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An Askari spear bearer guards at an Allied air training school at Waterkloof, Pretoria, South Africa in 1943.

Askari is an Arabic, Urdu,Turkish, Somali, Persian, and Swahili word meaning "soldier" (Arabic: عسكري‘askarī). It was normally used to describe local troops in East Africa, Northeast Africa, and Central Africa serving in the armies of European colonial powers. The designation can however also describe police, gendarmerie and security guards.[1]

During the period of European rule in East Africa locally recruited askari soldiers were employed by the Italian, British, Portuguese, German and Belgian colonial forces. They played a crucial role in the initial conquest of the various colonial possessions and subsequently served as garrison and internal security forces. During both World Wars askari units served outside the boundaries of their colonies of origin.


British Empire

The British Imperial British East African Company raised units of askari from amongst the Swahili people, the Sudanese and Somalis. There was no official uniform, nor standardised weaponry. Many of the askaris campaigned in their native dress. Officers wore civilian clothes. From 1895 the British askaris were organised into a regular, uniformed force called the East African Rifles, later part of the King's African Rifles.[2] The designation of "askari" was retained for locally recruited personnel in the King's African Rifles, smaller military units and colonial police forces until the end of British rule in Kenya, Tanganyika and Uganda during the period 1961-63.

German Empire

Askari troops in German East Africa

The German Colonial Army (Schutztruppe) of the German Empire employed native troops with European officers and NCOs in its colonies. The main concentration of such locally recruited troops was in German East Africa (now Tanzania.) Formed in 1881 after the transfer of the Wissmanntruppe (raised in 1889 to suppress the Abushiri) to German imperial control. Although the first Askaris formed in German East Africa were by DAOG (Deutsche Ost-Afrika Gesellschaft - the German East Africa Company) in about 1888. Originally drawn from Sudanese mercenaries, the German askaris were subsequently recruited from the Wahehe and Angoni tribal groups. They were harshly disciplined (as were all German troops of that time) but well paid (on a scale twice that of their British counterparts in the King's African Rifles) and highly trained by German cadres who were themselves subject to a rigorous selection process. Prior to 1914 the basic Schutztruppe unit in Southeast Africa was the feldkompagnie comprising seven or eight German officers and NCOs with between 150 and 200 askaris (usually 160) - including two machine gun teams. Such small independent commands were often supplemented by tribal irregulars or ruga-ruga.

They were successfully used in German East Africa where 11,000 askaris, porters and their European officers commanded by Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck managed to resist numerically superior British, Portuguese and Belgian colonial forces until the end of World War I in 1918.

The Weimar Republic provided pension payments to the German Askaris. Due to interruptions during the worldwide depression and World War II, the parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) voted in 1964 to fund the back pay of the askaris still alive. The West German embassy at Dar es Salaam identified approximately 350 ex-askaris and set up a temporary cashiers office at Mwanza on Lake Victoria. Only a few claimants could produce the certificates given to them in 1918; others provided pieces of their old uniforms as proof of service. The German banker who had brought the money came up with an idea: as each claimant stepped forward he was handed a broom and ordered in German to perform the manual of arms. Not one of them failed the test.[3]

A drawing of a Bantu Askari in German service by Wilhelm Kuhnert

Nazi Germany

During WWII, Germans used the term Askari for Soviet deserters or prisoners who switched sides and collaborated with them.[4][5][6]

Italian Empire

The Italian army in Italian East Africa recruited Eritrean and subsequently Somali troops to serve with Italian officers and some NCOs. These forces comprised infantry, cavalry and some light artillery units. The Italian askaris fought in the First Italo–Ethiopian War, Italian-Turkish War, Second Italo-Abyssinian War and World War II (East African Campaign). Out of a total of 256,000 Italian troops serving in Italian East Africa in 1940, about 182,000 were recruited from Eritrea, Somalia and the recently occupied (1935-36) Ethiopia. In January 1941, British Commonwealth forces invaded Ethiopia and the majority of the newly recruited Ethiopian askaris serving with the Italian Army deserted. Most of the Eritrean Ascaris remained loyal until the Italian surrender four months later.

Spanish Colonies

As noted above "askari" was normally a designation used in East Africa. Exceptionally though, the term "askari" was also used by the Spanish colonial government in North-West Africa, in respect not of their regular Moroccan troops (see regulares), but a locally recruited gendarmerie force raised in Spanish Morocco in 1913 and known as the "Mehal-la Jalifianas". This was the equivalent of the better known Goumiers employed in French Morocco. Indigenous members of the Tropas Nomadas or desert police serving in the Spanish Sahara were also designated as "askaris".

Iraq War

Ugandan private security guards for American installations in Iraq are also designated as askari. Guards were to receive $1,000 monthly salary and an $80,000 bonus if shot, but many have complained that the money was not paid or unfair fees assessed. The guards work for recruiting agencies such as Askar Security Services, which are hired by Beowulf International, a receiving company in Iraq, which subcontracts their services to EOD Technologies, an American company hired by the U.S. Department of Defense to provide security guards for Camp Victory in Baghdad. A Beowulf representative said that 400 of the workers "had impressed the US Army with their skill and experience", but complained that some of the workers lacked police or security experience and "didn't even know how to hold a gun". At least eleven other Ugandan recruiters include Dresak International and Connect Financial Services.[7]

Other uses

  • In apartheid South Africa, Askari was the term given to guerrillas who were captured by the South African army and "turned" or converted into spies or soldiers for the apartheid regime.
  • Askari can also mean "spear bearer".
  • Older bull elephants which break away from the herd often form the nucleus of "bachelor herds" with one or a number of younger males. These younger males are referred to as "askari" (both for singular elephants and groups of elephants).
  • Askari are a minor class of creature in the African/tropical-themed Mirage and Visions (and later Time Spiral) expansion sets of the collectable card game Magic: The Gathering[8].
  • Askari, could refer to DST Global Solutions' market risk management tool.

See also


  1. ^ [1] | Kamusi Project
  2. ^ Armies of the 19thC East Africa Chris Peer, Foundry books 2003
  3. ^ Miller, Charles. Battle for the Bundu: The First World War in German East Africa. London: Macdonald & Jane's, 1974; and New York: MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc. 1974, p. 333. ISBN 0025849301
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ "Uganda: Askaris in Iraq Ripped Off". New Vision. 2007-08-12.  
  8. ^ "Gatherer search". Wizards Of The Coast. Retrieved 2007-07-05.  

External links

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