The History of the MV Liemba aka The African Queen – The Oldest Passenger Ferry in the World

The MV Liemba, formerly the Graf von Götzen, is a passenger cargo ferry that runs along the eastern shore of Lake Tanganyika.

Just to get us started here are some quick facts about our beloved MV Liemba that you may not know:

  • Built in 1913
  • Scuttled in 1916 – raised again after several years at the bottom of Lake Tanganyika
  • Put into service as a ferry in 1927
  • An inspiration for a vessel in C S Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen, and the 1951 Hollywood film
  • Proudly described by its owners as “the oldest passenger ferry in the world”


The MV Liemba today

The ship (Graf von Götzen) was built in 1913 at the Meyer-Werft Shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, and named after Count Gustav Adolf Graf von Götzen, the former governor of German East Africa. After a preliminary assembly, the ship was taken apart and shipped in parts to East Africa to serve as a passenger and cargo ferry, in addition to the Tanganyika railroad. It arrived first in Dar es Salaam, and was then taken on the Central Line to Kigoma, on Lake Tanganyika. It was there, in 1914, that the ship was rebuilt and launched, in June 1915 and was one of three vessels operated by the Germans to control Lake Tanganyika during the early part of World War I.


MV Liemba a Warship During World War I

With the aid of the Götzen which had been additionally equipped with a 4-inch (100 mm) gun from the SMS Königsberg, the Germans had complete supremacy of the lake in the early stages of the war. The ship was used both to ferry cargo and personnel across the lake, and as a base from which to launch surprise attacks on Allied troops. It therefore became essential for the Allied forces to gain control of the lake themselves. Under the command of Geoffrey Spicer-Simson and the Royal Navy they achieved the monumental task of bringing two armed motor boats Mimi and Toutou from England to the lake by rail, road and river to Kalemie on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika. The two boats waited until December 1915, and mounted a surprise attack on the Germans, with the capture of the gunboat Kingani-renamed HMS Fifi. Another German vessel, theHedwig von Wissman, was sunk in February 1916, leaving the Götzen as the only German vessel remaining on the lake.


As a result of their strengthened position on the lake, the Allies advanced towards Kigoma by land, and the Belgians established an airbase on the western shore at Albertville. It was from there, in June 1916, that they launched a bombing raid on German positions in and around Kigoma. It is unclear whether or not the Götzen was hit (the Belgians claimed to have hit it but the Germans denied this), but German morale suffered and the ship was subsequently stripped of its gun since it was needed elsewhere.

The war on the lake had reached a stalemate by this stage, with both sides refusing to mount attacks. However, the war on land was progressing, largely to the advantage of the Allies, who cut off the railway link in July 1916 and threatened to isolate Kigoma completely. This led the German commander, Gustav Zimmer, to abandon the town and head south. In order to avoid his prize ship falling into Allied hands, Zimmer ordered that the vessel be scuttled. The task was given to the three engineers from Meyer Werft who had traveled with the dismantled ship to Lake Tanganyika in order to supervise its assembly. They decided on their own that they would try to enable a later salvage; they loaded the ship with sand and covered all engines with a thick layer of grease before before sinking her carefully on July 26, off the mouth of the Malagarasi River.

The Götzen remained on the bottom of Lake Tanganyika until 1924, when it was salvaged by the British, to aid transport around the lake in the new protectorate of Tanganyika. They found that the engines and boilers were still usable and the ship returned to service in May 1927 as a passenger and cargo ferry under the new title MV Liemba.


Recent history

The ferry has been operating almost nonstop since that date. After Tanzanian independence in 1961, under Tanzania Railways Corporation – TRC, and then Marine Services Company Limited (1997 – todate). The firms took over the running of the ferry, allowing them to tie in services with the Central Line from Kigoma to Dar es Salaam. In 1970, the ship underwent an overhaul, in which the original steam engines were replaced with twin diesels and the accommodation upgraded, allowing an increase in passenger numbers from 430 to 600.

In 1993 the vessel underwent a further overhaul managed by a Danish shipyard, Karstensen Shipyard, Northern Jutland, sponsored by Danida, a Danish developmental organization.

In 1997, the Liemba was used by the UNHCR, along with the MV Mwongozo, to transport more than 75,000 refugees, who had fled Zaire during the First Congo War, back to their homeland following the overthrow of longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. The ship made a total of 22 trips between Kigoma and Uvira during this five month operation.

Ferry operation and Routing

The Liemba runs a weekly service in each direction, running from Kigoma to Mpulungu Wednesday to Friday, and back again from Friday to Sunday. Accommodation ranges from 1st class (luxury cabin) to 3rd class (seating only).


There are docks at Kigoma, Mpulungu and Kasanga, but at all other stops, passengers must travel to the shore by way of a smaller boat. Notable stops along the route include: Lagosa (for Mahale Mountains National Park), Karema (for Mpanda) and Kasanga (for Sumbawanga).



  1. What a great article Elise, I’ve really enjoyed that. What was the relationship between this ship and African Queen, if any, I suspected this was the origin.

    1. Thanks so much Gerry! Interesting that you say that as the MV Liemba is supposedly the original ‘African Queen’ and that movie was an adaption of the Liemba’s story.

      “The exploits on Lake Tanganyika caught the public imagination, and were adapted by C. S. Forester for his book The African Queen, later made into the film The African Queen, directed by John Huston.
      A British naval force features in the book, consisting of two motor boats named HMS Amelia and HMS Matilda. The legacy of the Battle for Lake Tanganyika also continues in the survival of Spicer-Simson′s nemesis, Graf von Götzen. She was raised by the Belgians and towed to Kigoma, but sank at her moorings in a storm.
      She was raised again by the British in 1921 under their mandate for Tanganyika, where it was found that she was so well preserved by the greasing, that little work needed to be done to repair her. She returned to service on 16 May 1927 under the name Liemba, and still sails Lake Tanganyika.”
      (excerpt from

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