Port of Mombasa
Review and History

The Port of Mombasa lies on a coralline island linked by causeway, ferry, and bridge to Kenya’s mainland. In a bay off the Indian Ocean, the Port of Mombasa is a contemporary deep-water port and a market for Kenya’s agricultural products, much of which is exported along with products from Uganda and Tanzania.

The second biggest city in Kenya and headquarters for the Mombasa District, the Port of Mombasa contains both an international port and airport, and it is the center for coastal tourism in the country. Major industries in the Port of Mombasa include metal works, sugar processors, fertilizer manufacturers, cement works, and oil refining. For centuries, the Port of Mombasa has attracted immigrants from the Indian sub-continent, Persia, Somalia, and the Middle East. In 2004, over 777 thousand people, most of them Muslim, lived in the Port of Mombasa.

Port History

Local oral history credits the founding of the Port of Mombasa to two rulers. The Mkisi dynasty ruled the area until it was conquered by Shehe Mvita who established his own town on Mombasa Island. The Swahili Twelve Nations (Thenashara Taifa) still tell the story of the change in dynasties, and they are the keepers of Swahili traditions. Mvita was a highly-educated Muslim, and most Mombasa natives identify more with his culture than with the original Swahili culture.

In the 16th Century, Portuguese writers contributed most of what the Western world knows about Mombasa. However, Moroccan historian Ibn Battuta visited the Port of Mombasa for one night in 1331, and he noted the peoples’ religious and trustworthy Muslim nature.

Scholars believe that the Port of Mombasa was a prosperous trading village as early as the 12th Century. Goods like gold, ivory, and spices were traded in the Port of Mombasa, and its trading routes went all the way to India and China, according to oral tradition. Since Europeans came to the area, the Port of Mombasa has exported ivory, coconuts, sesamum, and millet.

In the late 19th Century, the Port of Mombasa was the center of a plantation society that depended on slave labor, although ivory caravans were still the main economic contributor.

In pre-colonial times, the Port of Mombasa was a major port city. Portuguese traveler Duarte Barbosa noted in the 15th Century that the Port of Mombasa was a busy one with a good harbor where many different ships and small crafts anchored before traveling to and from Melinde, Cambay, and Zanzibar. Rumors tell of Zheng He’s great Chinese fleet visiting the Port of Mombasa in about 1415. The first European we know visited the Port of Mombasa was Vasco da Gama, who did not receive a warm welcome in 1498. The Portuguese sacked the Port of Mombasa just two years later.

In the early 16th Century, the Sultanate became independent of Portugal, naming itself Mvita (Swahili) or Manbasa (Arabic). However, the Portuguese attacked again in 1528, and later trying to establish a colony by building Fort Jesus in 1593. The Port of Mombasa became a formal Portuguese colony under Goa in 1638.

In 1698, the Sultanate of Oman ruled the Port of Mombasa, but it was placed under the authority of Zanzibar, spurring rebellion by locals. Three different Governors ruled for Oman from 1968 to 1728. In 1728, the Portuguese returned once more, only to be drive out again by Oman in 1746. In 1746, the Omani governor declared independence to the distress of Oman. 

For two years (1824-1826), the Port of Mombasa was a British protectorate until Omani rule was restored. In 1837, the Sultan of Zanzibar annexed the Port of Mombasa. The old Portuguese Fort Jesus was renamed the Fort of Isa for Shaikh Isa Bin Tarif, and his politically-important tribe swung in alliance between Qatar and Bahrain.

In 1887, the British East Africa Association assumed administrative authority for the Port of Mombasa, and the Sultan formally transferred the town to the British in 1898. It soon became the capital and part of the British East Africa Protectorate and the rail terminal at the sea for the Uganda Railway. Workers from British India were imported to build the railway, bringing new prosperity to the Port of Mombasa. In 1895, the Port of Mombasa became part of the British Kenya protectorate, although the area was nominally under the rule of Zanzibar. The Port of Mombasa was officially part of Zanzibar until it was incorporated into the new State of Kenya in 1963.

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