Chapter 15 East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century

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Chapter 15
East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century
Patrick U. Mbajekwe
The nineteenth century was a period of traumatic and momentous transfor­mations in East and Central Africa. The changes were brought about mainly by the growing integration of the area into the world economy and the ways in which Africans responded to the new opportunities. However, the enormous ex­ternal influences were only some of the experiences that impacted the region in the nineteenth century. There were many internally induced changes as well. In other words, the impact of the external and internal forces combined to shape the nineteenth century history of East Central Africa.

In this chapter, I shall discuss first East and then Central Africa. Under East Africa, I shall discuss: (a) the penetration of the international trade through the Indian Ocean into the interior; (b) the impact of the Ngoni invaders from south­ern Africa; (c) the political dynamics in the Great Lakes region and the northeast­ern interior; and (d) the European advances. Under Central Africa, I shall discuss: (a) the developments in the Atlantic trade; (b) the political transformations among the peoples and kingdoms of the savanna; and (c) the invaders from south­ern and eastern Africa.

East Africa
International Trade
Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, contacts between the coast and the interior of East Africa had been limited. They were mostly along the southern trade routes running from Kilwa on the coast to Lake Nyasa (now Lake Malawi), controlled by the Yao traders of northern Mozambique. Thus, al­though international trading had been going on the coast of East Africa for cen­turies, it took until the nineteenth century for many areas, especially in present­day Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to be extensively drawn into and influenced by the commerce. Trade brought with it great transformations, offered new op­portunities for state-building in some areas, and at the same time, threatened ex­isting polities.

The southern coastal port of Mozambique which had been under the control of the Portuguese since the fifteenth century had been exporting gold and ivory

336 Africa; African History Before 1885

Khela Khola ,East Africa in the 19th Century Figure 15-1. East Africa in the Nineteenth Century

NYAMWE1: Peoples Population Movement

for several centuries. But in the eighteenth century, decline in the gold trade and a shift of the ivory trade beyond the area of Portuguese control made Mozambique increasingly turn to the trade in humans. The growth in the slave trade was stim­ulated by the development of the sugar plantation economy on the Mascarene Is­lands, including Mauritius and Reunion (east of Madagascar) by the French. The plantations demanded African slave labor. Further stimulus was given to the Mozambican slave trade by New World demands, particularly from Brazil. Cuban-bound Spanish vessels, and even a few United States vessels bought slaves from Mozambique. It was estimated that between the 1820s and 1830s, about fif­

East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century 337
teen thousand slaves were exported each year from the port of Mozambique Is­land alone.!

Further north, trade in slaves and ivory had been growing in the port of Kilwa since the eighteenth century. Mozambique had considered Kilwa a stiff competitor, and Portuguese attempts to control the port were checked by the Omani Arabs. The Portuguese position was made even more difficult by two other factors. First, the insatiable demand for slaves in the rapidly expanding French plantations in the Mascarene Islands made the French look for more slaves from Kilwa. Second, the Yao traders who used to supply Mozambique with ivory shifted their attention to Kilwa at the beginning of the nineteenth century in search of better deals. Indeed, by this time the demand for ivory was rising dra­matically in the world market, and so was Kilwa's commerce. It was to be the foundation of Zanzibar's commercial empire.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the foundation for the future development of Zanzibar as a major trading center had been laid. The Omani Arabs under Sayyid Said bin Sultan established a more effective administration on the island which was to be the center of their economic imperialism in East Africa in the nineteenth century. Sayyid Said had come to power in Oman in 1806. For the next decade he was principally concerned with consolidating his power in Oman. He cleverly allied with Britain, which not only helped him strengthen his position against his adversaries, but also won British approval of his objectives in East Africa. With stability at home, Said embarked on overseas adventures. He began to assert Oman's claims to the overlordship of what he regarded as the "Arab" areas of East Africa. He encouraged increasing numbers of Omani Arabs to settle on the East African coast. Making skillful use of local quarrels and rival­ries, he conquered a number of the coastal towns and imposed his proteges on them. He paid his first visit to the East African coast in 1828, and transferred his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1832. This was to have considerable impact on the economic fortunes and politics of the coast as well as the hinterland.

Strategically located, and blessed with an excellent harbor, an attractive cli­mate and fertile soil, Zanzibar was nurtured by Said to a position of para­mountcy, making it the "greatest single emporium on the western shore of the In­dian Ocean."2 Within a short time Zanzibar became the most important market on the East African coast for ivory, slaves, cloves, and gum copal, and the greatest importer of Indian, American, and European goods.

