Carl Peters

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Carl Peters
Bundesarchiv Bild 183-R30019, Dr. Carl Peters.jpg
Peters about 1895
Born 27 September 1856
Neuhaus, Kingdom of Hanover
Died 10 September 1918 (aged 61)
Bad Harzburg, German Empire
Alma mater University of Göttingen
University of Tübingen
Frederick William University
Occupation Explorer, author, colonialist, politician
Known for Founder of the German East Africa Company

Carl Peters (27 September 1856 – 10 September 1918), was a German colonial ruler, explorer, politician and author, the prime mover behind the foundation of the German colony of East Africa (in today's Tanzania). A proponent of Social Darwinism and the Völkisch movement, his attitude towards the indigenous population made him one of the most controversial colonizers even during his lifetime.


He was born at Neuhaus an der Elbe in the Kingdom of Hanover, the son of a Lutheran clergyman. Peters studied history and philosophy at Göttingen, Tübingen and in Berlin under Heinrich von Treitschke. In 1879 he was awarded a gold medal by the Berlin Frederick William University for his dissertation on the 1177 Treaty of Venice and habilitated with a treatise on Arthur Schopenhauer.

East Africa Company[edit]

Instead of pursuing the career of a senior teacher, Peters after his studies moved to London where he stayed in the house of his recently widowed maternal uncle Carl Engel on Addison Road. Engel was a distinguished composer and musical essayist, brother-in-law of the ophthalmologist Sir William Bowman, and lived the life of a well-off gentleman. He introduced his nephew into the London society where Peters became acquainted with the British way of life as well as with principles of colonization and imperialism. When he returned to Berlin he founded the Society for German Colonization (Gesellschaft für Deutsche Kolonisation) pressure group for the acquisition of colonies. In the autumn of 1884 he proceeded with two companions to East Africa, and concluded in the name of his society treaties with the chiefs of Useguha, Nguru, Ijsagara and Ukami. Returning to Europe early in 1885, he formed the German East Africa Company.

The German government under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck fearing the impact on the relations with the British, was originally opposed to these plans, and had refused any backing when Peters set out. Bismarck refused a second time when Peters returned to Germany in the closing days of the Berlin Congo Conference demanding an imperial charter. Peters, however, blackmailed the Chancellor successfully by threatening to sell his acquisitions to King Léopold II of Belgium who was eager to expand his Congo Empire. As Bismarck's National Liberal allies in the Reichstag parliament were pro-colonial minded anyway, he finally gave in and the charter was made out. This constituted the necessary backing for further expansion on the East African mainland in the following years. In 1888 Peters achieved an agreement with Sultan Khalifah bin Said of Zanzibar who leased his coastal dominions in what was to be Tanganyika to the German East Africa Company.

In the same year Peters undertook an expedition from the east coast of Africa, avowedly for the relief of Emin Pasha, actually to extend the sphere of German influence in Uganda and Equatoria. This expedition was not sanctioned by the German government and was regarded by the British authorities as a filibustering (in the 19th century sense of the word) exploit. Reaching Uganda in early 1890, Peters concluded a treaty with Kabaka Mwanga II of Buganda in favour of Germany.

He had to leave Uganda hastily on the approach of an expedition led by Frederick Lugard, the representative of the Imperial British East Africa Company. On reaching Zanzibar he learned that his efforts were useless, as on 1 July 1890 the Heligoland–Zanzibar Treaty between Germany and the British Empire had been signed, whereby Uganda was left in the British sphere and Peters' agreement with Mwanga became null and void. Meanwhile, the power of his company had collapsed when the coastal population rose in the Abushiri Revolt against the implementation of the lease agreement between the Sultan and the Germans. The German government had to intervene by sending troops under Hermann Wissmann, suppressed the insurrection and took over the company's possessions as a colony.

Nevertheless, on his return to Germany Peters was received with great honours, and in 1891 published an account of his expedition entitled Die deutsche Emin Pasha Expedition, which was translated into English. He also endorsed the foundation of the Alldeutscher Verband in protest against the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty.


