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The East African Ivory Trade in the Nineteenth Century

  • R. W. Beachey


The East African ivory trade is an ancient one: East African ivory is soft ivory and is ideal for carving, and was always in great demand. It figures prominently in the earliest reference to trading activities on the East African Coast. But the great development came in the nineteenth century when an increased demand for ivory in America and Europe coincided with the opening up of East Africa by Arab traders and European explorers. The onslaught on the ivory resources of the interior took the form of a two-way thrust—from the north by the Egyptians who penetrated into the Sudan and Equatoria, and by the Arabs from the east coast of Africa. The establishment of European protectorates and a settled administration in the 1890s ended this exploitation.

During the nineteenth century ivory over-topped all rivals in trade value— even slaves. The uses of ivory were wide and novel—it played the same part in the nineteenth century as do plastics in the mid-twentieth—but it was always a much more expensive article.



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1 Rhaphta, somewhere on the Tanganyika coast, possibly Kilwa, was an important centre of the ivory trade for Arab merchants (Periplus of the Erythrean Sea, ed. Frisk, H. (Goteberg, 1927), 17).

2 The Travels of Marco Polo, transl. Latham, R. (London, 1959), 276.

3 The Masai obtained most of their ivory–some 1,000–1,500 tusks a year–from the Waboni, a tribe of hunters whose trade they strictly controlled.

4 Krapf, J. L., Travels and Missionary Labours in East Africa (1860), 185. Krapf states that 6,000 tusks were exported annually. Guillain, M., Documents sur l'histoire, la géographie et le commercede l'Afrique Orientale, III (Paris, 1948), 310–11, puts the export of ivory from the whole east coast at 25,000 frasilah (approx. 850,000 lb.). Pangani alone exported 35,000 lb. in 1856.

5 Suna dedicated a magnificent tusk of ivory to the lake god, Mukasa: Sir Gray, J., ‘The Year of the Three Kings of Buganda’, Uganda Journal (March 1950).

6 Burton, R.. Lake Regions of Central Africa (London, 1860) II, 223224.

7 Cameron, V. L., Across Africa, I (London, 1877), 8r.

8 Livingstone, , Last Journals, II (London, 1874), 120.

9 F.O. Confidential Print (hereafter F.O. (C.P.)) 6805/53, Hardinge to Salisbury 17 September 1895.

10 In addition to the main centres of Ujiji and Tabora, there were lesser ones such as Zungomero, some 100 miles in from the east coast, which was a resting place after crossing the Nyika, and where a great army of touters preyed on down-going and up-coming caravans. Msene, about 100 miles north of Tabora, was the chief bandari (centre) of the western Nyamwezi country.

11 Cameron, vol. I, 243.

12 Lugard, Report no. 4 (March–August 1892), 88.

13 Jumbe Kimemata, an ivory trader, possessed a tusk weighing 264 lb. and three others of 220 lb. each. Teleki obtained a tusk weighing 228 lb. The Natural History Museum, Kensington, London, possesses a tusk II ft. 5½ in. long and weighing 236 lb.

14 Tipu Tib, the well-known ivory trader, who, with his father, traded for ivory at Ujiji and west of Lake Tanganyika, on his first trading expedition concentrated on small tusks. They were cheaper and easier to transport, and if well selected had a special market.

15 There was a royal monopoly of ivory in Ethiopia; and the ruler of Harrar had his own agent at Berbera, the great ivory mart of Somaliland.

16 The rumour of a proposed new scale of ad valorem duties at the coast in 1886 caused a rush to get the higher class of ivory down before it came into effect (F.O. (C, P.) 5370/7, Kirk to Rosebery, June 1886).

17 Livingstone, who probably gave currency to the idea that ‘black ivory carried white ivory’, states: ‘Those Arabs who despair of white ivory invest their remaining beads and cloth in slaves’ (Last Journals, I (1867), 232). Cameron, Tipu Tib, Schweinfurth and Petherick all affirm that hired porters, not slaves, carried the ivory.

18 Chanler, W. A., Through Jungle and Desert (London, 1896), 33.

19 Tipu's account of the ease with which he made his profits was not the usual fortune attending ivory trading. For a frasilah of beads Tipu bought frasilah of copper at Utetera; he gave ½ frasilah to Stanley on parting, and with the remaining 4½ frasilah he obtained zo frasilah of ivory. A frasilah of beads cost $3 in Zanzibar. He could sell the ivory for at least $50 per frasilah. Thus his $3 had turned into $1,000 (H. Brode, Tippoo Tib (1907), 129). Stokes, ivory trader and gun runner, brought down to the coast in May 1891 £8,000 worth of ivory(F.O. (C.P.)6051/415, Euan-Smith to Salisbury, 21 May 1891).

