Mombasa, Kenya (ca. 900 A.D.- )

Mombasa skyline, Kenya, April 30, 2016
Photo by Leo Hempstone (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mombasa, located in southeastern Kenya on the Indian Ocean, is the second largest city in the country and the nation’s major seaport.  The city, which is located on an island separated from the mainland by Tudor Creek and Kilindini Harbor, had a population of  939,370 people according to a 2009 census.  The official language is Swahili and the city is populated mostly by the Muslim Swahili people.  The Swahili name for the city is Kisiwa Cha Mvita, which translates “island of war.” Mombasa is also an internationally famous tourist destination particularly for visitors from Europe.

According to their creation myths, Mombasa was founded by two rulers: Mwana Mkisi and Shehe Mvita.  More likely the city was founded by Arab traders who settled there as they did in other cities along the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa.  Those early Arab settlers intermarried with local people, creating the Muslim-dominated culture in the city.

Kenyan historians place the founding of Mombasa as around 900 A.D.  The town was prosperous enough to be described by the Arab geographer Al Idrisi, who mentioned it in his writings in 1151, and by the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, who visited it in 1331. During this period Mombasa emerged as an important trade center with links to Yemen, India, Persia, and China with spices, gold, and ivory as its chief exports.

In 1498 Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama became the first known European to reach Mombasa.  His visit awakened Portuguese interest in the city.  Two years later the Portuguese returned to sack the city.  The Portuguese finally captured Mombasa in 1593, building Fort Jesus to ensure their rule.  Mombasa became Portugal’s main trading center on the East African coast.

The city came under the rule of the Sultan of Oman in 1698.  In 1837 Mombasa was annexed by Sayyid Said, the Sultan of Zanzibar (Tanzania).  Zanzabari rule continued until 1898 when the British assumed control of the city.  Mombasa became the capital of British East Africa and the sea terminal for the Uganda Railway which was started in 1896.  The British introduced Indian laborers who constructed the railroad.  After its completion in 1900, they stayed and became a part of this increasingly multicultural, multiracial city.  Mombasa under the British sent cotton, cloves, and coffee to Europe and the Americas.

When Kenya became independent in December 1963, Mombasa had a population of 191,000. The city remains a major trading port.  It has also become a popular sports city.  In 2007 the Cross Country World Championship was held there. It also has its own rugby and cricket teams and hosts the Safari Rally, a cross country motor car race.