Bagamoyo has a pervasive atmosphere of past glory that is coloured with the knowledge that much of it was built on an era of success that grew mainly from the cruelty, hardship and suffering that were the bedrock of the slave trade. It is now a curiously thoughtful and peaceful town, its white coral sand beaches deserted but for a few fishermen, and huge plantations of palm trees dating from the industrious days of the Zanzibari Sultans are left to grow old in peace. The shores of Bagamoyo are pounded by the frisking waves of the Indian Ocean, and at its centre a fascinating – although dilapidating – collection of historical buildings from the days of Arab and German settlement. Many of these are now empty, but remain but hauntingly powerful images subjected to the continual weathering of a ruinous sea breeze. This is the site of the first Christian Church on this stretch of coast, and also of one of the first mosques at Kaole. This now charming ancient town may have lost its old supremacy as a trading port, but retains a superb beachside location with good nearby natural areas, such as the Ruvu Delta and offshore coral reefs, that make it a worthwhile trip even beyond its strange and fascinating historic interest. This is easily made from Dar es Salaam, just 65 kilometres south and about one and a half to two hours drive, with good roads at least half of the way.
The history of Bagamoyo really dates back to the 9th century when coastal trade was first established with the interior. Then the local population was sustained on collecting salt and drying fish to trade in exchange for ivory, rhinoceros horn, leopard skins and timber, and then their trade goods expanded to include tortoise shells and slaves. Muslim settlers brought new wealth to local Bantu settlers, and the interaction between them developed a new language of the coast that was to become KiSwahili.
Until the early 18th century the original mainland port was a couple of kilometres south, called Kaole, the oldest and closest site to Bagamoyo. The settlement at Kaole was overshadowed by the growth of Bagamoyo, and was moved up to Bagamoyo, maybe as a result of encroaching mangrove swamps, or lack of good water. But Kaole remains of great historic and spiritual importance as it is widely regarded as among the first sites for formal Muslim worship, and the earliest mosques. Bagamoyo is surrounded by fertile soils, and its close proximity to the rice producing areas of the Kindgani or Ruvu river delta could therefore support a larger population. It therefore became a main coastal port settled by Omani Arabs and their families and slaves during the 18th century, who finally formed a formal financial alliance with the resident Zaramo and Doe tribes at the turn of the 19th century when their new town came under threat from marauding Kamba tribes. But Kaole was not entirely abandoned, as it was later selected as an administrative and military base by Sultan of Zanzibar, who resettled the area with his Baluchi troops.
The importance of Bagamoyo town came as a result of its inimitable position as the beginning and end of important caravan routes into the interior, and so it developed as a crucial coastal port, and a flourishing centre for commerce and culture, and religion. The French Holy Ghost Fathers negotiated with the Shomvi Arabs and Zaramo tribe for the right to land to establish a mission, granted by the diwans in 1868, after the intervention of the French Consul for Zanzibar and the Sultan. So history paved the way for the building of the First Church, which would then feature in the lives and accounts of later great travellers who would pit their wits against the harsh realities of these northern caravan routes.
In 1880, the resident population was estimated to be only around 1000 residents, but the town continued to sustain a substantial population of travellers and traders, returning from and preparing to embark upon their caravan journeys. And so Bagamoyo achieved great prosperity, with a bustling marketplace that became a centre for expensive commodities such as slaves and ivory, and also continued to trade dried fish and salt, and copra and gum copal, and the local boat-building centre continued to grow in size and reputation. The customs house was constantly busy and the town revelled in good food, clothes and conversation, as vivid tales of the caravan trails were endlessly recounted.
Discussions of etymology of name continue to fascinate, most common is ‘Bwaga-moyo’, translated as ‘Be still my heart’, or ‘lay down the burden of my heart’, most often interpreted to have been the lament of slaves reaching the last step of African soil before hope of remaining was stripped away and they were shipped to foreign lands, leaving their hearts forever on their homeland. Another interpretation is that the name arose from the caravan porters and traders who considered the port a final release from their journeying, and for whom the sentiment to ‘lay down the burden of the heart’ was the relief of returning and the work being done:
Song of the Caravan Porters
Be happy, my soul, let go all worries,
Soon the place of your yearnings is reached
The town of palms, Bagamoyo.
Far away, how was my heart aching
When I was thinking of you, you pearl
You place of happiness, Bagamoyo.
There the women wear their hair plaited
You can drink palm wine all year round
In the garden of love, Bagamoyo.
The dhows arrive with streaming sails
And take aboard the treasures of Uleias
In the harbour of Bagamoyo.
