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The partition of East Africa (1856-1891)

Whilst the explorers unveiled the African misteries, each with their wishes and goals, searching for fame, money, immortality or simply pursuing a dream, politicians, militaries and businessmen would not stand still. The wealth of the new-old-world were coveted by the world's owners, who soon started to take their shares.

We had left the new sultan, Seyyid Majid, taking possession of the crown of the new independent sultanate of Zanzibar in 1856. Conversely to his father, who had been a key element in the east coast's history and development, Majid was a dull king, less interested in the State's affairs than in the personal benefits his position provided. He suffered an attempt of coup from his brother Seyyid Bargash, which failed. But Bargash was saved from death by the English, who envisioned a possible alliance, and Bargash returned from a protected exile after Majid's death, in 1870, as the new sultan.

Bargash's reign presided important events for East Africa's history until his death in 1888. Britain's pressure pushed the sultan to extinguish forver the slave trade in Zanzibar. On the other hand, Bargash hired Thomson for seeking the coal beds at Rovuma river, and although furious for the failure he later denied his favours to the explorer, at least this expedition allowed Thomson to extend his African explorations before his great journey to the inland.

Same as his father, Bargash had to deal with the separatist uprisings from the Mazruis, who had been allowed to keep on living and ruling in Mombasa. Mbarak, in Gazi, gathered an army composed of 2,000 local men and Maasais to attack Vanga in 1882. The sultan received his allies' help and the Zanzibar navy, commanded by the British officer Lloyd Matthews, took Mbarak's fortress. To his surprise, Mbarak was released and allowed to return to Gazi, where he remained without further revolts.

But above all, Bargash was bound to ratify the partition of Africa between the European powers. Though his father, Seyyid Said, had cleared the way to the English by means of his alliances, yet there was no formal British Protectorate. England proceeded cautiously, rejecting the early particular initiatives from some businessmen who wished to exploit the region's economic potential. William MacKinnon, who owned a steamers line covering the route to India, convinced the sultan to lease him all his continental territories, but the proposal failed to gain official support from England right from the start. Neither was accepted another endeavour by H.H. Johnston, who came to terms with the local chiefs in Taveta to cultivate coffee and wheat. Due to the lack of support, this entrepreneur would leave his colony in 1884.

Other European countries started to claim their piece of the African cake. Initially, Germany was not interested in establishing colonies in regions of the world so far away from Berlin. Chancellor Bismarck had already rejected an annexation request from Fiji Islands in 1872. Same as in the English case, it was businessmen who caressed the dream of exploting Africa's wealth. On the other hand, France was starting to colonize the northwestern arch, from Algeria to Senegal. Their presence extended southwards to Gabon, where they expelled the British traders.

But not all invaders were Europeans. Jedive Ismael, governor of Egypt and Sudan under the control of the Turkish Empire, wished to extend his domination southwards, to the Nile sources. The British Crown approved this operation, since the jedive was a good ally and this would mean an effective control of the river for England. For this endeavour, in 1869 the jedive hired Samuel Baker, the mercenary and discoverer of Lake Albert, who nonetheless failed in his attempt to subdue the kingdoms of Equatoria, the Ugandan region north of the lakes. For his second bid, in 1874 the jedive hired Charles George Gordon, a soldier and also British mercenary. Gordon gave the post of governor for Equatoria to a German Jew called Edward Schnitzer, who converted to Islam, took the province of Equatoria in command of a Sudanese troop and changed his name to Emin Pasha. A revolt by the Islamic fundamentalist leader El Mahdi in Khartoum in 1885, which ended with Gordon's head rolling down the floor, isolated Equatoria from Egypt, a circumstance that Pasha took advantage of to declare the province's independence. Later on, in 1889, Emin Pasha would be "rescued" against his will by Stanley, leaving his Sudanese soldiers behind.

Germany's entry in the game was not a State strategy, but the particular initiative of Karl Peters (1856-1918), a man with an imperialist spirit who, lacking Berlin's support, founded the Society for German Colonization and in 1884 ventured into East Africa to sign agreements with the local chiefs. The treaties transferred the Usagara territories to Chancellor Bismarck's empire. One year later, Berlin recognised his merits and claimed its rights over part of what today is Tanzania.

