin of the Congo.[28] Nevertheless, the conference did confirm the steps required in order for the Powers to recognise each other's territorial claims in West Africa – steps which Nachtigal had followed. Along with a number of claims by other Powers, German claims in West Africa were thus effectively recognised by means of the conference. In parallel with the main conference sessions, discussions were pursued which were intended to avoid possible conflict by tidying up overlapping claims and starting to define borders.[29][30] Just two months after the Berlin Conference, on 22 April 1885, Germany concluded a treaty with England which established the borders around Mount Cameroon. The following year, on May 6, 1886, another treaty extended the frontier to the east. An agreement with France on December 24, 1885 fixed the Campo River as the southern border of Kamerun.[citation needed]

As these border agreements proceeded, Germany abandoned certain of its claims in order to consolidate its position in Togoland and Kamerun. Thus on October 24, 1885, Mahinland came under British protection in return for territorial compensation to Germany.[31] On 24 December 1885 Kapitaï and Koba were ceded to France in return for compensation in Togo.[14]

In 1884 an expedition led by Eduard Schulze [de] tried to establish a Germany colony near Nokki on the Congo, but it received no official support.[32][33][34] The International African Association recognised the German claim, the borders of which were never defined. However at the Berlin Conference Bismarck ceded German rights in Nokki to Portugal.[35]

Race for the NigerEdit

While the Berlin Conference was largely concerned with the Congo, there was also competition between Germany, France and Britain for rights on the Niger, an important artery for the colonization of the interior. Despite the failure of Gottlieb Leonhard Gaiser [de]’s venture in Mahinland, German traders still wanted duty-free access to the upper Niger.[36] The Benue expedition of Paul Staudinger [de] in 1885/86 sought to establish relations with the Sokoto Caliphate and the Emirate of Gwandu, but this did not lead to occupation or protection.[37] Likewise Friedrich Colin’s attempt to reach the headwaters of the Nigerian from Guinea came to nothing after Germany agreed to cede Kapitaï and Koba (also known as ‘Colinsland’) to France.

In 1894/95 an expedition funded by the Togo Committee and led by Hans Gruner [de] attempted to acquire territories for Germany in the central Niger region. Gruner and his companion Ernst von Carnap-Quernheimb [de] travelled the Niger and concluded "treaties of protection" with chiefs of Gwandu and Gurma [de].[38] However the French and British representatives signed similar agreements with the same chiefs, so they were of no value to Germany. Other German forays towards Niger, by Erich Kling [de], Gaston Thierry, Ludwig Wolf [de] and Julius von Zech auf Neuhofen [de] were similarly unsuccessful. Ultimately all Germany was able to gain for its efforts in the Niger basin was favourable adjustments to the border between Togoland and French West Africa when the border was settled by agreement in 1897.[39][40][41]

West African SyndicateEdit

In October 1884, with Bismarck's support, the syndicate for West Africa was founded, which was intended to take over the internal administration of the West African colonies. However, the companies involved refused to assume this responsibility on their own and instead demanded the establishment of German government administration.[42] Bismarck's idea of indirect rule in the German "protected areas" had thus failed in West Africa. In 1886, the syndicate dissolved.[43]

Administrative relations for the German colonies in West AfricaEdit

The German colonial enterprise in West Africa was started by Gustav Nachtigal as Imperial Commissioner for West Africa. He started formally the "Schutzgebiete" (literally: "protectorates") in Kamerun, Togo and South-West Africa. This connection is reflected in the first legal decrees which were jointly done for the posts of the chief officials in these colonies, i.e. governor of Kamerun and the commissioners of Togo and South West Africa [44]

Later a number of decrees were jointly issued for Kamerun and Togo. Togo was ruled as a separate colony by an Imperial Commissioner (from 1893: "Landeshauptmann"[45]) until 1898 who was supervised by a Chief Commissioner ("Oberkomissar") who was at the same time the governor of Kamerun. The first governor of Kamerun, Julius von Soden, was also the Chief Commissioner for Togo. In 1898 the position in Togo was elevated to the rank of governor.[46]

For the courts in charge of Europeans, there was a joint "Appellate Court for the protectorates of Kamerun and Togo" ("Kaiserliches Obergericht der Schutzgebiete von Kamerun und Togo".[47]

The designation Deutsch-Westafrika appeared in a few non official publications concerning the two colonies.[48][49]

A trading company which was active in Kamerun, Togo, Nigeria and Gold Coast used the name "Deutsch-Westafrikanische Handelsgesellschaft" (German West African Trading Company), founded in 1896[50] and was also involved in the 1904 founding of the "Deutsch-Westafrikanische Bank" (German West African Bank).[51]


Areas under German rule in West Africa between 1884 and 1919 were the following (excluding German South West Africa):[52]

Territory Period Area
Current countries
(without the north-east)
1884–1919 488,000 km2
(Excluding "Entenschnabel")
2,588,000   Cameroon
Ambasbay/Victoria[53] 1887–1919 ? 12,000   Cameroon
Entenschnabel 1894–1911 12,000 km2 ?   Cameroon
Kapitaï and Koba 1884–1885 2,310 km2 35,000   Guinea
Mahinland 1885 5,210 km2 10,000   Nigeria
1911–1919 295,000 km2 2,000,000   Gabon
  Republic of the Congo
  Central African Republic
Salaga Area (East) 1899–1919 2,800 km2 ?   Ghana
Togo 1884–1919 87,200 km2
(Including the Eastern Salaga Area)
1,000,000   Ghana
Total 879,510 km2 5,645,000

See alsoEdit


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  44. ^ Die deutsche Kolonial-Gesetzgebung (digital copy of the German colonial laws, Berlin 1893, at; page 177 (210 / 823 of pdf): Decree concerning the ranks of the Governor of Kamerun and the commissioners of the West African protectorates
  45. ^ Jung, Uwe. Findbuch Fonds Allemand (Fa) Verwaltung des Deutschen Schutzgebiets Kamerun. Das Bundesarchiv. Retrieved 13 February 2019.
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  47. ^ (Die deutsche Kolonial-Gesetzgebung p.187)
  48. ^ F. Karsch: Insekten von Baliburg (Deutsch-Westafrika) (insects of Baliburg (German West Africa)), in: Entomologische Nachrichten, ed Dr. F. Karsch, 1892 Nr. 11, p. 161ff, Sonderdruck des Königlichen Museums für Naturkunde zu Berlin o. J.; via
  49. ^ The German author Rochus Schmidt titled a chapter "Deutsch-Westafrika" in his book Deutschlands Kolonien. Band 2, Berlin: Verlag des Vereins der Bücherfreunde Schall & Grund, 1898, S. 1–292. (Reprint durch Weltbild Verlag, Augsburg 1998, ISBN 3-8289-0301-0)
  50. ^ Schnee, Heinrich, ed. (1920). "Deutsch-Westafrikanische Handels Gesellschaft". Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon (in German). Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  51. ^ Schnee, Heinrich, ed. (1920). "Deutsch-Westafrikanische Bank". Deutsches Kolonial-Lexikon (in German). Leipzig: Quelle & Meyer. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
  52. ^ For statistics regarding individual entities see "Statistische Angaben zu den deutschen Kolonien". Deutsches Historisches Museum. Archived from the original on October 10, 2012.
  53. ^ Gründer, Horst (2004). Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien [History of the German colonies] (in German) (5th ed.). Paderborn / Munich / Vienna / Zurich: Ferdinand Schöningh. p. 84. ISBN 978-3-8252-1332-9.