Early European Colonialism

For a very detailed look at this period, please download the British Empire in East Africa teachers pack (suitable for A-level and University students) HERE and watch this space as we upload more material.

By the end of the 19th century, MPs and civil servants of every hue in Westminster and a bewildering collection of lobbyists were questioning the rationale of supporting  extensive foreign spending, and British role overall in its imperial colonies, including Tanzania. There was a vigorous and growing movement of Africa political figures, freed slaves such as Oloudah Equiano and white philanthropists who felt slavery was morally repugnant. But as ever propaganda was at work: many of the horrific scenes, photos and etchings were to serve a political point: that Britain was no longer squandering its money on failed colonial experiments, and this was the impetus behind the determination to end the slave trade. There certainly were passionate and dedicated groups in UK such as quakers who opposed slavery on moral and religious grounds, but enormous dissent in liberal society about whether African and Caribean people were equal to Europeans. The ‘mainstream’ regency and Victorian intelligentsia and scientific communities appear by 21st century standards as disagreeably racist and accepting for obvious bias and lies. (See Das and Lowe 2018, and Olusoga 2015 and Olusoga 2018 for further information).

1822, the British signed the first of a series of treaties with Sultan Said to curb this trade, but not until 1876 was the sale of slaves finally prohibited.

The Sultan of Zanzibar controlled a large portion of the African Great Lakes Coast, known as Zanj, as well as trading routes extending much further across the continent, as far as Kindu on the Congo River. However, from 1887 to 1892, these mainland possessions were lost to the colonial powers of the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, with Britain gaining control of Mombasa in 1963.

Zanzibar was famous worldwide for its spices and its slaves. Tanga, 27 miles away, and Pangani and Bagamoyo were departure points from the mainland to Zanzibar, and from then on to Europe, US and Brazil. Zanzibar was the Africa Great Lakes’ main slave-trading port, and in the 19th century as many as 50,000 slaves were passing through the slave markets each year. British early interest in Zanzibar was motivated by both access to commercial resources, taking advantage of the opportunistic trade winds and strategic advantage, much as it is today.

However, supporting the British Empire was a messy and vague business. The British, under William McKinnon who directed the British Imperial East Africa company, ‘oversaw’ 240kms of East African coastline with an ‘imperial charter’- which remains today undefined what it means. The IBEAC oversaw an area of about 246,800 square miles (639,000 km2) along the eastern coast of Africa, its centre being at about 39° East longitude and  latitudeMombasa and its harbour were central to its operations, with an administrative office about 50 miles (80 km) south in Shimoni. It granted immunity of prosecution to British subjects whilst allowing them the right to raise taxes, impose custom duties, administer justice, make treaties and otherwise act as the government of the area. This obviously went down very badly indeed with local Tanga residents and other coastal citizens, who had in no way agreed to this arrangement. There were a total of 44 uprisings and resistances (that we know about) in this time. See the teachers pack HERE for more detail.

In 1893 the IBEAC transferred its administration rights of the territory to the British Government. The territory was then divided to form the Uganda Protectorate in 1894 and East Africa Protectorate (later Kenya) in 1895.

In reality IBEAC seems to have been concerned with stopping Middle Eastern traders from disembarking and getting access to gold and ivory, and to a lesser extent cotton, cloves, spices sugar and coffee. The IBEAC fell apart in 1893, as the egos between colonial partnerships clashed. “Brewing conflict between rival factions ultimately prevented the company from investing the necessary time and money into this venture. The four groups involved in Uganda, the Kabaka, French Catholics, Protestants, and the Company, could not resolve their squabble amicably and civil war broke out in January 1892.”

Mackinnon overwhelmed with debts of over £10,000, including commissioning a ship in kit form he wanted named after himself, backed down from IBEAC’s directorship, having bankrupted it. Only to mysteriously reappear to personally fund the ill-fated expedition to ‘rescue’ Emin Pasha a few years later.

“IBEAC was already struggling financially due to customs issues but the money spent funding this skirmish all but bankrupted it. This also made clear that the company would be unable to continue its poorly executed attempt at colonizing eastern Africa”. (Source 2021)

Tanzania, Tanga. Mama Mefaki , coffee seller. The custom of taking coffee or chai on the barazza (terrace/pavement) with a small sweetmeat is hundreds of years old, and an important Swahili tradition of discussing, reflecting and relaxing in the year-round humidity. Photo Jenny Matthews February 2020

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