Arms Trade in East Africa

In 1847 the missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf saw a caravan taking 1000 muskets inland; this was just one example of the vast number of arms supplied to the interior of Africa. When traders, Arab and other, reached Uganda it was common for them to present half their goods, such as powder, lead and shot, to the ruler. The muskets they supplied were of the flintlock, muzzle-loading type, such as those used in the Crimean War, and they were rather dangerous to use, let alone being useless in the rain.

Flintlock rifle

By the late 1870s European powers had swapped such weapons with breechloaders and so there was a huge number of obsolete guns that could be sent to Africa. Between 80,000 and 100,000 guns were imported into East Africa annually by 1888. Then breechloaders began to arrive: for example, Charles Stokes, a former missionary, took 100 breechloaders and 20,000 rounds of ammunition to Uganda at the time. When breech loaders were replaced by magazine and repeating rifles, hundreds of no-longer-required Martini Henry, Mauser, Gras and other breechloaders poured into the Zanzibar market.

Breechloader rifle

When the Imperial British East Africa Company began to set up posts in the interior after 1888, gun running was one of the major problems they faced. European powers tried to set up a blockade on the import of arms and ammunition on the East Coast of Africa from the Juba to the Rovuma rivers. But this blockade never had much effect and in 1889 under British pressure the Sultan of Zanzibar issued a regulation forbidding the importation of arms and ammunition into Zanzibar and Pemba without a licence. Then there was the Brussels Treaty in 1890, which attempted by international agreements to control the arms sales to Africa. The importation of arms, powder, balls and cartridges was prohibited within a defined zone and all imported firearms and ammunition had to be deposited in public warehouses under government control. In 1898 all guns had to be registered.

The arms trade merely shifted to Muscat, Djibouti, and into East Africa via the Somali coast, carried by dhow. The British tried to control this by patrols of naval vessels. But a dhow had a great advantage over a man-of-war. The ships’ smoke could be seen a long way off, and the dhow, hugging the shoreline, slipped ashore and offloaded arms or waited till the naval vessel had gone, and then resumed its journey by night. In extremis, the dhows would drop their arms overboard in shallow waters, possibly to be retrieved later. Arms were taken to the Lake Rudolf area and found their way into Uganda from there. It was estimated that between 1885 and 1902 over a million firearms and 4 million pounds of gunpowder reached East Africa. It was not until the firm application of British rule that the trade began to diminish.