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Nyungu-Ya-Mawe and the 'Empire of the Ruga-Rugas'

Aylward Shorter
The Journal of African History
Vol. 9, No. 2 (1968), pp. 235-259
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/179562
Page Count: 25
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Nyungu-Ya-Mawe and the 'Empire of the Ruga-Rugas'
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Abstract

The introduction by the Arabs of new forms of storable wealth, together with fire-arms and gunpowder, into the interior of nineteenth century East Africa gave a direct stimulus to tribal warfare. Among the Nyamwezi of West Central Tanzania, who had practised long-distance trade in ivory before the Arab penetration took place, charismatic war-leaders appeared who created new hegemonies over the smaller, traditional units of these multi-chiefdom societies. These leaders attempted to capture the trade and control the main lines of communication. Mirambo was the most famous of them, but Nyungu-ya-Mawe, who was his exact contemporary (both died in 1884) was, perhaps, more successful. Nyungu created a polity which outlasted his own lifetime by more than a decade. Like Mirambo, he used a corps of professional soldiers called Ruga-ruga to carry out his conquests. The latter included most of the 20,000 square miles of Ukimbu and a part of southern Unyamwezi as well. He skilfully adapted the chiefly institutions of the Kimbu to a wider hegemony, and to an economy based on the large-scale exploitation of Kimbu resources in ivory. By his appointment of vatwale, lieutenants or military governors, as his military, political and economic agents in the various provinces of Ukimbu, he was able to hold his 'empire' together. The proliferation of small chiefdoms had been endemic to the Kimbu, a people with a forest economy that imposed both the need for small, political units, and for freedom of movement over a wide area. Nyungu and his vatwale halted this process. Nyungu was Mirambo's ally in the early years, and was supported by him as the loyalist candidate for the important Nyamwezi chiefdom of Unyanyembe (Tabora). Later, however, in 1880, when Nyungu defeated Mirambo's powerful vassal, Mtinginya, and seized control of the central caravan route to the coast, relations between the two men became strained. When the Germans dismantled Nyungu's hegemony in 1895, they destroyed the only realistic attempt ever made to unify an area of extreme political complexity.

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