Eastern Africa, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Healing Scroll
  • Funerary Post: Male
  • Tunic (Jibbeh)
  • Shield
  • Headrest


1800 A.D.

1825 A.D.

1825 A.D.

1850 A.D.

Nguni migration into Malawi, northern Mozambique, and Tanzania, ca. 1840
Rise of Nyamwezi merchant-chiefs, ca. 1850

1850 A.D.

1875 A.D.

Reconsolidation of Ethiopian kingdom under Tewodros II, 1855–68
Rise of Nyamwezi merchant-chiefs, ca. 1850

1875 A.D.

1900 A.D.

Rule of Ethiopian king Menelik II, 1889–1913
Defeat of Italian troops by Ethiopian army at Battle of Adwa, 1896
Partition of African continent by European colonial powers, 1884 onward
European colonization of East Africa, 1884–1975


In the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Somalia), the gradual dissolution of the Ethiopian kingdom is halted and reversed under the leadership of successive kings: Tewodros II (r. 1855–68), Yohannes IV (r. 1872–89), and Menelik II (r. 1889–1913). European encroachment on Ethiopian territories is neutralized by Menelik at the decisive Battle of Adwa in 1896. In central East Africa (present-day Kenya, Tanzania, and northern Mozambique), increased trade between eastern Central Africa and the Indian Ocean coast leads to social changes throughout the region. The role of traditional fraternal organizations and gerontocracies is disrupted as young men are presented with opportunities to empower themselves outside of the community through jobs as caravan porters and independent ivory hunters. Arab-Swahili trading families on the coast foster a favorable trade environment in the interior through strategic marriages with local chiefs, forming Islamic states that adopt elements of Arab political and material culture. Many inland communities that have been converted to Islam retain elements of traditional sculpture such as masks and figures but recast them as representations of shetani (the Arabic term for Satan). Collections of East African ethnographic materials compiled in the first decade of the twentieth century reveal that during the nineteenth century a broad range of sculpture was employed for religious and secular purposes by non-Muslim peoples of the region. Of particular importance are funerary sculptures acquired in what is today central and western Tanzania that take the form of articulated marionettes or figures with cavities meant to receive ancestral remains. Indigenous sculptors also begin to create artworks to sell to European visitors at this time.

Key Events

  • early 19th century

    It becomes customary to depict a patron’s military achievements among the painted decorations of Ethiopian church interiors, typically on the eastern wall of the sanctuary.

  • 1814–44

    Omani sultan Sa’id Sayyid ibn Sultan consolidates Omani control over the Swahili coast, eventually moving the sultanate to the island of Zanzibar in 1840. Trade relations with Western powers are normalized, and the United States, France, and Britain open consulates on the island.

  • 1820–53

    King Ndagara of Karagwe, a small state on the western shore of Lake Victoria, commissions a treasury of iron and copper objects that represent the economic, political, and religious life of the kingdom. Foremost among these are a series of monumental, individually named copper drums, a copper stool, and highly abstracted representations of cattle, the main form of wealth in the region. The collection also includes wrought-iron birds, believed to deter danger and bring luck, as well as multiheaded stands to hold msinga, fibrous plumes made from tree branches.

  • 1840s

    Ecological and political disruptions in southern Africa result in the large-scale northern migration of Ngoni populations, some of whom settle around Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika. Well-organized and sophisticated warriors, they conquer local populations such as the Chewa and integrate them into newly formed Ngoni states led by paramount chiefs.

  • mid-19th century

    At a time marked by the growing weakness of the church and crown, Ethiopian painters choose to portray fables addressing the folly of human vanity. These include an adaptation of the story of the Buddha, The Romance of Bäräläan and Yewasef, in which Bäräläan is portrayed eating fruit from a tree while a rat gnaws at the trunk and a serpent prepares to devour him. Other subjects include Alexander the Great (the mortal who wished to visit heaven) and Sirak (the wise man who seduced one of Solomon’s wives).

  • 1850s

    The Nyamwezi peoples emerge as an important trading power in present-day central Tanzania. Large-scale caravan operators, they act as middlemen who exchange coastal imports such as beads and cloth for inland products, particularly copper. As economically successful individuals gain social prominence, they develop forms of “statement” art to communicate their positions of power. Among the most notable are high-backed, three-legged stools with circular seats and curving backs surmounted by male or female heads.

