Tanzania History: from Pre-History to the 20th Century

17th November 2022

Almost all of the many attractions of Tanzania today are linked – in one way or another – to this country’s extraordinarily rich and diverse history.

This East African land has evolved through centuries of change; the gradual migration and settlement of over one hundred and twenty different tribes, the intervention of foreign merchants and explorers, years of colonial masters with their politics and wars, and finally independence, self-governance and international tourism.

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Pre-History of Tanzania

The greatest part of the known history of mainland Tanzania has been pieced together from the oral tradition of tribal story-telling, explorers’ tales and archaeological remains, although written records exist dating back to the 1st century AD describing trade and lifestyles on the islands and coastal regions.

Fossil evidence has also been found of life many thousands of years earlier, including some of the earliest known evidence of proto-human ancestors, various types of hominid, which earned Tanzania the strange accolade of perhaps being ‘The Cradle of Mankind’.

Africa is geographically ancient. This vast and diverse continent is thought to have once been a major component of the Gondwanaland supercontinent that drifted apart in the Mesozoic period, 150 – 100 million years ago.

The ancient rock strata of Tanzania have retained a historical record of buried evidence, only now partially revealed by time and science. Petrified dinosaurs, such as the giant Brachiosaurus and tiny Kentrosaurus, were found on Tendaguru mountain in the region of Lindi in southeast Tanzania in 1912, (now removed to the Natural Museum of Humboldt), and one of the oldest known examples of bipedal hominids, immortalised in a set of fossilised footprints, were found at Olduvai Gorge in Northern Tanzania.

Many more remains have been unearthed dating from the Stone Age, between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, in regions throughout Tanzania, (such as the excavation site and museum at the Stone Age site at Isimila, in the Mbeya region).

It is thought likely that these earliest civilisations could be direct ancestors of the bushmen tribes still (just) in evidence in Tanzania today, notably the remaining Hadzabe tribe, now clustered around Lake Eyasi, west of the Serengeti. In those ancient days, the hunter-gatherers had the run of the land, but soon their freedom was to be curbed and their tribal centres displaced by migrations of other tribes displaced from surrounding lands.

In tribute to their ancient civilisation, they left a legacy of rock paintings, covering over a thousand sites. The best of these can be seen at Kondoa in Kola, Cheke and Kisese.

A steady migration of peoples

From around 1,000 BC, pastoral and agricultural Cushitic-speakers from North-western regions around Ethiopia & Somalia began migrating southwards into the expanse of land beyond the Azania coast, as this coastal region was now becoming known.

These early pastoralists were responsible for the first instances of food production in Tanzania, and have left evidence of their cattle herding and irrigation techniques, perhaps including the advanced systems that have been excavated at Engakura. The Iraqw people of Northern Tanzania and the Mbulu, Burungi and Gorowa are likely to be the descendants of these early Cushitic immigrants.

This era saw the emergence of the Iron Age in Tanzania around this time, which first spread across the Northern reaches of the interior. The most important Iron Age sites are those around Lake Victoria, notably the site of Urewe in the Kagera region, from where techniques used to create hard-wearing and distinctive ironwork pottery later spread throughout East and Southern Africa.

Other Iron Age tools and hand-axes were also found in abundance at Isimila near Iringa, and Katuruka, near Bukoba. The Cushitic tribes were joined a short time later, around 500 AD, by different tribes of Bantu-speaking people who slowly moved in, by various routes, from the direction of West Africa, and in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD there came an influx of pastoral Nilotic tribes into the north-western regions.

The influx of migratory tribes has continued through the years until recent times, with such renowned inhabitants as the Nilotic Maasai tribe arriving for the first time during the 1800s, cutting a fearsome swathe through the northern reaches of Tanzania from Kenya, raiding cows, women and land from the tribes in their path.

Their southerly progress was thwarted north of Dodoma, at the centre of the country, by a combination of sickness and untimely combat with the Hehe tribe. All migrating clans also found their free progress of movement through the interior occasionally impeded by the notorious tsetse fly, which, apart from an unpleasant stinging bite, can also carry the sleeping sickness trypanosomiasis, (this is correct spelling) which threatens the lives of domestic animals and can badly affect people.

Wide areas of land were avoided and uninhabited as a direct result of the tsetse fly belts, and the same remains true today, although their numbers have been significantly limited.

Assimilation and interaction

The attraction of this wild and uncharted expanse of land encouraged displaced tribes from North and West Africa to settle here, for reasons of war, famine, disease, drought and pastures new. As different tribes and clans moved they were absorbed into other clans or otherwise divided, or they were forced to move on by the arrival of newcomers, or displaced other peoples.

This slow and constant ebb and flow of life encouraged new forms of trade, as each group brought with them new skills, ideas and foodstuffs, and developed a barter economy based on goods produced, grown or acquired from one region to the next.

The most valuable of these, notably salt, iron hoes and livestock, eventually became a form of currency, and a network of trading paths thousands of miles long developed in response to demand for items between the interior and the coast.


Welcome ceremony of Masai’s Serengeti, Tanzania. Photo by Ramon Sanchez Orense on Unsplash 

Tanzania’s Ancient History

Then came the first wave of foreigners arriving by sea, keen to pay for exotic ornamental and aromatic goods that were not necessities for life in Africa, but would provide them in plenty in exchange.

Evidence of these early sailing ventures is carved into stone monuments of the Ancient Egyptians, who navigated the Horn of Africa and later continued further southwards in their desire to trade for incense and myrrh to use in their spiritual ceremonies, and ivory, tortoiseshell, ebony, ambergris, and palm oils.

Their ancient carvings give some indication of the attractive wealth of resources perceived to be abundantly available from the coastline of East Africa, and include many items that have continued to draw sailors to these shores for at least four millennia since.

The Temple of Thebes at Karnak celebrates a man named Seneb from the Land of Punt, whose memory was inscribed in about 2050 BC. The hieroglyphics for Punt can be translated as ‘shoreline’ or ‘coast’, and may refer to the East African coastline, although mainly to Somalia, probably known to Ancient Egyptian civilisations for its exotic fragrances for a thousand years even before the days of Seneb.