In 1891 he went out again to East Africa as Reichskommissar (Imperial High Commissioner) for the Kilimanjaro Region in Moshi, however subordinate to Wissmann, and in 1892 was one of the commissioners for delimiting the Anglo-German boundary with the British East Africa Company in that region. In the same time Peters by his brutal behaviour against the local population provoked an uprising which was to cost him his office. He used local girls as concubines and, when he discovered that his lover Jagodja had an affair with his man-servant Mabruk, he had both of them sentenced for theft and treason and hanged by a drumhead court-martial and their home villages destroyed. The incident, at first not reported by Peters, provoked resistance by the local Chaga people and again necessitated costly military action.

Peters was recalled to Berlin and employed in the Imperial Colonial Office from 1893 to 1895, while official accusations were brought against him of excesses in his treatment of the native population. In a sitting of the Reichstag on 13 March 1896 August Bebel, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, finally made the killings public, citing from a self-exculpatory letter by Peters to Bishop Alfred Tucker. Peters denied the authenticity of the letter but had to admit the executions. After three investigations had been held he was, in 1897, dishonorably deprived of his commission for misuse of official power, losing all his pension benefits.

He evaded the final sentence and further criminal prosecution by removing to London, where he occupied himself in schemes for exploiting parts of Rhodesia and Portuguese East Africa. In the interests of a gold mining company he formed, Peters explored the Fura district and Macombes country on the Zambezi river, where in 1899 he discovered ruins of cities and deserted gold mines of the medieval Kingdom of Mutapa, which he identified as the legendary ancient lands of Ophir. He returned in 1901 and gave an account of his explorations in Im Goldland des Altertums (The Eldorado of the Ancients) (1902). In 1905 he again visited the region between the Zambezi and Sabi rivers.


Besides the books already mentioned and some smaller treatises Peters published a philosophical work entitled Willenswelt und Weltwille (1883), and a disquisition on early gold production entitled Das goldene Ophir Salomo's (1895), translated into English in 1898.

Among colonial minded circles he was feted as a national hero. In 1914 he was able to return to Germany, after Emperor Wilhelm II by personal decree had bestowed upon him the right to use the title of an Imperial Commissioner again and had given him a pension from his personal budget, while the sentence by the disciplinary court remained in force. Peters was officially rehabilitated by personal decree of Adolf Hitler 20 years after his death when the Nazis had discovered him as an ideological relative.[citation needed] A propaganda film Carl Peters by Herbert Selpin was released in 1941, starring Hans Albers.

A number of towns in Germany had streets named after Peters but in recent years some of them received changed names after a debate on his legacy. For example, Petersallee in the Afrikanisches Viertel in Berlin was originally named after Carl Peters, but was rededicated in 1986 to Hans Peters, a member of the anti-Nazi resistance.[1]

Critical voices among Social Democrats, Catholic and Free-minded politicians called Peters a butcher and a national shame. The Austrian Africanist Oscar Baumann referred to him as "half crazy". While the East African indigenous people called him as Mkono Wa Damu (Swahili for "Bloody Hands"), one of his constant nicknames in the German critical press was Hänge-Peters ("Hangman-Peters").

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Rechel, Ulrike (2014-10-24). "Streit um Straßenumbenennungen". tip. Berlin. Retrieved 2016-09-27. 


  • Norbert Aas, Werena Rosenke (Hg.): Kolonialgeschichte im Familienalbum. Frühe Fotos aus der Kolonie Deutsch-Ostafrika. ISBN 3-928300-13-X. In this book, Werena Rosenke devotes an extensive essay to Carl Peters.
  • E. Salburg: Karl Peters und sein Volk. Duncker Verlag, 1929
  • Winfried Speitkamp: "Totengedenken als Berlin-Kritik. Der Kult um die Kolonialpioniere". In: Ulrich van der Heyden, Joachim Zeller (Ed.) "... Macht und Anteil an der Weltherrschaft." Berlin und der deutsche Kolonialismus. Unrast-Verlag. Münster 2005, ISBN 3-89771-024-2
  • Hermann Krätschell: Carl Peters 1856 – 1918. Ein Beitrag zur Publizistik des imperialistischen Nationalismus in Deutschland, Berlin-Dahlem 1959. Doctoral thesis discussing Peters's impact on journalism in view of National Socialism, which developed later.
  • Arne Perras: Carl Peters and German Imperialism 1856–1918. A political Biography, Clarendon Press, Oxford 2004. ISBN 0-19-926510-0. Exhaustive biography of Peters with a dissertation on his political weight in view of Bismarck's colonial politics; research includes sources only recently made available.

External links[edit]