Tanzania’s Parliament votes to return port to its original scene of fierce fighting in World War I, where structures moulded by coral reef over a century ago still stand, tall and proud. By DEA REPORTER
Bagamoyo, recently designated as Tanzania’s seventh World Heritage site, is considered the oldest town in the country.Having been the most important trading port of the East Central Coast of Africa in the late 19th Century, Bagamoyo is on its way to finally reclaiming its lost status as the Tanzanian government expects to shift the main port from Dar es Salaam to the small Old Town in three years, to ease congestion.
Bagamoyo lies 75 kilometres north of Dar es Salaam on the Indian Ocean coast, close to the Island of Zanzibar, and has a rich history, largely influenced by Indian and Arab traders, the German colonial government and Christian missionaries. Demolished old structures and ruins on the beach front vividly bear testimony to the fierce battles of World War I almost a century ago. Some structures have been preserved by the coral reef.
The old Customs offices still stand strong and still function and the German boma, where the German colonial chief stayed, is being renovated to become a state house. Bagamoyo was the headquarters of German East Africa (first under the auspices of the German East African Company and then the German Imperial Government) between 1886 and 1891.
Dar es Salaam became the new capital of the colony in 1891. The town was apparently the birth place, in 1895, of SS-Oberführer Julian Scherner, the notorious Nazi Party official who served in Adolf Hitler’s SS (Schutzstaffel) and was police commander of Kraków, Poland, where truly horrific crimes against humanity were committed.
During World War I, in 1916, a British air attack and naval bombardment was launched on Bagamoyo and the Germans were overrun, with the garrison taken. When the German Empire decided to build a railway from Dar es Salaam into the interior in 1905, Bagamoyo’s importance began to decline.
Today, Bagamoyo is a centre for dhow sailboat building. The Department of Antiquities in Tanzania is working to maintain the ruins of the colonial era in and around Bagamoyo and to revitalise the town. The internationally famous Bagamoyo College of Arts (Chuo cha Sanaa) teaches traditional Tanzanian painting, sculpture, drama, dancing and drumming. According to local tour guide Henry Joseph, whose father was a renowned farmer and translator in the small town during the colonial period, the Tanzanian Parliament recently passed a motion to return the main port to Bagamoyo and construct a super highway to connect the town to Arusha, both for tourism and to ease traffic, all within four years.
“Initially Bagamoyo was the main port, apart from acting as the hub of the slave trade in the region and here all business was transacted before Indians moved the port to Dar es Salaam in the 20th Century,” said Joseph. Today the town has about 30,000 inhabitants and is the headquarters of Bagamoyo District, recently named as a World Heritage Site.
About five kilometres south of Bagamoyo, the Kaole Ruins, remnants of two mosques and a couple of tombs, date back to the 13th Century, showing the importance of Islam in those early times.
“Until the middle of the 18th Century, Bagamoyo was a small and insignificant trading centre where most of the population were fishermen and farmers. The main trading goods were fish, salt, and gum. In the late 18th Century Muslim families settled in Bagamoyo, all of them with relatives in Shamvi la Magimba in Oman,” says the 32- year-old tour guide. “They made their living by enforcing taxes on the native population and by trading in salt gathered from the Nunge coast north of Bagamoyo”.
In the first half of the 19th Century, Bagamoyo became a trading port for ivory and the slave trade, with traders coming from the African interior, some walking for almost six months from places as far as away as Morogoro, Lake Tanganyika and Usambara on their way to Zanzibar. This explains the meaning of the word Bagamoyo (Bwaga-Moyo), which means “Lay down your Heart” in Swahili. It is disputed whether this refers to the slave trade which passed through the town, a meaning of “give up all hope” (as in Dante’s Inferno’s “Abandon all hope all ye who enter here”) or to the porters who rested here after carrying about 60 kilograms of cargo on their shoulders from the Great Lakes region, to mean “Lay down your load and rest”.
The slave trade in East Africa was officially prohibited in 1873, but continued surreptitiously well to the end of the 19th Century.
The town’s rich history would stretch back to 1868, when local rulers, known as majumbe, presented the Catholic Fathers of the Holy Ghost with land for a mission north of the town, the first mission in East Africa. This prompted resistance by the native Zaramo people, which was mediated by representatives of Sultan Majid and, after 1870, by Sultan Barghash. Originally the mission was intended to house children rescued from slavery, but it soon expanded into a church, school, and workshops and farming projects.
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