Although there has probably been a reasonably sized settlement at Tanga since at least the Shirazi era, the town first came into its own in the early to mid-19th century as a starting point for trade caravans to the interior. Ivory was the main commodity traded, with a turnover of about 70,000lb annually in the late 1850s, according to explorer Richard Burton who visited here. The real boom, however, came with the arrival of the Germans in the late 19th century. They built up the town and harbour as part of the construction of a railway line linking Moshi and the Kilimanjaro region with the sea. The Germans also introduced sisal to the area, and Tanzania soon became the world’s leading producer and exporter of the crop, with sisal the centre of local economic life. In WWI, Tanga was the site of the Battle of Tanga (later memorialised in William Boyd’s novel, An Ice-Cream War), in which poorly prepared British troops were soundly trounced by the Germans.
As the world sisal market began to collapse in the 1970s, Tanga’s economy spiralled downward. Today, much of the town’s infrastructure has been abandoned and the economy is just a shadow of its former self, although vast plantations still stretch westwards along the plains edging the Usambara Mountains.