Ivory was by far the greatest export, and its value rose continuously through­out the century. The price of ivory rose uninterruptedly from $22 per frasila (1 frasila equals 351b. or 16 kg.) in 1823 to $89 per frasila in 1873.3 Ivory was the cornerstone of the Zanzibari economy, and indeed dominated the entire East African long-distance trade in the nineteenth century. Cloves, which were intro­duced in Zanzibar in the early nineteenth century from the French island of Reu­nion, were another major export. Sultan Said, realizing the high profitability of the crop, exploited the fertility of Zanzibar and Pemba Islands to embark on
1. Philip Curtin, et aI., African History from Earliest Times to Independence, 2nd ed.

(London: Longman, 1995), 354.

2. A.I. Salim, The Swahili-Speaking Peoples of Kenya's Coast, I895-I965 (Nairobi: East

African Publishing House, 1973), 15.

3. Curtin, 375.

338 Africa: African History Before 1885
large-scale plantation production of cloves. By the time of his death, the planta­tions were producing about four-fifths of the world's supply of cloves, and the revenue from it was next only to ivory and slaves.

The clove plantations, however, raised new demands for slaves since the culti­vation of cloves was labor-intensive. There was, consequently, a big demand for slaves in both Zanzibar and Pemba by the Arab plantation owners. Zanzibar be­came a major slave mart, mostly for internal use. It is interesting to note that the increase in the slave trade was happening at a time when Zanzibar was signing treaties with England to end the trade. What happened was that the treaties sup­pressed the export slave trade, and lowered the prices of slaves, so the Arab plan­tation owners filled their plantations with cheap slaves. In fact, the total number of slaves captured each year in East Africa continued to increase by mid-century.

Besides encouraging production for export, Said initiated commercial poli­cies that greatly enhanced international trade. He unified and regularized the multiple and irregular customs duties on the coast to import duties of five percent flat; and levied no duty at all on exports from his domain. He signed commercial treaties with the United States (1833), Britain (1839), and France (1844). These nations established consulates in Zanzibar. Similar encouragement was given to Germany, although no treaty was signed until after Said's death. Zanzibar im­ported sugar, beads, brassware, firearms, and cotton cloth from Europe and the United States, and exported ivory, slaves, cloves, rhinoceros horns, gum copal, and other goods.

The ever-growing volume of trade on the coast meant an increasing demand for trade goods, particularly ivory and slaves, from the hinterland. As the ivory­producing regions near the coast became denuded of elephants, the impetus to move deeper inland increased. It is important to note that the initiative for this in­ward movement came from the Africans of the interior, especially the Yao, Nyamwezi, and Kamba, who developed all the major caravan routes. However, the Arab-Swahili caravaneers competed very effectively with the Africans, their advantages being force of arms, access to credit (from Indian financiers based in Zanzibar), influence over Zanzibari trade policies, and their ability to build al­liances with local leaders. It is not clear when the Arab-Swahili led their first cara­vans into the interior, but it is probable that by the 1820s they had gone beyond Lake Tanganyika into present-day Zaire. Although they went along many trading routes, their activities were strongest on the Pangani-Bagamoyo route that ran through the Nyamwezi country. They established trading settlements inland, the most important being Tabora and Ujiji. These settlements were not only depots for storage and supplies, but sometimes bases from which they organized attacks and raids. As subjects of the sultan of Zanzibar, they carried his flag to impress those they met, but that did not mean that they always acted in his name.

One of the greatest Arab-Swahili traders of the East African interior was Hamed bin Mohammed, otherwise known as Tippu Tib. He was born in 1830, and his father had been a trader in Tabora. After a period of apprenticeship work­ing for his father in the caravan trade, he launched his own business and, in 1865, reached Ruemba on the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika. He continued to move deeper into Zaire in search of ivory. Through intrigues .and conquests of the scat­tered chiefdoms, he established himself around Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls), controlling much of the Manyema area, with his capital at Kasongo. He estab­lished plantations and imposed a monopoly on the ivory business in the area. To

East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century 339

Figure 15-2. Tippu Tib's Captives Being Sold into Slavery

secure safe passage for his caravans to the coast, he entered into agreements with Mirambo of the Nyamwezi and Rumaliza of Ujiji. When the explorer Stanley came in 1876, Tippu Tib welcomed him and accompanied him downriver deep into the rainforests. Later, when King Leopold of Belgium gained control of the Congo Free State, Tippu Tib accepted the post of governor of Stanley Falls (now Boyoma Falls), hoping to preserve his position in the face of the encroaching Eu­ropeans. But he could not, and in 1890 he returned to Zanzibar, never to return to the interior. He died in 1905. With the death of Tippu Tib ended an era in East African history-the era of the Arab-Swahili trading adventures in the interior.

