Tanzania - History of Tanzania
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Tanzania History

photo of a square stone fort

March 2017 - By 1500 AD, people in Tanzania were doing pretty well. They did a lot of trading with India and the Arabian Peninsula from their biggest port at Kilwa, and other smaller ports. They bought silk and cotton cloth, steel knives, Indian and Chinese medicine, and spices like pepper and cinnamon. To get money to buy these things, Tanzanian traders bought ivory, ebony, ostrich eggs, and some enslaved people from African people living further away from the ocean, in the Congo, and sold them to Arab and Indian traders. Like many of the people they traded with, and other East Africans, most people in Tanzania were Muslims. Most of them spoke Swahili.

photo of a stone fort with an open grassy area inside and the coastline and ocean in the background
Old Fort of Zanzibar, built in the 1700s to fight off the Portuguese

In 1498, the first European explorer, Vasco da Gama, reached Kilwa. He saw that he had better weapons than the Tanzanians and planned an attack. By 1505, Tanzania fell under Portuguese control, like Mozambique further south. Charles V continued basically the same trade that the Tanzanians had already been doing (now from the island of Zanzibar), only now the Charles kept the profits, so Tanzanians got poorer as Europe got richer.

Soon after 1700 AD, though, the Tanzanians succeeded in pushing the Portuguese out of the northern half of their country, with the help of their Arab trading partners from Oman, in the Arabian peninsula. Tanzanians and Omani sultans kept on trading with Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and the Maratha Empire in India, selling more and more enslaved people from Congo.

head and shoulders of a black man in a white robe holding a spear
Chief Mkwawa

In the late 1800s, however, Tanzania had to trade with the British more and more, as the British seized control of India, and the Safavid Empire lost power to Russia and Britain. Bismarck's unification of Germany meant that the Germans wanted colonies in Africa, and Bismarck gradually took control of Tanzania. German rule was harsh and violent. Although the Germans did build roads and railways through Tanzania, and started excellent schools, they also killed a lot of people and treated everyone badly, and tried to force people to grow cotton. In the 1890s, Chief Mkwawa led the Hehe in a resistance movement. The Germans defeated him, but the Maji-Maji resistance took the Hehe's place, and resistance got bigger and stronger.

a protest with a black man holding a sign over his head that says Complete Independence 1961
Julius Nyerere at a demonstration

When Germany lost World War I, Britain took control of Tanzania. The school system collapsed, and British people got richer as Tanzanian people got poorer. Nevertheless people from Tanzania fought for Britain in World War II, like the Sikhs in India. After World War II, Tanzanian people started negotiating to get independence again, and in 1961 (a year after the Congo), Tanzania finally did become its own country again. China has helped Tanzania build a more modern economy. But Julius Nyerere's government was corrupt and undemocratic, and it's still shooting its own citizens under the control of Benjamin Mkapa. Today Tanzania exports gold and other rare metals used in computers, tobacco, and coffee, but most people in Tanzania are much poorer now than they were before colonization.

Learn by doing: African games
History of Kenya
History of Mozambique
More about Africa

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Tanzania:

Earlier history of East Africa
Early modern Kenya
More about Africa
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Quatr.us Study Guides, . Web. 24 April, 2017