History & Politics

A trading history

Merchants from around the world have travelled to the Tanzanian coast for many millenia to trade in goods such as gold, ivory and spices. Ruins of Great Mosque, Kilwa Kisiwani, by en:user:Claude McNab [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

However, the country's history can be traced even further back. Rock paintings north of Dodoma (see Map) show hunter-gatherers active here from around 10,000 years ago. Bantu-speaking farmers began settling from around the 1st/2nd century AD, pushing nomadic groups into less fertile regions.

From the 8th century onwards, Arab merchants spread their religion of Islam along the coast. Islamic centres of trading, such as the port of Kilwa Kisiwani, grew extremely prosperous. Known as one of the most beautiful cities in the world in the 1300s, visitors were impressed by Kilwa Kisiwani's palace, markets and mosque (see photo opposite).

Around the 15th century, Nilotic-speaking pastoralists moved here from the southern Sudan region. These were the ancestors of the Maasai people – see People & Culture.

Arrival of the Europeans

Portuguese visitors

The first European to record his visit was the Portuguese Vasco de Gama, who stopped along the coast in 1498 on his voyage to the Far East (see Mozambique History & Politics). Portuguese traders set up forts along the coast. However, they were later ousted from the region by Omani Arabs, who took control of coastal towns, Kilwa and Zanzibar (see Map).


By the 19th century, the Germans took an interest in the region after one of their citizens travelled into the interior and signed treaties with many of the local chiefs. Hence, the territory of Tanganyika, as it was then known, was taken by Germany. Sailing a gunboat into the harbour of Zanzibar, the Germans also laid claim to the islands.

However, after Germany’s defeat in World War I, the British took over the administration of the territory under a mandate from the League of Nations.

The forming of modern-day Tanzania

Leader of a nation

The newly independent nation was led by the TANU head, Julius Nyerere – see Nationhood. He was committed to improving education and bringing Africans into government once trained and ready. But it was an uphill task. In 1961, there were just 120 African university graduates in the whole country and only 12 doctors.

In 1948, young Africans formed a group to protest against colonial rule. By 1953, this movement had reorganised into the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU), a political body led by a young teacher called Julius Nyerere.

They didn’t have to wait long to realise their dream. Britain left Tanganyika in 1961 and Zanzibar in 1963. These two territories joined into one in 1964 and became the United Republic of Tanzania.

The newly independent nation was led by the TANU head, Julius Nyerere. During his leadership, the country made great strides in education and healthcare. But the economy struggled under his socialist policies.

In 1986, the Tanzanian government accepted help from the International Monetary Fund and began to reverse many of its economic policies. Tanzania’s economy is now growing – see Economy & Industry. Multi-party democracy returned in 1992 (a multi-party system had been scrapped by Julius Nyerere in 1965). The current president is Jakaya Kikwete, who won a second term of office in 2010.

EAC: Tanzania was a founding member of the ‘East African Community’ (EAC) formed in 2001. This group of countries - now Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda – has trading agreements (for the free movement of goods and people) and an EAC parliament, with plans to form a closer political federation by 2015.