Subsequent journeys were organised by Queen Hashepsut, whose temple at Deir el-Bahri near Luxor tells of the ships that she sent to Punt in 1493BC, showing shiploads of her rich rewards, as well as depicting fish and fauna that the expedition discovered. Herodotus records an impressively successful mission in 600BC, initiated by King Necho II, who sent Phoenician sailors across the Red Sea and down the coast of Africa, to return three years later through the Strait of Gibraltar (‘the Pillars of Hercules’) and back Egypt via the Mediterranean.

Influence of Arabia, blown to Azania on the monsoon winds.

One of the earliest written records of this East African shore was Ptolemy’s ‘Guide to Geography’, which described the extent of world knowledge in Byzantium in around 400 AD. This refers to an offshore island called Menouthias in the Indian Ocean which may have been Mafia Island, or either Zanzibar, Pemba, or a combination of all three.

Trade routes to the region were so established by the latter end of the 1st century that they then featured as the focal point of a ‘guidebook’ scribed at this time, which provided a detailed and lengthy account of foreign trade along this Indian Ocean shoreline.

The work was titled Periplus Maris Erythraei, ‘Periplus of the Erythraen Sea’, (now the Indian Ocean), and was compiled by a Greek merchant living in Egypt. His account describes a thriving trade capital of Azania called Rhapta, with clear geographical references that place it in the middle of the present Tanzanian coastline.

But no remains of this centre have ever been discovered in the modern world, and scholars believe that it may have been subsumed by the vast and changing silt flats of the Rufiji River Delta.

This growing geographical awareness and the abundance of natural goods also attracted another, more distant civilisation from the Eastern shores of the Indian Ocean during the early years of the 1st century AD.

At this time, maritime expertise had developed enough to trust sailors to the monsoon winds, which blew their wooden crafts to the shores of Azania from the Arabian Gulf. By 700 AD, the Arabian merchants of the wind-borne trade routes began to truly appreciate the benefits of the offshore islands, numerous landing places and wetter climate of the Azania coastline, and to shift the focus of their trade southwards from the coast of Somalia. They arrived with cargoes of copper, tin, cloaks and cloth, daggers, hatchets and glass, and exchanged them for aromatic gums, coconut oil, tortoiseshell, ivory and slaves.

In the way of all explorers, these early sailors also sought to record their findings, and early Arab geographers described the coast as ‘Zanj’, Arabic for ‘Black’. Archaeological evidence suggests that the first significant migration to the islands of Zanzibar occurred around 750 AD, which concurs with historical records of political and religious strife in the Persian and Arabian Gulf at this time.

Entire families took up their belongings and re-located to the more pleasant palm-fringed climes of Zanj. It is likely the majority of these migrants followed the ancient Zoroastrian faith, as they were suffering persecution in Persia as a result of the rise of Islam, and migrated to all regions of the then known world in response.

But the majority of immigrants who chose to settle described themselves as Shirazi, and all determined to establish themselves as ruling Sheikhs, whether they were or not.

By the ninth century their records mention a civilisation existing on an island they called Quanbalu, now thought to have been present-day Pemba, where the Arabic inhabitants became rulers of the native pagan population.

Islands were attractive to prospective settlers on account of their malleability, and the security that their position afforded against attack from the mainland. Settlements developed with a constant ebb and flow of population, as the eastern traders continued to flock to its shores whenever the monsoon winds would bear them across the Indian Ocean.

Development of the Gold Trade, and Swahili City States

The centuries between 1200 and 1500AD saw Indian Ocean trade between East Africa, Persia, Oman, India and China reach an all-time high, and trading posts along the coast enjoyed lavish prosperity as a result.

They exported ivory to India and China and mangrove poles to the Arabian Gulf for building houses, and tortoiseshell, leopard skins and ambergris, but the greatest wealth issued from the gold trade, which from 1200 AD began to follow an overland route from present day Zimbabwe to Sofala in present day Mozambique.

It was then transferred up the East African coast by sea to Kilwa, and probably also to Rhapta, Mafia and Pemba. From these trading posts it was then exported to India and the Gulf, where it was exchanged for imported textiles and porcelain from China, the latter in such copious amounts that it was used to adorn and decorate the new East African buildings. The island of Kilwa developed as a central port because Arab dhows could not sail much further south to return on the monsoon winds.

By the fifteenth century Kilwa had overtaken Mogadishu as the centre of the gold trade, and the population had grown to several thousand, a huge population for sub-Saharan Africa at the time. With its vast stone palaces, houses and mosques, the town became known as ‘the last outpost of the civilisation of Islaam’.

The advent of the Portuguese

But this increasingly lavish lifestyle was not without contenders, from other Arab settlements and native islands, and their prosperity rocked according to fortunes and fate.

Finally, at the very latter end of the 15th century the first European ships successfully navigated a sailing route around the Cape of Good Hope to discover these East African shores, captained by the notorious Portuguese sailor, Vasco de Gama. He docked in Malindi, on the Kenya coast in 1498.

His travels had taken him past the islands and ports of Kilwa, Mafia and Zanzibar, and alerted him to the flourishing trading possibilities in gold, ivory, slaves and much else besides. He sent emissaries to Portugal for more boats and gun-power, and returned to force the Sheikh of Kilwa to bow to their sovereignty in 1502, to later sack the island in 1505, using the new gunboats to their great advantage.

They went on to subjugate the island states of Zanzibar and Lamu and Pate in Kenya.

Their greatest stronghold was in Mombassa, where their garrison was housed within the walls of their Fort Jesus, and they undermined a number of the greater Shirazi dynasties and cowed the others with demands for regular tribute and payments, making clear that the alternative was dethroning and destruction.

Their principle aim was trade and gain. They took the cream off every form of economic exchange within their asserted jurisdiction, and controlled the trade routes between the East African coast and India.

