Bantu peoples came to Kilimanjaro in a succession of migrations that started at least five or six hundred years ago. It is likely that there were other peoples on the mountain for hundreds of years before they arrived. Reliable written historical accounts of the Chagga date from the nineteenth century. The first European to reach the mountain was a missionary, Johannes Rebmann, who arrived there in 1848. At that time, Rebmann found that Kilimanjaro was so actively involved in far-reaching trading connections that a chief whose court he visited had a coastal Swahili resident in his entourage. Chagga chiefdoms traded with each other, with the peoples of the regions immediately surrounding the mountain (such as the Kamba, the Maasai, and the Pare), and also with coastal caravans. Some of this trading was hand to hand, some of it at markets, which were a general feature of the area. Many chiefdoms had several produce markets largely run by women, just as they are today.
As far back into local history as the accounts go, Chagga chiefdoms were chronically at war with one another and with nearby peoples. Various alliances and consolidations were achieved through conquest, others through diplomacy, but the resulting political units were not always durable. Alignments changed and were reorganized with the ebb and flow of the fortunes of war and trade. Presumably, the fighting between the chiefdoms was over control of trade routes, over monopolies on the provisioning of caravans, over ivory, slaves, cattle, iron, and other booty of war, and over the right to exact tribute. Outlines of the process are known from the eighteenth century onward. As large as some of the blocs of allies became, at no time in the precolonial period did any one chiefdom rule all the others. That unitary consolidation was not achieved until the German colonial government imposed it.
Initially (i.e., before the German conquest), various Chagga chiefdoms welcomed missionaries, travelers, and foreign representatives as they did traders; in the 1880s, however, when the Chagga gradually lost their autonomy, they became more hostile. In 1886 Germany and Britain divided their spheres of influence in East Africa; Kilimanjaro was allocated to the Germans. Some Chagga chiefs became German allies and helped the Germans to defeat old rivals in other Chagga chiefdoms. Sudanese and Zulu troops were also brought in when some strong chiefly resistance to German control manifested itself. By the 1890s, all the Chagga had been subjugated.
Chagga society experienced a radical change. Taxes in cash were imposed to force Africans to work for Europeans from whom they could receive wages. A native system of corvée was expanded for the benefit of the colonial government. A handful of armed Germans successfully ruled a hundred thousand Chagga by controlling them through their chiefs. The chiefs who cooperated were rewarded with more power than they had ever known. The resisting chiefs were deposed or hanged, and more malleable substitutes were appointed in their stead.
Warfare came to an end and, with it, Chagga military organization, which had been a system of male age grades. Christianity spread, and, eventually, most Chagga became, at least nominally, Christians. The churches, Catholic and Lutheran, were allocated religious control over different parts of Kilimanjaro. As part of their mission, they introduced schools and coffee-growing clinics. Thus, a Western religion was imposed on the Chagga, along with a Western medicine, Western education, and a cash crop. These developments parallel the major political reorganization effectuated by colonization and the fundamental change in the local economy. Long-distance trade became a European monopoly. Coffee growing spread rapidly over the mountain.
This general economic transformation was well under way when the colonial government passed from German hands into those of the British in 1916. Arabica coffee remains a major cash crop produced locally. Since 1961, Tanzania has been an independent nation and, among other products, relies on coffee exportation for foreign exchange.