The First East African War was a result of inner tensions caused by Aksum`s economic modernisation, which led to the colonisation of the plains East of the Great Lakes by Massai under Aksum´s protection, which in turn sparked a war between Aksum and Saba. Among its consequences are an increased engagement of Aksum and Saba in central Africa, which some scholars call a first phase of imperialism in Africa, and a political modernisation in Aksum.
The underlying problem: Frictions caused by Aksum`s economic modernisation
General descriptions of Aksum`s development in the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries AD often focus exclusively on its economic development (improved agricultural productivity, improved glass manufacturing, innovations in many crafts), increasing living standards, its important role in global trade, the establishment of universities in Aksum City and Meroe and scientific progress, the peaceful cosmopolitanism in Aksum`s colonies in Africa`s East Coast, where Persians and Indians were as welcome as Kanem`s aristocracy after the revolution, or the magnificent high-arched churches in Matara and Adulis.
But Aksum`s development had its drawbacks, too. Especially in the South of the expanded kingdom, native populations like the Nuer and the Massai refused to give up their nomadic lifestyle and animist faith in order to become modern farmers and Christianised urban professionals. But an intensification of agriculture especially in these fertile lands was deemed necessary in order to sustain Aksum`s growing population, just like an increase in agricultural imports became inevitable in the growing coastal colonies. The livelihood and the prerequisites of their traditional ways of life of the ethnic groups in the South was endangered, and the Massai rose up in a rebellion which even reached and devastated the city of Shewa.
At the same time, Aksumite and Saban towns on the Indian Ocean coast were repeatedly raided by bands of Kamba and others, who were both attracted by the cities` wealth and often expropriated and pauperised when their home villages were turned into hierarchically controlled plantations aimed at producing bananas and other products for the trade with Mombasa and other coastal towns. The high walls and solid fortifications of the coast towns stem from this period and were intended to keep such looters off.
In 756, King Ezana IV. attempted to solve all the problems described above with one bold move. He called in a royal council and negotiated with hundreds of representatives from the Nuer, Massai, Luo and other nomadic and semi-nomadic Nilote groups. In the end, everyone agreed to this plan:
The Massai would pack up and leave with all their cattle towards the savannas to the South of Aksum. Their migration would be aided, accompanied and secured by the royal army. Massai and royal Aksumite soldiers together would secure the land of OTL central Kenya and northern Tansania. The Kikuyu, Kamba and other tribes who live there and have begun to convert in rather unorganised ways (as the king thought) to sedentary agriculture, would be forcibly moved further East and South-East and, under the supervision and with military, technological and infrastructural "help and instruction" from Aksum`s army and settlers from Aksum`s coastal towns, would resume their process of constructing plantations in earnest there, in the vicinity of the towns with which they`d trade their produce. The entire land in question would become a part of the Kingdom of Aksum, but the Massai would be granted far-reaching autonomy in their territories and given the guarantee that they could pursue their herding way of life there without further interference.
The Nuer, Luo and other Nilote tribes would then have enough land to continue their socio-economic model in their present settlement regions in the South of the existing kingdom, even though some parts of the land would be used for conversion to intensified agriculture and settled by Northern farmers.
With the next seasonal migration, the plan was put into practice. By the middle of 757, Massai and regular Aksumite army units had conquered already half of the projected territories easily. As the would-be deportees began to put up more resistance to the relocation plans, army leaders decided to leave the task of further Southward expansion to the Massai in order to bring the Kikuyu and Kamba under control.
The Massai decided to consolidate first, used up what they found in the plantations and burned them down and spread across the savannah secured so far. Fights between the Aksumite army especially against Kikuyu resistance proved bloody and lengthy, but finally, this part of the plan was executed, too.
Outbreak of the war
What nobody had thought about beforehand, though, was that, with all the warfare in their hinterland, Aksumite and Saban coastal towns were a) cut off from food supply they had come to rely on and which, due to the dependence of sailors on seasonal winds, could not be replaced quickly enough with imports from elsewhere, and b) flooded with refugees from the hinterland (especially Saban towns), who did not trust the Aksumite army in the slightest to help them build up a new livelihood.
Starvation in the coastal towns caused even more casualties than the fights between Aksum´s army and Kikuyu and Kamba resistance. The cities on the coast cried for help and demanded an immediate end to the nocive interference in their hinterland. While the Aksumite citiy of Kismayu was, with great effort, brought back under royal control, Saba`s cities of Lamu, Mombasa and Bar ul-Zandj were a different piece of cake altogether. After diplomatic interventions and economic sanctions had proved ineffective, the Queen of Saba declared war on Aksum in September 757.
