Violent Intermediaries: African Soldiers, Conquest, and Everyday Colonialism in German East Africa by Michelle R. Moyd
“Who were the askari, the African men who fought for the German colonial army during the East African campaign of World War I?” (xi). This question is at the heart of historian Michelle R. Moyd’s volume Violent Intermediaries. In her detailed study of everyday colonialism in German East Africa, Moyd captures underlying complexities when trying to explain the askari’s willingness to fight for the German imperial government. More precisely, she “illuminates microprocesses involved in the making of colonialism and empire from the vantage point of the African soldiers and agents of colonialism who carried them out” (4). Moyd’s focus on daily interactions ultimately exposes the myth of askari loyalty toward the German imperial government as utilized by colonial revisionists to be fundamentally flawed given the complexities of everyday colonial encounters and roles.
Moyd begins by exploring precolonial dynamics and continually includes the needed context throughout. The author skillfully traces “socio-cultural histories and geographical origins of men who became askari to their sites of recruitment in disparate African locations” (32). She argues that a variety of circumstances steered young men toward becoming askari, referencing the importance of “‘Sudanese’ qualities” and “identifiable military traditions” (40–41) for the recruitment process. Specific examples grounded in European and non-European sources illustrate how “askari set themselves apart from those they consider washenzi, or uncivilized people” (60). Moyd then discusses “military training and socialization” (88), including the importance of [End Page 212] “emotional bonds,” “military show,” and uniforms (92–105). Moyd eventually explores “The Askari Way of War” with regards to both the Maji Maji war and World War I. For instance, senior askari Sol Mabruk helped restore order once the leadership skills of Schutztruppe colonial-troops lieutenant Johannes proved insufficient—something he pointed out to Johannes’s superior Weinberger directly. Such soldierly experience and comfort within the hierarchies “amplified the organization and technological advantages the Schutztruppe columns brought to bear in East African warfare in the 1890s and later” (121). She also offers an interesting microhistorical study of askari station life and the intermediary roles these locations played within colonialism. Here, Moyd sheds light onto “the social complexities of being a member of a boma [military and administrative] community” (160). The author vividly describes everyday colonialism as it takes shape in courtyards, villages, veteran settlements, and numerous others spaces; she also discusses economics, religious frameworks, and gendered dynamics. Her final chapter most clearly identifies askari power as agents of German colonialism, including their roles as tax collectors. A rather short conclusion makes connections to global dynamics while underlining the limits of the askari myth overall.
Moyd is ultimately successful in her attempts to illustrate that it is “important to study agents of state authority like the askari within their everyday contexts, as people with aspirations and projects that, in all their complexities, shaped everyday decisions and actions” (206). A focus on the everyday indeed helps illuminate “how quotidian actions and complicities produce the institutions and practices that often discipline societies in diverse historical contexts” (31). Her use of a variety of sources from Germany, Britain, and Tanzania give her claims the needed substance; it also illustrates how detailed archival work—in combination with the use of oral histories, life stories, and epic poetry—makes an intricate representation of the askari and their complex “subjectivities as colonial agents, soldiers, householders, and community members” (23) possible. Whereas such efforts already make this volume a worthwhile read for scholars of numerous disciplines, the author also helps her audience to see much broader connections. In fact, the author mentions the power of myth-making in her conclusion and comments on the historic role of veterans—both discussions that raise important avenues for future inquiry. Moyd could have discussed Alltagsgeschichte as a sensible framework for other colonial spaces more broadly, namely because her study illustrates such possibilities so impressively. [End Page 213]