By David Rilley-Harris, Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
The word “askari” originates from Arabic and literally means “soldier”. The word is usually used to describe the majority of black African soldiers who were recruited by European nations from the time of the European colonisation of Africa up until the political decolonisation of African states.
During the period of colonisation, the primary work of askaris was in a security role after the conquest of a territory. The use of black Africans in securing European colonies in Africa played into the method of divide and rule for the securing of foreign land. The dividing of populations between the subjugated and the tools of that subjugation made unified efforts of resistance more demanding. In addition to that, colonising powers could try to use the willingness of conquered people to become askaris as justification for their rule. Askaris were also willing to work for lower pay than European soldiers and were available from a more numerous pool of people. European powers could almost hire as many askaris as they were able to equip. Perhaps most notably, the use of one word to describe all black African soldiers working for European powers detached those soldiers from their own nationhood and instead identified them by their skin colour and their subordination. In this way, the use of the word “askari” played into the drawing of new political borders across Africa – borders which suited the purposes of colonisers at the expense of political stability between African nations. Eventually, the word “askari” became also known as “traitor”.
Figure 1: Monument in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, dedicated to Askaris who fought in the East Africa Campaign of the First World War (Picture: Wikipedia).
In the First World War (1914 – 1918) askaris were used as a substantial portion of various military formations in African fields of combat while the memory of their service is often pictured in the public mind as the achievement of their white officers. Atrocities committed by soldiers in African fields of combat are described in more egalitarian terms. The Allied Belgian askaris of the First World War were mostly selected from the 15 000-strong Belgian colony security force called the Force Publique. After initial successes for the Belgian askaris and for the largely white South African Second Infantry Brigade in Africa, a competition arose as to who would face the German East African force under General Lettow-Vorbeck. Britain was concerned about Belgium gaining African colonial territory which they wanted for themselves, and the South African government was generally opposed to arming black Africans at all. South Africa was given the lead against German East Africa after the Belgian askaris were accused of rape, pillaging, and even cannibalism. Belgian officers were also accused of being too rough on their askaris while British askaris were described as being better disciplined. A legacy of the torture of black labourers for the rubber trade in the Belgian Congo under King Leopold II had been exposed only a few years before the First World War. About 2 000 (1 in 7) Belgian askaris died in the First World War. Britain made extensive use of askaris in the King’s African Rifles where askaris were better paid and were considered with more prestige. Many of the askaris recruited into the King’s African Rifles in 1918 had formerly been German askaris. Germany’s General Lettow-Vorbeck recruited about 11 000 askaris in a guerrilla campaign that successfully distracted an entire South African Brigade and more throughout the First World War. General Lettow-Vorbeck was the last of all the German generals to surrender in the war.
Figure 2: Route followed by General Lettow-Vorbeck as he withdrew during the First World War (Picture: South African Military History Society).
As during the First World War, askaris fought in Africa, Europe, and Asia in the Second World War (1939 – 1945). The South African government was not in favour of arming black Africans and recruited them for non-combat roles. It meant that they were employed in the front lines without rifles. In South Africa, askaris were used in a security role as guards and equipped with government-made spears based on the Zulu Iklwa (short spear).
Figure 3: An askari on guard duty at Waterkloof Air Force Base, Pretoria in 1943 (Picture: Wikipedia).
During the Second World War, the supremacist Nazi Germany extended the word “askari” to refer to white Europeans whom they considered inferior. This did not stop Nazi Germany from using volunteer Western Ukrainian askaris to form an element of their most politicised forces in the form of the 14th Waffen SS Grenadier Division. It was also on the European Eastern Front of the Second World War that “askari” came to mean “turncoat” or “traitor” as it was the name given to deserting or captured Russians who fought for Germany.
During the Apartheid era in South Africa, the word “askari” referred to Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA) operatives who were convinced, or forced through torture, to inform for the Apartheid government. To be an askari had changed from being a person choosing the option of serving in the major global conflicts of the twentieth century, to being an unforgivable traitor. In an article in The Star titled “26 years into SA’s democracy, a different type of Askari is emerging” in 2020, the journalist uses the term in reference to the corrupt members of South Africa’s ruling elite. In the same contemporary South Africa, many black South Africans struggle to see black sacrifice in the World Wars for self-determination and freedom from fascism as something of which to be proud of, instead seeing the World Wars as white men’s wars. There was indeed an attempt early in the First World War to keep the conflict for the right to self-determination belonging to the white races but the conflict proved too big to own. General Lettow-Vorbeck was accused in early First World War battles of using askaris in combat roles and not only as porters, when in fact everybody had been absorbed into the massive conflict on all sides from the very beginning. In Tip & Run: The Untold Tragedy of the First World War in Africa, Edward Paice writes that “the campaign was destined to become no more a ‘White Man’s War’ than the war between Britain and the Boer Republics a decade and a half earlier”. Many soldiers who fought in the wars did so not out of patriotism or ideology, but as a result of forced conscription or as volunteers for the sake of adventure, or for the pay, or for social advancement. This information never seems to detract from the white soldiers’ bravery and their global contribution to a better world. The same information in reference to askaris seems all too often to be offered as an explanation as to why they gave so much in a world that supposedly did not belong to them.
- Gilbert, M. 2004. The Second World War: A Complete History. London: Holt McDougal Publishers.
- Paice, E. 2007. Tip & Run: The Untold Tragedy of the Great War in Africa. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson Publishers.
- “26 years into SA’s democracy, a different type of Askari is emerging,” IOL: The Star: Opinion Analysis, last modified September 7, 2020, www.google.com/amp/s/www.iol.co.za/amp/the-star/opinion-analysis/26-years-into-sas-democracy-a-different-type-of-askari-is-emerging-f6cec663-073c-4c7c-81f4-1c71ea9ce4c6/.