History in Mombasa

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Situated on the Indian Ocean, Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya and is the largest attraction of the country’s coastal tourism industry. With a population over 700,000, this bustling city is home to a port, an international airport, and it serves as the district seat for Mombasa District government. With its name meaning

'Island of War' in Swahili, this island city has a rich history complete with many changes in ownership throughout its long and storied history.

Early Mombasa History

Much of the early history of Mombasa was recorded by Portuguese chroniclers starting in the early 16th century. Prior to that, the city’s past was only known through oral tradition. According to the oral history, Shehe Mvita took over the dynasty of the city’s female ruler, Mwana Mkisi, and established the new city on Mombasa Island. 

Though the founding date of the city is unknown, its first reference appears as far back as 1151 when Arab geographer Al Idrisi mentioned it as an already prolific trading town. Rich in spices, ivory and gold, the oral historians cite trade links reaching both India and China during this time. By the late 19th century, exports changed to millet, coconuts and sesamum and the city’s port became the major port of the country to trade with other port cities throughout Africa, Persia, India and Yemen.

Colonial Mombasa History

The first known European to visit Mombasa was the famous explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498. Just 2 years later the town was overthrown by the Portuguese and so began a nearly 100-year struggle to colonize the city. By 1638, Portugal has succeeded and Mombasa was a Portuguese colony.

Mombasa switched hands many more times--from being a subordinate of Zanzibar and then back to the Portuguese, and then a British protectorate. By 1887, the city’s administration was returned to British East Africa and it quickly became the capital of the British East Africa Protectorate as well as the sea terminal for the Ugandan Railway. The city’s fortune grew as the railway was built, primarily using the labor of workers who were brought from British India.

Mombasa was officially part of the state of Zanzibar in 1963 when it became part of the newly recognized state of Kenya.


 

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