But such ascendancy did not go unchallenged, and although they could withstand smaller local rebellions they were less able to contend with changes of government and power in Arabia. The Persians took back Hormuz in 1622, and Imam of Oman took control of Muscat in 1650.

In 1652 the Omanis sent ships to Zanzibar and Pate to rid the islands of their Portuguese incumbents, although the Europeans retained strongholds here, notably in Mombassa, until 1698, when Fort Jesus fell to the Imam, Sayf ibn Sultan.

There was no lack of love lost between the different factions, and there followed a short period of respite along the East African coast while conflicts in the Gulf countries reshuffled ascendant powers.

Tanzania History in the 19th Century

After Persian invasion and almost a century of internal conflict, the old Ya’rubid dynasty in Oman lost control to the Al Bu Sa’idis. But all such wrangling for power had wider consequences on the East African Coastline, where the smaller dominions of the same parties were fighting parallel battles, and often resulting in differing outcomes.


Woman in Mpanda, Tanzania. Photo by sofiya kozy on Unsplash 

Arab control, and rule from Muscat – the 1800s

The rising regime in East Africa was the Mazrui dynasty, whose allegiance to Muscat had become tenuous following the rise to power of the Al Bu’Saidi clan, to whom they were opposed. The Mazruis had gained authority in Mombassa when they were appointed governors there by the Imam of Oman in 1698, and continued to manage the volatile situation there until the early 1800s, by which time they successfully dominated a large region extending to the Pangani River in present day Tanzania.

But further south allegiance tended towards the Al Bu’Saidi Sultan of Muscat, especially from Zanzibar and Kilwa, which was once more rising to prominence. The island state reinstated trade with the interior, and thrived especially on imports of cloth, arms, ammunition and salt, and exports of ivory, until around 1730, when they increased the export of slaves, especially to French colonies such as Mauritius and Reunion where they would work on the sugar plantations.

The Sultan of Muscat was now fully awakened to possible economic interest in the area, and he appointed a new Omani governor of Kilwa in 1784. Their navy developed greater power along the coast, and took Zanzibar as their central stronghold. He masterminded the annex of Pemba in 1822, and finally Mombassa in 1837. It was perfect timing with regards to export profits, especially for ivory, which continued to earn greater demand; between 1820 and 1850 the price of ivory doubled, then trebled again by 1890. It was exported to the west, for knife handles and piano keys, but mainly to India for ivory bangles that would then be burnt with the woman when she died.

Strengthening trade routes and the changing coastal kingdoms

The blossoming Arabic trading network had relied heavily on the co-operation of tribes in the more inaccessible reaches of the interior, and consequently increased economic wealth throughout Azania.

The vast interior had gradually shaped into a complex network of tribal or clan strongholds between the lakes of Victoria, Albert, and Tanganyika dating from before the middle of the second millennium AD, although historical records of the details are scarce. Thus it is hard to fully establish the origins of these rulers, although it is likely that they had a connection with the immigrating Cushitic or Nilotic people from the North.

These first chiefdoms either spread or developed independently around Southern regions of Tanzania at around this same time, and accounts tell of around 200 small chiefdoms led by a tribal chief, known as ‘Ntemi’, each served by a council over about 1000 subjects. These ‘kingdoms’ developed in response to population growth and the need for greater political control beyond family ties, as was previously traditional. Later, in the case of the Kilindi kingdom in the Usambaras, a stronger political system became a necessary defence against the influx of warrior-like migrating tribes, such as the Maasai.

The changing nature of trade also affected small, inland communities, as the availability of firearms at the coast forced them to join with larger groups for protection against slave raids.

Chiefs of tribes in the interior, such as Fundikira of the Nyamwezi around Tabora, the central Tanzanian Gogo, and Yao chiefs from Kilwa seized the opportunities opened to them by the acceleration of foreign trade.

Over the course of centuries these made a reputation for themselves by organising their people as porters and traders, carrying goods over many hundreds of foot miles and earning themselves notoriety and relative wealth; although real wealth was limited by the greater economic control of the coastal traders, who kept the lion’s share for themselves. Inland tribes also capitalised on the trade routes by starting to demand ‘hongo’, a toll or a tax on the caravans for passing through their territories.

By the mid-1800s, the interior had evolved into a small number of larger tribal empires around centralised, fortified villages.

Resistance to Arab control

African chiefs attempted resistance to Arab control, or otherwise sought to capitalise on the riches passing by them.

The great chief Mirambo (ruling just west of Tabora, which developed as a permanent Arab stronghold and collection point towards the end of the 19th century), famously built a fortified empire in the middle of the trade routes, only allowing them through after paying tributes. He successfully united the numerous Nyamwezi clans into one powerful kingdom from around 1850, and led military missions to make alliances with all his neighbouring chiefs and clans in the east, south, north and west.

His incredible resourcefulness and drive earned him the nickname the ‘ Napoleon of East Africa’, coined by the journalist Henry Morton Stanley. His empire thrived for the couple of decades through the 1860s, ‘70s and early ‘80s, but diminished after his death in 1884.

Arab traders had begun to venture along the extended caravan tracks penetrating the interior in the mid 19th century, but they were mainly focused on their growing trade settlements along the coast, and tended to rely on the existing tribal networks and inland systems to bring them their required resources. This focus then established a division between coast and interior that would develop and grow over successive years.

By the end of the 1800s ivory was becoming scarce through the interior, and arms and ammunition more widespread.

A Coastal Language of Trade and Exchange

The organic growth of Arabic trade settlements along the coast and islands – either long term settlers or traders waiting up to six months for the monsoon winds to turn about, and bear them back to the Gulf – required such a close integration of Arabic and Bantu that there evolved a shared coastal language, a working, growing language of trade and exchange, called Swahili, (from the Arabic word Sahil, meaning coast).

Even the name of this fundamentally Bantu language expresses something of its curious nature, which is constantly and eclectically influenced by the external cultures which affect it. The language was developed as a common means of exchange all along the coast, and incorporated Arabic words either in preference over the similar Bantu phrase, such as Sahil, (the Swahili word for coastline is ‘pwani’), or where there was no word to describe the foreign imports already.