Oh, what delight to see the ngomas (dances)
Where the girls are swaying in dance
At night in Bagamoyo.
Be quiet my heart, all worries are gone
The drum beats and with rejoicing
We are reaching Bagamoyo.
The Arabs, Zaramo and Doe worked out an understanding based on the premise that they were inhabiting land under the sultanate, governed and managed by a system of the Sultan’s government officials who were diwan, liwali and akida. The system managed to work fairly smoothly until 1888, when Sultan Seyyid signed a treaty with the German East Africa Company to allow them to collect customs duties on his behalf. Naturally his officials had been collecting a few duties until this time, whenever a large fish was caught or a cow was slaughtered, and they had been doing quite nicely. But when the East Africa Company devised a much greater system of taxation and showed their allegiance to the Sultan by cutting down his flagpole, the townspeople began to unite on an undercurrent of unrest. When a crowd gathered to complain at the East Africa Trading Company House at the end of 1888, troops were despatched from the SS Moewe, and at least one hundred protesters died. Such events were a precursor to a greater, organised rebellion, the Bushiri Uprising, described below in the chapter on Pangani, where the successive events were set in motion.
As a result of the Bushiri revolt Major Herman von Wissman was posted to this northern coastal region as German Commissioner for East Africa, accompanied by a sizeable force of Zulu and Sudanese infantrymen. Von Wissman transformed the face of Old Bagamoyo on his arrival when he set about building a number of fortified houses from which to quell the rabble. When a party of European travellers reached Bagamoyo in 1889 they found it to be renovated as a ‘neat German colonial town’, a succession of new two-storey houses with tin roofs.
This rather fractious and exhausted caravan party included Henry Morton Stanley, Jephson his aide, and the eminent Jewish, German born, Turkish or Egyptian blooded, and all international intellectual – Emin Pasha. The Pasha had been ‘rescued’ at the hands of Stanley from a fine life of carousing and fun defending the empire as governor of Equatoria, present day southern Sudan. Stanley’s extremely arduous mission beset with suffering in the jungles of Zaire had been to ‘bring back the Pasha’ from Sudan on behalf of the British government and the Belgian King Leopold, but it took 11 months to persuade the Pasha to gather up his men and families and possessions and leave. Von Wissman greeted the group cordially, and arranged a triumphal salute and banquet, which took place in the new double storey officers’ mess. The welcome greatly cheered Emin Pasha, especially when it was compounded with a cable of congratulations from the new German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. His spirits rose amid an abundance of speeches, congenial conversations and drinking, until the awful news was brought that Emin had somehow toppled off the balcony and fallen through the palm covered roof below, to land at ground level with concussion. The most damning element of this episode came when Emin awoke, and decided to rejoin once more with his fellow countrymen the Germans.
Bagamoyo – What to see and do
Bagamoyo is fun to explore on foot, searching for clues and relics to its unusual past. Plenty still remains to be seen, and there is an excellent Mission Museum in the Sister’s building at the centre of town to help fill in the gaps.
Remnants of the earliest days of Bagamoyo can be found just beyond the town centre on the road from Kaole ruins. The Old Fort and Provision House (near the turning to Badeco Beach Hotel), were the first stone buildings built in the area in 1860 during the Arab era, although they were later taken over by the Germans and then became a police post until 1992. The Old Fort was originally used to hold slaves before they were shipped to Zanzibar, and rumours tell how an underground passage to the shore once used to herd the slaves onto waiting boats. Further along the path to the Beach Hotel, on the right hand side, is a small German Cemetery contained within a neat coral wall enclosure. This is the site of about 20 graves of Germans killed during the first official uprising of Arabs and locals against the colonials in 1889 and ‘90, led by Bushiri, the Arab responsible for the ruckus in Tabora. A German deed of freedom for a slave is reproduced on a tree that is rather oddly referred to as a German Hanging Place.
Continuing on this route into town along India Street the next building of historic interest is Liku House, an old two-storey building on your left, its shady awning supported on slim iron columns around the central front door. This was the first colonial administrative centre, used for about a decade while the Boma was under construction between 1888 and 1897. This was built just a short distance closer to the town centre, also on your left as you continue along India Street. The Boma is an elaborate U-shaped double storey construction crowned with crenellations, showing pointed arches on the first floor and a tunnel of curved arches below. This became the grand centre for administration after it was completed in 1897, and now continues to function as the Head Quarters for the District Commissioner of Bagamoyo, directly in front of the Uhuru monument and bandstand.
