In pre-Arab times the islands were home to the Bajun, but their traditions vanished almost entirely with the arrival of the Arabs.
In the 19th century, the soldiers of Lamu caught the warriors of Paté on open mud at low tide and slaughtered them. This victory, plus the cash cows of ivory and slavery, made Lamu a splendidly wealthy place, and most of the fine Swahili houses that survive today were built during this period.
It all came to an end in 1873, when the British forced Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar to close down the slave markets. With the abolition of slavery, the economy went into rapid decline. The city-state was incorporated into the British Protectorate from 1890, and became part of Kenya with independence in 1963.
Until it was ‘rediscovered’ by travellers in the 1970s, Lamu existed in a state of humble obscurity, which has allowed it to remain well preserved for tourists today.