Tippu Tip: One of the most powerful and wealthiest slave traders in Africa

Tippu Tip: One of the most powerful and wealthiest slave traders in the 19th century

Tippu Tip – one of the richest slave traders on the African continent in the late 19th century

Tippu Tip was a successful ivory and brutal slave trader whose famous expeditions saw him rise to become the leader of Arab traders in Africa. For several years, he ensured that the Arabs had full control over East Africa’s trade routes until it was challenged following the arrival of the Belgians and other Europeans.

Much of the wealth he amassed came on the sweat and toil of slave labor, which he employed to transport ivory to the coast. It’s estimated that by the time of his death in 1901, the slave trader owned more than six plantations and over 9500 slaves.

So, who really was Tippu Tip, and how did he become one of the wealthiest slave traders of the late 19th-century?

Birth & Family Origins

Born between the years of 1832-1837 on the East African island, Zanzibar, Tippu Tip’s birth name was Hamad ibn Muhammad ibn Jum’ah bin Rajab ibn Muhammad ibn Sa’id al Murjabi. He was of African and Omani descent.

Not much is known about his mother, Bint Habib ibn Bushir, except that she hailed from Muscat, Oman and was a member of the Omani elite society.

Tippu Tip’s African heritage came from his father, Muhammad al-Murjabi, through his great-grandmother, who was born to an Omani man and a Bantu woman from a small village called Mbwa Maji. He had very dark skin, which was unusual for someone with mixed parentage.

At the time of his birth, his father’s family were among some of the Arabs that had settled along the Swahili Coast. Many of these settlers had married and brought forth children with other African women, so his dark skin might have been attributed to his African ancestors. Tip also had a half-brother, Mohammed   who would later accompany him on one of his expeditions.

It’s not clear where Tippu Tip spent his early years. He was likely homeschooled and could read and write right from an early age.

His native language was Swahili, which he spoke at home and for everyday use. But he also spoke Arabic in more professional settings.

It was fairly common to find Arab settlers on the island by the early to mid 1800s. They strategically established towns like Tabora and Ujiji along the banks of Lake Tanganyika, which helped facilitate their trading activities with India, the Americas, and Europe. They exported resources and raw products like gum-copal, ivory, pepper, orchilla weed, and cloves.

When Tip was a young boy, exporting cloves was fairly new, as the crop had only arrived from Indonesia in the 1820s. Eventually, it became one of Zanzibar’s chief exports and several clove plantations were established. Like many other plantations across the world during that period, these farmlands relied heavily on slave labor. Tip himself would later benefit from the clove plantation.

How Tippu Tip built a massive trading empire

Tippu Tip plundered large parts of Central Africa, looted, burned down cities, and captured many slaves. He set out to build a massive trading empire in the region. Portrait of Tippu Tip, House of Wonders Museum, Stone Town, Zanzibar.

Tippu Tip was known for establishing one of the biggest trading empires in East Africa, and it all started while he was still very young. He entered the trading business when he was only 12 years old and dealt mostly with the exportation of gum-copal. But he had a lot of practice before becoming a powerful East African ivory trader:

The First Expedition

In 1855, he joined his father on an expedition. Tip wrote about this journey in his autobiography, “Maisha ya Hamed bin Muhammad el Murjebi” (The Life of Hamed bin Muhammad el Murjebi), saying that he and his father had traveled to a place called Ugangi. He was a young adult then, between the ages of 18-23 depending on the year that he was born.

For his next expedition, Tip traveled to Tabora, where his father lived. But while on the journey, he caught smallpox. Unlike most survivors of the disease, he recovered with no prominent scars on his skin. It also didn’t hamper his expedition; and from Tabora, he traveled with his father to Ujiji to purchase ivory. They had no luck in Ujiji as the cost of ivory in the area was much too expensive.

The pair then decided to head westwards, across Lake Tanganyika, but his father had grown weary and wanted to return home and have the task reassigned to a colleague. Tip rejected the idea and offered to take over the expedition. Eventually, he purchased smaller yet less expensive ivory  in the town of Urua. It paid off because when he returned to Zanzibar, he discovered that it sold better on the market.

The Second Expedition

Tippu Tip embarked on his second expedition in the early 1860s, probably between 1860-1861. He started from Tabora and headed south, trading in surrounding towns like Lake Urungu. By that time, Zanzibar had developed well enough for traders to have access to credit facilities, which were typically run by Indian merchants.

