One of the most remarkable figures in Eastern Africa in the XIX century was Hamed bin Mohammed bin Juma bin Rajab el Murjebi (ca. 1840-1905). Al Murjebi was a Zanzibari land owner and trader who extended his influence into mainland Africa as far as the Congo region. He was born into a merchant dynasty at a time when Omani slave traders opened new routes through East Africa up to the Congo basin. These were the same routes followed later by European adventurers paid by national Geographic Societies and acclaimed at home as great explorers.
In 1859-1860, Al Murjebi led his first expedition to Lake Tanganyika and northern Katanga. He returned there by the same route in 1865 and 1867-1869. During the course of his third expedition he gained the nickname of Tippu Tip, an onomatopoeic imitation of his firearms. Tippu Tip – as he was since then universally known – met David Livingstone and other missionaries. In more than one occasion, stranded missionaries and explorers were saved by this slave trader who provided them with food, security, and a safe passage to the coast.
In 1870, at the head of a 4,000-man caravan, Tippu Tip returned to the Congo and, over the following decade, built a formidable empire between the Lualaba and Lomami rivers. In the process, Tippu Tip established his ascendancy over a number of African chiefs as well as over a number of rival Zanzibari traders who had preceded him on the Upper Congo.
In October 1876, Tippu Tip met Henry Stanley, who asked to be escorted down the Congo River. Tippu Tip accompanied Stanley only to the Stanley Falls (at the site of modern Kisangani). A few years later, Stanley, working on behalf of King Leopold of Belgium, founded a post at Stanley Falls, a site which Arab traders also wanted to use for commercial purposes. When Tippu Tip returned from Zanzibar, tension ensued. In June 1884 a modus vivendi was reached between Tippu Tip’s lieutenants and King Leopold’s representatives regarding each group’s respective sphere of influence, but Tippu Tip rejected this settlement and established himself at Stanley Falls to supervise the situation and his caravans gradually pushed farther and farther downriver, to the point where the Aruwimi River joins the Congo
While back in Zanzibar in the early 1880s, Tippu Tip was approached by the Sultan. Zanzibar was claiming control of a strip of land on the mainland coast, and wanted to achieve control of the main trade routes towards the Great Lakes region. Tippu Tip was the ideal person to enlist for such a plan. At the same time, King Leopold II eyed the same region and wanted Tippu Tip to work as an intermediary for him. Ever the shrewd merchant, Tippu Tip played both ends of the field, divided between his loyalty to the Sultan of Zanzibar and his realization that European influence would prevail in Africa.
The Berlin Conference (1884-85), however, summarily disposed of Zanzibari territorial claims, and relations between Arab traders and agents of the Congo Free State rapidly deteriorated. Tippu Tip was back in Zanzibar in 1886 travelling across what had by then become German East Africa, and in his absence his men burned down the Congo Frees State post at Stanley Falls. In Zanzibar, Tippu Tip had further prove that the days of Zanzibari power had passed, and in February 1887 he accepted from Stanley a commission from the Congo Free State as governor of the Stanley Falls district. At the same time, he also agreed to man the expedition which Stanley had been commissioned to organize for the purpose of rescuing Emin Pasha, a German fortune hunter in the service of Egypt who had been stranded in the Bahr el Ghazal area as a result of the Mahdist uprising in Sudan.
Aside from its doubtful usefulness – in the end it was Enim Pasha who saved Stanley’s expedition from famine – the relief expedition was marred by the near annihilation of its rearguard, a disaster for which Stanley attempted to place the blame on Tippu Tip. The old trader returned to Zanzibar in 1890 to defend himself in the lawsuit brought against him by Stanley. Although Tippu Tip’s good faith was vindicated, he never returned to the Congo. Tippu Tip spent his last years in retirement disrupted by litigation, his upkeep assured by seven clover plantations, a small force of at least ten thousand slaves and a personal harem which he visited daily.