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German East Africa

German East Africa was Germany's colony in East Africa, including what is now Burundi, Rwanda, and the mainland part of Tanzania. It came into existence during the 1880s and ended during World War I, when the area was taken over by the British.

Table of contents
1 Foundation
2 First World War
3 Postage stamps


The colony's story begins with Carl Peters, an adventurer who founded the "Company for German Colonization" and had signed some dubious treaties with native chiefs of the mainland across from Zanzibar. On March 3, 1885, the German government announced that it had granted an imperial charter (secretly, on February 17) to Peters' company, and intended to establish a protectorate in East Africa. Peters then recruited a variety of specialists who fanned out across the country, south to the Rufiji River, and north to Witu, near Lamu on the coast.

When the Sultan of Zanzibar protested (as he considered himself the ruler of the mainland), Bismarck sent five warships (including Stosch, Gneisenau, and Prinz Adalbert), which arrived August 7 and trained their guns on the Sultan's palace. The net result was that the British and Germans agreed to divide the mainland into spheres of influence, and without British support, the Sultan had to go along.

The Germans quickly established their rule over Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam, and Kilwa. A native revolt that started in 1888 was put down (with British help) in the following year. In 1890, London and Berlin made a deal that gave Heligoland to Germany, and defined the limits of German East Africa (the exact borders remained ill-defined until 1910).

The Germans were always few in number in the colony, relying on native chiefs to keep order, and demanding that they collect the taxes and pay for them by starting commercial farms for cash crops, such as cotton, coffee and sesame.

The Maji-Maji rebellion occurred in 1905, and was soon put down by Count Götzen. But scandal soon followed, with stories of corruption and brutality (in all of the German colonies in Africa), and in 1907 Bulow appointed Bernard Dernburg to reform the colonial administration.

First World War

The story of German East Africa in the First World War is essentially the history of the colony's military commander, General Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck. A vibrant and young officer, he spent the war harrying the forces of the British Empire, tying down with his band of 3,000 Europeans & 11,000 native levies--called Askaris--a British/Imperial army 300,000 strong (At times commanded by the former Boer-War commander Jan Smuts).

Lettow-Vorbeck's masterful mix of guerilla warfare and daring raids ended up costing the British war effort massive resources and upwards of 60,000 casualties. Nonetheless, weight of numbers, and dwindling supplies, forced Lettow-Vorbeck into a grudging withdrawal. Ultimately, Lettow-Vorbeck fought his tiny force out of German East Africa and into Mozambique, where he surrendered a few weeks after the end of the war.

Heralded after the war as one of their few heroes, the Germans celebrated Lettow-Vorbeck's as the only German force in the First World War not to have been defeated in open combat. Incredibly, not a single one of his Askari colonial troops deserted over the entire length of the war--and were later given pensions by the Weimar Republic. One can read about this in Von Lettow-Vorbeck's book MY REMINISCENCES OF EAST AFRICA, or alternately titled in German as "HEIA SAFARI! Deutschlands Kampf in Ostafrika". More accessibly, one can read the wonderful book by Byron Farwell "The Great War in Africa, 1914-1918".

10 pesa on 20 pfennig overprint of 1893, used 5 July 1894 at Tanga

The Treaty of Versailles broke up the colony, giving the eastern area to Belgium as Ruanda-Urundi, the small Kionga Triangle south of the Rovuma River to Portugal to become part of Mozambique, and the remainder to Great Britain, who named it Tanganyika.

Postage stamps

5-pesa "Yacht", postmarked
Lindi, 27 July 1901

The first postage stamps issued for German East Africa came in 1893, as surcharges in pesa values on regular German stamps, along with the inscription "Deutsch-Ostafrika". In 1900, Germany issued the "Yachts", a common design used for all of Germany's colonies, featuring the Kaiser's yacht Hohenzollern. In German East Africa they were denominated in pesas and rupees (64 pesas to a rupee), and inscribed "DEUTSCH-OSTAFRIKA". In 1905 new stamps were printed in "hellers", 100 hellers to a rupee. Germany continued to print stamps even as things went badly in the war, issuing a 1-rupee watermarked Yacht in 1916 (genuine uses of this stamp are extremely rare, worth US$20,000 or more). Most types of German East Africa stamp sell for under US$10, but the high denominations and early overprints up to US$100.

After the colony was occupied by Belgian and British troops, each issued its own provisional stamps. In 1916, the Belgians overprintd stamps of Belgian Congo in several ways, first with "RUANDA" and "URUNDI", although these were never actually used. A second series was overprinted with the dual-language "EST AFRICAIN ALLEMAND / OCCUPATION BELGE / DUITSCH OOST AFRIKA / BELGISCHE BEZETTUNG". In 1922 these stamps received surcharges ranging from 5c to 50c.

Initially, in 1916, the British overprinted stamps of the Nyasaland Protectorate with "N.F.", for "Nyasaland Force", then in 1917 switched to the overprint "G.E.A." on stamps of East Africa and Uganda. The same overprint appeared on stamps inscribed "East Africa and Uganda Protectorates", but these were issued after the establishment of Tanganyika, and are considered part of Tanganyika's postal history.