During the 19th century the Swahili language was carried along the inland states by the caravan trade and so was more widespread among the different tribes. This made it the ideal choice when the British colonial government sought to unify the disparate territory of Tanganyika, and later when the fundamentally socialist policy of ‘Ujamaa’ was introduced in the mid-seventies and a shared language was required to carry the message to all the different tribes in the new nation.

The differentiation of tribes was to be consciously eroded so that the country may be united, and there was an active parliamentary push to publicise Swahili as a political language to achieve this goal. The actual success of the spread of Swahili throughout East Africa has since inspired a greater incentive to encourage and teach Swahili as the uniting Lingua Franca of the African continent.

Sutan Said

Seyyid Said Sultan bin Sultan of Oman ruled the East Coast from Zanzibar for 50 years after signing a treaty with the chief of the Zanzibari Hadimu Chief, the Mwinyi Mkuu, to colonise the island in 1828.

His shrewd business sense ensured that the Omanis took the best land on the Western side of the island, leaving the less fertile stretch to the east for the Hadimu, and he pushed and encouraged his subjects to exploit all possible economic openings and trade possibilities, especially slaves and ivory, which achieved international renown.

He saw immediate potential in clove plantations, first brought to the island in 1813, and insisted that all of his subjects planted cloves alongside their coconut trees. His domain soon rivalled the power of Mombassa as a focal point for international trade, and by 1837 he spotted a weakness in the Mazrui stronghold in Mombassa and thus extended his stronghold along the entirety of the East African coastline.

The Sultan developed a stronghold of power based on trade, and in 1840 he transferred the seat of his rule to the sunnier, more profitable climes of Zanzibar.

India had traded with Zanzibar and the mainland coast for centuries, but the excellent terms encouraged by the Sultan inspired greater numbers of Indian merchant settlers on Zanzibar, escalating from a small population of around 215 in 1810 to at least 5,000 fifty years later.

They began providing credit for goods, finance expeditions into the interior and acquired the right to collect taxes on behalf of the Sultan. From 1827, the Indian merchant family of Jairam Sewji rose to prominence alongside the Sultan as the wealthiest and most powerful in Zanzibar. This later created the loophole through which the British slipped to limit the power of the Sultan and intervene in the Zanzibari trading laws, as the Indian merchants could technically be recognised as citizens of British India.

Sultan Said was already familiar with negotiating with the British long before he settled in Zanzibar, as he had turned to them for assistance while establishing his authority in Muscat, and they had happily provided it in return for safeguarding their trade routes to India.

But the first Europeans to secure contracts with the Sultan on the flourishing African settlements were the Americans, who spotted the potential for trade and negotiated a deal in 1833, then established the first consul four years later. Their supply of cheap cotton cloth was so successful that any such material became known as Americani.

The British devised their trade agreement with the Sultan in 1839, and their consul in 1841, followed by the French and Germans. The international interest provoked a wider range of items for trade and exchange, and made diluted the Sultan’s ability to withstand pressure to curtail the slave trade.

The British had begun this in 1822 when they drew up the Moresby Treaty, to end the trade of slaves to any predominantly Christian country, and in 1845 the Hammerton Treaty attempted to ban the slave trade to Muslim territories too, although the British only succeeded in finally closing the slave market in Zanzibar many years later, during the reign of Sultan Barghash in 1873.

Missionaries and Explorers

In the mid-ninteenth century, the first European missionaries with a will to convert East African pagans were forced to be explorers too, and discovered areas of the interior still considered to be ‘unknown parts’ by western geographers and scientists.

Among the first successful expeditions to be made were those by Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann to the Chagga lands around Kilimanjaro on behalf of The Christian Mission Society. Rebmann reported back to British shores that he had witnessed a snow-covered peak on this unusual equatorial mountain. His report reached the National Geographic Society, and was promptly dismissed as being mad rantings of an unhinged mind.

The map of the lakes in the northern regions produced by their fellow missionary Jakob Erhardt, admittedly on the basis of reports from Arab traders along the caravan routes, showed a large body of water that was probably Lakes Victoria, Albert and Tanganyika all running into one. This large blob of water earned the drawing the name of ‘the slug map’, but nevertheless incited the great geographers to ascertain the truth for themselves. Worthy explorers were duly found, and despatched to the shores of Africa to decipher the truth from the missionaries’ reports.

Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke set off from Bagamoyo in 1857, and endured harsh adventures through the interior with the primary directive to determine the source of the Nile. Leaving Burton sick near Tabora, Speke reached Lake Victoria alone, and propounded his theories about the Nile source, and returned in 1860 in an attempt to verify them, this time in the company of J.A Gant.

The Scottish missionary, Dr David Livingstone, incentivised by his work as a missionary and his abhorrence of the slave trade that he sought to end, also became increasingly fascinated with establishing the Nile source as his journeys unearthed geographical discoveries. Livingstone made his last journey to Lake Nyasa in 1866, and in his wake journalist Henry Morton Stanley, attracted less by geography and more by the kudos and intrigue of discovering the whereabouts of the now famous missionary, whose disappearance on the Dark Continent was causing great concern at home.

A number of Christian missions were then inspired to brave the wilds of the African continent during this period between the mid to late 1800s. The Roman Catholic missionaries arrived in Zanzibar in 1860, and settled in Bagamoyo in 1868, and were followed by Anglo-Catholic, Anglican, and Catholic White Fathers, who worked their way along the trade routes emanating from Zanzibar and Bagamoyo through Tabora to Lake Tanganyika.

Tribal movement and change

But life among the fiefdoms of the interior continued to evolve, especially as developing agricultural abilities increased populations in fertile regions, and external tribes continued to move in. The forced and necessary migration and interaction of many different peoples encouraged wider forms of trade, but also displaced smaller tribes and resulted in widespread in-fighting and contention.

