Mirambo, also known as Mytela Kasanda, was a man of many parts. According to historians, in addition to being a traditional king, he was a warrior leader, a state builder, and a modernizer who helped transform regional trade in 19th century Tanzania. Because of his military and political brilliance, he became known as the Black Napoleon or African Bonaparte.
Mirambo was born into the royal family of the Uyowa chiefdom, and historians believe he became chief after his father died around 1860. Mirambo, a powerful trader in the Great Lakes region (now Tanzania) and a Nyamwezi warlord in central Africa, was able to control Swahili-Arab trade routes by the 1870s because of his ability to combine the many independent Nyamwezi clans into a formidable kingdom.
His dominance of such commercial routes put the Swahili-Arab colony in Unyanyembe in jeopardy (near present Tabora, Tanzania). Urambo (now in Tanzania), Mirambo’s capital, grew into a significant rival trading center, attracting a large number of traders. Ivory and slaves were the main commodities traded in the capital. In the 1870s, Mirambo negotiated a deal with Barghash, the Arab sultan of Zanzibar, allowing the Tanzanian warlord’s kingdom to gain more authority and political stability.
Mirambo expanded his empire between 1876 and 1880, seizing control of vital trade routes north to Uganda’s Buganda and west to Lake Tanganyika’s Ujiji. His military dominance was largely owing to his ability to get vast quantities of weaponry, which he obtained through Swahili-Arab dealers. He also benefited from his ruga-ruga, or Ngoni mercenary warriors from the south. His armies were said to be largely made up of teenage orphans, according to historians. He would dispatch his army, or ruga-ruga, in all directions every year during the dry season to continue the extension of his dominion.
As Europeans became more interested in East African affairs, Mirambo clashed with the Arab supporters of explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley over trading routes. Mirambo was dubbed the African Bonaparte by Stanley, who was awestruck by the Tanzanian leader’s military might and success.
Mirambo shared much of east-central Africa’s territory with Kabaka Mutesa, the ruler of the Buganda kingdom, in his final years. Mirambo fought for control of the territory until his death in 1884, when he succumbed to illness. After his death, his dominion was shattered. According to some historians, the Tanzanian leader was strangled to death, citing an old Nyamwezi custom that dictates that rulers who are unsuitable to reign should be strangled.