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German West African Company

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Flag of the German West Africa Company (DWAG)
Flag of the German West Africa Company (DWAG)

The German West African Company, in German Deutsch-Westafrikanische Gesellschaft / Compagnie, was a German chartered company, founded in 1885. It exploited the two German protectorates in German West Africa (Togo and Cameroon) but did not actually govern them — unlike its counterpart in German East Africa.

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  • ✪ German East Africa - World War 1 Colonial Warfare I THE GREAT WAR Special
  • ✪ Kaiserliche Schutztruppen G98 - for the German Camel Corps
  • ✪ German East Africa


By this time 100 years ago, the German Empire had lost all of its colonial possessions. Well, all save one, but it would cling tenaciously to that one. I’m talking, of course, about German East Africa. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to a Great War special episode about German East Africa in the First World War. German East Africa covered what is today much of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi, which bordered- among other colonies- British East Africa, the Belgian Congo, and Portuguese East Africa, so once the war really got going, German East Africa was basically surrounded by enemies. I’m not going to delve into the pre-war history of the region very much, but I will mention Carl Peters. In 1884, Peters founded the Society for German Colonization, a group dedicated to acquiring German colonies. This was the late time of the scramble for Africa, when many European nations were trying to carve out their own chunks of the continent. That year, Peters went to Africa and signed treaties with several tribal chiefs offering them “protection” in exchange for sovereignty and the following year created the German East Africa Company. Now, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was opposed to Peters’ colonial plans and gave him no backing. Bismarck didn’t want to potentially sour relations with the British and wasn’t a colonization fan in general, but when Peters threatened to sell his acquisitions to Belgium, Bismarck, and his pro-colonial National Liberal allies in the Reichstag gave in and gave Peters an imperial charter. Peters turned out to be an unsavory character, to say the least. In 1891 and 1892 he was in German East Africa as Reichskommissar, ostensibly to help delineate the border with British East Africa, but he was brutal to the locals. He took local girls as concubines, and when one of them got together with his manservant, Peters had them both executed and their villages destroyed. Stuff like that. Needless to say, this provoked local hostilities, and Peters was recalled. Anyhow, the next quarter century of German sovereignty was a period of frequent unrest and war. At one point a local tribe, the Hehe, dealt the German Schutztruppe- the protection forces- a humiliating defeat, and the Germans responded by invading their territory, destroying fields and harvests to cause famine, and taking women and children as bounty. The Hehe turned to guerrilla warfare and the conflict dragged on throughout the 1890s. Between 1905 and 1908 there was an all-out war, the Maji-Maji War, during which tribes united across ethnic and cultural boundaries against the Germans. The Germans responded as before, and by the end of the war an estimated quarter of a million Africans died, as opposed to 15 European Sc hutztruppe soldiers. Yep, 15 versus as many as 250,000. 382 Askari who fought with the Germans also died and around 10,000 tribesmen during attacks on German garrisons, but 15 to 250,000. For the three year war and it’s aftermath of famine and starvation. Then came 1914. Now, in January 1914 Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck became commander of the Schutztruppe in German East Africa. He had seen colonial combat in both the Boxer Rebellion and in German Southwest Africa, and when the war broke out seven months later, he chose to ignore the Congo Agreements that gave the colonies the option to remain neutral, and which colonial Governor Heinrich Schnee favored. Lettow-Vorbeck’s policy was offensives without compromise. He sabotaged the British Uganda railway and defeated numerically superior British forces again and again. They were demoralized until the fall of German Southwest Africa in mid 1915 suddenly gave the British loads more South African troops to turn against von Lettow-Vorbeck. The British also began to coordinate with the Belgian Congolese forces, and in early 1916, Portugal joined the war with the Allies and von Lettow-Vorbeck now had to deal with attackers from all sides, and he had no hope of relief or supplies arriving from Germany. He