The East African coast was in contact with civilisations of the Persian Gulf, India, and even China through trade across the Indian Ocean for at least two thousands years prior to 1500. As Jean-François Bayart argues, when considered in a view of history over the longue durée, Africa has never ceased to exchange both goods and ideas with the rest of the world. To this, one must add the exchange of human beings via slavery and the plantation system. Whereas West Africa came under direct European influence in the 1500s through the transatlantic slave trade that fuelled mercantile capitalism, East Africa, particularly the coast, first became commercially important to Arab traders around 1200 for its strategic position between the Middle East and the ports of present-day Mozambique, which exported the gold of Rhodesia. The Portuguese took control of the East African coast in the 1500s, but they were eventually wiped out by the end of the next century due to rising local insurrections and the seizure of Kilwa – a small island off the coast of present-day Tanzania – by mariners and mercenaries from Oman in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the 1770s, Kilwa exported ivory, slaves, hippo-teeth, tortoise-shell, cowries, wax, gum, and indigo, and imported textiles (from India), arms, and ammunition. Kilwa was abandoned in 1840, as the Sultan of Oman moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar. In the 1800s, Bagamoyo, a coastal town in present-day Tanzania and the closest mainland port to Zanzibar, flourished as the main terminus for ivory and slave caravans coming from the interior. The name Bagamoyo (bwaga meaning “to throw down/ to let fall” and moyo meaning “heart”) originally connoted a place where the caravanserai could rest their bodies and minds after travelling long distances. On the other hand, it meant a place a despair for slaves: a place where they lost all hope for life as they awaited their onward journey to Zanzibar. The caravan porters were financed by Arab traders, and they were mostly Nyamwezi people of the central plateau (Central Zone of present-day Tanzania). According to Frederick Cooper, Abdul Sheriff and other historians, about 20,000 slaves were shipped to Zanzibar from Bagamoyo per year by the 1860s. In contrast to the strong male bias of the transatlantic slave trade, female slaves accounted for over 50 percent of all slave exports from East Africa. In addition to being sold to French sugar plantations in Mauritius and the Réunion Islands, female slaves were forced into domestic servitude, concubinage, and agricultural labour on Arab clove plantations in Zanzibar and on sugar plantations on the Pangani river basin.
By the 1880s, Europeans were closing in for the control of East Africa. And it was under European colonialism that the region, for the first time, became fully, forcibly, and on highly unequal terms, integrated into the capitalist world-economy. Germany was not a major colonial power at the time, but with the fear of being excluded by France and Britain from trade with West Africa, Bismarck convened a conference of the European Powers in 1884 to lay down their ‘spheres of influence’ in Africa. In 1885, Germany claimed German East Africa – the territories encompassing present-day Burundi, Rwanda, and mainland Tanzania. The seizure of German East Africa was based on twelve treaties a German explorer and founder of the Society for German Colonisation, Karl Peters, had signed with local chiefs, who had supposedly ceded their territories and rights to the Society. Once the Germans arrived on the continent, however, they had to adopt military warfare in order to crush the powers of dominant classes in the territory, including slave-owning landlords, chiefs, kings, and merchants. It is estimated that over 80 wars of resistance were fought on the local terrain against the Germans up until early twentieth century.
In 1891, Germans started building a railroad from the coast to the northeast (from Tanga to Moshi). Land was confiscated from local populations, and the most fertile lands were opened up for white settlement and plantation agriculture. As soon as the territories were acquired, the German (and later the British) colonial government imposed hut taxes upon Africans to increase revenue for the metropole’s treasury. The economy of German East Africa became increasingly centred on large-scale agriculture. There was also mining of gold, mica, diamonds, and other minerals, but it never replaced agriculture as the major source of export and wage employment. By 1910, sisal had become the most important export crop, followed by cotton. However, much of the early attempts to compel African peasants to grow cotton had failed or resulted in major bloodshed. Particularly brutal was the Maji Maji Rebellion of 1905-1907, which historian John Iliffe called an “explosion of African hatred of European rule”. African peasants not only showed resistance through physical force, but also through everyday practices and knowledges, like deliberately preventing cotton from germinating by boiling its seeds.
Despite their resistance, subsistence in the countryside became increasingly dictated by the cash nexus. The need to pay taxes in cash instigated an exodus of men from the countryside for wage employment in plantations and mines. Male labour migration became a cornerstone of the political economy of colonial Africa. In addition, feminist scholars such as Deborah Bryceson and Marjorie Mbilinyi argue that the imposition of hut taxes was a mechanism through which European powers instilled the ideology of the modern, nuclear family upon Africans. Men, as the assumed heads of households, were held responsible for earning wages to pay taxes; on the other hand, women were forced to remain in the countryside fulfilling stringent minimum acreage requirements and caring for their families.