Sheikhs and Sultans of the Swahili ‘City-states’ – Stanley’s Experience in Tabora, Tanzania

As a newspaper journalist of the late Nineteenth Century, Henry M. Stanley wrote about his East African adventures in highly romantic terms that were geared to charm his readers. His travels were over a decade after those of Burton and Speke, and yet he mentions the Arab shaykhs still in East Africa who had befriended the two former travellers, discussed in this blog.

His route from Zanzibar to Lake Tanganyika followed the east-west caravan trails of the time, along which were located the major ‘city states’ that were governed by Arab and Swahili commercants. These arab shaykhs governed for many years and when deceased or killed, their place was taken by others from the coast or from their own families. They were nominally subjects of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

Arab-Swahili settlements along the major route to Lake Tanganyika, shown in red

All of the major explorers in East Africa of these times – Burton, Speke, Baker, Stanley, and Livingstone – not only mention these shaykhs, but it is possible to follow the demise of some of them over the years through the records of the various explorers. A couple of examples of shaykhs of these ‘city states’ have formerly appeared in two blogs: Stanley, being entertained and Burton, on foods of the area.

Below are passages from Stanley, about several of the Sheikhs with whom he dealt and who also were known to, and written about, by Speke and Burton.

Stanley depicts here the romantic vision of an explorer in Africa. The boy is his gun bearer, and I believe had been a slave who was given to Stanley by one of the inland shaykhs. Source: Smithsonian Inst. Africana Collection

There have been  criticisms of explorers of the 19th Century for not giving adequate recognition to the role played by either Arab or indigenous leaders in their explorations. While they were often blatant racists and staunch adherents to social Darwinism, explorers of the time did recognize and often detailed the roles not only of local leaders, but also of members of their safaris.

… On this day the lofty tent, and the American flag which ever flew from the centre pole, attracted the Sultan of Mizanza towards it, and was the cause of a visit with which he honoured me. As he was notorious among the Arabs for having assisted Manwa Sera in his war against Sheikh Sny bin Amer, high eulogies upon whom have been written by Burton, and subsequently by Speke, and as he was the second most powerful chief in Ugogo, of course he was quite a curiosity to me.

As the tent-door was uplifted that he might enter, the ancient gentleman was so struck with astonishment at the lofty apex, and internal arrangements, that the greasy Barsati cloth which formed his sole and only protection against the chills of night and the heat of noon, in a fit of abstraction was permitted to fall down to his feet, exposing to the Musungu’s unhallowed gaze the sad and aged wreck of what must once have been a towering form.

His son, a youth of about fifteen, attentive to the infirmities of his father, hastened with filial duty to remind him of his condition, upon which, with an idiotic titter at the incident, he resumed his scanty apparel and sat down to wonder and gibber out his admiration at the tent and the strange things which formed the Musungu’s personal baggage and furniture…

… At the Wangwana village we met Amer bin Sultan, the very type of an old Arab sheikh, such as we read of in books, with a snowy beard, and a clean reverend face, who was returning to Zanzibar after a ten years’ residence in Unyanyembe. He presented me with a goat; and a goatskin full of rice; a most acceptable gift in a place where a goat costs five cloths.

After a day’s halt at Rubuga, during which I despatched soldiers to notify Sheikh Sayd bin Salim and Sheikh bin Nasib, the two chief dignitaries of Unyanyembe, of my coming, on the 21st of June we resumed the march for Kigwa, distant five hours. The road ran through another forest similar to that which separated Tura from Rubuga, the country rapidly sloping as we proceeded westward. Kigwa we found to have been visited by the same vengeance which rendered Rubuga such a waste…

… I received a noiseless ovation as I walked side by side with the governor, Sayd bin Salim, towards his tembe in Kwikuru, or the capital. The Wanyamwezi pagazis were out by hundreds, the warriors of Mkasiwa, the sultan, hovered around their chief, the children were seen between the legs of their parents, even infants, a few months old, slung over their mothers’ backs, all paid the tribute due to my colour, with one grand concentrated stare. The only persons who talked with me were the Arabs, and aged Mkasiwa, ruler of Unyanyembe.

Sayd bin Salim’s house was at the north-western corner of the inclosure, a stockaded boma of Kwikuru. We had tea made in a silver tea-pot, and a bountiful supply of “dampers” were smoking under a silver cover; and to this repast I was invited. When a man has walked eight miles or so without any breakfast, and a hot tropical sun has been shining on him for three or four hours, he is apt to do justice to a meal, especially if his appetite is healthy.

