Mirambo was born around 1830 in Nyamwezi land to a Ntemi chief. He was a tall, muscular, tough and soft-spoken man.
His early years were spent in Bugomba where he had been taken as a captive of the Tuta Ngoni (around 1840’s).
While in captivity, he quickly mastered the Ngoni military tactics and used them to build a strong army of Ruga-Ruga.
It was this army and his experience from the Ngoni that Mirarnbo used to curve himself a big empire in the north-western part of Tanzania in the second half of the 19th century.
His Political Activities.
Mirambo started his political career as a ruler of Ugowe (Uyowa) a small Nyamwezi chiefdom that belonged to his father.
He later inherited Uliankuru through his mother. It was from this small nucleus that Mirambo started consolidating h' is power and influence in all directions.
He organised expeditions against the Vinza, lramba Tongure Sukuma etc. His influence was felt as far as Burundi and Rwanda.
By 1876, Mirambo had already established his powerful capital at Urambo (named after him). This rivalled the Arab market in Unyanyembe.
He extended his empire northwards and eastwards and was therefore able to control the caravan trade routes from Tabora through Karagwe to Ujiji, Buganda and Bunyoro. This enabled him to tax caravan traders passing through his territory.
It was his contacts with the trade caravans that made him known among the Arabs, Swahili and Europeans at the coast.
He is recorded as one of the greatest men in the History of East Africa and a genius with boundless courage and energy.
Why Mirambo was able to build such a big empire
The years he had spent in Bugomba as a captive of the Ngoni helped him master their military tactics and later used them to build a strong army of Ruga - Ruga. This army was very instrumental in his rise to prominence.
Mirambo was a person of boundless energy and courage. He personally led his army in battles. This encouraged and gave morale to his army to fight on.
He was a man of high determination who took nonsense from anyone. He insisted on homage and tribute from the foreigners passing through his territory, when the Arabs refused, he fought them until they yielded to his demands. This increased his fame.
Mirambo always absorbed the conquered people and recruited the youth into his army. This always boosted his fighting force. Girls were given to his soldiers as wives.
His well-trained and armed army of about 500 professional soldiers and 7000 other warriors helped him build such a big empire.
He equipped this army with Ngoni military tactics, like the cow horn, assegai, and cow hide shields.
He also highly paid his soldiers and warriors, which gave them morale. He also distributed war booty to his fighters.
The acquisition of guns and gunpowder from the coastal Arabs helped him to extend his empire far and wide. His 500 professional soldiers were armed with guns.
Mirambo exploited the weakness of his neighbours like the Vinza, Ha, Sukuma and Samba to acquire territories from them.
The Nyamwezi lived in small chiefdoms that were weak and disorganized which made it easy for Mirambo to conquer them.
Trade also helped Mirambo to consolidate and extend his power and influence. He controlled the two trade routes that passed through his territory. The first one went to Ujiji and the second one to Bunyoro and Buganda. This brought in revenue in form of taxes.
He was also a man of vision who established friendly ties with many African chiefs. For example, he sought friendship with Muteesa I of Buganda, Msiri and Tippu Tip.
He also befriended many Europeans, for example; he invited the London Missionary Society to open up missions in his area. His people benefited from them in terms of skills and trade.
He also ensured a good relationship with of the Sultan of Zanzibar and declared his area a free –trade zone for the Arabs.
He equally respected strangers passing through his land. This brought in many foreigners that he benefited from in terms of skills and trade.
He was also a far - sighted and an ambitious man. He knew what he wanted and always looked for avenues of getting it. It was such a personality that Mirambo used to build his empire.
His empire was also strategically located which made it a center of trade in the whole of central Tanzania.
Mirambo's Relationship with Foreigners
Mirambo tried as much as possible to establish good relations with his neighbours, Arabs and Europeans alike.
His philosophy was that the presence of Europeans would enhance his prestige among his neighbours. It was against this background that he accepted operations of the London Missionary Society in his kingdom.
He believed that his people would gain from them (missionaries) in terms of knowledge and skills.
He equally believed that the presence of missionaries in his empire would attract more European traders from whom he hoped to get revenue after taxation.
Mirambo’s demand for transit fee and homage from the Swahili and Arabs passing through his area at first strained his efforts of establishing diplomatic relations with them. He claimed to control these routes and the Arabs too claimed them.
This confusion resulted into the closure of the caravan routes until the Arabs gave in to his demands because they did not want to lose this trade.
He tried to establish diplomatic relation with the Kabaka of Buganda Muteesa I. However this did not materialise, as Muteesa was busy fighting his Egyptian invaders.
Mirambo also respected the British influence over the Sultanate of Zanzibar. Sir John Kirk in return respected him as a great ruler.
Collapse of Mirambo's Empire
In 1884 Mirambo died, leaving behind a very large empire. He was succeeded by his half-brother Mpandashalo. However, Mpandashalo lacked the charisma, vision and courage of Mirambo and because of this, the empire disintegrated.
Why the empire collapsed
The empire lacked a strong foundation. It was built around Mirambo's personality and without him it was bound to crumble and this is what exactly happened upon his death in 1884.
His half-brother and successor Mpandashalo was a weak leader who could not keep the empire intact (He was not a strong leader compared to Mirambo).
The empire was too large and made up of semi - independent chiefdoms. These worked for the collapse Mirambo's rule. His death was therefore a blessing in disguise as many declared themselves independent .
His army of the Ruga - Ruga was not dependable. It became a menace after his death, looting and burning people's property. The confusion and chaos that resulted from its activities forced the Germans to occupy Tanzania in 1885, thus ending Mirambo’s great empire.
Unity was also lacking. Mirambo had left the various areas he had conquered under their traditional rulers upon his death most of them declared themselves independent.
He conflicted with the Arabs over homage and tribute. This forced him to close the trade routes. This adversely affected his empire since it had been built on trade gains.
Mirarnbo's neighbours were not happy-about his success. He had unsuccessfully tried to conquer some of them (e.g. the Sukuma). These encouraged states under him to rebel. In so doing, they worked for the demise of his empire.
His empire was also engulfed in civil wars as the conquered chiefdoms tried to set themselves free of his brutal and dictatorial rule.
His chiefs were also weak. Many of them did not even merit the positions they held since they were appointed just because they belonged to particular ruling houses. This further weakened his empire.
His persistent slave raids made the missionaries concerned about the running of his state, calling on their home government to come and stop the trade.
Increasing European interest in East Africa finally brought his empire to an end. The Germans in 1885 came under the excuse of stopping the atrocities of the Ruga - Ruga and entrenched themselves in Tanganyika.
Despite his weakness, Mirambo was a great statesman of his time.