The career of Tippu Tib tells us many things about the activities of the Arab­Swahili caravaneers in the interior. First, it shows how they used intrigue, diplo­macy, some of which was sealed by marriages, and force to gain influence among the Africans. It demonstrated how independent of the direct control of the sultan of Zanzibar most of them were in the interior. They survived for the most part on their own. And the way Tippu Tib was easily cut out by the Europeans and fled to the coast was indicative of the shallowness of the political hegemony they had built in the interior. As Norman R. Bennett puts it: "The Arabs had built a domi­nation that outwardly appeared powerful to nineteenth-century observers, but there were no germs for successful development within it."4 Their interest was primarily commercial, which was immensely beneficial to them as well as to the Africans who cooperated with them. Perhaps one of the greatest contributions of the Arabs in the interior of East Africa was the wide spread of the Swahili lan­
4. N.R. Bennett, "The Arab Impact," in B.A. Ogot and J.A. Kieran, eds., Zamani: A Sur­vey of East African History (Nairobi: East African Publishing House, 1968),236.
340 Africa: African History Before 1885
guage. The language spread through the trade routes, and later became the na­tional language of some modern East African countries. Finally, we should not forget the devastation that the Arabs and their African allies wrought on the many communities who were raided for slaves.

As noted earlier, there were a number of African peoples who were involved in the development and organization of coastal-hinterland trading activities. In­deed, the initiative for the opening up of the trade routes was that of Africans. The peoples that played the most prominent roles were the Yao, the Nyamwezi and the Kamba.

The Yao are known to have been the earliest group involved in the coastal­hinterland trade. They controlled the southern trade route that ran from Kilwa into their territories in the whole region of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi). They used to supply slaves and ivory to the Mozambican port before they diverted their at­tentions to Kilwa for better deals. Even during the peak period of this trade in the nineteenth century, the Yao were almost exclusively in control of this route. The Yao had previously been loosely organized in small groups, but a combination of factors, the long-distance trading activities and the invasion of the Nguni from the south, plus the reactions of the local peoples to these forces, made them form larger polities in the nineteenth century. Powerful chiefs emerged, like Mpanda, Mataka, Machemba, and Mtalika, who not only controlled the trade, but effec­tively kept the Arabs out of this control, except in isolated places like Khota­Khota and Karonga in present-day Malawi. The political and commercial base of the Yao rulers was simply too strong for the Arabs to challenge. The Arabs who carried on business in these areas did so only as clients of these rulers.

The Nyamwezi were the most prominent people in the central route that ran from the port of Bagamoyo into the areas of Lake Tanganyika, eastern Zaire, and the Buganda territories. By 1800 Nyamwezi caravans had started to arrive at the coast. Unlike the Yao, the Nyamwezi were successfully challenged by the Arabs for control of the trade in their territory. In 1839, Sayyid Said had signed a treaty with one of the Nyamwezi chiefs to grant Arab traders passage through Un­yanyembe without paying taxes. This was the beginning of the establishment of Arab settlements among the Nyamwezi, the most important of which was Tab­ora. In order to ensure their objective, which was the free flow of trade, the Arabs sometimes meddled with Nyamwezi local politics, although the overall effect was smalLs Some African chiefs also used the Arabs to enhance their position over their rivals. As trade grew, competition between the Arabs and the Nyamwezi in­creased. The Arabs made efforts to undercut the Nyamwezi, using their access to credit and discriminatory tariff structures at Zanzibar. For example, in 1864 while the Arab traders paid $9 per frasi/a of ivory as duty to Zanzibar, the Nyamwezi were charged $15. Indeed, that the Nyamwezi traders survived under these conditions was a clear testimony to their competitive capabilities. The com­bination of Arab and Nyamwezi trading activities made the central route the busiest and largest of the major trading routes, and certainly the one best known by European travelers and missionaries in the nineteenth century.

