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Mombasa

Geography is one of the significant influences on history. Mombasa, Kenya, is one of Africa's historically significant trading ports. Its meaning has been clear to any power viewing the map of Africa. Located just off the Swahili coast, Mombasa is a perfect location for traders to come and trade for the riches of Africa. How did this geography allow for the development of a powerful trading city?

Modern World History Mombasa StudySmarterFig.1 - Aerial View of Mombasa

Mombasa Meaning

It is believed that the original name for the settlement on Mombasa island, Kongowea, was a localized version of the word "Kongo," meaning civilized. The name Mombasa has evolved. It is rooted in the earlier name Manbasa. Mombasa, in turn, comes from the Arabic version of the Swahili name Mvita. Some oral traditions state that the Mvita name had the meaning "a city of war." The island has undoubtedly become the setting of many violent conflicts over its strategically vital location to trade.

Mombasa Kenya

Medieval Mombasa was a city-state located in what is now Kenya. It is the oldest city in the country. Mombasa's history extends much further back than the modern country in which it is located. Kenya came into existence only when the British empire created a protectorate by that name in the late nineteenth century.

Map of Mombasa

Mombasa is a coastal city that sits on the Indian Ocean inside a bay. Its location on the east coast of Africa has historically made it an important trading port. Mombasa is a flat, coralline island.

Mombasa History

Mombasa was settled by the Swahili people around 900 AD. The influence of trading on the Swahili people can be seen even in their language. It is separated from its root language, Bantu, by its many loan words from other languages, primarily Arabic. The word "Swahili" is an Arabic loanword meaning "people of the coast."

Mwana Mikisi

The earliest known ruler is a woman named Mwana Mikisi, who founded the settlement around 900. In her time, the settlement in the area was known as Kongowea. Mikisi and her people practiced a traditional Bantu religion, as while Islam had entered Africa at this point, it was not yet the dominant religion in Mombasa. The inhabitants had some skill with iron smelting and agriculture. Their trade for rice from the mainland would hint at the island's future importance as a trading center.

Twelve Nations

The Thenashara Taifa, translated as "Twelve Nations," was the earliest family to live on Mombasa Island. Some residents of Mombasa still trace their ancestry to the Twelve Nations today. It was through the Twelve Nations that the oral history of Mombasa was transmitted from the Medieval past to us today.

Shehe Mvita

With the end of the traditional pagan dynasty begun under Mwana Mikisi came the Islamic dynasty founded by Shehe Mvitaff. Mvita is noted for building the first stone Mosque on Mombasa island. The Mosque was just a part of the transition of Mombasa into an urban center that occurred under Mvita. He is often described as a person of great learning who came from elsewhere to establish his dynasty.

Islam remains a major religion but Mombasa today but has been joined by Christianity as its other major religion.

Records of Mombasa

What knowledge exists of Medieval Mombasa is quite limited. The Twelve Nations' oral traditions provide information on Mwana Mikisi and Shehe Mvitaff. Of the day-to-day activities and life in medieval Mombasa, written local records of the period do not exist. What is known for sure comes mostly from Arab visitors.

Mombasa Al-Idrisi's World Map StudySmarterFig.3 - Al-Idrisi's World Map

Al-Idrisi

It was in the year 1151 that an Arab geographer recorded a visit to Mombasa. The observations were primarily that the island was a trading port. It is known that ivory, gold, and spices were all traded on the island. Traders from as far as China and India made port in Mombasa.

Born in 1100 in Ceuta, Al-Idrisi personally witnessed much of the world. At a young age, he traveled to Africa and much of Europe. In addition to his travels, Idrisi interviewed merchants and travelers who had visited the rest of the world.

Al-Idrisi's significant contribution to world knowledge was synthesizing his first-hand knowledge with what other travelers told him. From this information, he developed A Diversion for the Man Longing to Travel to Far-Off Places, an illustrated work detailing the known locations and cultures of the world. He followed this up with a later map known as the Tabula Rogeriana.

Ibn Battuta

In 1330, the well-known Moroccan scholar Ibn Battuta visited Mombasa in his extensive travels. Battuta stayed just for one night in the city as part of his broad exploration of the Swahili Coast. While Idrisi may have noted the economic strength of the island, Battuta was focused on its spiritual practices. He called the inhabitants righteous Muslims. Interestingly, he notes their Mosques were all made of wood, although stone Mosques were believed to have been constructed in the area by this time.

Contact with Portugal

When Vasco de Gama entered Mombasa in 1498, he was not well received. The Portuguese had been pillaging the ships of Arab traders as their journey had not gone well. De Gama was quickly expelled from Mombasa. After two sackings by later Portuguese voyages, Mombasa was taken over by the Arjun and Ottoman Empires. Eventually, the Portuguese returned to once more take the land in 1589.

This time, the Portuguese influence would prove to be longer-lasting. A permanent colony was established, and a military installation, Fort Jesus, was built on the island. The Portuguese left the ruling family of the city of Malindi in charge until 1631. That year, the ruler Dom Jeronimo renounced Christianity, killed all of the Portuguese soldiers, and abandoned the rulership of Mombasa to take to the sea as a pirate. In 1632, the Portuguese took more direct control of the city.

In 1698 the Portuguese lost Mombasa once again. This time it was in the hands of Oman almost continually until it became a British protectorate in 1887. The Omani rule was only interrupted by a year of Portuguese control in 1728 and two years of British rule almost 100 years later in 1826. Mombasa finally became independent of foreign rule as a part of Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963.

Mombasa is still a major trading port, serving neighboring countries' import and export needs. In addition to being a foreign trading hub, local coffee and oil are exported.

Mombasa - Key takeaways

  • An island in a bay on the west coast of Africa
  • An essential strategic trading center
  • Ruled locally until the Portuguese took over semi-permanently in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries
  • Fought over by many empires for its strategic location to trade

Frequently Asked Questions about Mombasa

Mombasa is a strategic trading location on the west coast of Africa. 

The original name of Mombasa is Kongowea.

Mombasa was founded by Mwana Mkisi

At first Mombasa was ruled by the dynasty of Mwana Mikisi and then later the dynasty of Shehe Mvita 

Mombasa today is primarily Muslim 

Final Mombasa Quiz

Question

What is the location of Mombasa particularly useful for?

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Answer

Trade

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Question

The founder of Mombasa was a woman. 

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Answer

True 

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Question

Who were the Twelve Nations?

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Answer

The original inhabitants of Mombasa 

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Question

Mombasa was founded as a Muslim settlement 

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Answer

False 

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Question

Who built the first stone Mosque on Mombasa?

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Answer

Shehe Mtiva 

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Question

Mombasa is named after Shehe Mtiva 

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Answer

True 

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Question

The stories of the Twelves Nations come to us through what?

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Answer

Oral tradition 

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Question

What is the connnection of the Swahili and Mombasa?

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Answer

They were the inhabitants 

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Question

What did Ibn Batutta call the inhabitants of Mombasa?

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Answer

Righteous Muslims 

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Question

From what country did Mombasa and Kenya finally gain independence from in 1963?

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Answer

Britain

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