The history of Mombasa is a mixture of African, Persian, Arab, Portuguese and British influences which contributed to the rich cultural heritage found in the city today.
It was a great trading centre with items such as copper, glass, spices, brass, iron, ivory, gold, rhino horn and not least of all, slaves passing through. The original Arabic name was “Manbasa” while it was known as “Kisiwa Cha Mvita” in Kiswahili which means “Island of War” due to the many wars which were fought over control of this key port city.
Originally occupied by the Bantu people, the founding of the island is associated, in oral history, with two rulers: Mwana Mkisi (female) and Shehe Mvita. It is said that Shehe Mvita superseded the dynasty of Mwana Mkisi and established his own town on Mombasa Island. Shehe Mvita is reputed to have been a Muslim of great learning and is therefore linked more with the present ideals of Swahili culture that people identify with Mombasa. The Thenashara Taifa (Twelve Nations) Swahili lineages continue to tell this history and are the keepers of local Swahili traditions.
Notwithstanding that today Mombasa is a rich heterogeneous cultural mix, families associated with Theneshara Taifa are still considered to be the original inhabitants of the city.
The island town was visited by the Jordanians in the 6th century, Persians in the 9th and 10th centuries and the Arabs thereafter. The Arabs and later, Persians, developed intricate trading routes and commercial centres with Mombasa as one of the key towns on the East African coastline which contributed to a flourishing of civilisation reflected in the glorious architecture of their grand houses, monuments and mosques.
The Portuguese, the ferocious Zimba, a tribe of cannibals from the Congo, and the Omanis have all laid claim to Mombasa since the 12th century. Al Idris, the Arab geographer mentions Mombasa in 1151 while the famous Moroccan scholar and traveller, Ibn Battuta, described the Mombasa people as Shafii Muslims, “a religious people, trustworthy and righteous.
Their mosques are made of wood, expertly built,” when he visited the town in 1331 on his travels along the East African coast.
By the 15th century, Mombasa was a thriving, sophisticated city, with well established trade routes to China, Persia and India. It is claimed that the great Chinese fleet of Zheng visited Mombasa in 1415.
While on a voyage to discover the sea route to India in 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama landed in Mombasa to a hostile reception.
Two years later the Portuguese ransacked the city without much success. In 1505, better armed, the Portuguese, under the command of Francisco de Almeida returned to attack the city. The city of about 10,000 inhabitants was torched and plundered with heavy loss of life. The Portuguese were assisted to conquer the city by an enemy of Mombasa, the Sultan of Malindi. In 1585, a joint military expedition between the Somalis of Ajuran Empire and the Turks of the Ottoman Empire led by Emir Ali Bey liberated Mombasa from the Portuguese. The Zimba followed in 1587 and slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants but were stopped in their tracks at Malindi by the Bantu-speaking Segeju and returned home in the south. This encouraged the Portuguese to launch a third bid to conquer Mombasa which they did in 1589. Four years later between 1593 and 1596, they built Fort Jesus, dominating the entrance to the old harbour, to administer the region.
The Arabs made several attempts to retake Mombasa but the Portuguese, supported mainly by supplies from their Indian colony, Goa, were able to repulse them each time for the next 100 years.
It was not until 1797 that the Arabs placed the city under a siege and later scaled the walls of Fort Jesus and retook control of the city.
Intrigue and rivalry between competing Omani factions weakened trading along the coastline and Mombasa fell under the rule of the Mazruis, who were finally overcome by the Omani leader, Sultan Sayyid Said, in 1822.
Two years later, the British warship HMS Leven under the command of Captain Owen arrived in Mombasa. Answering to the appeals of the Mazruis, Captain Owen agreed to declare the city a British Protectorate in return for a promise from the Mazrui to end slavery.
During this period, Mombasa prospered under Sultan Sayyid, underpinned largely by the slave trade. Nonetheless, he came under increasing pressure from the British to end the practice and in 1845, he was forced into a treaty that severely limited this activity.
In 1886, in an agreement between Britain and Germany, the territories of Kenya and Uganda were assigned to the British and Tanganyika to the Germans. It was in this agreement that the Ten-Mile coastal strip, including the island of Mombasa, was created and leased to the British and Germans by the Sultan of Zanzibar.
The Imperial British East Africa Company set up its headquarters in Mombasa in 1888. Mombasa became the springboard for the colonisation of Kenya and the beginning of British dominance that was to last until independence in 1963.
British rule of Mombasa became official in 1895 when Kenya was declared a protectorate and the Ten-Mile coastal strip was handed over on a lease basis.
It was not until 1963 that Mombasa was ceded to become part of the newly independent state of Kenya. Mombasa became the most important port in East Africa when the Uganda Railway was completed in 1901 stretching from Mombasa to Kisumu.
Today, Mombasa remains Kenya’s major gateway to the rest of the world as well as a popular tourist destination for its rich history and lovely beaches.