‘Islands of Sovereignty’ – Labour, Recruitment and Command in German East Africa

German colonial rule in East Africa depended decisively on local African power structures. According to the concept ‘Islands of Sovereignty’ (Inseln der Herrschaft), the German colonial administration could, at best, exert comprehensive rule only in the direct environments of governmental strongholds, such as military stations or centres of civil administration. I will argue in my study that not only colonial administrative centres, but also other colonial undertakings, may be regarded as ‘islands of sovereignty’, which were highly dependent on East African determinants. That applies to plantations, scientific excavation sites (Tendaguru), but especially to the construction site of the central railway that was slowly progressing, from coastal Dar es Salaam to Kigoma on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, between 1905 and 1914. All the colonial protagonists responsible for these endeavours obtained only limited powers to fulfil their tasks, and were strongly dependent on local determinants, particularly in the fields of labour and labour recruitment.

Even though German colonial rule was far from comprehensive in East Africa, the colonial centres – the ‘Islands of Sovereignty’ – were also not microcosms entirely isolated from their surroundings. African intermediaries often directly employed by the colonial administration either managed to partly maintain and adapt pre-colonial infrastructure to the colonial environment, or they established new quasi-hybrid links between the German colonial administration and the local (African) population. They acted not only as intermediaries between colonial institutions and the local (African) population, but they also established new social and economic links to the civil population and reinterpreted as well as negotiated the relationship between ‘colonizers and colonized’.  Hence, there were interlinkages between the different protagonists and institutions that constantly negotiated the composition of the East African colonial society.

These complex and entangled realities of German colonial East Africa were, further, not cut off from other world affairs. Quite the contrary. The world around 1900 was decisively shaped by patterns of globalisation, and European colonialism was integral to this global process. The concept of “colonial globality” describes the increasing processes of global interconnections characterised by capitalist structures, imperialist interventions, intercultural exchanges and migration flows. The entire global economy depended on the integration of non-European raw materials, markets, and labour, not only in Europe but also in other world regions, such as (German) East Africa. Particularly, large-scale infrastructure projects like railways were not only dependent on an international workforce, but also fuelled colonial discourse and imagination in Europe, in Africa, and beyond.

With the global history of labour having gained increased attention recently, so far neglected fields of the employment and the protagonists of labour have been studied. While several aspects of labour in colonial German East Africa do still lie in the dark, this study attempts to reveal several aspects. First of all, it attempts to highlight the roles of those protagonists involved in labour that have hardly received any attention in the labour historiography of (German) East Africa. This applies especially to the multi-ethnic group of European labour recruiters and Indian craftsmen involved at several working sites. Secondly, it attempts to illustrate the interconnections of labour and labour recruitment between the central railway’s construction site, the Otto Plantation near Kilossa, and the Tendaguru excavation site in the Southern part of the colony. On a higher level, my research enquires into the interconnections between these three ‘Islands of sovereignty’ within the ‘Indian Ocean Area’, and within the world-wide links of the ‘colonial globality’ around 1900. As many of the possible interconnections might have also turned out to be dead ends, the research further attempts to illustrate where and why ruptures in these global interlinkages occurred.

Taking a closer look on each working site of the individual ‘Islands of Sovereignty’, this research project attempts to illustrate further the areas of conflict regarding the labour of all protagonists involved at a working site. The agenda and agency not only of the colonizers, but also of the colonized, are to be investigated. The agenda of the colonial administration and its personnel are thus taken as one important aspect regarding all working sites. The very same can be said for the (African) workforce involved, whose ability to protest, and opportunities for agency, have not been studied sufficiently. Still, the companies involved also played their part regarding each ‘Island of sovereignty’.

Bild: Eisenbahn in Deutsch-Ostafrika © W. Lange/Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft (Universitätsbibliothek Frankfurt a. M.)


Assoziierter Doktorand
(Max-Weber-Kolleg für kultur- und sozialwissenschaftliche Studien)
Max-Weber-Kolleg (Steinplatz 2) / Raum 506 c (4. OG)