Askari: The Indigenous Soldiers of European Colonial Armies in Africa

Askaris were soldiers recruited from local populations in Africa to fight for European colonial powers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The term “askari” is derived from the Arabic word for soldier, and was used primarily by the Germans and British to describe the troops they recruited in their colonies.

Askari: The Indigenous Soldiers of European Colonial Armies in Africa
An African soldier or ‘Askari’ on guard duty at No. 23 Air School at Waterkloof, Pretoria, South Africa, January 1943.

During the late 19th century, European powers were competing for control of Africa, leading to a number of wars and conflicts. In order to maintain control over their colonies, European powers began recruiting local men to serve as soldiers in their armies. These soldiers were known as askaris, and they were used to fight against both local resistance movements and other European powers.

The German askaris (Schutztruppe) were primarily recruited from present-day Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi. They were used in the Scramble for Africa, the Herero and Namaqua genocide, the suppression of the Maji Maji Rebellion and other conflicts.

Askari: The Indigenous Soldiers of European Colonial Armies in Africa
German soldiers and three German askaris (far right corner) at a hanging party of 312 herero rebels

The British askaris (King’s African riffle) were recruited from present-day Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. They were used in the East Africa Campaign of World War I, the East African Campaign (World War II) and other conflicts.

The French askaris (Tirailleurs) were recruited from present-day Algeria, Tunisia, and Senegal. They were used in the Pacification of Algeria and other conflicts.

Askari soldiers

The Belgian askaris (also known as Force publique) were recruited from present-day Congo. The Force Publique were an exceptionally brutal army, and one of their primary missions was to enforce rubber quotas and other forms of forced labor. They were also used in other conflicts. In the 1890s, the Force Publique defeated the African and Arab slavers in the course of the Congo–Arab War (1892–1894), which resulted in tens of thousands of casualties.

Officers of the force publique An askari soldier

Askaris were typically known for their bravery, brutality and loyalty, and they played a significant role in maintaining European control over their colonies. Serving as an askari brought with it not only decent pay, but also certain privileges.

However, despite the pay and privileges from their European colonizers, the askaris were kept as separate units within the colonial powers’ military forces. They were also equipped with outdated weapons and wore simpler uniforms, and often received limited training. Furthermore, they were disproportionately placed in dangerous front-line positions, resulting in a high number of casualties among the askari troops. This treatment reflected the limited value placed on their lives by their European masters.

The use of askaris as front-line troops was a cost-effective strategy for European colonial powers. They were able to recruit and train large numbers of local men at relatively low cost, and also maintain control over their colonies with a smaller number of European soldiers.

After World War II, the askaris who had also been recruited to fight against Hitler and his allies were demobilized and returned to their homes. In some cases, they were given small pensions or land grants, but in most cases they received little or nothing. After independence, many African countries incorporated their askari units into their newly formed military and the term askari disappeared from the official vocabulary.

Talk Africana
Talk Africana
Fascinating Cultures and history of peoples of African origin in both Africa and the African diaspora


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