History of Mombasa, “the island of war”

This article is also available in: Italiano

Mombasa is one of the most evocative and well-known places in East Africa, able to represent the history of the Swahili world very well

The words of Ibn Battuta

“The first stop was Mombasa, a large island two days’ sailing from the Sawahil region, with no land annexed to the mainland, where bananas, lemons and cedars grow – as well as a very sweet fruit, the jamun.”

The origins of Mombasa and the Portuguese rule

There are no written sources regarding the origins of Mombasa, but there is a legend that the population has always been particularly fond of. According to the latter, in ancient times there were two queens: Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita; the first founded the nucleus of the city, Kongowea, and was the base of the 12 Nations, the oldest group of inhabitants of the city, the second, however, is considered the first Muslim ruler, as well as the builder of the first great stone mosque. According to many experts, this little legend shows us the evolution of the Swahili people and of Mombasa specifically. This is because the first sovereign would represent the Bantu soul of the city, while the second the Swahili soul, which evolved later and more to the “Islamic world”. Beyond the legends, local historians believe that the first settlement was built in 900, reaching full development and maturity in the 12th century, a period in which it passed under the domination of Kilwa, so much so that in 1151 it was mentioned by the great Arab geographer Al Idrisi. The city’s name means “Island of War” and refers to the difficult times it will face. The wealth and prosperity derived above all from her trade with India and China, a role that made her assume an incredible interest in the eyes of the Portuguese.

Forte Jesus

In 1502 Mombasa exploited the Lusitanians’ attack on Kilwa to become independent, but went to clash with Malindi, his eternal rival who had become a vassal from Lisbon. In 1505 he fell under the blows of this double alliance, but he surrendered definitively only in 1529, the year in which he passed for the first time under the Portuguese yoke. In 1588 it was liberated by the joint forces of the Ottomans and the Somali Sultanate of Ajuran, but as early as 1593 it passed under the control of Malindi, still a vassal of the Lusitanians, who built Forte Jesus here.

Oman, Great Britain and Kenya

Between 1696 and 1698 the joint forces of Oman and Ajuran besieged the city, which eventually surrendered to the new Arab lords. From that date, until 1887, it will be linked, albeit with mixed fortunes, to Muscat, sometimes remaining prey to clashes with its two greatest enemies: the Portuguese and the British. If the former manage to reconquer the city only for a very short time, the latter in 1887 bought it and in 1895 incorporated it directly into British East Africa, making it the capital; this greatly helped the local economy, which found itself to be a real administrative center, as well as a thriving place for trade, attracting many new workers from India.


In 1920 it will lose its capital status in favor of Nairobi, then becoming part of the British colony of Kenya, which will become independent in 1963 thanks to Jomo Kenyatta.

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