On the northern route that ran from Mombasa through the Ukambani coun­try _nd moved towards the Kenya highlands and beyond Lake Victoria, the
5. See Bennett, 219-226.
East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century 341
Kamba were the prominent African traders. Having dominated the regional trad­ing network in the eighteenth century, the Kamba moved into the international trading network in the early nineteenth century. By the 1840s, Kamba caravans were sending about three to four hundred frasilas of ivory to the coast every week. In the interior, their trading parties were visiting not only their Kikuyu neighbors, but also places as far away as Mau, Gusii, Lake Baringo, and Samburu country.6 By the later part of the nineteenth century, however, Arab-Swahili traders edged out the Kamba from control of this route. But, although the Arabs did gain control of the use of the routes, they were not known to have established major Arab centers as they did among the Nyamwezi.

The nineteenth century long-distance trade had a variety of impacts on the people of East Africa. In discussing these impacts, however, it is vital to bear a number of issues in mind. First, we should realize that not all East African soci­eties came in direct contact with the trading networks. There were many peoples who continued to live their lives almost unconnected with the commerce. Second, some of the transformations brought about by the trade were not isolated from other historical forces at this time in the region, such as the invasion of the Ngoni from the south (which I shall discuss shortly). Third, whatever transformations did take place were primarily directed by the African peoples and their leaders, given the opportunities and choices available to them.

The impacts were as diverse as the reactions of the peoples of East Africa. Many political relationships were realigned. Some polities broke up, new ones arose, while other older ones were strengthened. Some people seized the new op­portunities and, with increasing access to firearms and a stronger material base, were able to build larger political organizations. But at the same time, this meant tragedy for others, who fell prey to the slave raids. One person's nation-builder sometimes became another's nation-destroyer. In some cases, insecurity caused by incessant raiding forced some weak groups to run to their stronger neighbors for protection. Military organization was revolutionized in East Africa during the nineteenth century. The impetus for this came from both the need for security and the frequent armed conflicts associated with the struggle for control of trade. This was exacerbated by the increasing access to guns and firearms from the coast. However, military revolution in some parts of East Africa was a process that was first started by the invading Ngoni, who brought along with them Shaka's mili­tary strategies. Firearms from the coast thus accelerated a condition that was al­ready in process. The use of standing professional armies and mercenary armies (known as ruga-ruga in western Tanzania) spread in East Africa.

To illustrate these changing political relationships, let me briefly examine the fortunes of the Nyamwezi, who were able to build large "empires" for themselves during this era, and those of the people of the Pangani valley, who had their states devastated by the trade. Among the Nyamwezi, Mirambo, a powerful man, seized on the new opportunities to build one of the largest states during this era. Mi­rambo started as a ruler of the small state of Uyowa. He was believed to have been captured when he was young by the Ngoni, who taught him their military art. By the 1860s he had started to raid the neighbors of Uyowa using his army.

6. LN. Kimambo, "The East Africa Coast and Hinterland," in J.F. Ade Ajayi, ed., Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the I88os, UNESCO General History of Africa, vol. 6 (Paris: UNESCO, 1989),243.
342 Africa: African History Before 1885
By his death in 1884, he had created a vast empire that extended from Buha and Burundi, to the Vinza and Tongwe in the west, to the Pimbwe and Konongo in the south, to the Nyaturu, Iramba, and Sukuma in the east, and to the Sumbwa in the north.? He stoutly challenged the Arabs for control of the Tabora-Ujiji trade route and the Buganda route. He also recognized potential sources of power and wel­comed missionaries to his capital, especially the London Mission Society, hoping to use them to his advantage. Unfortunately, however, Mirambo's empire had no real foundation. Lacking a unifying organizational machinery, his empire disinte­grated as soon as he died in 1884. Mirambo's case is a good example of the tenu­ousness of the political gains of the nineteenth century international trade in the East African interior. Many of the states that were built during that era lacked a secure foundation and many collapsed by the end of the century.

In the Pangani valley, the experience of the international trade for the Sham­baa kingdom and the Pare states was mostly destructive. These states had been es­tablished before the trade invasion and were orderly, peaceful, and prosperous. By the middle of the nineteenth century, however, all that had changed. The trade route that passed through their territories brought wealth and power to a number of subordinate chiefs. This weakened the center. The subordinate chiefs, sup­ported by their trade and raiding allies, not only broke away, but engaged in a se­ries of mutual raids and wars. The big states were dismembered and, from the 1870s till the colonial invasion in the 1890s, the area was engulfed in constant vi­olence.

