Mytela Kasanda, otherwise known as Mirambo, was a man of many parts. Apart from being a traditional king, he was a warrior leader, a state builder, and a modernizer who helped revolutionized regional trade in 19th century Tanzania, according to historians. He became known as the Black Napoleon or African Bonaparte because of his military and political prowess.
Born into the royal family of the chiefdom of Uyowa, historians believe that Mirambo was made chief after his father died around 1860. Becoming a powerful trader throughout the Great Lakes region (now Tanzania) and a Nyamwezi warlord of central Africa, Mirambo was able to gain control of Swahili-Arab trade routes thanks to his ability to unite the many separate Nyamwezi clans into a powerful kingdom by the 1870s.
His control over those trade routes also jeopardized the Swahili-Arabs’ colony in Unyanyembe (near present Tabora, Tanzania). Mirambo’s capital, Urambo (which is now in Tanzania), became a major rival trading centre that attracted a lot of traders. The capital traded mostly in ivory and slaves. Mirambo in the 1870s signed a treaty with the Arab sultan of Zanzibar, Barghash, enabling the Tanzanian warlord’s kingdom gain more power and political stability.
Between 1876 and 1880, Mirambo expanded his kingdom, gaining control of major trade routes north to Buganda (in Uganda) and west to Ujiji, on Lake Tanganyika. His success or military supremacy was largely due to his ability to acquire large supplies of firearms, usually from Swahili-Arab traders. His use of the ruga-ruga — his Ngoni mercenary warriors from the south — also helped him. Historians say that his armies consisted mostly of teenage orphans. Every year, during the dry season, he would send his army or ruga-ruga in all directions to continue the expansion of his territory.
Mirambo later clashed with the Arab allies of explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley over trade routes as Europeans got increasingly involved in East African affairs. Stanley would call Mirambo the African Bonaparte as he was dazzled by the Tanzanian leader’s military skills and success.
In his last years, Mirambo shared much of the east central African territory with the ruler of the Buganda kingdom, Kabaka Mutesa. Mirambo continued to fight for control of that region until his death in 1884 following an illness. His kingdom fell to pieces after his death. Some historians believe that the Tanzanian leader was strangled to death, citing an old Nyamwezi custom that states that kings unfit to rule should be strangled.