Tanzania History

Look in an old atlas and you’ll see that Tanzania used to be called Tanganyika. Its coast, along with Zanzibar, has long been visited by trading Persians, Arabs, Chinese and Indians and by the end of the 12th century the mainland settlement of Kilwa was ruled by Persians until it was destroyed by the Portuguese in the early 1500s.

The Portuguese claimed control over the entire coast before being ousted in turn by the Omani Arabs in the 17th century. Then things really began to change: European explorers and missionaries penetrated the interior of Tanganyika in the first half of the 19th century with the eminent explorer David Livingstone establishing a mission at Ujiji on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. It was here that he was ‘found’ by Henry Stanley, an American journalist who had been commissioned by the New York Herald to locate him (and who uttered those immortal words “Doctor Livingstone I presume”).
As the ‘Scramble for Africa’ gathered pace in the latter half of the 19th century, Tanganyika fell victim to a deal drawn up in London and Berlin and was subsequently absorbed along with neighbouring Rwanda and Burundi into the colony of German East Africa.
Although the Germans brought cash crops, railways and roads to Tanganyika, European rule was often brutal and provoked African resistance. This resulted in the Maji Maji rebellion of 1905-1907 that claimed some 120 000 African lives, either killed by German troops or starved to death. Then World War I broke out and the British who had control over neighbouring Kenya, Uganda and Zanzibar attacked the German garrison at Tanga in 1914. The Germans won that battle but lost the war, and Tanganyika was awarded to the British in another colonial carve-up.

Growing resistance to British rule grew as the Winds of Change began to blow. In 1954 Julius Nyerere, a schoolteacher who was then one of only two Tanganyikans educated abroad at university level, organized a political party. Elections were held in 1960 and Nyerere became president with the British agreeing to the establishment of internal self-government and independence. Tanganyika was proclaimed an independent nation in 1961 and Zanzibar in 1963. The two countries combined as one and formed the modern state of Tanzania – a combination of both names - with Dar es Salaam as the capital. (The official capital now is inland Dodoma but no-one takes it seriously and ‘Dar’ remains Tanzania’s principle city.)

Nyerere turned to communist China for inspiration: rural development was reorganized and farmers were moved from villages into cooperative farms. The move was deeply unpopular and failed dismally resulting in dire consequences for the economy. To worsen matters, Uganda’s despotic dictator Idi Amin decided to invade Tanzania in 1978. After several months of fighting, the unprepared and ill-equipped Tanzanian army did manage to defeat Uganda and pushed them back across the border. But the war cost Tanzania US$500 million and they had no international financial support at all.

Nyerere retired as president in 1985 and was replaced by Ali Hassan Mwinyi who introduced market forces to Tanzania in an attempt to kick start the stagnant economy but it was the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s that thrust the country back into the limelight:  thousands of refugees crossed into Tanzania and the subsequent war trials took place in Arusha.
In 1995 Benjamin Mkapa became president and soon had to deal with the results of global politics: in 1998 Tanzania was the scene of one of the year’s major terrorist incidents when a large truck bomb exploded outside the US embassy in Dar es Salaam killing 10 people. Many hundreds were killed when a second bomb went off at the same time in Nairobi. Jakaya Kikwete took over the presidential reins in 2005 and remains in power today.

Read more about Tanzania’s destinations, parks & reserves or adventure activities, or browse our selection of recommended Tanzania overland tours.