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The Abushiri Revolt

Updated on September 26, 2019
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The East African region, composing primarily modern day Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda has long been a crossroads of both people and empires. It has had commercial links with the outside world since at least the Middle Ages, when the voyages of the Chinese eunuch Zheng He reached the East African coast. Over time, the Sultanate of Zanzibar emerged as the dominant military and commercial power in the region, deriving its strength from the slave and ivory trade between the African mainland and the Arabian peninsula. The Sultanate of Zanzibar was based on the island of Zanzibar, and the sultan maintained nominal control of the African mainland through a number of ethnic-Arab intermediaries. These traders would venture inland, taking both slaves and ivory to bring to the coast for export. Slaves would either end up on various plantations on the islands, or be sent further abroad to the Arabian peninsula, or even as far as India. The ivory would be exported worldwide, from Asia to Europe. While this trade made the sultan and his followers fabulously wealthy, it also attracted the attention of budding European powers, chief among them the newly united German empire.

German East Africa Company Flag

German East Africa Company Flag
German East Africa Company Flag

The German East Africa Company

The German East Africa Company began as the Society for German Colonisation in 1884. The German empire had only been united in 1871 after a series of successful wars against Austria, Denmark and France, and had thus missed out on the first waves of colonisation that had occurred in North America and Asia. Parts of German society wished to launch a colonization effort, in order to ensure Germany got ”her place in the sun”, alongside the other leading European powers.

There were various reasons for this push into the uncharted, (to Europeans that is), chief among them being economic and military. As a rising industrial power, Germany was looking for new markets for its finished goods, as well as sources of raw materials for its burgeoning manufacturing industry. Additionally, colonies were viewed as places where the surplus population could emigrate to, and in turn this populace would increase economic activity in underdeveloped places. Militarily, owning colonies allowed for the recruitment of colonial forces, augmenting the manpower available in the armed forces. Colonies also served as military bases to protect sea lanes and transport routes, as well as to menace the overseas territories of potential opponents.

In addition to the material benefits, colonization brought the occupier prestige on the international stage, and generally pleased the domestic nationalists and expansionists. Successful explorers were celebrated at home, their discoveries proof of national strength and ingenuity. These discoveries also served a dual purpose, as they could later be used to lay claim to the region in question. It was with these concerns in mind that the German East Africa Company ventured into the region, staking claims to the land, resources and people of East Africa.

Map Of German East Africa

Map Of German East Africa
Map Of German East Africa

German Expansion Into East Africa

The German East Africa Company began its earnest expansion into East Africa in the mid-1880’s. The company leased land on the coast of modern day Tanzania from the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1885 for a total of 50 years. The company was after the natural resources of the interior, and controlling the coast would give them access to the interior.

With the lease of the mainland, the company had to take over the Sultans administrative apparatus and govern its new territory. This territory was only loosely controlled from Zanzibar, the Sultan relying on the wealthy traders that ventured into the interior in search of goods and slaves. These notables formed the backbone of the local ruling classes, and began to organize in order to protect their economic and political interests from the German company.

Seeing as how the Germans and the local Swahili notables were after the same resources, they had two options. The locals could cooperate with the better-armed Germans, serving as intermediaries much like they did with the Sultan, or they could compete with them economically, a policy which would eventually lead to armed conflict. As the fledgling company tried to establish control and expand into the mainland, a local notable by the name of Al Bashir ibn Salim Al-Harthi (Abushiri) chose the latter option and launched a revolt against the German East Africa Company.

Chief Abushiri

Chief Abushiri
Chief Abushiri

The Abushiri Revolt

Chief Abushiri was a local notable, claiming descent from the original Arab settlers on the Swahili coast through his father and local roots through his African mother. He was born in 1845, and established himself as a farmer with a large plantation, which he purchased after a number of profitable trading expeditions to the interior of Tanganyika.

By 1888 it became apparent that the aspirations of the local elite on the Swahili coast and the German East Africa Company were irreconcilable. The Swahili traders sought political power in order to safeguard their commercial and social interests, while the German East Africa Company sought control in order to profit from the trade and ownership of the Swahili coast, as well as the interior lands.

Rallying a large force composed of both Africans and Arabs, Chief Abushiri began his revolt in September 1888 by firing at a German ship in the coastal town of Tanga, before moving on to Kilwa and killing two Germans there. His next target was the strategic port of Bagamoyo, which was the commercial capital of Tanganyika and formerly an export hub for slaves from the interior. By the time he reached Bagamoyo, his force had grown to around 8000 men, although what they had in numbers they lacked in weaponry. The Germans responded to this offensive by dispatching a force of native soldiers, known as Askari, who were led by European officers. This force had the advantage of modern weaponry and managed to defeat the combined forces of Chief Abushiri. Defeated, Chief Abushiri fled northwards until he was betrayed to the Germans, who promptly hung him on December 15th, 1889.

However, the rebellion simmered on, and it took the German forces until May 1890 to recapture the town of Kilwa. By the fall of 1890, it became evident that the German East Africa Company could not properly control its concession, at which point the German government stepped in and bought out the company. By the time the revolt was fully crushed in 1891, control of German East Africa had shifted decisively into the hands of the Imperial German government.

German East Africa Askari Soldiers

German East Africa Askari Soldiers
German East Africa Askari Soldiers


Viewed from the perspective of the German colonial power, the Abushiri revolt was not much more than a minor setback in the scramble for African colonies. While it is true that Chief Abushiri's revolt did little to stop the colonization of East Africa, and indeed can be said to have sped the process up by forcing the German government to interfere, it was still a significant milestone in the history of modern-day Tanzania.

It presented a clear attempt by the people of East Africa to establish and control their own political entity, in the face of European colonization and the disintegration of the Sultanate of Zanzibar. While it was essentially doomed from the start, the rebels pressed the advantage of surprise and attempted to sever German links to the ports on the Swahili coast, showing tactical acumen. Unfortunately for them, they faced the full might of a rapidly industrializing and advanced European nation, capable of fielding armies that wielded the most modern technology of the day, including bolt action rifles, modern artillery and machine guns.

Thus the clash can be seen in romantic terms as a fight between two separate worldviews, in the old planter/trader class of the Swahili coast and the new, modern and industrial nations of Europe. Its end ushered in a new colonial era for East Africa, with the Germans establishing the colony of German East Africa. Following the First World War, this colony was taken over by the British, and given independence to become the nation of Tanganyika in 1961, which merged with Zanzibar in 1964 to become modern-day Tanzania. In a sense, the colonial powers inadvertently began the process of building the nation of Tanzania, by uniting disparate tribes under their rule and creating a sense of nationhood that came from the opposition to the colonial ruler. Unfortunately for Chief Abushiri and his followers, they would not live to see the development of independent states on the Swahili coast.


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