HIS312 logo

East Africa in the 19th Century

by Jim Jones (Copyright 2014, All Rights Reserved)
Go to the syllabus or the readings on South Africa in the 19th century and the Fashoda incident.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Rise of Zanzibar
  3. Karl Peters and the Germans
  4. The Conquest of Buganda
  5. The Survival of Ethiopia
  6. The Diplomatic Results


As you read this essay, keep in mind that there were several hundred distinct African groups living in East Africa in the 19th century, and that most of their histories are only available through oral traditions collected later by European or African scholars. The exceptions were Ethiopia, which produced its own literature for centuries, and Swahili coastal cities which were inhabited by Muslims who produced records in Arabic.

In the early 19th century, the East African coast was theoretically under the control of the Ottoman Empire through the Sultan of Oman, whose capital was in the city of Muscat on the southern coast of the Arabian peninsula. The East African interior was divided into a number of local states which included the Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, the animist kingdom of Buganda and many smaller states. The Zulu Mfecane created a number of new states towards the south in the area that is now Tanzania and Malawi, while Mehemet Ali's modernization led to the expansion of Egyptian administration into the Upper Nile River (modern Sudan).

Although struggles within the Muslim world and local political disputes also played a role, European industrialization and overseas trade combined to undermine the stability of the region during the 19th century. First, ocean voyages around Africa meant that Europeans sailed along the East African coast, and they brought concerns about the security of their ships and sailors. Second, the end of the slave trade along the West African coast shifted slave traders to the East Coast, encouraging the expansion of existing slave markets. Third, industrialization created the demand for tropical products like rubber and ivory, and East Africa's plains and forests were a particularly good place to find elephant ivory.


One of the major changes on the East African coast in the 19th century was the decline in the power of the Ottoman Empire. After two centuries of Portuguese control beginning in the early 16th century, Muslims reasserted their authority along the Swahili Coast as far south as Cape Delgado (just below the border between Tanzania and Mozambique). Omani influence ebbed and waned until Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman, subdued his enemies on the East Africa coast in the first half of the 19th century. He attracted the interest of the British, who were sailing regularly to India by then, and in 1840 they assisted Said to move his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar, an island off the coast of modern Tanzania. Within a few years, the USA, Germany, France and Britain all opened diplomatic missions on Zanzibar.

Zanzibar had been part of Muslim trading networks in the Indian Ocean for more than eight hundred years. Under Said, its economy became based on the exploitation of clove plantations that used African slave labor to produce spices for export to India and Europe. Slaves brought to the coast were also used to carry ivory, and through the second and third quarters of the 19th century, Zanzibari traders established posts as far inland as Tabora in western Tanzania.

European powers, especially Britain, recognized Seyyid Said as the "Sultan of Oman and the East African Dominions." After Said died in 1856, his domains were divided between two sons, Majid (half-Ethiopian) in Zanzibar and Thwain (half-Georgian) in Oman. Britain's Viceroy in India, Lord Canning, promptly recognized the division, making permanent the division of Oman and Zanzibar. Majid ruled from 1856 to 1870, when he was succeeded by his brother Barghash (1870-1888). During Barghash's reign, British influence increased in Zanzibar. Sir William Mackinnon, a Scottish shipbuilder, organized the first regular mail service between Britain, India and Zanzibar in 1872. The following year, the British made Sir John Kirk the permanent Consul-General to Zanzibar and he convinced Barghash to sign a document abolishing the slave trade. He almost convinced Barghash to accept a British protectorate in 1877, but by then two German shipping firms had begun to operate in the region and Barghash began to play them off against the British.

map showing East African locations in this article
East African locations mentioned on this page


In fall 1884, a German explorer named Karl Peters, traveled inland from Zanzibar and spent the next several months collecting signatures on treaties from local African chiefs. His travels took him to the area around Lake Victoria-Nyanza, at the western edge of the territory claimed by the Sultan of Zanzibar. Peters was only 28 years old, the son of a Lutheran pastor, and a university graduate who had spent some time in London where he became enthused by the progress of British imperialism. When he went to East Africa, he presented himself as the representative of something he called the "Society for German Colonialism" (Deutsche Kolonialverein).

