A Brief History of Tanzania

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Tanzania

The first human beings in Tanzania lived by hunting animals and gathering plants. Agriculture in Tanzania probably began about 1,000 BC but the farmers still made wooden and stone tools. However, by the 4th century AD, Bantu people began to migrate to Tanzania. They brought iron tools and weapons.

Meanwhile, people on the east coast of Africa had contact with the Mediterranean civilizations. The Persians and later the Romans sailed as far as Tanzania. Later, by the 8th century, Arab merchants sailed to the area. The Arabs brought Islam and ever since many Tanzanians have been Muslims. Many Arabs settled along the coast and eventually, traders came from as far away as India.

In the 11th century AD, the ancestors of the Masai began to migrate to Tanzania from southern Sudan. Most of them arrived between the 15th century and the 18th century.

The first European to reach Tanzania was a Portuguese explorer named Vasco Da Gama who arrived in 1498. However Portuguese rule did not extend inland. At first, the Portuguese were peaceful but not for long. In 1503 a ship commanded by Rui Lourenco Ravasco came to Unguja Island. The Portuguese captured 20 dhows (Arab sailing ships) and killed about 35 people. The ruler of Zanzibar, the Mwinyi Mkuu was forced to submit. He had to grant the Portuguese access to Zanzibar and he had to agree to provide Portuguese ships with food and water. He also had to pay tribute to Portugal.

In 1505 the Portuguese captured Mombassa and in 1056 they captured Pemba Island. In 1510 the people of Unguja Island and Pemba Island rebelled but they were crushed by the Portuguese. During the 16th century, the Portuguese took control of the coast and built forts. In 1560 they founded Zanzibar town. The Portuguese also introduced 2 plants from Brazil, cassava and cashew nuts.

However, the Portuguese only controlled the coast of Tanzania and in the 17th century, they were driven out by Arabs from Oman. The Arabs captured Unguja in 1652. The last Portuguese were expelled from Pemba in 1695. Finally, the last Portuguese stronghold in Tanzania, Fort Jesus in Mombasa was taken in 1698. The Arab victory ensured that Tanzania did not become a Portuguese colony like Mozambique. Instead, from the end of the 17th century, the Arabs were the dominant power in the region.

In the 18th century and 19th centuries, Arab slave traders took huge numbers of slaves from Tanzania and exported them from Tanzania. The slaves were sold to Arabs or European colonies in the Indian Ocean. In 1812 a man named Saleh bin Haramil introduced cloves to Zanzibar. Soon cloves became a major export. The clove plantations were worked by African slaves.

Colonial Tanzania

In the 19th century, Europeans began to explore inland Tanzania. In the 1840s two Germans, Johann Ludwig Krapf and Johannes Rebmann reached Mount Kilimanjaro. In 1857 two Britons, Richard Burton and John Speke reached Lake Tanganyika. In the 1860s missionaries arrived in Tanzania.

Then in 1885, the Germans began taking over the region. The Germans were led by Karl Peters. He formed a company called the German East Africa Company (Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Gesellschaft). Peters persuaded African chiefs to make treaties with his company. Legally Peters acted independently of the German government. Nevertheless, his government approved his actions.

Meanwhile, the British had taken control of the island of Zanzibar. In 1890 Britain and Germany signed a treaty dividing the area between them. Britain took Zanzibar and Germany took mainland Tanzania. Then in January 1891, the German government took direct control of Tanzania.

However, from the start, the Germans faced resistance in Tanzania. The first uprising was the Abushiri revolt of 1888. The people on the coast of Tanzania resented German interference and they rose in a revolt led by a man named Abushiri bin Salim al-Harth. However, the Germans eventually crushed the revolt.

From 1891 to 1898 the Germans fought a war with a people called the Hehe. Eventually, the Hehe were defeated and their leader, Mkwawa, killed himself.

In 1905-07 came the Maji Maji rebellion. Africans were forced to work on cotton plantations and eventually, southern Tanzania rose in rebellion. The rebellion was crushed after the Germans adopted a ‘scorched earth’ policy. At least 100,000 people died both as a result of the fighting and as a result of starvation.

