A small fishing village on the Tanzanian coast some 47-km north along the coast from Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo first gained commercial prominence and its multi-cultural nature during the late 18th- and early 19th centuries. The Omani Arabs and Indian merchants established Bagamoyo as a trade centre on Africa’s east coast. The Germans subsequently made their presence felt, establishing it as their commercial centre and the administrative capitol of German East Africa.
In addition to the Arab and German trading centre for ivory, ebony, copra and other natural resources, Bagamoyo served as the mainland terminus for the lucrative and brutal slave trade. At its peak, an estimated 50,000 slaves per year were taken from the African interior to Bagamoyo for transhipment to the slave markets and spice and clove plantations of Zanzibar.
Bwagamoyo— “to throw off melancholy”, while slaves lamented it as Bagamoyo, Kiswahili for “crush down your heart”.
Numerous sites and buildings dating back to these periods remain remnants of a troubled, yet rich, past, a history peopled by Africans, Arabs, Indians and Europeans.
Buildings in Bagamoyo’s Old Town with beautiful, handcarved wooden door frames of Arabian and Indian design– such as that of the Old Bagamoyo Tea House– offer glimpses of the town’s former splendour…and the relative luxury the traders’ were able to afford.
Remains of Bagamoyo’s past also include the Old Fort, the first stone structure built in the region. The fort was built by the Baluchi Indian A.S. Marhubi and was originally fortified by the Omani Arab Sultan Bargash. The Germans subsequently took control of it, using it to defend the East African coast during their tenure as 19th-century colonial rulers of German East Africa.
Other historical sites of interest are the German Boma, which was built in 1897 as the German colony’s central administrative office and the residence of the German Colonial Administrator. The Catholic Mission of Bagamoyo is a repository of documentary, as well as other types, of information regarding the town’s history.
The town of Bagamoyo, Tanzania, was founded at the end of the 18th century. It was (also spelled Bagamojo) the original capital of German East Africa and was one of the most important trading ports along the East African coast. Today the town has about 30,000 inhabitants and is the capital of the District of Bagamoyo, recently being considered as a world heritage site.
Bagamoyo was the most important trading entrepot of the east central coast of Africa in the late 19th century. Bagamoyo’s history has been influenced by Indian and Arab traders, by the German colonial government and by Christian missionaries.
About 5 km (3 mi) south of Bagamoyo, the Kaole Ruins with remnants of two mosques and a couple of tombs can be dated back to the 13th century, showing the importance of Islam in those early Bagamoyo times.
Kaole Ruins in Bagamoyo, Tanzania
Until the middle of the 18th century, Bagamoyo was a small and insignificant trading center where most of the population were fishermen and farmers. The main trading goods were fish, salt, and gum, among other things.
In the late 18th century Muslim families settled in Bagamoyo, all of which were relatives of Shamvi la Magimba in Oman. They made their living by enforcing taxes on the native population and by trading in salt, gathered from the Nunge coast north of Bagamoyo. In the first half of the 19th century, Bagamoyo became a trading port for ivory and the slave trade, with traders coming from the African interior, from places as far as Morogoro, Lake Tanganyika and Usambara on their way to Zanzibar. This explains the meaning of the word Bagamoyo (“Bwaga-Moyo”) which means “Lay down your Heart” in Swahili. It is disputed whether this refers to the slave trade which passed through the town (i.e. “give up all hope”) or to the porters who rested in Bagamoyo after carrying 35 lb cargos on their shoulders from the Great Lakes region (i.e. “take the load off and rest”). Since there is little evidence to support that Bagamoyo was a major slave port (Kilwa, much further south, has earned this statusand that tens of thousands of porters arrived at Bagamoyo annually in the latter half of the 19th century, it is more likely that the name of the town derives from the latter interpretation.
The slave trade in East Africa was officially prohibited in the year 1873, but continued surreptitiously well to the end of the 19th century.
The second church built by the missioners in Bagamoyo
In 1868, Bagamoyo local rulers, known as majumbe, presented the Catholic “Fathers of the Holy Ghost” with land for a mission north of the town, the first mission in East Africa. This caused resistance by the native Zaramo people which was mediated by representatives of Sultan Majid and, after 1870, by Sultan Barghash. Originally the mission was intended to house children who were rescued from slavery, but it soon expanded to a church, a school, and some workshops and farming projects.
But Bagamoyo was not only a trade centre for ivory and copra; it was also a starting point for renowned European explorers. From Bagamoyo they moved out to find the source of the River Nile and explored the African inner lakes. Some of these were Richard Francis Burton, John Hanning Speke, Henry Morton Stanley and James Augustus Grant. Although often believed so, David Livingstone had never been to Bagamoyo in his lifetime.
The Old Church at Bagamoyo, Tanzania
Only after his death he was laid out in the Old Church’s tower (nowadays named Livingston Tower) to wait for the high tide to come in and ship his body to Zanzibar.
Bagamoyo was the first capital of Tanzania while serving as the German headquarters of German East Africa (first under the auspices of the German East African Company and then the German Imperial Government) between 1886-1891. Dar es Salaam became the new capital of the colony in 1891. The town was apparently the (1895) birthplace of SS-Oberführer Julian Scherner. During World War I, on August 15, 1916, a British air attack and naval bombardment was launched on Bagamoyo, the Germans were overrun and the German garrison taken.
When the German Empire decided to build a railway from Dar es Salaam into the interior in 1905, Bagamoyo’s importance began to decline.