During the 1800s, warrior-like tribes such as the nomadic Maasai moved south into the foothills of Mount Meru in the North, and the south was prey to fairly constant attacks from the Ngoni tribe, and the Ngindo, Mwera and Makonde. These southern counterparts were forced northwards by the fighting prowess of the southern African Zulu tribe, had also learned a few tricks for survival and attack.

As a result, settlements became increasingly adept at defending their settlements, and when, the first German Europeans ventured inland during the late 1880s, they found that ‘everywhere people had withdrawn to fortified villages, and concluded that the land was freely available for European settlement’.

German intervention – 1885 onwards

During the mid 19th century, the German ‘Iron Chancellor’ Bismark employed an aggressive colonial policy of expansion. German imperialism took a hold on the realisation that although the Sultan of Muscat claimed nominal hold over the lands of the interior, he was a world apart from the African Chiefs who actually ruled their peoples in these wild and often distant lands.

The Sultan cared only for the fruit of the caravan trails, with little real administration or care for the land otherwise.

So young German imperialists with dreams of colonial expansion, such as Carl Peters and his colleagues Joachim, Count Pfeil and Karl Juhlke devised an impudent trick that would allocate them the land they desired. They simply avoided the Sultan’s coastal ports and ventured directly into the mainland bush, where they signed twelve treaties with individual chiefs who were persuaded to give their territories to these strange newcomers with their unusually pale skin.

(The word Mzungu literally translates as ‘he who goes around’, (ie travels/ moves around) although it is unknown when this word was first employed to describe the white man, but seems fitting enough from the first.)

The treaties mainly concerned land that was actually already the Sultan’s domain, but when Bismark ordered five warships to sit along the shores of Zanzibar, the Sultan was persuaded to accept the German purchase offer of 400,000 marks for land along the coast.

Peters organised further expeditions pushed inland through 1880s, following the trade routes established by Arab slave trade and Nyamwezi commercial trade caravans, and in 1885 Bismark claimed a central portion of the interior as a German protectorate, under the rule of The German East Africa Company, headed by Carl Peters.

But the strength of resistance from all the different tribes resulted in extensive military response, requiring the assistance of the army by 1889 and earning Peters the Swahili epithet ‘Mkono wa damu’, ‘Him with blood-stained hands’.

By 1890, the protectorate was extended as far as Mwanza and Bukoba. In this year the British and Germans began establishing the boundaries of German East Africa, which included present-day mainland Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.

Resistance to German control

Between the years of 1888 and 1896 fifty four military conflicts were recorded in resistance against the colonial control. The first rebellion in 1888, described by Germans as the ‘Arab Rebellion’, began on the coast, led by Bushiri bin Salim (enemy of Sultan Said) and Zigua chief Bwana Heri (who had resisted Omani control of Sadani).

Between them they amassed widespread support, as Bushiri rounded up supporters on the coast and Bwana Heri came close to uniting the inland tribes. They initially overcame the superior force of the German firearms by engaging in guerrilla tactics, mainly ambush from the bush, but the German troops responded with a terrifying ‘scorched earth’ policy in which they burnt crops and crop stores, destroyed villages and confiscated cattle.

By 1889 Germans triumphed, under the military control of Colonel Wissman. When Bwana Heri surrendered as a result of widespread hunger and famine in 1890, he was followed by troops of Zigua people, Nyamwezi, Arabs, Indians, and slaves. The Nyamwezi chief, called Siki, blew himself up in his ammunition store to evade capture from the Germans when they besieged his fortress near Tabora, and Chief Mkwawa of the Hehe put a bullet through his own skull when his options ran out.

Chief Mkwawa and the Hehe

The German troops met with considerable resistance in the Southern Highlands, where the Hehe tribe had formed a military state around an impressive central fortress, under the formidable warrior Chief Mkwawa. The Hehe had been more or less forced to adopt a military strategy in response to influx of the Ngoni tribe from Southern Africa, who were themselves being squeezed north by the Zulu despite their favouring a strict military regimental system and good use of Zulu-like spears.

The resultant clash around the Iringa plateau brought about the need for unification of the tribes, and also the emergence of strong leaders, such as Munyigumba and his son Mkwawa, who led the tribe successfully through a violent five year war with the Ngoni, between 1878 and ‘82 and sent the Ngoni east of lake Malawi. So when a German Military expedition met with Mkwawa’s troops in 1891 they unwittingly faced a highly organised military system and suffered the consequences; the Hehe were rumoured to have taken only 15 minutes to kill 290 members of the colonial forces.

Three years later the Europeans had their revenge, and put a garrison commander in Iringa. They pounded Mkwawa’s fort with grenades, and overcame the tribe by force of their far superior firepower. Mkwawa, however, escaped, and having evaded capture for for four long years, he famously refused to be taken alive and instead took his own life.

The Maji Maji Rebellion

The new colonialists continued to encounter serious problems with subduing the southern tribes, characterised most powerfully by the Maji Maji rebellion that began in 1905, and was thought to have been most widespread united resistance to colonial rule anywhere in Africa. The rebellion started west of Kilwa, and spread across the country until nearly all the southern tribes were allied, but the most remarkable incentive to this show of strength was the unfounded belief that the tribes had access to magical water that would protect them against German bullets. On this understanding, the united front confronted the military forces of the Europeans with impressive bravado, until thousands were machine-gunned to death when they tried to storm the fort at Mahenge. 75,000 people died in two years, and their resistance finally broke in 1907, when famine swept their land as a direct result of the Germans resorting to the same effective ‘scorched earth’ policy of retaliation that they had employed to such devastating effect previously.

German consolidation

The German colonial grasp had been considerably strengthened in 1890 by a devastating outbreak of rinderpest that wiped out an estimated 90 per cent of the cattle in this first instance of this disease in Tanganyika. Other diseases, such as jiggers and smallpox, also entered the country at this time, and are known to have been a direct result of foreign intervention. This severely weakened the population of rural communities dependent on cattle, especially the pastoral communities in the north, such as the Maasai, who suffered a severe blow to their military strength and standing, and diminished any possibility of resistance to the incoming powers.