Analysts have often used the impressive trade statistics of Omani Zanzibar to generalize about the economic prosperity of all East African peoples from the nineteenth century international trade. If Zanzibar and the coastal trading islands profited from the trade, for many hinterland people the era was a disaster. Even the profits from the coast did not go to Africans, they went to the Arabs, Indians, Europeans, and Americans. Many hinterland people recall this period as an era of turmoil and destruction-caused by the slave raiders and the armies of the nation builder/destroyers. Prosperity in the interior was deceptive. To get ivory, Africans had to kill elephants. To get slaves, they engaged in destructive wars and raids. They sold ivory and slaves and received guns which caused more destruction. Since elephants and human beings could not be easily reproduced, there was no basis for economic growth; Africans were only depleting their limited resources. By the end of the century, the supposed prosperity was gone.
The Ngoni Invasion of Southern Tanzania
As noted above, historical changes in nineteenth-century East Africa were not shaped by the international trade alone. The Ngoni, who invaded southern Tan­zania from the 1830s, clearly caused fundamental transformations in the region. The Ngoni were one of the Nguni-speaking peoples of northern Zululand that were displaced during the rule of Shaka. Led by their great chief Zwangendaba, the Ngoni fled their homeland in about 1820, moving northwards into the area of southern Mozambique. After wandering for about fifteen years in this region,
7. Jan Vansina, Kingdoms of the Savanna (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 75.
East and Central Africa in the Nineteenth Century 343
they crossed the River Zambezi in November 1835, and continued their relentless march northwards through Malawi and Zambia until they arrived at the Fipa plateau in the early 1840s. Here, Zwangendaba established his capital. In the process of this migration the Ngoni incorporated a number of peoples, including members of the Thonga of Mozambique, the Sholla of Zimbabwe, and the Senga, Chewa, and Tumbuka from the region north of the Zambezi river in Zambia and Malawi. They were able to do this using a combination of revolutionary military tactics and a dynamic social system which they originally copied from Shaka, and which they improved on as they moved along. Shaka's military innovations in­cluded the replacement of the traditional long throwing spear by the short stab­bing spear and the organization of soldiers into highly disciplined age-regiments. The social system was organized in such a way that the conquered peoples were easily assimilated into the society, with an emphasis on a strong centralized politi­cal system.

In 1848, Zwangendaba died, and succession disputes led to the splitting of the nation into five groups. Three moved south and established their kingdoms in Zambia and Malawi, while two, the Tuta and Gwangara, remained in East Africa. The Tuta moved towards the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika, raiding as they went along. They encountered the Holoholo, who successfully repelled them in the 1850s. The Holoholo had earlier suffered defeat at the hands of the Ngoni, and many of them had fled across the lake. There, they adopted the Ngoni military tactics, and successfully used them to defend themselves from the invad­ing Tuta. The Holoholo experience is indeed one of many examples of East African peoples who adopted the new military techniques of the Ngoni and used them to defend themselves against the invaders.8 Recovering from this setback, the Tuta turned toward the Nyamwezi, where they upset the Arab trade route be­tween Tabora and Ujiji. They eventually settled northwest of Tabora and raided as far as the southern shores of Lake Victoria. One of the Nyamwezi captured by the Tuta was Mirambo, who learned military techniques from the Ngoni (strengthened by firearms) to build his nation.

The Gwangara, on the other hand, moved southeast into the Songea area, east of Lake Nyasa (Lake Malawi), where they encountered another established Ngoni kingdom, Maseko. The Ngoni-Maseko had broken away before the Ngoni reached the Zambezi and moved eastwards, crossing the Zambezi closer to the River Shire, and eventually settled east of Lake Nyasa. Under their leader, Ma­puto, the Maseko were stronger than the Gwangara, who accepted their overlord­ship. But this was only for a short period. In about 1860 when war broke out be­tween the Maseko and the Gwangara, Maseko superiority had been greatly weakened. The Gwangara defeated and drove them south across the Ruvuma River, to eventually settle in southwestern Malawi. The Gwangara themselves, however, split into two kingdoms: the Mshope kingdom under Chipeta, and the Njelu kingdom led by Chabruma. These two held sway in the Songea area, raid­ing extensively throughout the area between Lake Nyasa and the coast until the imposition of German colonial rule.
8. E.A. Alpers, "The Nineteenth Century: Prelude to Colonialism," in Ogot and Kieran, eds., Zamani, 241.

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