Explorers from all walks of life have dropped in on the Indian Ocean seaport of Mombasa. Al Idrisi, the famous Arab geographer who created the Tabula Rogeriana (the most accurate map of the world in its day), was the first explorer of note, pulling into dock in 1151 CE. His records mention a bustling seaport, rich from the trade of ivory, gold, spices, and coconuts (Mombasa is thought to have been founded sometime around 900 CE, roughly 250 years prior to Al Idrisi’s visit).
Ibn Battutah, whom some call the greatest traveller or all time (I’ve read his travel accounts and harbour a suspicion that much of what he wrote is fabricated), speaks of Mombasa in his tales. If what he wrote is true, then he alighted here in 1331 CE. He described the locals as Shafi’i Muslims (Shafi’i is one of the four schools of Islamic law followed by Sunnis), and noted that they prayed in wooden mosques.
Next to arrive was the maverick Chinese explorer, Zheng He, of the Ming Dynasty, who popped in sometime around 1413 CE. Rumour has it that he took back a giraffe.
Vasco de Gama is possibly the most famous of the many explorers to visit the city – he was the first to sail between Europe and Asia via the Cape of Good Hope; a feat that kick-started the age of global imperialism. Vasco pulled into shore in 1498 CE, and while his visit may have felt inconsequential at the time to the good people of Mombasa, I suspect they didn’t feel so fondly towards the courageous explorer when, two years later, the Portuguese naval fleet attacked and sacked the city.
It was the beginning of the Portuguese invasion of the East African coastline. Troubled times lay ahead for Mombasa.
But the explorers just kept on coming. Pedro Álvares Cabral, the Portuguese sea captain credited with the ‘discovery’ of Brazil, made sure to show his face in Mombasa. As did João da Nova, the explorer who discovered Ascension and the Saint Helena Islands. Afonso de Albuquerque, widely regarded as the greatest naval commander of all time, wasn’t going to miss out on the fun either – Afonso played a vital role in the growth of the Portuguese Empire in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in the early 16th Century,
Fort Jesus, Mombasa
Mombasa was repeatedly menaced by the Portuguese during the 16th Century. In 1593 they took the next step and claimed the city as theirs. Construction of Fort Jesus commenced later that year. It was completed in 1596 (and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site).
In the ensuing years the port city was much fought over, being captured by the Omanis in 1698, recaptured by the Portuguese in 1728, returning to the Omanis in 1729, being snatched away by the British in 1824, then going back to the Omanis in 1826.
Then, in 1887, Mombasa, along with the entire East African coast north of Zanzibar, became part of the British East Africa Protectorate. Mombasa was made the new capital.
Mombasa fared well, financially at least, while under British rule. In 1896 its prominence rose when the Uganda Railway – connecting Mombasa with Lake Victoria in Uganda – was commenced. The railway was part of Britain’s attempt to establish itself as a major player in the Scramble for Africa (during which time various European powers fought for control of the continent).
The railway, approximately 1,000 kilometres in length, was completed in 1901. 2,500 workers died during its construction, many of them Indian labourers who had been brought over from British India.
Moi Avenue Tusks, Mombasa
The last explorer to make their mark on the city – although really she was more of a visiting dignitary; times had really changed by this point – was Princess Margaret, Countess of Snowdon, who came to Mombasa in 1956. The city marked the occasion by erecting a set of giant, boulevard-straddling, aluminium elephant tusks in the shape of an M for the princess.
But was it an M for Margaret? Or an M for Mombasa?
Practical information and how to reach Mombasa:
Mombasa is home to an international airport offering useful connections throughout East Africa. The city is a good place to start your exploration of Kenya’s Indian Ocean coastline. More transport info here.