In his book, he wrote that he borrowed items worth about 1,000 Maria Theresa dollars (MT$). Additionally, he took a cash loan of roughly between MT$4,000-MT$7,000.

On this journey, he was accompanied by his half-brother Mohammed bin Masoud al-Wardi, who was a slave trader. They traveled with 700 porters who were tasked with transporting resources and goods throughout the expedition.

During the second trip, Tip found himself in the middle of a war in the southern village of Lake Tanganyika after a dispute with its chief. He won the war and proceeded to raid and loot the village of its resources. In 1869, he returned to Zanzibar with the goods that he had collected. He also met the famed Scottish explorer David Livingstone on this expedition.

The Third Expedition

Tippu Tip’s third expedition was perhaps his most successful and the longest time he spent away from Zanzibar. However, it started off badly when his caravan was struck down with cholera as they traveled through Tabora. Eventually, it picked up.

By the third expedition, Tippu Tip had gained a lot of fame and influence in the villages he visited. He might have probably also gained some notoriety, especially concerning the way he raided villages, enslaved affected villagers, and also plundered their resources. Whether he had a lot of influence or was feared, it proved to be advantageous to the trader, as chiefs were willing to sell ivory to him at much lower prices.

Similar to his second expedition, he ended up in another fight in the village of Runda. Together with his men, they defeated their enemies and looted the village, seizing items like guns, ivory, and prisoners, who were either added to his team of porters or sold into slavery.

During this journey, Tip also managed to travel further into the African interior than other previous Arab traders. He set up camp along the shores of Lake Kasili, where he stayed for 9 months with his team. While they didn’t have much luck in the ivory business in that area, they lived rather comfortably due to their access to fish and ducks for sustenance.

Co-ruler of Kasongo

Once they were ready to move, they arrived at the village of Utetera, in the Kasongo region, which was located between Rivers Lualaba and Lomani. He met a chief named Kasongo Rushie and then likely used deceit to trick the chief into making him a co-ruler. Tip’s intelligence and wiles helped him tremendously as the village had a rich supply of ivory which were much cheaper compared to other other towns. So, he made his home in the village, staying there from 1872-1874.

Later, Tip heard that a group of Arab traders had settled nearby and he was excited to meet up with his people. When they finally caught up, the traders settled into two Arab colonies, Kasongo and Nyangwe. Tip lived in Kasongo and made it his main headquarters. He also became somewhat of a leader among the Arab traders and gained considerable control over the ivory trade. He also managed to reinstate the lines of communication between Kasongo and Tabora, which had been destroyed in an earlier conflict.

Expedition with Welsh-American explorer Henry Stanley

In 1876, Tip met another explorer called Henry Stanley, who had been on a mission to complete the work of his predecessor, Livingstone. Tip decided to help the Welsh-American explorer on his expedition with the hopes that it might connect him to some traders along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. However, the pair were unlucky and decided to split up, with Tip returning to his headquarters. Stanley later completed the mission on his own in 1877 and returned to Europe.

Over the next three years, Tip worked on expanding his ivory trade business. According to a missionary, Tip once sent about 2,400 porters to carry ivory to the coast. In 1880, he returned to Zanzibar after receiving letters from his creditor, as well as Sultan Barghash bin Said of Zanzibar, who was the ruler of Zanzibar.

Did you know?

Now that he was back in Zanzibar, Tippu Tip personally updated Barghash on the events happening in the mainland, as well as how much further the Arab traders had traveled. The sultan rewarded Tip for his loyalty by making him governor of Tabora.

From his base on the island of Zanzibar, slave trader Tippu Tip tried his hardest to control much of the territory of eastern Congo

His interactions with the Belgians

Back in Tabora, he became acquainted with the Belgians, who were eager to establish themselves in Africa and its trade activities.

Initially, Tippu Tip was wary of the Belgians, but he kept dialogues with them cordial. He, however, showed his loyalty to Barghash and other Arab traders when he rejected their offer to establish an ivory trading station in the interior.

Accepting their offer meant that the other traders would lose a lot of business, with the Belgians having direct access to ivory. For Barghash, he would also lose money from the taxes and tolls traders had to pay along the traditional trading routes.

In Europe, the Belgian monarch King Leopold II had taken an interest in expanding his kingdom well into Africa. He sought the services of Stanley who had retired from his previous expedition, and the two worked together from 1879-1884 to establish trading stations in the Congo.