Like the Maasai, the WaArusha resisted and were defeated, but the new forces were even strategically welcomed by Chagga chiefs, who used the newcomers to settle scores among themselves. As a result, when German and British settlers came to the grazing lands around the Rift Valley and slopes of Kilimanjaro at this time, they claimed that they found them uninhabited. British colonialists became increasingly nervous about the encroaching power of their European neighbours, and in 1890 they persuaded the Sultan of Zanzibar to sign a treaty that made the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba a British Protectorate.

By 1896 the Germans had constructed forts in most key areas, and enforced a number of taxes, such as taxes on huts, which had never gained great popularity. They preferred the cooler mountain climate of the north, around Kilimanjaro and the Usambara Mountains, where the land was better suited to growing crops, and where divisions among the chiefdoms meant that they even found some allies on arrival. Rindi of Moshi actually welcomed them, in return for their support in putting down nearby chiefs Sina and Marealle of Marangu.

The Europeans made Tanga their main HQ on the coast, with cool and pleasant settlement in the foothills of the nearby Usambaras. They set their sights on developing potentially rewarding coffee and sisal plantations, and encouraged all well-to-do chiefs and akidas to follow. The first 62 sisal plants were illegally imported from Brazil in 1892, yet by 1910 there were fifty four plantations, exporting thousands of tons a year.

The first railway was built inland from Tanga after 1891, which extended to Mombo, Kilimanjaro and Meru before the great rebellion of 1905. Lines were extended to Tabora in 1912, and Kigoma by 1914, just before the outbreak of World War One.

The Germans devised their own system of power and authority, although this was originally based on the one already employed by the Sultan. They retained the system of officials which included a Liwali as governor of each major town, and administrators, called akidas were placed in a subordinate but supporting role to them. Jumbes, or headmen, were responsible for collecting tax. Gradually the original Liwalis were replaced by German officials, and the other posts were given to students of the German schools. They created a number of schools, aiming mainly for literacy and the creation of African administrators, and these had a reputation for forced attendance and a tendency for corporal punishment.

Tanzania’s Run up to Independence

Following international turmoil of World War One, and Germany’s defeat, the colony of German East Africa was renamed Tanganyika, governed by British from 1916 –17, until, ostensibly, 1961. The name Tanganyika is thought to have derived from one of two sources, either the combination of the Swahili words ‘Tanga’ – Swahili for sail – and ‘nyika’ – meaning the dry expanse of the interior, or alternatively it may come from the Swahili word ‘Mchanganyiko’, meaning a grouping of 120 linguistic peoples.

A relevant chapter of World War I was played out on East African soil, over the subdued plains of Dutch East Africa. (William Boyd makes informed reference to a number of these key events in his ‘fictional’ novel ‘The Ice-Cream War’. Finally German East Africa became Tanganyika, and fell under British administration from 1920 – 1946, under a mandate from the League of Nations.

The British confiscated German property, and auctioned all their estates and plantations in 1922, when many of smaller properties were bought by Greeks and Asians. As sisal export recovered these new settlers made good money for a while, but many farms were also neglected.

British Occupation

The British set out to implement a policy of ‘indirect rule’; Governor Sir Donald Cameron strongly encouraged at least an appearance of rule through individual chiefs with their own courts and tax collection systems, although in reality these were firmly under the jurisdiction of British district commissioners.

But the war had sapped both energy and finances, which were further dented by the Great Depression of the 1930s, and never regained right up to the outbreak of World War II in 1940. Real investment in the new colonial protectorate of Tanganyika only really occurred during last 15 years of British occupation.

In the post-war years there was a serious shortage of edible fats and oils, and the Tanganyika Director of Agriculture and the British Labour Government devised an ambitious ‘ground nut project’, aiming to cultivate three million acres of ground nuts.

The project required building new harbors and railway lines, and was estimated to cost around £24 million, but ten years later £35 million had been spent, and only a few areas of bush had been cleared. The project had been dramatically rushed, with little pre-planning and soil testing, so that it soon became clear that the ground cleared was entirely unsuitable for ground nut crops.

This was just one of a series of agricultural crises. In 1955, the British tried to enforce terrace farming in the Uluguru, Usambara and Pare mountains and were met with considerable resistance. One farmer was shot for insubordination, until finally, in 1956, the laws were relaxed and the peasants pulled down all the existing terraces.

It was later found that production of rice improved. It finally became clear that forced productivity, started by German colonial system, was counter-productive.

The British Protectorate

The Prince of Wales made a popular tour of Tanganyika in 1928, and by the following year Sir Percival Phillips wrote in The Daily Mail that Dodoma was ‘Clapham Junction-in-the-Bush’. The city streets were increasingly filled with shiny motor cars, and the population in Dar-es-Salaam was estimated in the British papers to be about 1,200 Europeans (120 Germans, a few Greek, a handful of Syrians and the rest British), 5000 Indians and 25,000 African.

By 1945, Tanzania and Zanzibar were once again part of the world economy as exporters of raw materials and importers of manufactured goods. But gradually the balance of power began to shift to the USA, where nearly all goods were grown and raw materials were also manufactured, and it became impossible for the African countries to keep up. The colonies were less and less economically viable, and the time came for them to begin to earn their Independence.

The first president of a new republic: Julius Kambarage Nyerere

Julius Kambarage Nyerere headed the political republic of Tanzania for nearly a quarter of a century. He reigned as autocratic President of the country’s one-party state from Tanganiyikan Independence in May 1961 until the elections of 1985, when he took an almost unprecedented step for an African president, and left office voluntarily.


Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in the 21st Century. Photo by Patricia Hokororo on Unsplash

Creation of an Independent Republic

President Nyerere developed a constitution for a one-party state. The ideal was to stamp out class formation and racism, effectively to exclude tribalism from politics, but at the same time the state determined a firm autocratic line on the grounds that the majority was too ill-educated to know what was good for them. Order was maintained by a harsh Preventative Detention Act. This allowed for the immediate arrest and imprisonment of potential antagonists of the peace defined by the government system. The state actively controlled all media, banned opposition groups, controlled the unions and banned the right to strike, and two activists against the one-party state were almost immediately detained. Following the assassination of Vice-President Karume in 1972 the number of political prisoners rose to such an extent that Tanzania it ranked highly on the lists of Amnesty International. (At this time, over a thousand prisoners were detained, 81 of whom were convicted a year later, almost entirely on the grounds of confession after torture).

Over the following years the influence of state rule became even more clear, not least exemplified by the ruling in 1973 that all western clothing and mini-skirts were henceforth forbidden. Tight trousers, wigs, make-up (notably skin-lighteners) were all banned. Police and soldiers were expected to uphold the rules, and they took to inserting a bottle into men’s trouser legs to ensure that they were wide enough.

Ideology versus reality

His people remember him as ‘Mwalimu’, meaning ‘Teacher’, which may reflect his attitude towards governance of people whom he considered too ill educated to know what was best for them. His leadership earned him accolades such as ‘Baba wa Taifa’ – ‘Father of the Nation’- ‘The Father of Authentic African Socialism’, and ‘The Conscience of Africa’, and did great things to the new republic in terms of creating a strong national identity, but also resulted in devastating economic decline.

And while his ambition to develop a model for African Socialism succeeded in uniting the more than 130 disparate tribes and numerous religions of the country, the same people were devastated by absolute economic decline when he stood down from power in the mid-eighties.

Julius Kambarage was son of Nyerere Burito, an aristocratic but illiterate chief of the small Wazanaki tribe. The future president led a rural, traditional tribal life until he was twelve years old. He was originally educated at the Native Authority school in Musoma, but then moved on the British-run Roman Catholic secondary school, where he came top of the class and converted to the Roman Catholic faith. Missionaries sent him to Edinburgh University in 1949, where he was received with a scholarship and studied a degree in history, politics, and law, and thus became the first black graduate in British Administered Tanganyika.

During this time Nyerere was greatly influenced by a close association with Fabian socialists, and later said that he formed the whole of his political philosophy while he was there. Also during this time Nyerere undertook the impressive task of translating choosing two very different Shakespeare plays into KiSwahili, reinterpreting both Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice.

In 1953 he married Maria Magige, and the couple subsequently had a family of five sons and 2 daughters. The following year he headed the transformation of the African Association, turning it from the non-political organisation created by the British Colonial Civil Service into a powerful political force, supported by the growing group of educated Africans who now realised that the colonial state was holding them back. The group was renamed the Tanganyikan African National Union (TANU) and was committed to achieving independence.

The success and power of Nyerere’s political drive was rewarded by his election to the legislative council of the former British colony of Tanganyika under Sir Edward Twining in 1958, and he became Prime Minister when the country achieved Independence in 1961. Nineteen months later, when the constitution was amended to make Tanganyika a republic, Julius Nyerere was elected as president and TANU was declared the only legal political party. The slogan ‘Uhuru na Umoja’, ‘Freedom and Unity’ adopted in 1954, became the motto of the country.

Development of the constitution, and merger with Zanzibar

The British Parliament had also approved a new constitution for Zanzibar in 1960, but the first elections in January 1961 had ended in a deadlock result, and further elections in June, although accompanied by rioting resulting in numerous casualties, resulted in a coalition of the Zanzibar Nationalist Party (ZNP), and Zanzibar and Pemba People’s Party (ZNPP), each mainly representing the population of Zanzibari Arabs. Internal self-government followed in June 1963, and finally Independence was achieved in December.

But many people of Zanzibar were incensed that power had been delivered straight back into the hands of the old Arab families, and the following month an internal revolution, led by ‘Field Marshal’ John Okello and his Revolutionary Council, effectively overthrew the government. Many Arabs were killed in the ensuing riots and many fled for their lives before Sayyid Jamshid ibn Abdullah, who had succeeded to the sultanate following his father’s death in 1963, was deposed, and Zanzibar was proclaimed a republic.

Okello was later refused re-entry back in Zanzibar, and Sheikh Abeid Amani Karume, was installed as president of the People’s Republic of Zanzibar and Pemba, at the helm of the Afro-Shirazi Party and ostensibly representing the majority African Population.

The Revolution was followed by an army mutiny on the mainland in 1964, which badly shook Nyerere’s confidence, forced him to turn (reluctantly) to the British Marines for assistance to suppress the dissenters. As a consequence the army was restructured, with many Tanganyikans replacing old British officers, and shortly afterwards Nyerere flew to sign the ‘articles of Union’ with Zanzibar, which led to the merger of the previously independent countries of Tanzania and Zanzibar, established as the United Republic of Tanzania and Zanzibar by an Interim Constitution of 1965.

A permanent constitution for the United Republic was approved in 1977, when TANU joined with the Afro-Shirazi Party of Zanzibar, and they were amalgamated into the Revolutionary Party Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM). Nyerere, as president of the United Republic, reigned as supreme head of state and commander in chief of the armed forces, with President Karume of Zanzibar as Vice President.

Military security became a huge concern after the mutiny, and large numbers of Eastern Germans and Russians were shipped in to train two thirds of the army, near a camp just a few miles from one run by Chinese for the final third.

Nevertheless, Zanzibar retained a separate constitution, approved in 1979 and amended (with the mainland constitution) in 1985.

The islands keep an elected president and a cabinet, the Supreme Revolutionary Council, and a parliament made up of elected and appointed members called the House of Representatives. Both of these deal with matters of law and justice internal to Zanzibar.

The merger has not been wholly smooth running since its conception; in the early days of Karume the right to detain anyone apparently opposing the state without trial was being blatantly abused, and the mainland government was powerless to intervene (although there were also numerous political prisoners on the mainland).

The outcome was that Karume paid the ultimate price for apparently abusing his position when he was assassinated by the military in 1972, and his successor, Aboud Jumbe, firmly steered Zanzibar policy a little closer in line with that of the mainland.