  • 1855–68

    King Tewodros II ascends to the throne of Ethiopia. He inherits a kingdom weakened by several decades of fractious succession struggles that have placed the bulk of governmental power in the hands of provincial rulers. At the same time, the Ethiopian Church is divided by doctrinal disputes and the rising tide of Muslim devotion within the kingdom. To rebuild the kingdom, Tewodros attempts to curb the influence of the church and local governors and invites European economic and missionary interests into the kingdom.

  • 1860s

    Swahili warlord Tippu Tib (1837–1905) subdues local populations in the East African hinterland north of the Zambezi River. Penetrating deep within the interior, he attacks Tabwa chiefdoms west of Lake Tanganyika in 1867, destabilizing the entire region and ultimately contributing to the spread of Tabwa peoples south and east into present-day Zambia and Tanzania. One result of these population shifts is the establishment of a Tabwa sculptural atelier on the eastern shores of Lake Tanganyika near Ujiji some time in the late nineteenth century. Figural sculptures attributed to this workshop are identified by their angular, tilted faces and subtly geometricized bodies.

  • 1870–1900

    Traders from the east coast and Egypt penetrate the Great Lakes area (modern-day Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, and western Tanzania). Sizeable states such as Buganda, Bunyoro, Karagwe, and Rwanda counter this threat to their economic hegemony through military expansion, internal political consolidation (at times adopting Christianity or Islam as the state religion), and the development of new industries such as weaving. The reorientation of resources shifts the basis of political power from religious to military authority, resulting in simultaneous changes in governmental institutions and art forms.

  • 1872–89

    Dejazmach Kassa, the provincial governor of Tigre, is crowned Yohannes IV of Ethiopia. Much like his forebear Tewodros II, his kingdom is internally divided and threatened by external enemies, particularly Egypt. By 1880, Yohannes has scored important military victories against Egypt and subdued his greatest domestic rival, Menelik of Shoa province in the south of the kingdom.

  • 1875

    The Free Church of Scotland establishes the Livingstonia Mission at Cape Maclear on the southern end of Lake Malawi. Pledging to teach “practical Christianity,” the mission employs lay merchants and artisans from the United Kingdom to introduce capitalist agriculture and Western manufacturing techniques.

  • 1878

    At the Council of Boru Meda, the Ethiopian Church resolves a major internal schism concerning Monophysitism, the belief that Christ’s nature remains completely divine and not human despite his earthly existence. Ethiopian theologians had been divided over the question of whether Christ had three births (one from God the Father at Creation, the second from the Virgin Mary at the Nativity, and the third at the Baptism from the Holy Spirit) or two (occurring only at Creation and the Nativity). The council adopts the “two births” concept as official dogma.

  • 1889–1913

    Following Yohannes IV’s death from wounds received in battle against the Sudanese Mahdists, Menelik ascends to the throne of Ethiopia. Under Italian diplomatic and military pressure, Menelik cedes parts of northern Ethiopia to Italy through the Treaty of Wachele. With his designation of Addis Ababa as the new national capital, the Ethiopian empire shifts south. Menelik employs his substantial political skills to unify the state and consolidate his influence. The resuscitation of the kingdom sparks a revival and celebration of forms of Christian art characteristic of Ethiopia’s zenith in the fifteenth century, including large-scale metal processional crosses with complex internal interlace patterns.

  • 1890s

    Arab-Swahili trade with the East African interior collapses under British and German colonialism.

  • 1895

    With the exception of independent Ethiopia, eastern Africa is claimed by the European powers: Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), German East Africa (Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi), Italian Somaliland (Somalia), British East Africa (Kenya and Uganda), and the British Colonial Protectorate (Malawi).

  • 1896

    The Ethiopian army crushes invading Italian troops at the Battle of Adwa on March 1, Saint George’s day on the Ethiopian Christian calendar. Paintings of the battle appear in Ethiopian churches soon thereafter. One such painting at the Church of Saint Mary at Läqämt depicts the charge of the Ethiopian army against the Italian troops led by Saint George, who descends from heaven on horseback with flaming sword in hand. Two other nineteenth-century paintings, believed to have been painted by the Ethiopian artist Aläqa Hervy, appeared in Saint George’s Cathedral in Addis Ababa and Saint George’s Church in Feccé.


“Eastern Africa, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=10&region=afa (October 2004)