Today, I will talk about Mirambo, the man the explorer Henry Morton Stanley first referred to as a bandit, and later on as the Napoleon of Africa for his military prowess. Who was Mirambo?
Born Mbula Mtelya, Mirambo is the man who revolutionized nineteenth century Tanzania, and made it hard for the Germans to conquer the region: he united the numerous Nyamwezi tribes, and gained control over Swahili-Arab trade routes. Mirambo was the leader of the Nyamwezi people on a 200,000 km2 territory south of Lake Nyanza (Lake Victoria), and east of Lake Tanganyika. He was not a vulgar chief of brigands as the Arab traders made Stanley believe in 1871, but his links to different families of Ntemi (kings) were a little bit blurred as many historians had mixed up dynastic and genealogical lineages, different in a matrilineal system such as that of the Nyamwezis. In 1858, Mirambo managed to inherit the chiefdom of Uyowa from his father, Kasanda, who was a renowned warrior; he was only 18 years old. In 1860, he joined two chiefdoms located 100 km west of Tabora, in the kingdom of Unyanyembe. He learned the Ngoni language (Ngoni people trace their origin to the Zulu people of KwaZulu Natal), as well as their military techniques. Later in 1860, he conquered the neighboring territory of Ulyankuru.
He then moved his capital to Iseramagazi where he built a Boma, a fortified residence, with walls made up of dry bricks, retrenchments and hedges of euphorbia flowers. From his father and mother, he was a descendent of Mshimba (lion), the last ruler of the legendary kingdom of Usagali, and Mirambo was thus recreating the old empire. Thus in 1860, he created a new Nyamwezi state, the Urambo, from the name he had adopted for himself, ‘corpses‘ in kinyamwezi, Mirambo. From 1860 to 1870, he strengthened his authority along the banks of the river Gombe, i.e. on the road to Ujiji, thereby threatening to block the Arab commerce in the area. In 1871, he defeated the Arab traders at Tabora. The Sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash bin Said, retaliated by sending 3000 soldiers (2000 Swahili, and 1000 Balutchi). Mirambo’s resistance was one of the most fierce: Nyamwezi’s fighters would go as far as melting their copper bracelets to make bullets for their guns. A compromise was made to keep commerce flowing with the coast: caravans could pass after paying a tax (hongo) to Mirambo.
Every year, during the dry season, Mirambo would dispatch his ruga-ruga in all directions to continue the expansion of his territory. From 1876 to 1878, the territory was expanded to the north, up to the southern banks of Lake Victoria. From 1879 to 1881, expansion to the west toward Uvinza, for the control of Lake Tanganyika. The Muhambwe of King Ruhaga fell under Nyamwezi domination, and the Ruguru of King Ntare had to seek protection from Mirambo and agree to the presence of a ruga-ruga post on the eastern border of his kingdom. In 1879, there was also the expansion towards Burundi. His alliance with the Ngoni fell apart in the early 1880s. He was greatly hated by the Arabs who used to dominate the commerce in the region, and other neighboring kings who feared him, and the Europeans who saw in him as a powerful adversary. After 1881, the Arabs managed to convince the International African Association (AIA – Association Internationale Africaine), a European power created under King Leopold II’s initiative to inflict an embargo on arms and munitions on Mirambo (yup… European unions already inflicted embargo on arms back then). The goal of the AIA was to “open up central Africa to civilization.” At first Mirambo’s army succeeded in entering Burundi by surprise using a feud between the local king and his brother, but in 1884, his army was defeated by Burundi warriors (aided by Ngoni warriors). After his defeat in Burundi, and another defeat against the alliance of the Arabs and the Ntemi of Bukune, Mirambo’s troops were led by Mpandashalo as he was increasingly sick. Mirambo died on 2 December 1884.
Mirambo was a strong and ambitious leader. He expanded his authority and influence over a number of Nyamwezi chiefs. One of his challenges was to devise a political system that would allow him to consolidate his power, while ever expanding his territory. For that, he made sure not to change the structure of the Nyamwezi’s society: once in power, he would usually choose a successor from the same family. As long as the new chiefs pledged allegiance to him, they would be left to go about their political duties. The conquered chiefs had to provide troops at all times. His greatest strength was military. He used surprise as a tactical ploy. His capital was both a military and economic center. He had two residences: Iseramagazi from 1879, and Ikonongo from 1881.
Mirambo was actually a simple man, deeply rooted in his culture and traditions, but also very curious of the world. He was a man of order and progress, who will set the price of commodities in the capital’s markets, and regulated the consumption of alcohol in his kingdoms (he thought that alcohol weakened societies – just like Gungunyane), and meditated on the decadence of Africa in the 19th century. He was nostalgic of the magnificent ancient African capitals, and kingdoms. In essence, Mirambo had 4 faces: the traditional king, the warrior leader, the state builder, and the modernizer. To learn more, go to: ThinkAfricaPress.com, BlackPast.org, and Les Africains, Vol. 6, editions J.A, C.-A. Julien, P. 127-157, (1977).