Since Saba`s navy was unable to deploy landing troops at the coast, too, the war did not make itself felt in the first five weeks, which Saba used to complete its mobilisation and send spies on the long horseback ride into the hinterland of the coast towns, where Aksumite troops tried to occupy favourable positions and maintain control over the deported natives.
As the Monsum turned (rather late that year), Saba set a massive fleet in motion and landed near its colonies, which it first secured and supplied with the direly needed goods.
Uprising, Saban advance and battle of Amboseli
Saban spies had forged an alliance with the Kikuyu, Kamba, Okiek and Nandi. In January 758, the war began in earnest, with a renewed uprising of the allied indigenous and an advance of three Saban armies from the coast towns Eastward into the hinterland held by Aksumite troops.
The two Saban armies advancing out of Lamu and Mombasa managed to break through Aksumite defenses, using the powerful latest generation of Saban portable flame-throwers and helped by the defenders being caught between the rebellion and the Saban attack. Aksum`s troops barely managed to cut through indigenous lines, withdrew from the land near the coast and regrouped in the new territories of the Massai. Saba`s armies pursued them.
Saba`s third army did not manage to land. Aksumite presence near Bar ul-Zandj was limited because no indigenous had been deported so far to the South, but for the same reason, it was also still co-ordinated and focused on stopping Saba`s invasion. After repeated failure, the Bar ul-Zandj troops were shipped further to the North to secure Mombasa and Lamu and occupy the hinterland of Aksum`s city of Kismayu.
In March 758, the two Saban armies and their indigenous allies confronted Aksum`s troops and their Massai allies in the high plateau of Amboseli. Regular Aksumite troops and Massai warriors on the one side and Saban troops and Kikuyu, Kamba, Okiek and Nandi warriors on the other fought for three weeks, with great losses on both sides.
Back home in Aksum`s heartland, the war was not very popular. So, when Ezana IV. wanted to mobilise further troops, many warlords let him down. He decided to learn from his Northern neighbour, Rome, and began to draft untrained common citizens for the defense of Aksum`s mainland, with the promise of political reform and participation after the war, so that the remaining professional troops could be deployed.
After three weeks, Aksumite reinforcements reached Amboseli before Saba`s. In a decisive battle, Saba and its allies were defeated and forced to flee Eastward. Saba`s retreating troops and its advancing reinforcements missed each other, so Saba`s third army ran into defeat, too.
War on the sea and in the Swahili coastland
While Saba`s cities on the coast were supplied with important goods via Saban ships, Aksum`s Kismayu was hit very hard by the interruption of its mainland supply lines. Aksumite ships trying to deliver goods to Kismayu were intercepted by Saban vessels and set on fire with the help of Greek fire (which Aksum still had not been able to copy). To relieve the starving population of Kismayu, Ezana IV. sent armed Aksumite navy convoys in February. Near Barawa, Aksum`s and Saba`s fleets met and engaged in a short, one-sided battle, which ended in an utter defeat for Aksum. (The sight of Aksum`s burning fleet on the oceans horizon is portrayed in one of the world`s best-known paintings.)
After victory in Amboseli, further Aksumite troops were deployed to clear the shores of the Jubba river from Sabans in order to restore supply lines to Kismayu. Skirmishes on the shores of the Jubba continued for many months; while some ships managed to deliver goods to Kismayu, no side managed to establish complete control over the river.
Further to the South, Aksum`s troops fortified the Eastern flanks of the mountains, while Saba strengthened its control over the lowlands near the coast. A stalemate was reached. The rebellion of the Kikuyu & co. with its surprise element had bought Saba`s side control over a strip of land 200 km wide and 800 km long.
In order to build up a more permanent supply for Lamu and Mombasa, Saba had to do what Aksum had intended to: force the Kikuyu, Kamba, Okiek and Nandi to settle near the coast and build efficient plantations with which they could supply the coast cities. As Saba achieved this during the summer of 758, its indigenous allies became frustrated and alienated. Their goal was to reconquer their homeland in the West. With the threat of another rebellion, they forced Saba`s military leadership to launch another offensive.
Since the flanks of the mountains were solidly fortified now, Saba`s troops tried to enter the rift from the South. In November 758, their advance was stopped at Tarangire. After two inconclusive battles, the Sabans withdrew their troops under the protest of their African allies and turned against Aksum`s Southernmost city Kilwa, which had not yet been affected by the war. Due to its fortifications, the siege and battle of Kilwa took several further thousands of Saban and Aksumite lives. In the end, Kilwa fell into the hands of Saba`s troops in February 759, who plundered and burned down the city and killed many of its inhabitants.
