Often, history is told by the people leading the conversation. The problem with the history of Mombasa, however, is that there have been so many people who have had something to say about how this island became a city. Perhaps it does not also help that Mombasa is a city as old as memory. But if you are looking for something to thank for the remembrance of Mombasa’s ancient moments, then you should direct your gratitude to art. Art in its simplest, truest form; poetry.
When a famous Swahili poet, Bwana Munyaka bin Mwinyi, sat down in the early 19th century to write a poem about the days of old, back when the world was still new, he probably did not know that his words would be used – decades later – as a cornerstone source for defining the sunrise of Mombasa city. In this poem, he wrote about what almost every other male poet writes about – a woman. But not just any woman. Mwana Mkisi. The Queen of Kongowea.
As the stories go, another leader – a Shehe Mvita – came to Mombasa from the Shirazi towns, after being rejected and denied occupancy by the city-states in the north. He was then given Mombasa by the Sultan of Mtwapa, deposing The Queen of Kongowea.
If not for much, the poem offers a snapshot of the communities that founded Mombasa. It must have been these communities that early Arab geographer Al Idrisi mentions as early as 1151 or that Ibn Battuta, a Moroccan traveller, saw in his visit to the East coast in 1331.
Still, the argument about the genesis of this island persists. Some say that it came about as a place of stories, where people came to relax and tell stories. Others say that it started off as a place of refuge and restoration for people who had been rejected from other city-states. The rest say that this is a place that was birthed in strife and war, and that is why it was originally called Mvita (a city of war). The remaining ones insist that the name comes from Shehe Mvita of old.
How Mombasa came to be is an enduring question. But one thing we know about places is that they are allowed to mean different things to different people. And it is in these meanings that we choose the threads from our past we want to pull.
Mombasa at the time was a pearl of an island, occupied by the ancient Swahilis whose ancestors had settled there before them, and built city-states that would fight with one another over dominance of the region. It was a place viciously defended by those who lived in it, and lustfully coveted by everyone else. Some say that during that time, the Swahilis wore clothes threaded with gold, and lived lush lifestyles in storied buildings, decorated with intricate wood carvings.
Then, in 1498, a Portuguese explorer landed on the coast of Mombasa by mistake. He was on his way to India, but the monsoon winds pushed his sails towards this coast. He found no refuge here, and was quickly sent away by the inhabitants of Mombasa, but found hospitality in a rival city called Malindi. This Portuguese man was called Vasco Da Gama, and if you visit Malindi today, there is a monument that pays tribute to this history, named after him.
What the people of Mombasa (and the larger East African coast, really) did not know was that Da Gama was not the last of his kind they would see. The moment Vasco Da Gama discovered the trade route to India is the moment the then ambitious King of Portugal decided that it was important for his empire to control the trade routes, and build forts along the coast of East Africa. But given the way his first voyager had been received, the king knew that he would not be allowed occupation by asking kindly.
So he sent Dom Francisco de Almeida. A man who had joined the military as a young boy, eager to bring honour to his family name. After successful campaigns in the Christian conquests of Granada and at the Battle of Toro in 1476, he had proved to both his God and country that he was battle-hardened. He no longer went by Dom Francisco de Almeida, rather, The Great Dom Francisco.
On the day he showed up above the horizon of the Mombasa’s coastal waters, commanding an armada of eleven heavily armed ships, 1500 soldiers, and experience in war, there was not a single doubt in The Great Dom Francisco’s mind that he would take the East African coast in a matter of days. He merged forces with the Sultan of Malindi and together, they made a beeline for Mombasa.
The people of Mombasa were about to be truly tested for the first time. And to their credit, they did not turn and flee. They fought like men. Not even when their city was literally burned to the ground. It was a baptism by fire. And not the last. Twice more, the Portuguese – under different commanders – attacked Mombasa and burned it down in an attempt to subdue its people. And twice more, they failed.
As they would come to learn, the Swahilis of Mombasa are not a people you can just push around.
But then came a Portuguese General by the name of Nuno da Cunha. He led the final assault that finally brought Mombasa to its knees in 1589. They did not do it alone though, they had help of an unusual kind. The city would not have fallen had it not been for the Zimba. The notorious horde of cannibal warriors from further south of Mombasa ravaged the countryside while the Portuguese attacked from the sea. That kind of deadly two-pronged assault was too much to bear, for a city already weakened by years of war.
The thing about losing a war is that you do not just lose the fight. You also lose your life and your history. With almost the whole city razed to the ground that many times, and finally wiped out in the final round, there is not much that is left of old Mombasa that antedates Portuguese invasion. The “old Mombasa” we speak of today is not really the original town. That one – the glorious one in which people wore clothes of gold – was relegated to song, stories and poetry.
And memory, for those who’ll keep it.
The Portuguese kept Mombasa for a whole century. With the port of Mombasa pivotal to their trade routes to India, they moved their headquarters from Malindi and even built a fort to protect the town and the port and named it Fort Jesus. But then after a protracted siege that lasted two years and nine months, the city once again fell to the Arabs of Oman.
By the tail-end days of the siege, in December 1698, the garrison at Fort Jesus comprised only the Captain, nine men and a priest. By then, it had been devastated by hunger, disease, mutiny and lack of reinforcement. The fort was, at the point, no longer a fort. It was ripe for the taking. The last Omani attack of December 13 captured the fort. The Omanis then gave chase to the Portuguese from the Swahili coast up to Mozambique.
Mombasa would remain in Omani hands, but not for long. It was too hot to be kept by just one entity. And for another century, its possession would change. From the Omani Arabs, to the Shirazi family of the Mazrui, then back to the Portuguese, then momentarily to the British who under the leadership of Captain Owens tried unsuccessfully to rid the coast of slavery, then back to the Omani Arabs.
But just before the Omani leadership could finally savour the best of the island, the ripple effect of events in the Omani Kingdom changed the course of Mombasa’s destiny. After the death of Seyyid Said, his kingdom of Oman and Muscat and his control over the East African coast was distributed between his two sons. The elder took over Oman and Muscat, while the younger took over the East African coastal strip that he governed from Zanzibar. And Mombasa, thus, came under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar.
Much of what Mombasa is today was built during this time of the rule by the Sultan of Zanzibar. And when we speak of Mombasa, we mean old town. Not the whole county. That part of Mombasa that has been preserved. With its narrow streets and doors steeled with copper and brass, and old men in vests sitting around drinking coffee, remembering the days of their youth. Them with long beards the colour of flames, and hearts softer than a baby’s intentions. You will see them seated by their thick brown doors fortified with copper spikes, sipping on bitter coffee in between those buildings that smell ancient like the ocean.
The rest, as they say, is history.