One of such trading stations was Stanley Falls. But some Arab traders were already operating in that region. As a result, tensions quickly rose between the two sides. They disagreed over the trade routes, with the Belgians wanting to use the Congo River while the Arabs preferred their old routes.

The Belgians also discovered that the Arabs were still actively engaged in slavery – an act which had been abolished – and felt it was their duty to put an end to it. The third source of conflict was between the native Africans, Arabs, and Belgians, who all claimed ownership of the lands.

Tippu Tip’s Fourth Expedition

With the tensions rising, Tip decided to embark on his fourth expedition, departing from Zanzibar between August-October 1883 and arriving in Stanley Falls in December 1884.

This journey was more political than it was commercial, as Tip wanted to assert Barghagh’s dominance over these areas and also lay down boundaries for the Europeans. He also wanted to protect the Arab traders and ensure that the traditional trading routes were in use.

For a while, the tensions only increased. Sadly, the ones that suffered the most were the native Africans who were either helpless spectators to the conflict or employed by both sides to fight on their behalf. Out of all the casualties, the Africans were the most to die.

By the time Tippu Tip had arrived, the tensions had subsided. Both sides signed a treaty which set boundaries and limits to the trading routes. When he read the terms of the treaty, he chose to break it, saying that the Belgians had been unfair in demarcating boundaries and giving them a small, inflexible route while theirs remained vast. The Arabs were not allowed to trade further downriver from Stanley Falls whether it was for slaves, ivory or animals.

In response, the Arab trader ordered twenty caravans to head downriver. Only one caravan returned, reportedly carrying 70,000 pounds of ivory from a raid. Following that event, the Arabs and Belgians attempted to sign another treaty. Although that never happened, relations were relatively stable.

There was another problem brewing back in Zanzibar concerning Barghash’s power and control on mainland Africa. Germany was in the process of acquiring parts of Eastern Africa during the scramble for colonies between the European powers. Eventually, the sultan could not hold on to his power for long and was forced to cede his mainland territory to the Germans. They limited his powers to Zanzibar and a strip of land that falls between present-day Kenya and Tanzania.

Tip had been away when all this happened, and upon his return, Barghash reportedly cried out to him: “Hamed, the Europeans want to take even Zanzibar from me, so how can I keep the mainland?”

Two months later, the conflict between the Arabs and Belgians escalated, resulting in the former burning down Stanley Falls. To prevent a full-blown war from happening, Tippu Tip sought the services of the Belgian consul in Zanzibar and requested a meeting with King Leopold. But that request was put on hold for his fifth expedition and the arrival of Emin Pasha and Stanley.

Tippu Tip

Zanzibari slave trader Tippu Tip embarked on many trading expeditions into the interior of Africa, covering vast territories in Central Africa. Image: A Zanj slave gang in Zanzibar (1889)

The Fifth Expedition

Emin Pasha was the Ottoman governor of the Egyptian province of Equatoria (modern-day South Sudan) and was of German descent. Between 1887-1889, he embarked on an expedition into Africa with the help of Stanley. For the Belgians, it was an opportunity for their colony in Congo to connect with the areas around the Nile basin.

Stanley suggested they start the trip from Zanzibar because he knew he could get some of the best porters and resources to make the journey smoother. But most importantly, he’d hoped to recruit Tip on this expedition and present him with an offer from Leopold. The Belgian king wanted Tip to serve as the governor of Stanley Falls.

When the three men met in Zanzibar, Tip accepted both offers. He wanted to join Emin Pasha because he’d heard that the governor had large reserves of ivory, and he also accepted Leopold’s offer so he could reinstate Arab dominance over Stanley Falls. With the agreements in place, he was prepared to go on his fifth expedition.

The trip started positively, and eventually, the team had to split up with Tip heading to Stanley Falls and Stanley and Emin Pasha staying at another camp. The expedition took a negative turn when Stanley and his team encountered a major challenge as Emin Pasha was left stranded following a rebel attack in Sudan. Stanley would later accuse Tip of not providing enough support.

Their relationship soured, especially after Tip was reportedly offered £20,000 to unite the rest of the camp with Stanley. By the end of the expedition, Stanley reportedly threatened to sue Tip for breaking the terms of their agreement. However, the two men never encountered each other again.