Battle of Adan, peace and immediate war results
Aksum`s new-formed mass army retaliated for Kilwa with an attack on the splendid town of Adan at the shore of Saba`s Arabic heartland. In March 759, within one week, Adan was destroyed to a significant extent and more than 50,000 inhabitants and defenders (and 10,000 invaders) killed.
After the escalation of Kilwa and Adan, it became clear to both monarchs and their advisors that the war had cost way more than its initial cause even remotely justified. In April 759, King Ezana IV. and Queen Belkis II. signed a peace treaty which stipulated the following:
- Kilwa is returned to Aksum, Adan to Saba.
- Aksumite control over the highlands colonised by the Massai is accepted
- Only Saba may station troops in the Swahili lowlands, but not within a range of 10 miles around Kismayu and Kilwa.
The indigenous peoples who had fought alongside Aksum and Saba were not asked. While the Massai were content with the solution, the Kikuyu, Kamba, Okiek and Nandi were outraged by what they perceived as Saba`s betrayal.
Long-term consequences of the war
In addition to the obvious consequences of more than 300,000 casualties, destroyed cities and the relocation of the Massai, Kikuyu and Kamba, which also concerned the Okiek and Nandi, into whose lands Kikuyu and Kamba were deported, the First East African War also had important long-term effects:
- Aksumite democracy: The population of Aksum`s coast colonies was extremely alienated and demanded never again to be dragged into a conflict that would affect them so massively without even being consulted beforehand. King Ezana IV. also had to honour his word to the commoners of Aksum`s heartland, whom he had promised political participation in exchange for their military engagement. And so it came to pass that Aksum´s political system was complemented with a bicameral parliament. One chamber was to bear all the legislative and budgetary responsibility and would have to be consulted by the king when war or peace would be declared. Members of this chamber were to be elected by all adult male Aksumites in their constituencies. The other chamber would have solely counselling functions for the King and his government; its members were nominated by the King. Although constitutionally powerless, this advisory chamber proved an important factor in turning Aksum into a pluralistic society where the voice of every group was heard. Aksumite kings regularly nominated bishops of Aksum`s official miaphysitic church as well as representatives from other religions as counsellors, also chiefs and other representatives of the various indigenous nations who did not partake much in the party-controlled political processes of the heartland, as well as representatives of professional groups (which aided the dialogue between classes as industrialisation took up speed in Aksum in later centuries), ethnic minorities like Persians, Indians, Arabs, Sri Vijayans etc. in the coast cities and later other social and non-governmental groups. Democratisation not only stabilised Aksum`s power; it also became a model for other African countries.
- Halting Southward expansion of Swahili colonies: Aksum`s and Saba`s Swahili colonies turned out to be quite a burden on the kingdom`s defenses. Thus, no Swahili colony was established south of Saba`s Quelimane. Instead, the cities were endowed with a second, outer circle of fortification, which protected urban plantations aimed at securing a minimum of food supply at all times. Outside the extended city walls, the city councils pursued an active settlement and integration policy among local (and sometimes even distant) tribes in order to turn them into the city`s farmers. Thus, the influence of the coastal cities did not span great distances anymore and intensified on their immediate surroundings instead.
- Formation of the Kirinyaga Alliance: The Kikuyu, Kamba, Okiek and Nandi were not content with becoming farmers under the aid and supervision of Saba. At the same time, their coexistence with each other and with military and technological supervisors from the highly developed Kingdom of Saba shaped a new sense of identity and new elites. In 782, 23 years after the war, they declared their independence. The Kirinyaga Alliance, named after the holy mountain of the Kikuyu and the Meru, whose occupation by Aksum they refused to accept, was the first multi-tribal black African state where one tribe did not dominate the others, but all tribes were equal and represented in the Supreme Kiama - and even further: all age groups also formed nation-wide "riikas". Kirinyaga`s political system was to a great extent influenced, ironically, by the democratisation process in Aksum, the country whose military aggression had caused their deplacement. The multi-tribal, democratic Kirinyaga model influenced African societies to its South, in turn. Saban troops were invited to stay and guarantee security (not only against Aksum; for Kirinyaga kiamas came to realise that stability and security were the foundation of the rapid economic development they went through and which was mostly driven by Saban investments).
- Lasting military engagement in central Africa: To contain Aksum, Saba supported not only the Kirinyaga Alliance, but also the forming kingdom of Kitara in the Great Lakes region to the West of the Massai territory and supplied it with firearms when these became more widely available in the 9th century, while Aksum took a more active role in the former lands of Kanem and later aided Congo in its defense against Kitara. Due to Saban and Aksumite meddling, central Africa underwent a transformation from small structures and tribal conflicts to states who had to carefully establish a balance of power or else descended into majour wars.