I think I astonished the governor by the dexterous way in which I managed to consume eleven cups of his aromatic concoction of an Assam herb, and the easy effortless style with which I demolished his high tower of “slap jacks,” that but aminute or so smoked hotly under their silver cover.

For the meal, I thanked the Sheikh, as only an earnest and sincerely hungry man, now satisfied, could thank him. Even if I had not spoken, my gratified looks had well informed him, under what obligations I had been laid to him ,,.

… “Thank you, sheikh. I should like to go and look after my people; they must all be wanting food.”
“I shall go with you to show you your house. The tembe is in Kwihara, only an hour’s walk from Tabora.”
On leaving Kwikuru we crossed a low ridge, and soon saw Kwihara lying between two low ranges of hills, the northernmost of which was terminated westward by the round fortress-like hill of Zimbili. There was a cold glare of intense sunshine over the valley, probably the effect of an universal bleakness or an autumnal ripeness of the grass, unrelieved by any depth of colour to vary the universal sameness.

The hills were bleached, or seemed to be, under that dazzling sunshine, and clearest atmosphere. The corn had long been cut, and there lay the stubble, and fields,–a browny- white expanse; the houses were of mud, and their fiat roofs were of mud, and the mud was of a browny-whiteness; the huts were thatched, and the stockades around them of barked timber, and these were of a browny whiteness.

The cold, fierce, sickly wind from the mountains of Usagara sent a deadly chill to our very marrows, yet the intense
sunshiny glare never changed, a black cow or two, or a tall tree here and there, caught the eye for a moment, but they never made one forget that the first impression of Kwihara was as of a picture without colour, or of food without taste; and if one looked up, there was a sky of a pale blue, spotless, and of an awful serenity.

As I approached the tembe of Sayd bin Salim, Sheikh bin Nasib and other great Arabs joined us. Before the great door of the tembe the men had stacked the bales, and piled the boxes, and were using their tongues at a furious rate, relating to the chiefs and soldiers of the first, second, and fourth caravans the many events which had befallen them, and which seemed to them the only things worth relating.

Outside of their own limited circles they evidently cared for nothing. Then the several chiefs of the other caravans had in turn to relate their experiences of the road; and the noise of tongues was loud and furious. But as we approached, all this loud-sounding gabble ceased, and my caravan chiefs and guides rushed to me to hail me as “master,” and to salute me as their friend. One fellow, faithful Baruti, threw himself at my feet, the others fired their guns and acted like madmen suddenly become frenzied, and a general cry of “welcome” was heard on all sides.

“Walk in, master, this is your house, now; here are your men’s quarters; here you will receive the great Arabs, here is the cook-house; here is the store-house; here is the prison for the refractory; here are your white man’s apartments; and these are your own: see, here is the bedroom, here is the gun-room, bath-room, &c.;” so Sheikh Sayd talked, as he showed me the several places.

[Note by Diana: the translation of ‘sayyid’ – or ‘bwana’ in some places, as ‘master’ is a figment of colonial superiority.  In daily talk it generally means “mister”.]

On my honour, it was a most comfortable place, this, in Central Africa. One could almost wax poetic, but we will keep such ambitious ideas for a future day. Just now, however, we must have the goods stored, and the little army of carriers paid off and disbanded…

… The Arabs who now stood before the front door of my tembe were the donors of the good things received the day before. As in duty bound, of course, I greeted Sheikh Sayd first, then Sheikh bin Nasib, his Highness of Zanzibar’s consul at Karagwa, then I greeted the noblest Trojan amongst the Arab population, noblest in bearing, noblest in courage and manly worth–Sheikh Khamis bin Abdullah; then young Amram bin Mussoud, who is now making war on the king of Urori and his fractious people; then handsome, courageous Soud, the son of Sayd bin Majid; then dandified Thani bin Abdullah; then Mussoud bin Abdullah and his cousin Abdullah bin Mussoud, who own the houses where formerly lived Burton and Speke; then old Suliman Dowa, Sayd bin Sayf, and the old Hetman of Tabora–Sheikh Sultan bin Ali.

As the visit of these magnates, under whose loving protection white travellers must needs submit themselves, was only a formal one, such as Arab etiquette, ever of the stateliest and truest, impelled them to, it is unnecessary to relate the discourse on my health, and their wealth, my thanks, and their professions of loyalty, and attachment to me.

