The Hehe Rebellion, conducted by the Hehe ethnic group of Tanzania, is one of the most famous anti-colonial rebellions in East Africa.
The rebellion happened in 1891 during the reign of chief Mkwawa. Mkwawa had accumulated power through war and intimidation of his enemies. The Hehe territory expanded greatly northwards in early 1880’s through the Mkwawas brutal leadership. Tribes living along the caravan routes near central Tanganyika (now Tanzania) were attacked and displaced to pave way for the most powerful group, the Hehe.
Mkwawa chiefdom grew to become the most feared chiefdom in the south eastern region in 1890 afflicting and silencing the Wakaguru and the Wagogo. The Hehe spared no one including the Germans and their supporting local tribes. It is then when serious conflicts between the Hehe and the Germans began.
The Wahehe (Swahili plural for Hehe) expanded northwards at a time when the Germans were busy building stations along the caravan route in the central region of Tanzania. There were local tribes who pledged loyalty to the Germans and could carry and show the German flags. These local tribes were a cheap bait for the Hehe. The German-loyal tribes were cruelly assaulted, plundered, and destroyed by the Hehe despite attempts by the German leadership to dialogue.
On August 17, 1891 Julius von Soden, the then governor of German East Africa authorized an attack by the Germans to the Wahehe. The planned attack was to be headed by Zelewski the then German commander. What followed was to be an historical defeat of the Germans by the Wahehe as reported from a combination of records, A Modern History of Tanganyika by Ilife, Emil Zelewski by Holger Doebold and Lt. Tettenborn’s official report.
On that day at six thirty the Germany commander Zelewski led troops to the inland area. It is reported that three local worriors were killed and about twenty five large houses torched. Wahehe worriors in readiness for response were armed with only spears and weapons and could easily be frightened with a few shots by the Germany troops. When a Germany officer drew attention by shooting a bird the local worriors began attacking the opponents. Though the locals had only a few riffles they easily overcame the Germany side. The Askaris were already overpowered after making only two shots. In ten minutes very significant events occurred; the pack donkeys retreated stampeding on 5th company, the Askaris could not bear any more and so they had to retreat. Three officers of the Germany camp pushed until they reached a nearby tembe where the body of Zelewski the commander was found on his donkey. Zelewski had been speared by a sixteen year old.
Most of the column died and the rearguards took to the hill, raised the flag and began the process of rallying those who had survived. NCO Thieman died on the night of 17th to 18th August and was buried near the Wahehe. Lt. Heydebreck escaped with spear wounds behind his right ear. The Hehe persistently pursued the Germany troops, setting fire on grass to kill the wounded and pushing to encircle the rearguard. However, the Hehe group of 300-400 did not attack the Germany army.
The Hehe also had their share of spoils; 60 warriors died that day and 200 later died of wounds.
The rebellion saw a significant number of Hehe chiefs dead with Mkwawa wrongly included in Lt. Tettenborn report. As opposed to the reports the claimed “main part of the baggage” was not saved. The German loss was huge; ten out of thirteen Europeans died, 256 out of the dispatched 320 Askaris perished, 96 out of the total 170 porters were lost. This earned the Wahehe a fame that no other group had in the region, they were termed as the most powerful soldiers of the moment. Despite an unhappy Germany military the sitting governor banned any form of expedition or revenge upon the Wahehe by the Germans. The directive however, was not obeyed by some angered military persons like von Pronce who could still attack the Wahehe from the north.
Governor Soden after leaving Tanzania to his home country in 1893 was succeeded by Freiherr von Schele. With the governorship changes expeditions were restarted by the Germany Military headed by Zugführer Bauer and two other militants; Zugführer and Wynecken. In 1894, after negotiations had failed and caravans continued to be attacked the Germans succeeded in capturing the then capital city of Mkwawa, Iringa. The seizing of Iringa did however not lead to peace since the still free Mkwawa led his people to attack the neighboring tribes and the Germans.
Divisions arose among the Wahehe in 1896; some expressed submission to the Germans and Mkwawa was isolated as a criminal. The Mkwawa loyals protected him and helped him in his attacks over the Germans. Many Wahehe were killed by the Germans for aiding Mkwawa. Mkwawa’s brother was executed after two months of service as Mkwawas successor.
After an intensive such by the Germans, eventually Mkwawa was captured in July 1898. After being trapped by the Germans Mkwawa shot himself, his head was chopped off and send to German. Mkwawas skull was later to be returned to Tanzania after insertion of the Treaty of Versailles ordering so. Though the identity of the skull was questionable it was returned in 1956 to Kalenga and not Iringa.
Today Mkwawa remains a renown national hero in the history of the country of Tanzania
Since then the people of Hehe have never again made a revolution but still regarded as a strong, intelligent tribe.