The Indian Ocean Coast – Pangani

10th March 2013

Pangani is a sleepy little town on the banks of the Pangani (Ruvu) river, 66km south of Tanga. A ferry service shuttles to and fro between the ancient old town of Bwemi with its crumbling mosques and Arabic houses on the south bank and the quietly dilapidating ‘new’ town where a number of grand ruins from all its eras of government act as a reminder of a once more glorious past. These slow wooden motor boats wait at each shore until they are filled, and a loud general banter bubbles up between the gradually increasing cargo of colourfully swathed passengers. No one is hurrying, and time seems to drift as if on the lazy ebb and flow of the river and sea beyond. But there are signs of quiet industry at the old warehouses and factory sites along the river, where groups of men congregate to work on mending nets or gathering baskets of coconuts or husks. Beyond, clusters of single storey swahili houses are variously painted and coloured with signs and women sit under shady verandas in their coloured kangas selling bundles of delicious honeyed rice cake.




There is a possibility that little Pangani Town once featured more impressively in the realms of history, if indeed it was the site of the ancient Market town of Rhapta, as described in The Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, the 1st century guide to trade ports of Arabia, Eastern Africa and India. This book described the coast of Azania, and told how the trading port of Rhapta was situated at a great river mouth, south of the ‘Mountains of the Moon.’ It is generally agreed that Rhapta must have been in present day Tanzania, but no remains have been found. The likelihood is that the great river mouth has finally swallowed up the old town, amid the silt deposits either here at Pangani, or alternatively further south near the great Rufiji River Delta.

The old mosques on the southern banks of the Pangani river suggest that there was a very early Muslim settlement here, and local stories tell of ruins of a great palace that has since succumbed to the wiles of nature, wound with the roots of great fig trees and crumbled to dust with the erosion of the cliff. There area a number of graves and ruins of ancient Muslim settlements in villages around Pangani that all date from the 14th century and later, although none have been found to be earlier.

It is known that Pangani was occupied by the Portuguese for a time, and that thereafter more Arab traders began to settle here throughout the 18th century. They made a certain amount of business and trading with the resident local Zigua tribe, selling belts and beads in exchange for food. Arabs and locals developed a good understanding and mutual reliance on the other, and the town remained a fairly quiet and low profile dhow port until the mid-1800s. Once again the writings of explorer Richard Burton shed light on the exact situation at this time, for when he visited in 1857 he recorded the annual export trade as being 35,000lbs of ivory, 1,750lbs of rhinoceros horn and 160lbs of hippopotamus teeth. All this alongside a day to day trade in mangrove poles and maize.

Around this time, life in Pangani began to alter dramatically, as ‘Shirazi’ residents began to increase trade links along the Pangani River until the port developed into a major terminus for trade in ivory and slaves, the last stop for the overland caravan route from Lake Tanganyika. The Arab population developed a smart white-washed town beneath the minaret of a central mosque, and the town was surrounded by successful tobacco and sugar plantations. But the social structure was then most dramatically altered when German colonialists shouldered their way into command the Sultan’s domain on the mainland immediately after the death of Sultan Barghash in 1888 and their subsequent agreement signed with his poor brother Khalifa. The German colonialists called Arab residents to positions of government in exchange for fine stone houses that they had built in the area, and then demanded that the Sultans officials, called akida, levy a mass of new taxes, including on burial, inheritance and property. Anyone who failed to register his property and situation was liable to have it confiscated. Locals tell how the early colonial methods of discipline relied heavily upon the force of a beating stick, and relate (with a certain awe), how one colonial administrator developed such a talent with his stick that he was even able to defend himself from the jaws of a man-eating lion. Legend relates that he came out the victor in a fatal combat with a man-eating lion.


The ‘Bushiri’ revolt


In 1888 Pangani was chosen by Sheikh Bushiri ibn Salim al-Harthi as the centre for the infamous rebellion against German colonial rule, after a young German official named Emil von Zewlewsky, known as ‘Nyundo’, the hammer, in Swahili, heavy-handedly threatened the Sultan’s officer, insulted the Muslim religion and ‘sneered at the Sultan’. In order to quell any possible dissension against his rule, Zewlewsky then ordered 100 marines onto the beach to smash property and pull down the Sultan’s flag. Bushiri was incensed. He was a proud, high born Arab, immaculately and expensively dressed and vehemently held his own al-Harthi community to be equally as rightful to the land as the Sultan. The Sheikh organised a group of militant dissidents against the German occupiers, digging trenches and fortifying their houses, including blockading Zelewsky in his headquarters, and he raised a rampant army of about 20,000 wild tribesmen, Arabs, Muslims, non-Muslims, slave traders and slaves.

There was evidently some confusion over the exact purpose of the army. While some thought they were defending the lands of the Sultan, Bushiri himself had plans to prove himself as an independent warlord. The only unifying theme was a certain uncontrollable anger against the German colonialists. His army was successful in keeping their foe from their beaches for a time, but the supremacy of Bismark was not to be mocked, and before long greater forces were despatched from Europe. The unrest was quelled by May 1889, when a new imperial commissioner, Major Herman von Wissman was appointed in Pangani to placate the already slightly cooling rabble with the force of seven warships, extensive modern weaponry and numerous Sudanese and ‘Zulu’ troops. By June Wissman had recaptured Saadani and then Pangani, and in December Bushiri was captured as a result of the huge reward money on his head, and he and his collaborators were publicly executed.

The German powers were victorious, and thereafter continued to stake their claim on Tanganyika territory with a daring amount of warfare and village burning. Not all survived the attacks however, and suffice it to say that young Zelewsky ‘the hammer’ met his fate at the hands Chief Mkwawa’s Hehe warriors near Iringa.

The Pangani residents were still reeling from the violence of the German methods of administration, and consequently felt a welcoming response to the less draconian regimes of the new British government after WWII. Although the British were more communicative and intuitive to the local people, they continued to rely on the Arab chiefs created by the Germans and strictly enforced tax payments with a penalty of imprisonment on those who did not pay. The British era saw an emphatic growth of schools and education, free to all whom wished to attend, although influenced by the crucial caveat that those who took advantage of these should follow the Christian religion. The divide between Muslim and Christian is quite even in this region, and depended on the receptive attitudes of families and tribes to this stricture for potential education. The old people of Pangani remember the latter years of the colonial era with fondness, as a time of good business and wealth emmanating from the sisal (mkonge) plantations. Four large estates around Pangani, at Sakura, Kibinda, Mwera and Bushiri did very well, and continued to do so for a while after Independence. But as the price for sisal began to drop and salaries were reduced, people began rather despondently wishing for a return of the old protectorate. As the sisal harvests lost their value the people planted coconut plantations, which were profitable for a while. But the trees have aged and the crops decreased considerably. There is now little work for Pangani locals beyond a basic subsistence reliant on coconut, fish and small seasonal crops, and the employment level has officially dropped to 10%, compared with a rumoured nearly 100% under the British government. Worse is a widespread memory of better times, and many Pangani youth are forced to move away to Arusha or Dar es Salaam for work.

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