After having expended our mutual stock of congratulations and nonsense, they departed, having stated their wish that I should visit them at Tabora and partake of a feast which they were about to prepare for me.

Three days afterwards I sallied out of my tembe, escorted by eighteen bravely dressed men of my escort, to pay Tabora avisit. On surmounting the saddle over which the road from the valley of Kwihara leads to Tabora, the plain on which the Arab settlement is situated lay before us, one expanse of dun pasture land, stretching from the base bf the hill on our left as far as the banks of the northern Gombe, which a few miles beyond Tabora heave into purple-coloured hills and blue cones.

Within three-quarters of an hour we were seated on the mud veranda of the tembe of Sultan bin Ali, who, because of his age, his wealth, and position–being a colonel in Seyd Burghash’s unlovely army–is looked upon by his countrymen, high and low, as referee and counsellor. His boma or enclosure contains quite a village of hive-shaped huts and square tembes. From here, after being presented with a cup of Mocha coffee, and some sherbet, we directed our steps towards Khamis bin Abdullah’s house, who had, in anticipation of my coming, prepared a feast to which he had invited his friends and neighbours. The group of stately Arabs in their long white dresses, and jaunty caps, also of a snowy white, who stood ready to welcome me to Tabora, produced quite an effect on my mind.

Tabora in 1907.  Source - Wiki.

Tabora in 1907. Source – Wiki.

Tabora today

[Note by Diana: Tabora remained an Arab stronghold and center for both slaving and ivory activities into the Twentieth Century; it is now a sizable town, still with a sizable Arab/Swahili population.]

I was in time for a council of war they were holding–and I was,requested to attend. Khamis bin Abdullah, a bold and brave man, ever ready to stand up for the privileges of the Arabs, and their rights to pass through any countries for legitimate trade, is the man who, in Speke’s `Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile,’ is reported to have shot Maula, an old chief who sided with Manwa Sera during the wars of 1860; and who subsequently, after chasing his relentless enemy for five years through Ugogo and Unyamwezi as far as Ukonongo, had the satisfaction of beheading him, was now urging the Arabs to assert their rights against a chief called Mirambo of Uyoweh, in a crisis which was advancing.

This Mirambo of Uyoweh, it seems, had for the last few years been in a state of chronic discontent with the policies of the
neighbouring chiefs. Formerly a pagazi for an Arab, he had now assumed regal power, with the usual knack of unconscionable rascals who care not by what means they step into power. When the chief of Uyoweh died, Mirambo, who was head of a gang of robbers infesting the forests of Wilyankuru, suddenly entered Uyoweh, and constituted himself lord paramount by force. Some feats of enterprise, which he performed to the enrichment of all those who recognised his authority, established him firmly in his position.

This was but a beginning; he carried war through Ugara to Ukonongo, through Usagozi to the borders of Uvinza, and after destroying the populations over three degrees of latitude, he conceived a grievance against Mkasiwa, and against the Arabs, because they would not sustain him in his ambitious projects against their ally and friend, with whom they were living in peace.

A forthcoming blog will detail some of Sir Richard Burton’s interactions with the same shaykhs who are discussed above by Stanley.

Source – Henry M. Stanley: How I Found Livingstone: Travels, Adventures and Discoveries in Central Africa including four months residence with Dr. Livingstone. 1874

In more recent times, with the colonization of the area first by the Germans and then by the British and the subsequent coming of missionaries, gospel music has become an important ingredient in the life of many Tabora residents.  This music generally tells a story about life and life’s events in the area – moral lessons are important. The following  video is of young people who are members of a Baptist church in Tabora that shows them singing about the hungry and others who are being aided or healed, and contains general views on local lifestyle.

And another, with a message about helping the hungry – Tabora kids –

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-Central, Africa-East, Colonialism, Culture, Explorers & exploration, Henry Stanley, Religion, Richard Burton, Tanzania and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Sheikhs and Sultans of the Swahili ‘City-states’ – Stanley’s Experience in Tabora, Tanzania

  1. Pingback: Sahelian City-States in the Western Sahel: Part 2 | DIANABUJA'S BLOG: Africa, The Middle East, Agriculture, History and Culture

  2. Pingback: City States in the Sahel: Pre-European Kingdoms of West Africa, Pt.1 « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. Pingback: Swahili city states: Pre-European ‘colonizers’ of East and Central Africa « Dianabuja's Blog

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