withdrew to the southern part of the colony, which was great for his campaign of guerrilla warfare. He had switched to this tactic since he could not afford to lose men, and that would happen in open engagements win or lose. In 1917, he was forced to cross the border into Portuguese East Africa, where his men ransacked the countryside for food and ammunition. His war had now become an end to itself. In 1918 in British Rhodesia, von Lettow-Vorbeck learned about the armistice and surrendered November 25th. But what was the colonial war like? Well, unlike the war on, say, the Western Front, it was a war of movement. It was also a war of foot soldiers since the terrain was unsuitable for mechanized or mounted troops, and you couldn’t really drag around artillery, so most casualties were caused by malnutrition, exhaustion, and disease. Allied troops suffered 17,700 losses and anywhere from 50,000 to well over 100,000 carrier losses. On the German side were 734 European German casualties of 3,600, 6,300 Askaris - the recruited African soldiers- out of over 30,000, and around 100,000 carriers. Civilian deaths are difficult to estimate but may very well have been over a million. Von Lettow-Vorbeck claimed he could’ve continued the war for years, but is that really true? From 1916 on, his troops were in terrible shape; they didn’t have shoes or anything approaching matching equipment, and everything they did have was from enemy or local supplies. Some soldiers didn’t mind going on for years, but may wanted to return to their families, and an important note- von Lettow-Vorbeck’s comrades praised his style of leadership and determination, they did not praise him for tactical or strategic genius. The war in Africa was also supposedly more civilized than that in Europe. And while it is true that German and British officers were keen on keeping things almost sportsmanlike in nature, but when you look at, say, the askari on both sides, you see that those same officers allowed their troops to commit the worst atrocities on the local civilians. Rape, murder, looting; one Schutztruppe soldier had this to say, “Behind us we leave destroyed fields... and famine for the time to come. We are no longer ambassadors of culture, we are bringing, death, pillaging, and empty villages.” In fact, local civilians were often forced to become carriers and not given enough food to survive. There’s also the semi-myth of the faithful askari. They were supposedly loyal to Germany to the bitter end and in the future were used to portray German colonialism as superior to that of, say, Belgian, and to show what a good and decent trade partner Germany would be to newly emerging nations later in the 20th century. Askari were often recruited from other parts of Africa to make them more dependent, but they were given decent regular salaries and relatively free reign; things like alcohol abuse and polygamy were tolerated by British and German officers to promote goodwill, and since askari were used to commit atrocities, in many cases desertion would mean retaliation so it was safer to remain with the battalion. Still, there was an 18% desertion rate. Of course, there were many many thousands of askari who were simply loyal to the end, but it is a far more complicated situation than it seems on the surface. In fact, you could say that about the entire situation of German East Africa during the First World War; that it was far more complicated than it may seem on the surface. Or that it may seem from stories and legends told about it afterwards. Well, today was just a brief look at the colony and the war as well as a short analysis of some of the questions and myths surrounding it. As always, I urge you all to look this up for yourselves to get more detail and a better perspective of things. If you want to see more from about the topic, we did a bio special on General von Lettow-Vorbeck, you can check that out and hear me curse right here. Let us know what other colonies you are interested in so we can start our research and of course: Don’t forget to subscribe.



The German West African Company was established as a chartered company with a headquarters in Hamburg. The company was active in both Kamerun and Togoland.[1] Following years of little profits, the company was absorbed by the German Empire on November 13, 1903.[2]


Now modern day Cameroon.


Now modern day Togo and part of Ghana.

See also

Sources and references

  1. ^ Schnee, Albert Hermann Heinrich (1908). Unsere Kolonien. Quelle & Meyer. pp. 37 & 54.
  2. ^ German Bundesrat (1904). Die deutsche Kolonial-gesetzgebung. E.S. Mittler und sohn. p. 238.

Horst Gründer, Geschichte der deutschen Kolonien, 4th ed. (Paderborn, Ferdinand Schöningh, 2000).

This page was last edited on 2 June 2019, at 18:38
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