Biography: Carl Peters

Portrait Of Karl Peters © Getty Images
Portrait Of Karl Peters. © Getty Images

Carl Peters was a German explorer, journalist and philosopher, instrumental in the founding of German East Africa and helped create the European "Scramble for Africa". Despite being vilified for cruelty to Africans and removed from office, he was later praised by Kaiser Wilhelm II and was considered a German hero by Hitler.

Date of birth: 27 September 1856, Neuhaus an der Elbe (New House on the Elbe), Hanover Germany
Date of death: 10 September 1918 Bad Harzburg, Germany

Early Life

Carl Peters was born the son of a minister on 27 September 1856. He attended the local monastery school in Ilfeld until 1876 and then attended college in Goettingen, Tübingen, and Berlin where he studied history, philosophy, and law. His college time was financed by scholarships and through early successes in journalism and writing. In 1879 he left Berlin University with a degree in history. The following year, abandoning a career in law, he left for London where he stayed with a wealthy uncle.

During his four years in London, Carl Peters studied British history and investigated its colonial policies and philosophy. Returning to Berlin after his uncle's suicide in 1884, he helped establish the "Society for German Colonisation" [Gesellschaft für Deutsche Kolonisation].

A German Colony in Africa

Towards the end of 1884 Peters traveled to East Africa to obtain treaties with local chiefs. Although unsanctioned by the German government, Peters felt confident that his endeavors would lead to a new German colony in Africa. Landing on the coast at Bagamoyo just across from Zanzibar (in what is now Tanzania) on 4 November 1884, Peters and his colleagues traveled for just six weeks -- persuading both Arab and African chiefs to sign away exclusive rights to land and trade routes.

One typical agreement, the "Treaty of Eternal Friendship", had Sultan Mangungu of Msovero, Usagara, offering his "territory with all its civil and public privileges" to Dr Karl Peters as the representative of the Society for German Colonisation for "the exclusive and universal utilization of German colonization."

The "German East-Africa Society"

Returning to Germany, Peters set about consolidating his African successes. On 17 February 1885 Peters received an imperial charter from the German government and on 27 February, after the conclusion of the Berlin West African Conference, the German Chancellor Bismarck announced the creation of a German protectorate in East Africa. The "German East-African Society" [Deutsch Osta-Afrikanischen Gesellschaft] was created in April and Carl Peters was declared its chairman.

Initially a 18 kilometre costal strip was recognized as still belonging to Zanzibar. But in 1887 Carl Peters returned to Zanzibar to obtain the right to collect duties - the lease was ratified on 28 April 1888. Two years later the strip of land was purchased from the Sultan of Zanzibar for £200,000. With area of almost 900 000 square kilometres, German East Africa almost doubled the land held by the German Reich.

In 1889 Carl Peters returned to Germany from East Africa, giving up his position as chairman. In response to Henry Stanley's expedition to 'rescue' Emin Pasha, a German explorer and governor of Egyptian Equatorial Sudan who was reputed to be trapped in his province by Mahdist enemies, Peters announced his intention to beat Stanley to the prize. Having raised 225,000 marks, Peters and his party depart from Berlin in February.

Competition With Britain for Land

Both trips were actually attempts to claim more land (and gain access to the upper Nile) for their respective masters: Stanley working for King Leopold of Belgium (and the Congo), Peters for Germany. One year after departure, having reached the Wasoga on the Victoria Nile (between Lake Victoria and Lake Albert) he was handed a letter from Stanley: Emin Pasha had already been rescued. Peters, unaware of a treaty ceding Uganda to Britain, continued north to make a treaty with the king Mwanga.

The Heligoland Treaty (ratified on 1 July 1890) set German and British spheres of influence in East Africa, Britain to have Zanzibar and the mainland opposite and towards the north, Germany to have the mainland south of Zanzibar. (The treaty is named for an Island off the Elba estuary in Germany which was transferred from British to German control.) In addition, Germany gained Mount Kilimanjaro, part of the disputed territories - Queen Victoria wanted her grandson, the German Kaiser, to have a mountain in Africa.

Cruel Treatment of African People

In 1891 Carl Peters was made the commissioner to renamed protectorate of German East Africa, based in a newly created station near Kilimanjaro. By 1895 rumors reached Germany of cruel and unusual treatment of Africans by Peters (he is known in Africa as "Milkono wa Damu" - "the Man with Blood on his hands") and he is recalled from German East Africa to Berlin. A judicial hearing is undertaken the following year, during which Peters relocates to London. In 1897 Peters is officially condemned for his violent attacks on African natives and is dismissed from government service. The judgement is severely criticized by the German press.

In London Peters set up an independent company, the "Dr Carl Peters Exploration Company", which funded several trips to German East Africa and to British territory around the Zambezi River. His adventures formed the basis of his book Im Goldland des Altertums (The Eldorado of the Ancients) in which he describes the region as being the fabled lands of Ophir.

Return to Germany and Death

In 1909 Carl Peters married Thea Herbers and, having been exonerated by the German emperor Wilhelm II and granted a state pension, he returned to Germany on the eve of the First World War. Having published a handful of books on Africa Peters retired to Bad Harzburg, where on 10 September 1918 he died. During World War II, Adolf Hitler referred to Peters as a German hero and his collected works were re-published in three volumes.

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Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography: Carl Peters." ThoughtCo, May. 16, 2021, Boddy-Evans, Alistair. (2021, May 16). Biography: Carl Peters. Retrieved from Boddy-Evans, Alistair. "Biography: Carl Peters." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).