Time as governor of Stanley Falls in the Congo Free State

A lot of change occurred during Tippu Tip’s term as governor of Stanley Falls. The Europeans gradually gained a strong hold over the continent. The ivory merchant and slave trader also noticed his influence wane at an alarming rate as European nations stepped up their colonization efforts. The Congo-Arab War (1892-1894) also contributed to the decline of his influence as well as the death of his son Sefu bin Hamed in 1893.

Tippu Tip

Tippu Tip was appointed governor of Stanley Falls District in Congo Free State by King Leopold II. Image: The contract signed between Henry Morton Stanley and Tippu Tip on behalf of King Leopold II at the British consulate in Zanzibar in 1887, in which Leopold appoints Tippu Tip as governor of the Stanley Falls District

Later Years & Death

Tip decided it would be best to return to Zanzibar so he gathered all his wealth and returned to the island around the 1890s. He established seven clove plantations, had numerous slaves and settled well into retirement in Stone Town. It was during that time that he wrote his autobiography in Swahili: “Maisha ya Hamed bin Muhammad el Murjebi” (The Life of Hamed bin Muhammad el Murjebi). It was later translated and published in English by 1907.

Tippu Tip died on June 13, 1905 after suffering from a bout of malaria. Tip’s three-story home in Stown Town served as a private residence until the overthrow of the Sultan of Zanzibar during the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution.

In present-day Zanzibar, which is an insular semi-autonomous province, the house is regarded as a tourist attraction but has been left in poor condition.

Read More: Origin Story and Impact of the Trans-Saharan Slave Trade

What was Tippu Tip Best Known for?

Tip was regarded as a successful Arab trader during his time. He expanded Zanzibar’s trading activities by establishing trading posts on mainland Africa and became one of the top suppliers of ivory. He was also a slave trader and amassed a lot of wealth by supplying slaves to other parts of the world.

How Many Slaves Did Tippu Tip Have?

By 1895, when he permanently returned to Zanzibar, Tip owned about 9,500 slaves.

What is the Meaning of the Name “Tippu Tip?”

The name “Tippu Tip” was a nickname, and it meant “the gatherer together of wealth.” Many believe that the trader earned the nickname from the “tiptip” sound his guns made whenever he fired them. He got the nickname during his second expedition. According to some other sources, Tippu Tip got the name due a nervous tic he had in his eye.

Tippu Tip’s Personal Life

Tippu Tip's house in Zanzibar

By the time of his death in 1905, he owned more than six plantations (‘shambas’) and over 9500 slaves. Image: House of Tippu Tip in Stone Town, Zanzibar City on the island of Zanzibar.

According to the French historian Francois Bontinck, Tip possibly got married when he was a teenager. His wife was from Zanzibar and also of Omani descent, belonging to the Barwani family.

As for his children, Tippu Tip had three sons, but he might have fathered many more and also had several daughters. One of his sons, Mwinyi Amani, negotiated a treaty in 1884 with the Belgians. However, he never welcomed any children with his wife, instead having these children with his concubines.

During his expeditions, he encountered several British and Welsh explorers, including David Livingstone and Verney Lovett Cameron. Tippu Tip met the Welsh-American explorer, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, during his mission to search for Livingstone.

Tippu Tip

Afro-Omani ivory and slave trader Tippu Tip (c. 1832- 1905) was born Ḥamad ibn Muḥammad ibn Jumʿah ibn Rajab ibn Muḥammad ibn Saʿīd al Murjabī. Quote: British explorer Verney Lovett Cameron’s (1844-1894) description of Tippu Tip

Tippu Tip’s cruelty

British explorer Livingstone was taken aback by Tippu Tip’s brutality and the conditions of that his slave labor had to endure. Livingstone described Tippu Tip’s methods as “a sight I strive to drive from memory”.

Some scholars maintain that the slave trader was the inspiration for the villain in the bestselling novel “Heart of Darkness” by Polish-English novelist Joseph Conrad.

Read More: Britain’s Involvement in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Did You Know?

Tippu Tip’s paternal great-grandmother’s village, Mbwa Maji was renamed  Dar es Salaam and served as the capital of Tanzania (then Tanganyika) when it was under German rule from 1880 to 1919. The colony remained like that until its independence in 1961. As of 2022, Dar es Salaam remains the largest city in East Africa and the seventh largest across Africa.

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