Between 1909 and 1913 250 tonnes of dinosaur bones were discovered at Tendaguru, north of Lindi. The bones were shipped to a museum in Berlin.

In 1914 came the First World War. In Tanzania, a small German force was led by Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck. He was a very able man. When a British force landed at Tanga in November 1914 it was defeated and fled leaving many weapons in German hands. The British invaded again in 1916 but they were unable to defeat the Germans. However, by 1917 the Germans in Tanzania were running out of food and ammunition so they turned to guerrilla warfare. They continued to fight until Germany itself surrendered in November 1918.

After the war Tanzania was handed over to the British. It was called Tanganyika. In 1925 Sir Donald Cameron became the first governor. In 1926 a legislative council met. Under British rule, Tanzania exported cash crops like cotton. Much was grown on European-owned plantations. However, some were also grown by Africans.

Meanwhile, the Africans began to organize themselves. In 1929 they formed the African Association in Dar Es Salaam. Yet in Tanzania, the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s were fairly uneventful. However, things began to change rapidly in the 1950s.

In 1953 Julius Nyerere was elected president of the Tanganyika African Association. In 1954 it was renamed the Tanzania African National Union. It campaigned for independence with the slogan Freedom and Unity (Uhuru Na Umoja). The National Union participated in elections for the legislative council in 1958 and 1959. However, two-thirds of the seats were reserved for non-Africans. In 1960 that restriction was removed and in an election, TANU won almost all the seats.

The move to independence was now unstoppable and Tanzania became independent on 9 December 1961 with Nyerere as prime minister. On 9 December 1962, Tanzania became a republic and Nyerere became president.

Modern Tanzania

Unfortunately, in 1967 Nyerere adopted a policy of socialism. He made the Arusha declaration in which he outlined his vision of a socialist Tanzania.

However in Tanzania, as in other countries, socialism proved to be a complete failure. The cornerstone of that policy was called Ujamaa (family hood). Nyerere planned to create huge collective farms. The people were encouraged to move into large villages in which food and other goods would be produced collectively for the whole community. However, the policy proved disastrous for Tanzania. Agricultural production slumped and the Tanzanian economy was wrecked.

Furthermore, by 1973, only about 20% of the population had moved to Ujamaa villages. So Nyerere forced people to move and by 1977 about 80% of the population had been resettled.

Meanwhile, in 1975 Tanzania became a one-party state. At that time Uganda was ruled by the tyrant Idi Amin. In October 1978 Amin invaded the Kagera region of Tanzania. In January 1979 a Tanzanian force counterattacked and rapidly overran Uganda. The Tanzanians withdrew in 1981.

Meanwhile, Nyerere was re-elected president in 1980. However, the Tanzanian economy was in tatters and corruption was endemic. Furthermore, Tanzania sank heavily into debt. International donors demanded reform in return for help but Nyerere was unwilling to change his policies. So in 1985, he resigned.

He was replaced by Ali Hassan Mwinyi who spent the next 10 years trying to repair the economy of Tanzania. Mwinyi privatized businesses and tried to purge corruption. He also encouraged foreign investment. As a result, the economy of Tanzania began to grow steadily.

In 1992 Tanzania became a multi-party democracy and in 1995 Benjamin Mkapa became president. In 2005 Jakaya Kikwete was elected president of Tanzania.

Meanwhile in 2001 school fees were abolished in Tanzania and as a result attendance at school greatly increased.

Tanzania still relies on agriculture and many plantations grow tea and coffee, tobacco, cotton, and cashew nuts. Tanzania also has considerable mineral resources.

Tanzania is still a poor country but it is developing fast. In the early years of the 21st century, the percentage of people living in extreme poverty fell. Along the coast of Tanzania, fishing is important. Tanzania also has great tourism potential. It has several national parks with animals like lions, leopards, crocodiles, giraffes, and hippopotamus.

In 2024 the population of Tanzania was 65 million.

Last Revised 2024