Although he had no official position or government backing, he returned to Germany at a fortunate moment. His return in February 1885 was just before the end of the Congress of Berlin, and his "treaties" gave German Prime Minister Bismarck the basis for a German claim onr African territory. The German government awarded Peters a charter for the "German East African Company" and he went on to achieve fame as a lecturer and promoter of African colonization. His GEAC did not do as well, and the government had to take it over in 1888 after local revolts destroyed much of its equipment.

This excerpt from Peters' 1885 correspondence gives an idea of his personality and attitude towards Africa:

"As the [Society] wanted to found independent German colonies under the German flag, its activity naturally was limited to those areas which at that time had not yet been taken. In fact, only Africa was suitable ... Already in November 1884 this task basically had been fulfilled by the expedition sent via Zanzibar. On December 14th 1884 I found myself, as representative of the Society for German Colonization, as the rightful owner of 2500 square miles of very lush tropical land, located to the west of Zanzibar. Now the task was to gain the German government's recognition for the new acquisitions. This was achieved in short negotiations, and already on February 27th 1885 our society had been granted the Imperial charter by his Imperial Majesty."

Source: Kolonial-Politische Korrespondenz (Colonial-Political Correspondence). 1st Year, Berlin, 16. Mai 1885, available at www.zum.de/psm/imperialismus/peters1e.php

Note that in Peters' mind, land that was under African or Zanzibari authority was "not yet taken" and that as a result of his treaties, he considered himself "the rightful owner of 2500 square miles," an area half as large as Connecticut.

Peters continued to promote German interests in East Africa, and even led an expedition to Buganda in 1888 to search for "Emin Pasha," one of the many Europeans who were forced to flee the Upper Nile Valley following the rise of the Mahdi. Although Peters did not find him, he concluded a treaty with the leader of Buganda, then left the area in a hurry when a much stronger British force arrived. Later, he served as the German high commissioner for East Africa, was convicted of brutality towards Africans and relieved of his post. He continued to work in East Africa in the early 20th century and obtained a reputation as a racist for some of his writings.

European Travel Accounts from East Africa
Author Date Author Date
J.L. Krapf 1860 V.L. Cameron 1877
Richard F. Burton 1860 J.F. Elton 1879
J.H. Speke 1863 H.M. Stanley 1880
J.H. Speke 1864 Joseph Thomson 1881
Otto Kersten 1869-71 H.H. Johnston 1886
Richard F. Burton 1872 Jerome Becker 1887
H.M. Stanley 1872 O. Baumann 1891
David Livingstone 1874 Carl Velden 1901


Karl Peters' travels in East Africa instilled fear in British imperialists, especially since his claims straddled the proposed Cape-to-Cairo overland route. But European interest in East Africa was already strong thanks to the writings of missionaries like David Livingstone and explorers like Richard Burton and William Speke. For the British especially, the East African interior seemed critical because it contained the elusive "source of the Nile" on which Egypt's economic well-being and stability depended.

As European explorers ventured into the "great lakes" region of East Africa (where Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya meet), they encountered an African state that was unlike any other. Buganda was situated in a region of great fertility and was so densely populated that its leaders exercised control through title to land rather than lineages. That gave Buganda a political structure that reminded Europeans of their own feudal period, with a hereditary king (called the kabaka) and a landed nobility that served as a counterweight to the monarchy. For missionaries seeking a point of departure for the "civilizing" of African, Bugandan society seemed to offer an advanced place from which to proceed. Europeans with commercial priorities also noticed that Buganda offered plentiful supplies of ivory and tropical crops. Finally, Buganda contained the source of the Nile River, so it possessed strategic importance to Europeans preoccupied with Egyptian stability and the Suez Canal.

By the 1880s however, Buganda was in a state of turmoil as a result of foreign influences. Muslims began to arrive from the coast in the 1860s and in 1868, Kabaka Mutesa converted to Islam. This alienated Bugandan nobles whose land claims were based on traditional religious beliefs, so after H. M. Stanley visited Buganda in 1876, Kabaka Mutesa issued an invitation to Christian missionaries and the first representatives of the Anglican Church Missionary Society arrived a year later. In 1879, the first French Catholic missionaries reached Buganda and made converts, creating three competing factions--Swahili Muslim, British Anglican and French Catholic. After Kabaka Mutesa died in 1884, this precarious balance disintegrated. His successor Kabaka Mwanga feared that the missionaries would bring in other Europeans, so he had an Anglican missionary named James Hannington assassinated in November 1885 and executed 30 Catholic Bugandans when they refused to give up their new religion. As the country divided into Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and animist factions, civil war ensued.

