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Togoland: Germany's first and smallest African colony

Cai Nebe
March 18, 2024

Germany's 30-year rule in Togoland seemed relatively peaceful compared to other German colonies, and Togoland was promoted as "a model colony." But it was a self-serving myth for German colonial administrators.

German officers recruit Togolese men in traditional dress into the army
German colonial officers recruit Togolese warriors into the German protection forceImage: Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

How did Togoland become a German colony?

Europeans had traded for centuries along the West African coast. It was known to European mapmakers as the Slave Coast, and slavery existed well into the 19th century. Local groups had actually profited from slave trading, so by the time Commissioner Gustav Nachtigal signed a protection treaty with Ewe King Mlapa III in 1884, Togolese elites were hardly intimidated by Europeans and had courted different European powers, often playing them off against each other. 

This time though, the first German protectorate in Lome would be decisive: the West African coast was soon carved up by European mapmakers into the British Gold Coast, German Togoland, and French Dahomey. 

Why Togo was not a German "model colony"

Was the German colonial takeover peaceful?

No, despite widely held beliefs that German colonialism was milder in Togoland than in German East Africa (mainland Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda) and German South West Africa. 

Gustav Nachtigal
Gustav Nachtigal, an adventurer, explorer and first comissioner of West Africa was instrumental in claiming Togoland as a German colonyImage: AKG/picture-alliance

After gaining control over the coast, German imperialists launched punitive military expeditions into the hinterland. Records exist of around 60 military expeditions between 1884 and 1902.  

Why was Togoland referred to as a 'model colony?'

Along with the misconception that it was peaceful, Togoland was the only German colony that was said to be self-sustaining. But even this needs qualifying: it was self-sustaining insofar that it made money for German businesses, and was based on exploitative plantation agriculture. 

German colonialists introduced labor-intensive coffee, cotton, and cocoa farming, among others. Producing cash crops forced local people to work on sprawling plantations for minimal to no pay. The produce was mostly exported, and profits stayed in German hands. Additionally, small farmers were taxed by the colonial administration. 

The colonial administration invested little into the well-being of Togolese workers or even basic infrastructure. Experts also point out that in terms of human rights, Togo was as bad as other German possessions, with widespread racism, corporal punishment, suppression, and persecution of individuals who opposed the colonial administration. 

Plantation workers pose for a photograph in the early 1900s in Togoland
Plantations required considerable labor, and thousands were brought to produce cocoa, cotton and other cash crops for export under harsh conditions in TogolandImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

How did colonialism affect local power structures? 

From its inception as a colony, Togoland's borders did not reflect the real-world truth of where the local populations lived or interacted. On a map this is evident even today, with Ghana, Togo and Benin having a sliver of coast and stretching into the West African hinterland, like literal slices of a cake.  

Relying on a few German officers and foreign African mercenary troops, the colonial regime carried out arbitrary violence, suppressing opposition and replacing traditional power structures with compliant chiefs. 

German colonists pose on a newly-built railway track in front of Togolese workers
Togolese people were recruited to build infrastructure projects like railways into the hinterland, often for very little payImage: akg-images/picture-alliance

In fact, the very concept of a "chief" did not exist in traditional Togolese leadership, which had normally been occupied by Togolese royal families. According to Togolese historian Gilbert Dotse Yigbe, "chiefs" were appointed to do the bidding of the colonial administrations, regardless of the actual authority they held in Togolese society. For many Togolese, the term "chief" is in fact demeaning, because it was a position invented to serve colonial interests. Traditional leaders were not responsible for administration or bureaucracy — instead, they occupied a political, religious, and spiritual function that the colonists at best did not understand, or were indifferent to. Colonialists often mistakenly believed messengers or representatives wielded power, instead of the authority they were representing, and backed the representatives with colonial force. 

The erosion of the traditional leadership structure, no matter how imperfect it was, outlived German and French colonialism, and are still visible in key power struggles in Togolese society today. 

What happened to Togoland after the Germans left?

After Germany's defeat in World War I, Togoland was partitioned between France and Britain.French and British colonialism, despite concerted propaganda efforts to the contrary, did not improve life for the average Togolese. Western Togoland, which was under British administration, was eventually absorbed into Ghana, while French Togoland declared independence in 1960. Ethnic groups, like the Ewe, split by the new borders did petition against the partitions, with some even calling for a new homeland. But the colonial borders agreed by France and Britain are still in force today. 

Map shows Western Togoland in West Africa
'Western Togoland' was once a part of the former Togoland colony, but was administered by the British and then Ghana since independence

Shadows of German Colonialism is produced by DW, Germany's international broadcaster, with funding from the German Foreign Ministry (AA). Consulting was provided by Lily Mafela, Kwame Osei Kwarteng and Reginald Kirey.

Edited by: Keith Walker