The German explorer, adventurer, and colonizer Carl Peters (1856-1918) was primarily responsible for putting a vast area of East Africa under German domination.
Carl Peters was born in Neuhaus near the mouth of the Elbe River. As a schoolboy, he exhibited a streak of romanticism; he dreamed of far-off lands and of the ways in which to achieve personal glory by emulating David Livingstone, Sir Richard Burton, Heinrich Barth, and other explorers of Africa.
In 1883 Peters returned home after a long visit to Britain, during which he had become infected with the fever of imperialism. He contemplated colonial adventure with new enthusiasm, spoke and wrote of the importance of colonial acquisition to the health of the new Germany, and in 1884 finally managed to persuade a number of older men of influence to join him in founding the Gesellschaft für Deutsche Kolonisation (German Colonization Society).
The society was consciously intended to propel Germany into imperial conflicts with Britain and France. Peters and his friends considered a colony in Latin America or in the Pacific. But their attentions soon turned to Africa. In particular they planned to occupy St. Lucia Bay in northern Natal, South Africa. Preparations went forward, only to be suspended when the extent of British and Zulu opposition was appreciated. Peters then turned to eastern Africa—to the mainland opposite Zanzibar, where German merchants had long been active. Here there were no other immediate European rivals, and Africans were not known to be hostile.
Peters planned a daring enterprise. Backed by the society, Peters, Count Joachim Pfeil, Karl Jühlke, and August Otto secretly traveled from Hamburg to Aden, where they took deck-class accommodations for the voyage to Zanzibar. Still incognito, they arrived there only to find a cable from Otto von Bismarck, the imperial chancellor, warning them that Germany could not support their scheme.
Undaunted, Peters and his companions quickly crossed to the African mainland and followed the valley of the Wami River toward modern Kilosa. In return for trinkets and spirits, African chiefs and headmen unwittingly, even frivolously, signed away their lands. By December 1884 Peters had obtained 124 treaties giving him exclusive sovereignty over about 2, 500 square miles of what became eastern Tanganyika.
Peters returned home with his treaties toward the close of the West African Conference at Berlin, where European territorial claims to Africa were being arbitrated and apportioned. Bismarck at first refused to accept them, but after Peters threatened to assign his newly acquired territories to King Leopold II of Belgium, Bismarck agreed to issue an imperial charter by which Germany claimed and "protected" all of the lands which lay roughly between Lake Tanganyika and the dominions of the sultan of Zanzibar. On behalf of the society and Germany Peters had gained control of a large region for which, admittedly, he and his successors would have to fight on numerous occasions against Africans.
Peters served as director of German East Africa until 1888, during which time he developed a reputation for brutality in his dealings with Africans. In the next year he returned to Africa in order to try to prevent what was to become Uganda and Kenya from falling into British hands. Successfully racing a British expedition to the capital of the Ganda king Mwanga, he obtained a critical agreement giving Germany substantial rights over the peoples around Lake Victoria. The omnibus Anglo-German territorial settlement of 1890 erased these hard-won advantages, however, and Uganda and Kenya were placed within the British sphere of influence.
Peters returned once again to Germany, where he busied himself with propaganda in favor of colonies and with the preparation of several books: New Light on Dark Africa (1891); Das Deutsche-Ostafrikanische Schutzgebiet (1895; The German East African Protectorate); Die Deutsche-Ostafrikanische Kolonie (1899; The German East African Colony); The Eldorado of the Ancients (1902); and Die Gründung von Deutsch-Ost-Afrika (1906; The Founding of German East Africa).
The standard biography of Peters is in German. For an understanding of his activities in East Africa, an essential work in English is Reginald Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa, 1856-1890 (1939).