The death of a missionary stirred passions in Britain, and in 1890, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) sent a military unit under the command of Captain Frederick Lugard to Buganda. Lugard's army supported the Protestant faction, which defeated the Catholics in February 1892. The result was a treaty that divided Buganda along religious lines, but Lugard's success also extended the authority of the IBEAC and limited the effect of new treaties collected by Karl Peters about the same time.

In late 1890, the IBEAC's director Mackinnon asked the British government to guarantee the interest on a loan to finance the construction of a railway from Mombasa (on the Kenyan coast) to Lake Victoria. After the proposal failed in July 1891, the IBEAC threatened to withdraw from Buganda. Some members of the government encouraged withdrawal, because they feared that with Lugard in control, the company would entangle the British government in another action like the Gordon incident in the Upper Nile Valley. To prevent the IBEAC's retreat, English missionary groups roused public opinion by claiming a British withdrawal would lead to the death of more Christians, while the directors of the IBEAC rallied support from assorted Chambers of Commerce and trading organizations. They were assisted by a new Foreign Secretary (Roseberry) who supported continued British intervention as a way to show his independence from the previous generation of British politicians like William Gladstone, who had criticized his predecessor's purchase of the Egyptian Suez Canal shares. In the end, the interventionists won and Uganda became a formal British protectorate in 1894.


Like Buganda, Ethiopia was a centralized state located inland from the Muslim-controlled East African coast. Unlike Buganda, it occupied a fairly poor area that was best suited to animal grazing rather than farming. Fortunately, Ethiopia was very mountainous and that enabled the Ethiopians to survive numerous invasions in the past. In the 19th century, Ethiopia's leaders were able to create the basis for survival during the European conquest by cultivating a sense of nationalism and using Ethiopia's strategic trading position between the coast and the Upper Nile Valley. A noble named Theodore (Tewodros) founded the modern Ethiopian state in 1855 by confiscating lands owned by the Ethiopian Christian church to finance the purchase of modern weapons and construction of roads to connect the capital at Addis Ababa to the rest of the country.

Although Tewodros' actions produced some internal resistance, the most damaging result was European fear. The British sought the right to assign a British consul to Addis Ababa, so Theodore responded with his own demand for technical assistance in exchange. When the British refused, Theodore took their consul hostage, so the British sent a force of some 30,000 in 1868 and defeated a much smaller Ethiopian army at the battle of Magdala.

Theodore's government disintegrated and chaos ensued until the two main rivals for the throne, Yohannes IV and Menelik II, reached an agreement in 1872. Yohannes became the new king with the understanding that Menelik would succeed him, and Yohannes restored the privileges of the church and nobles. The reunited Ethiopian army stopped an Egyptian invasion in 1875-1876 and defeated the Italians at Dogali (near the Red Sea coast) in 1887, but they were unable to stop the Italians from occupying the port of Massawa in 1885 or Mahdist forces from invading and killing Yohannes in 1889. But Menelik II took the throne peacefully and Ethiopia remained independent, despite increasing European interest in the area. Not only did the Italians occupy part of the Red Sea Coast (modern Eritrea), but the British declared a protectorate along the northern Somali coast facing the Gulf of Aden on July 20, 1887. Meanwhile the French established a protectorate at Djibouti on the main caravan route between the coast and Addis Ababa in 1887. In February 1888, the French and British agreed to divide their spheres of influence along the coast and agreed not to compete for Harrar (located inland from Djibouti).

Meanwhile, Menelik continued to strengthen Ethiopia using the proceeds from the slave trade between the Upper Nile Valley and the Red Sea. That slave route boomed to meet the demand in the Ottoman Empire after the Russian conquest of the Caucasus eliminated one source and the 1847 Anglo-Zanzibari treaty reduced the trade from farther south. Under Menelik, Ethiopians charged tolls on slave caravans rather than buying or selling slaves themselves. Menelik used the income to buy military equipment and hire technical advisors that turned Ethiopia into a modern military power. In 1891 Ethiopia was able to conquer the region to the southwest between Addis Ababa and Lake Victoria as well as the Ogaden Desert to the east. Menelik II also introduced a permanent bureaucratic administration into the territories they occupied using both local leaders and military garrisons.

