Skip to content

History of Tanzania

Tanzania is home to some of the oldest signs of human existence thought to be over 2 million years old. 

Pre-colonial times

Tanzania is home to some of the oldest human settlements that archaeologists have found. The area Olduvai Gorge in northern Tanzania is often referred to as “The Cradle of Mankind” because fossils found there are thought to be over 2 million years old. The Laetoli footprints in the area are thought to be as old as 3.6 million years.

The Bantu-speaking peoples, who are in majority in modern Tanzania, migrated to the area some 2000 years ago. They adopted many of the customs of the local people and also introduced ironworking skills and new ideas of organisation.
The Bantu-language Swahili, which today is the national language of Tanzania, spread along the coastal regions as the language of the emerging trade empire. The trade network linked East Africa’s interior with trade partners throughout the Indian Ocean.

Colonial times

The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached the East African coast in 1498. Few years later, Portugal captured Zanzibar. The Portuguese ruled Zanzibar for about 200 years until the Omani sultan Seyyid Said established a stronghold on the island, moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar and made it the centre of Arab slave trade. The sale of slaves was prohibited in 1876 and in 1890 Britain took over the control of Zanzibar.

European exploration of the interior country began in the mid-19th century and German colonial interests began around the 1880ies. In the beginning of the 1890ies the Hehe chief Mkwawa led a guerrilla war against the Germans. He was eventually defeated and committed suicide.

The British invasion of East Africa during World War I meant an end to the German colonial rule in mainland Tanzania (known as Tanganyika at the time) and the beginning of British colonial rule in the area. Under British rule efforts were taken to fight malaria, the tsetse fly and bilharziasis.

Modern history

In 1954 the teacher Julius Nyerere helped form the Tanganyika African National Union. Nyerere was elected prime minister after Tanganyika’s independence in 1961 and president in 1962 under the country’s new republican constitution.
Zanzibar gained independence from Britain in December 1963 and in 1964 the two new nations united to form, what is today, the United Republic of Tanzania. Zanzibar still retains a high degree of autonomy.

Nyerere is considered the Father of the Nation and ruled the country according to his concept of African Socialism: Ujamaa. He governed Tanzania until 1985 where he handed over power to Ali Hassan Mwinyi.  In 1992 the multiparty system was introduced.