Until the middle of the 18th century, Bagamoyo was a small, rather insignificant trading center. Trade items were fish, salt and gum among other things. Most of the population consisted of fishermen and farmers.
But Bagamoyo wasn't just a trade center for slaves and trade goods (ivory or copra, which was won from coconuts and was used for the production of soap) or a center for boat building, but also the starting point for the first European "discoverers". They moved out from Bagamoyo to find the source of the River Nile or to explore the inner lakes, which were still shrouded in mystery in those times. Among those who started their journeys from Bagamoyo were: Livingstone, Burton, Speke (who went together with Grant to solve the mystery of the Nile springs), Grant and Stanley (who broke up in 1871 with a crew of 192 and 6 tons of equipment to find the missing Livingston; and later again in 1889 when he retuned from a 3-year expedition with a crew that had been reduced from 708 to 196).
Bagamoyo also became famous through the return of Livingstone: After a march of 9 months from Zambia, Livingston's Zanzibar helpers Abdullah Susi and James Chuma brought his dead body, dried out from the sun (and missing the heart that had already been buried in Zambia) to Bagamoyo on February 15th, 1874 ("Mwili wa Daudi" - "the Body of David"). 700 slaves took their leave of him before he was taken to England where he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
In 1880 Bagamoyo probably had a permanent population of 1,000. But by the year of 1889, when the slave trade was already heavily disputed, more than 1,305 caravans with 41,144 people still passed through Bagamoyo on their way into the center of the country.
At that time, the population of the town consisted mainly of members of the native people of Zaramo and Doe, Shomvi Muslims from Oman, Hindus from India (who worked in administration, or on the coconut plantations and in the boat yards), as well as other Muslims, among them the Ismailites who had settled there in 1840 and whose numbers had grown to 137 by 1870, Sunnites from Zanzibar (shop-owners mostly) and Persian traders. A small group of Catholics mainly worked as tailors.
In 1888 the German East Africa Company signed a treaty with the Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyid Khalifa, which allowed the company access to the coastal regions. Directly after the treaty was signed, the flagpole of the Sultan in Bagamoyo was cut down - against the heavy resistance of his local representative, who had refused to bring down the Sultan's flag. When in the course of a conflict between the German Company and inhabitants of the town the Usagara warehouse, built at the beach of Bagamoyo, was occupied, the SS Möwe put about 200 Marines on shore to deal with the revolt. More than 100 inhabitants (about 10% of the total population) died.
In the late 19th century Bagamoyo was the most important place on the coast. In 1888 the German colonial forces declared Bagamoyo the capital of the new colony and built the Boma, the German colonial headquarters. But the shallow waters in front of Bagamoyo were the reason that a few years later Dar es Salaam, with its deep-water harbour, became the new German capital city.
The conflict between the town's people and the German colonial lords escalated when the Germans introduced registration of land and property. Never before had such a registration been demanded from the natives and they feared the Germans wanted to take away land from the native population.
That was why the Arab Bomboma organised a rebellion in Bagamoyo with the help of the legendary Bushiri bin Salim al-Harthi, who had once lead Arab troops against the Germans in Tabora. Initially, Bushiri was very successful. Large parts of Bagamoyo were burned down, and Bushiri gathered his troops in front of the city for a general attack.
The German government felt forced to support the German East Africa Company and ordered Hermann von Wissmann to put down Bushiri with his infantry which had been supplemented by Sudanese and Zulus from South Africa. To win time until the arrival of the German troops, the German Admiral Denhardt started negotiations with Bushiri, who demanded the post of governor of the coastal region, monthly payments and the right of to keep his own army.
In May 1889 Wissmann had gathered his troops and had built several fortifications. After several battles the rebellion was put down, in July 1889 the city of Pangani (north of Bagamoyo) was conquered and Bushiri was executed. The leader Bomboma and others met the same fate.
In October 1890 the Germans were granted official land rights for 4 million Mark from the Sultan of Zanzibar, and in the spring of 1891 German East Africa formally became a colony.
Yet, because of the shallow waters in front of Bagamoyo, Dar es Salaam with its deep-water harbour became the new capital city of German East Africa already in April 1891.
From now on the Boma of Bagamoyo served as an administrative center. Many new stone houses were built, as well as a new guard house. Caravan trade stagnated, instead the influence of Indian traders grew. The first Greeks arrived and founded a European hotel in Bagamoyo. The trade company Oswald from Hamburg settled in Bagamoyo, also the company Hansing with their vanilla plantations in Kitomeni and Hurgira. A large Koran school was opened.
With the departure of the Germans from East Africa the role of Bagamoyo as a trade center ended, and for almost 100 years Bagamoyo again became a sleepy town of fishermen and farmers, with slowly rotting colonial buildings, whose (lived-in) ruins remind of the glamorous times of Bagamoyo as the most important coastal town of the region.
Today Bagamoyo has about 35,000 inhabitants and is the capital of the very large District of Bagamoyo.
There are efforts to declare Bagamoyo part of the new UNESCO World Heritage "East African Slaveroute / Bagamoyo"
President Jakaya Kikwete, former minister for foreign affairs, comes from Bagamoyo.