As a result of Menelik's maneuvering, Europeans extended diplomatic recognition to independent Ethiopia. Menelik recognized Italian control of Eritrea in exchange for Italy's recognition of Ethiopian independence in the Treaty of Wichali on May 5, 1889. Menelik used Italian recognition plus several border agreements to obtain French and British recognition. The three major European powers eventually confirmed Ethiopian independence with the Tripartite Pace signed on July 4, 1906. Before that occurred, however, Italy and Ethiopia fought a major battle at Adowa in 1896 following an argument about the meaning of the Treaty of Wichali. (The Italians insisted that Menelik had to consult with them before contacting other European powers, while Menelik believed that since Ethiopia was independent, no such consultation was needed.) The Italians invaded in 1895, but on March 1, 1896, an Ethiopian army that numbered nearly 100,000 wiped out a smaller but better equipped Italian army at Adowa.

The victory at Adowa confirmed Ethiopian independence in the eyes of other Europeans. Menelik continued to obtain European investment capital and technicians to help rebuild the capital at Addis Ababa, construct a railroad from Djibouti to the capital in 1894, and introduce postal, telegraph and telephone service by the early 20th century. He also introduced other reforms included banking, health care, and education, although most Ethiopians remained largely unaffected by Menelik's modernization.


In November 1885 Germany, Britain and France agreed to a boundary commission to determine the limits of the Sultan of Zanzibar's domain. In October 1886 the commission announced its findings. Although East Africa remained nominally under the control of the Sultan, who exercised direct authority over the islands and a ten-mile wide coastal strip, Britain and Germany divided up the interior. The British authorized the British East India Company to assume control over Kenya and Uganda until a new chartered company, the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC), took over in 1888 under the direction of Sir William Mackinnon and a board that included James Hutton, a prominent Manchester merchant. Although strategic concerns certainly motivated the British to form their East African protectorate, scholars believe that Manchester merchants and their supporters convinced the government to stake its claim before other powers could do so.

The profits were slow to appear. The IBEAC needed capital to build a railroad and develop plantations in Kenya, as well as settlers to provide labor. Neither appeared in quantity and the IBEAC nearly went bankrupt in the 1890s. Fewer than one dozen European families had settled in Kenya by 1902. The German companies had no more success in German East Africa, and after the initial land grab in 1885-1886, disillusionment set in. However, every attempt to relinquish control over a colony ran into opposition from some interest group--missionaries, merchants or patriots--which refused to sanction the loss of territory, no matter how impractical it was to hang on to it.

In 1890, European nations passed a number of agreements that tidied up the borders between the lands they acquired in 1884-1886. In East Africa, the most important was the Anglo-German Colonial Agreement (aka "The Heligoland Treaty") of July 1, 1890 which recognized a British protectorate over Zanzibar in exchange for recognition of German claims to land in Togo, Cameroon, the Caprivi Strip (granting access from Southwest Africa to the Zambezi River), and the North Sea island of Heligoland, which had been held by the British since the Napoleonic Wars. Other treaties secured French recognition for Britain's protectorate over Zanzibar in exchange for British recognition of the French protectorate over Madagascar. Portugal received recognition for its claims in East Africa by recognizing the British claims in Nyasaland and Mashonaland.

Thus, by 1890, Europeans had established their claims to all of Africa's coastal land except for Morocco (independent) and Liberia (independent under USA protection). Ethiopia remained independent in the East African interior, as did the two Boer Republics and a few African states in South Africa, but the major European powers were threatening them all as they worked to divide up whatever was left of Africa. The French still faced opposition in West Africa from Samory Toure‚ and in the Lake Chad region from Rabah, while no European could safely claim dominion over the central Sahara Desert, where various nomadic groups still controlled the land routes.

The last remaining prizes were the Congo basin, recognized at the Congress of Berlin as the "Congo Free State" under the authority of an international association headed by King Leopold II of Belgium, and the Upper Nile River Valley, which had been in a state of rebellion against the Egyptian government since the 1880s.

Go to the syllabus or the readings on South Africa in the 19th century and the Fashoda incident.