There remain factions of Zanzibari society who continue to lobby for greater autonomy from the mainland, although the islands remain increasingly dependent on the mainland for utilities such as electricity and water supplies.

A model for African Socialism?

Although Nyerere claimed that Tanzania’s foreign policy was specifically one of nonalignment, the new republic became increasingly more reliant on socialist models, and found willing assistance from Chinese, Russian and East German governments. When the West rejected plans for a railway route linking Tanzania and Zambia, on account of Tanzania’s dismissal of Britain’s role in Rhodesia and their supplying arms to South Africa, China agreed to finance the route with an interest-free loan. A British press report from Dar es Salaam in 1969 reported that it was ‘not unusual to find a Chinese behind every palm tree along Tanzanias palm-fringed shores’, following the arrival of the Yao Hua steamship, which had despatched nearly 1,000 engineers. The Chinese were angling for a means through East Africa into Central and Southern Africa, and the Russians were interested in a means to help the East Germans block the Chinese. Cleverly enough, the new republic did not dissuade democratic governments from joining in the throng, and Nyerere happily discovered that the Americans were content to support any aid that might thwart the influence of either the Chinese or the Russians.

While Nyerere himself stuck to his ideal principles of a socialist leader, accepting only an annual salary of £4,000, the same could not be said of many of his fellow senior ministers, civil servants and leaders of TANU who were caught in the thrall of a growing lust for wealth. By the mid-1960s the Daily Telegraph in England reported on the era of ‘ a new and all-powerful tribe in Tanzania….the Wa-Benze, “the people of the Mercedez Benz”.’ This fast-expanding group were seen as ‘the new rich of a new nation’, and were making the most of their influential positions.

When Nyerere made a nationwide tour of Tanzania in 1966 and ’67, he was initially surprised and disappointed by the reception he received, and the realisation that the vast majority was sorely disenchanted with the unfulfilled promises of Independence. The President reportedly retired into solitude on completion of the tour, and later emerged with a plan for the new future of Tanzania. It was made instantly effective with The Arusha Declaration of 1967 and remains pivotal to Tanzania’s social and economic history and development.

Nationalisation and self-reliance

The Arusha Declaration aimed to restrict the capitalist surge of the Wa-Benze, and decreed that ministers could not own more than one house, could not accept positions in private companies and must rely only on their salaries. Perhaps more significantly, the declaration determined that Tanzania would adhere to a policy of self-reliance, and no longer remain dependent on foreign aid. To that effect, all banks were instantly nationalised, and certain larger commercial companies were to follow. As the legislation took effect immediately, businesses suffered a 10-day standstill and had only recovered up to 20% of previous volume by the end of the first month. But the main focus for development was agriculture, and all areas of rural production were to be organised into co-operative villages so that crops could be grown in ‘collectives’.


The Arusha Declaration had an extreme and lasting effect on the rural population, the majority of whom were required to move into more easily manageable ‘co-operative villages’ in order to develop agricultural collectives and benefit from potential services such as schools and clinics. This was the essence of the policy known as Ujamaa, literally family-hood, which inspired the development of 8,000 co-operative villages and subsequently the resettlement of over 13 million Africans in the following decade.

The basic concept for the controversial Ujamaa policy of re-villagisation was born of good intentions. Community education and health schemes were not viable considering the disparate situation of the many small, rural communities and the general lack of infrastructure, and drastic action was required. But the downsides of these policies enforced by the Arusha Declaration soon became obvious, and harder to solve.

Unfortunately, the implementation of the Ujamaa scheme was heavy-handed. Although Nyerere originally stated that the re-villagisation process would be voluntary, reports returned of villages being burned and their inhabitants fleeing under force. Nyerere responded that he had no knowledge of the violent methods used to carry out his policies in distant regions of his land, especially the far south and north. The results were drastic, as entire villages and rural regions suffered extreme poverty and near starvation when they were forced to leave the land that had provided their subsistent existence and to immediately establish new crops on unknown land. The policy for agricultural collectives suffered because the 8,200 Ujamaa villages were mainly reliant on the hand-hoe, meaning that group action had little effect and many farmers were reduced to subsistence farming. The sisal plantations, previously a highly developed industry, suffered hopeless detriment as a result of mismanagement and cashew farmers moved so far from their crops that they abandoned them. Government officials placed within the villages held the balance of power, over that of elected representatives.

The real effects of Ujamaa on the economy combined with major other factors to reduce Tanzania’s financial standing to being ranked as one of the poorest countries in the world.

Having proclaimed that Tanzania would continue without foreign aid, this aspect of the Arusha Declaration was put to the test when nearly all such aid was withdrawn and the country fell upon even harder times.

So it was in 1979, when Idi Amin invaded of Tanzania’s northern borders, that Nyerere had to rely on his own resources to topple the Ugandan dictator and restore Obote to power. Although Amin had primarily attacked to distract his country from his own internal political struggles, Nyerere amassed numerous troops and emptied all of the country’s financial coffers, a sum estimated to have been around £250 million.

By the early 80s Tanzania was reliant on imported cereals, and rationing was introduced.

Corruption was widespread, industry was working to only 30% capacity, and nearly half of the 330 farms taken over by the government went into liquidation.

In 1985 oil prices rose, and Tanzania, already stretched to the limit, suffered badly. Then crop prices for the cash crops that the ‘collective’ farms and Ujamaa villages were supposed to grow also fell, and whole regions of rural farmers were close to starvation due to lack of maize. The resultant food shortages were terrible, the shops in Dar es Salaam were bare, and the country suffered a desperate lack of currency.

Years of harsh and often dogmatically enforced socialist policies left Tanzania impoverished, one of the world’s poorest countries, and utterly dependent on Western Aid. Although Nyerere had encouraged Tanzania to be politically independent of the developed world, he was forced to leave it one of the most aid-dependent. In his last year as president, Nyerere denationalised the sisal plantations and began to devalue the currency, then handed over to his successor President Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Zanzibar to negotiate further structural reforms and devaluation in order to accept much needed assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).