20 F.O. (C.P.) 6039/310, Euan-Smith to Salisbury, 24 February 1890.

21 Zanzibar Archives: Hamerton to Bombay Government, 28 September 1841.

22 John Perherick, after a varied career as a mineralogist in upper Egypt and Nubia, in the employ of Muhammad Ali during 1845–48, established himself at El Obeid as a trader; at the same time he was appointed British consular agent for the Sudan. In 1853 he set up at Khartoum as an ivory trader. Petherick was the first Englishman to get so far south. His activities as an ivory trader led him into the Bahr el Ghazal, and in 1858 he visited the Nyam Nyam (Zande) country lying along the modem Congo-Sudan frontier.

23 Sir Johnston, H. H., The Nile Quest (London, 1903), 110.

24 Grant, J. A., A Walk Across Africa (1864), 402.

25 In A report on the Nile District, (F.O. (C.P.) 7954/81, 15 May 1902). Captain J. A. Meldon, describes the method of the Bari tribe in hunting elephant: ‘A herd of elephants is located and the natives collect in large numbers, then they form an enormous circle and at a given signal fire the grass. The circle of natives gradually closing in as the grass is burnt, the elephant rush madly in every direction, seeking to escape, and many are burnt, while those who do leave the circle half-blinded and suffocated, are speared by hundreds of natives. This method of hunting is luckily confined to the dry season, December and January, and February, when the grass is high and easily burnt.’ Another method of elephant killing, popular in Bunyoro, was the heavy drop spear and pit. The hunter would perch on a tree beneath which the driven animal would pass and be speared between the shoulders. The Somali considered the single-handed killing of an elephant an heroic act equal to the lion-killing of the Masai, and the hero wore the hair feather and ivory bracelet.

26 Schweinfurth, , Heart of Africa, II, 24.

27 Gordon, Central Africa, 22 October 1875, 136.

28 ‘I am quite independent of the Khedive for money. In a year he had had £48,000 from the province and I have spent say £20,000 at the outside, and have £60,000 worth of ivory here…I am sending off a great deal of ivory today. It was confiscated by Baker at the time he fell out with Abou Saoud. The ivory caravan has just started.’ Colonel Gordon in Central Africa, 1874–79, (London, 1881), 17.

29 Wilson, C. T. and Felkin, R. W., Uganda and the Egyptian Sudan, II (London, 1882), 170.

30 The Company's proposal to go into partnership with the Arabs came too late; the blockade was over by the time Jumbe Kimemata, a well-known caravan leader, arrived at Mombasa.

31 During the civil war in Buganda in January 1892, much of the king's ivory fell into the Company's hands. Mwanga, the king, also used ivory to compensate the Protestants for their losses in the religious wars.

32 F.O. (C.P.) 6124/116, 26 January 1891, quoted from Thomson.

33 Cameron, II, 332, speaks of the haulage of ivory from the interior paying the working expenses of a railway and still leaving a profit.

34 F.O. (C.P.) 5732/100, Consul Holmwood to Hutton, 18 August 1888.

35 F.O. (C.P.) 7404/4, Johnston to Salisbury, 21 November 1899. Johnston's love of wild life did not extend to the hippopotamus: ‘He is such a source of danger to life and property by his attacks on canoes and boats, and the ravages he commits on native populations, that I should like to withdraw every degree of protection from him, even at the risk of his partial extermination.’

36 Gazette for Zanzibar and East Africa, 14 September 1892; F.O. (C.P.) 6123/109, 22 September 1890.

37 F.O. (C.P.) 6849/299, Gosselin to Salisbury, Berlin, 22 une 1896.

38 F.O. (C.P.) 7405/50, Hardinge to Salisbury, 9 September 1900.

39 F.O. (C.P.) 7953/115, Eliot to Lansdowne, 19 April 1902.

40 Two well known names in the ivory trade in the early twentieth century were Lord Cranworth and Michael Moses. They figured prominently in the ivory trade from the Congo. Not all was profit, for their half-caste Portuguese employee absconded with 5000 lb. of ivory.

41 Lt. Col. Delmé Radcliffe was one of the first officials so guilty. See F.O. (C.P.) 7402/ 106, 8 September 1899.

42 F.O. (C.P.) 6849/183, Berkeley to Salisbury, 21 February 1896.

43 Explorateur, Journal géographique et commercial, nos. 1–4 (Paris, 18751876).

44 Gazette of Zanzibar and East Africa, December 1894.

45 No European artist quite succeeded in cutting concentric balls of ivory after the manner of the Chinese.

46 F.O. (C.P.) 6538/235 Incl. I, Piggott to the Imperial British East Africa Company, 7 February 1894.

47 East African Standard, 13 January 1961.

48 F.O. (C.P.) 6538/42, Crawford to Imperial British East Africa Company, 27 January 1894.

49 F.O. (C.P.) 7823/162, Marsden to F.O., 12 June 1901.

50 Mombasa Times, 3 January 1961.

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