European-educated and on retainer by the colonial German government, Bell was hardly the subversive type: rather, as the head of the largest clan of the important Duala tribe, he was the guy that Berlin looked to to uphold its authority.
This mutually satisfactory relationship began unraveling in 1910, with the Reich’s plan to abnegate the 1884 treaty under whose auspices it intruded into Kamerun (Cameroon) in the first place.
Seeking to confine the Duala to a few coastal villages — and subsequently, to push those Duala to less desirable inland territory — Berlin managed the rare feat of uniting the tribe’s various families, and pushing Rudolf Manga Bell himself into (surprising, to Germany) resistance.
When petitions to the Reichstag were ignored, the Duala began (Bell’s own degree of involvement in this seems to be a disputed point) making noises about holding Berlin in breach of the colonial treaty and finding itself a new European patron, like France or England.
And one notes the year in this post’s title, which would become momentous to Germany for other reasons. “The coming war,” notes Victor T. LeVine, “made it appear that Manga Bell had been plotting with Germany’s enemies.”
In the conflict that became remembered as World War I, the first declarations of war were made in the very first days of August;
Axis and Ententethe Central Powers and Triple Entente lined up against one another in the colonial territories, too, and German administrators in Kamerun realized that they were about to face an invasion from neighboring British and French colonies.
So it was in an atmosphere of panic and a view towards desperate internal repression that Bell was tried for treason on August 7, 1914, along with his friend and fellow-traveler Martin Paul Samba — and put to death the very next day.
The Allied invasion had taken Duala and the other principal cities of Kamerun from the Germans by the end of September; over an 18-month campaign, the Germans were totally defeated in the territory, which France and England claimed as victors’ spoils after the war. (Also inheriting the tense relationship with the Duala; France was still trying to sort out the 1914 German expropriations that started the whole mess decades later.)
As a result, Rudolf Duala Manga Bell’s son, Alexander Ndoumbe Duala Manga Bell, not only inherited his father’s royal position among the Duala — he became Cameroon’s first elected representative to the French National Assembly.* There’s more about that guy here.
It is here that the Germans part ways with Cameroon’s national story, but there was almost a “peace in our time” diplomatic reconquista.
Although Hitler originally held the colonial movement in great disdain, in the late 1930s his regime ‘adopted’ and coordinated this movement. After 1936 the renewed campaign for the recuperation of German colonies had its desired results among the Allied powers. In discussions between the French Foreign Minister, Yvon Delbos, and the American Ambassador, William Bullitt, proposals were considered for the appeasement of Germany including tariff reductions, the involvement of the Third Reich in the development of Africa, and finally the granting of a colony to Germany, probably the Cameroons. In November 1937, during talks between Premier Chautemps, Prime Minister Chamberlain, Eden and Delbos, the suggestion was allegedly made by Chamberlain that France should ‘hand the Cameroons to Germany at once without any quid pro quo’.**
* Ralph A. Austen, “The Metamorphoses of Middlemen: The Duala, Europeans, and the Cameroon Hinterland, ca. 1800 – ca. 1960”, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1983).
** Richard A. Joseph, “The German Question in French Cameroun,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 17, No. 1 (1975)