The sultan's complaints for the German claim were ignored by the British, still reluctant to found a stable colony in East Africa. The new situation drove in 1885 to a new international agreement signed by England, Germany and France. The treaty gave the sultan the isles of Zanzibar, Pemba, Mafia and Lamu, in addition to a continental strip 700 miles long per 10 miles wide, excluding Dar es Salaam and Witu. In the latter town, Ahmed Simbad Nabhni, a rebel member of the ruling clan in Pate, had declared an independent sultanate under German protection, after destroying Bargash's fortress in Siyu and escaping to the continent.

The initial agreement was successively modified by clauses that progressively retired the sultan the sovereignty of his territories. In 1886 the boundary line between Kenya and Tanzania was drawn in the map: an imaginary line from the mouth of the Umba river to Lake Victoria, defining two spheres of influence, British north of the line and German south of it. The British had at last listened to the suggestions from businessmen MacKinnon and Johnston, and this was the green light for commercial exploitation of East Africa, initially on private hands.

In 1887 William Mackinnon founded the British East Africa Association, devoted to trade in the continent, while the Germans formed the Witu German Company in rebel Nabhni's feud. The sultan remained loyal to his allies and granted the customs rights in his territories to the English, receiving in turn an annual compensation. However, disputes soon arouse between the different parts. Italy, claiming an area of influence in Ethiopia and Somalia, also came into the debate.

The English Crown granted royal protection to the East African company, which in 1888 became the Imperial British East Africa Company. With this support, IBEAC also gained the northern ports, on Italian hands.

The same year, a new adjustment of the agreements resulted in the definitive cession by the sultan of his continental strip, exception made of the Somali coastal cities. The south shoreline was given to Germany in exchange for a monetary compensation, while the north coast, including Zanzibar and the territories north of the Tana river, fell under British control. France received the island of Madagascar.

As his imperial dream in the coast was frustrated, Karl Peters set his eyes on the inner regions close to Lake Victoria, which were still out of the agreements. Peters travelled to Uganda to achieve the annexation of the kingdoms and thus strangle the British dominions in the north coast. After a quick and bloody journey, he gained favours from Mwanga II in Buganda and obtained a protection agreement with the king of Wanga in East Kenya. In reply, MacKinnon's company commissioned an India veteran, colonel Frederick Dealtry Lugard (1858-1945), to travel to Uganda in 1890, while he resumed conversations with Chancellor Bismarck aimed at clarifying the border issue in Uganda. Lugard travelled to Buganda and obliged Mwanga to sign a protection treaty that included free trade and abolition of slave trade.

When Peters returned triumphant to Bagamoyo in 1890, it was to discover that Bismarck had recognised the British authority over Uganda and Witu, in exchange for Heligoland island, in the North Sea. Germany retained the coast of Tanganyika and a strip near the lake of the same name. In 1891, Berlin took direct control over its possessions in Africa, replacing the German Company for East Africa. The Germans retired from Witu, rebel Nabhni was executed and the city devastated in 1893 by the sultan's army. In the new colony of Deutsch-Ostafrika started a period of brutal repression, destined to "pacify" the territory, which would extend to the end of the bloody indigenous revolt of Maji-Maji, in 1907.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, Lugard carried on with his pacification and occupation task. In need of reinforcements, he decided to recruit the eight hundred Sudanese soldiers who remained in Equatoria after Emin Pasha's rescue by Stanley. In 1891 he started off and along the way he seized the rest of Uganda's kingdoms, except Bunyoro. Back in Buganda with the Sudanese troop in 1893, he found that the growing rivalries between the 'Fransa', Catholics converted by the French, and the 'Ingleza', Anglicans evangelized by the English, had exploded in a civil war. As expected, Lugard lent support to the 'Ingleza' against the 'Fransa', who were allied with Mwanga, and defeated them in a single battle. The colonel kept Mwanga on the royal throne and unified all Buganda's kingdoms, save Bunyoro, under British control of the local administrations.


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Cradle of Mankind
First migrations
Swahili coast
Portuguese empire
Omani domination
Mountains of the Moon
Inland peoples
Kenya exploration
Partition of East Africa
Protectorates & Lunatic Express
Settlers, hunters & sportsmen
African nationalism
Mau-Mau & end of the Colony
Uhuru, Jamhuri, Harambee
End of a century
Moi's decline & Constitution