Crossing Bomani Road and continuing north brings you to Customs Road, past grand elevation of the Post Office at the intersection, with its beautifully carved door and smart painted veranda on the first floor. Next door, heading east down Customs Road towards the coast, the old fish market has a number of heavy stone tables shaded from the heat of the sun. These are still used to sell and gut the day’s catch, but until the boats come in the market provides a cool respite for locals who play games on the table tops and while away the hottest hours.
Continuing eastwards brings you to the Customs House, on the right hand side at the end of Customs Road. This was rented to the Germans by the eminent Sewa Haji, who had it built in 1895. Sewa Haji was the son of a merchant trader from the Hindu Kush, present day Pakistan, and his family established impressively successful trade posts in Zanzibar and Bagamoyo. He went on to prove himself as a philanthropic sort, and donated the rather grand three-storey first school with filigree ironwork balustrades in the centre of town to be used for mixed-race education, and established the first hospital which still stands as part of the present hospital building today. When he died in 1894, his will requested that posthumous earnings from his property be used to support the hospitals and help lepers.
The two storey Caravanserai on Caravan Street would have once been the focal point for all activities and excitement at the centre of old Bagamoyo town, as it was here that all equipment and supplies for long excursions into the interior were prepared. The central building is two storeys, the ground level flanked by wide verandas to assemble supplies. These are then surrounded by a broad courtyard and a front row of single storey outbuildings.
The First Church was built in 1872 by Father Antoinne Horner of the French Holy Ghost Fathers, after permission was granted by the Sultan of Zanzibar and French Consul in response to a growing outcry against the slave trade here. Then on the 24th of February two years later the body of Dr David Livingstone was brought here from Ujiji, over 1.5 thousand kilometres away, by his loyal assistants, Sisi and Chuma, before it was shipped home to its final resting place in Westminster Abbey. A small cemetery marks the graves of early missionaries, and a small shrine built by freed slaves in 1876 has the words ‘Saluminus Maria’ picked out in flowers. Many of the famous explorers and missionaries that made their names travelling this land visited The First Church, including Burton, Speke and Grant. It was also near the site of the rescue of a rather less admirable character, the German colonialist Carl Peters, who fell exhausted, starved and half-dead into the arms of a German mission here in 1884, following his preliminary madcap rush around the interior near Zanzibar, raising his national flag and securing numerous ‘treaties’ on behalf of Bismark.
The Livingstone Memorial Church was built in the late 20th century to commemorate the missionary and explorer who had played such a pivotal role in publicising and so putting an end to the misery of slavery in this part of the world. The memorial church has a simple corrugated iron roof with arch windows and wooden benches within. A small path leads from the church to the sea shore, where a green marble cross commemorates the spot where Father Antoinne Horner first stepped ashore from Zanzibar in 1860, before he went on to create the first known Christian church on the mainland.
Father Horner lived at the Holy Ghost Mission, shrouded in trees at the shady end of Mango Tree Drive. The Mission was established in 1871 and a statue of the Sacred Heart was then erected later in 1887. The Mission museum in the sister’s building shows a collection of exhibits that recount the unusual history of Bagamoyo. The mission was used to buy slaves their freedom, although few attempted to return to their homes, often thousands of kilometres away, and they settled instead in Freedom Village, close to the Mission.
Major Herman Wissman, the German Commissioner posted here to quell the awkwardly raucous rebels constructed The Dunka Block House on Bunda Road at the end of the old caravan route in 1889 as a means of defence during the Bushiri uprising. The flat mango and coral stone roof has an outdoor ladder onto it, from where troops could fire on rebels below. This marked the end or the beginning of the caravan track from Bagamoyo to Ujiji, 1,500km away on Lake Tanganyika.
Bagamoyo – The Ruins of the settlement at Kaole
Five kilometres south of Bagamoyo are the ruins of the 13th and 14th century settlement of Kaole, the original town that was abandoned to make way for the new port. The ruins of two mosques and a series of about 30 tombs on a sandy site occasionally shaded by an ancient palm. The ruins here are widely considered an especially sacred site, and the larger of the mosques is thought to date from the 3rd and 4th centuries, making it one of the earliest examples of Islam in Africa. The other mosque and tombs probably date from the later settlement, around 12 to 1300s, and similarities have been noted between this mosque and the Great Mosque at Kilwa, with whom Kaole would have had strong trading connections. Kaole remains an important site for Muslim prayers, and offerings are frequently left inside the tombs. A guide can sometimes be found on the site and will show you around, for a tip.
Refreshing natural history and interest can be found further north of Bagamoyo on a boat trip into the Ruvu River Delta, to find hippos wallowing merrily and spot numerous resident birds including kingfishers, heron, Ibis and bee-eaters, weavers, shrikes, migratory pelican, flamingos and many more.