Mombasa, which sits over the best deep-water harbour in East Africa, has always been an important town.

Travellers who come here are walking in the footsteps of Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo and Zhang He, which says something of this town’s trade importance. Modern Mombasa traces its heritage back to the Thenashara Taifa (Twelve Nations), a Swahili clan that maintains an unbroken chain of traditions and customs stretching from the city’s founding to this day. The date when those customs began – ie when Mombasa was born – is a little muddy, although it was already a thriving port by the 12th century. Early in its life, Mombasa became a key link on Indian Ocean trade routes.

In 1498 Vasco da Gama became Mombasa's first Portuguese visitor. Two years later his countrymen returned and sacked the town, a habit they repeated in 1505 and 1528, when Nuno da Cunha captured Mombasa using what would become a time-honoured tactic: slick ‘em up with diplomacy (offering to act as an ally in disputes with Malindi, Pemba and Zanzibar) then slap ‘em down by force. Once again Mombasa was burnt to the ground.

In 1593 the Portuguese constructed the coral edifice of Fort Jesus as a way of saying, ‘We’re staying’. This act of architectural hubris led to frequent attacks by rebel forces and the ultimate expulsion of the Portuguese by Omani Arabs in 1698. But the Omanis were never that popular either, and the British, using a series of shifting alliances and brute force, turfed them out in 1870. All these power struggles, by the way, are the source of Mombasa’s Island of War nickname.

Mombasa subsequently became the railhead for the Uganda railway and the most important city in British East Africa. In 1920, when Kenya became a fully fledged British colony, Mombasa was made capital of the separate British Coast Protectorate. Following Kenyan independence in 1963 the city fell into a torpor. It was the most important city in the region and the second largest in the country, but it was removed from the cut and thrust of Kenyan politics, whose focus had turned inland.

In the early 1990s violence briefly engulfed the city as supporters and opponents of the Islamic Party of Kenya clashed, but this has long since died down. During the 2007 elections, the coast, and Mombasa in particular, provided a rare peek into the policy platforms, rather than communal politics, of Raila Odinga and Mwai Kibaki. Neither politician could rely on a Kikuyu or Luo base here, and both campaigned on ideas, rather than appeals to tribalism. Odinga won the province by promising, in effect, a form of limited federation, which remains a hope of many Mombasan politicians who consider the coast culturally, economically and religiously distinct enough to warrant some form of self-governance.

Mombasa's outlawed separatist movement, known as the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC), listed grievances from land reform issues to economic marginalisation among reasons when it called for voters to boycott Kenya's 2013 presidential election. Nairobi imprisoned several of its key members over the years, and was jarred by its slogan, 'Pwani si Kenya' ('The coast is not Kenya'). Still, it continues to operate.

Mombasa's tensions were exacerbated in October 2013, when radical Muslim cleric Sheikh Ibrahim Rogo was killed by gunmen in the city. His supporters alleged that Kenyan security forces were involved in his murder. A second cleric, Sheikh Abubakar Shariff Ahmed, was killed in April 2014 under similar circumstances. Further jitters were felt in August 2017, preceding the hotly-contested general election, though violence in the city was kept to a minimum.

Swa-who-li?

‘So you are a Swahili?’ we ask the Mombasa shop owner, who's dressed like all the Swahili in the streets and shares their caramel skin colour. ‘No! No, I am Kenyan, but my roots are in Gujarat,’ he says.

In the village, watching a man walk by, we turn to our guide: ‘He’s a Digo, right?’

‘No!’ says the guide. ‘His father and his mother are Digo. His mother is so traditional she won’t wear shoes. But he was sent to work in a Swahili house when he was young and converted to Islam, married a Muslim girl, made the haj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and would be insulted to be called anything but Swahili.’

Just who the Swahili are is a complex question, and not just for anthropologists. For many people on the Kenyan coast, being Swahili is the most important marker of their identity. This is not a unique set of affairs – the same emphasis on tribe can be noted in many groups in Kenya – but what sets the Swahili apart is their connection to the Muslim, particularly Arab, world.

To put it plainly: there are Swahili who believe the presence, real or imagined, of Arab and Persian blood sets them apart from ‘black’ Africans (this despite the fact many Swahili are as dark as any inland Kenyans). This attitude is not shared by all Swahili by any stretch, but it is present. It stems from Swahili cosmopolitanism, the Kiswahili language (generally considered to be spoken at its ‘purest’ on the coast) and the fact the Swahili were the area’s original converts to Islam. A stronger link to the Arab world (which may be arbitrarily measured or fancifully concocted, much like white Americans claiming descent from European nobility) is often taken to mean a weaker tie to black Africa and, by extension, a stronger tie to Islam.

Due to its mixed nature, Swahili identity has been, and remains in some ways, a malleable thing. At its uglier edges, it still draws influence from the Arab imperialism that once dominated the coast. With that said, many thousands of Swahili cheerfully acknowledge they are black and something else – something quintessentially ‘coast’.

The Slave Trade

One of the most important, controversial, hotly contested and silently dealt with topics in African history is the slave trade of the Swahili coast, better known as the East African slave trade. Between the 7th and 19th centuries, Arab and Swahili traders kidnapped some four million people from East Africa, and sold them for work in households and plantations across the Middle East and Arab-controlled African coastal states. The legacy of the trade is seen today in the chain motifs carved into doors (representing homes of slave traders) in Mombasa Old Town.

The East African slave trade both predated and exceeded the Atlantic triangular trade. Slave uprisings in southern Iraqi sugar plantations are reported from the 9th century, while Qatari royalty kept African slaves in their retinue at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

At first, slaves were obtained through trade with inland tribes, but as the ‘industry’ developed, caravans set off into the African interior, bringing back plundered ivory and tens of thousands of captured men, women and children. Of these, fewer than one in five survived the forced march to the coast, most either dying of disease or being executed for showing weakness along the way.

Although some slaves married their owners and gained freedom, the experience for the majority was much harsher. Thousands of African boys were surgically transformed into eunuchs to provide servants for Arabic households, and an estimated 2.5 million young African women were sold as concubines.

After the trade was brought to a close in the 1870s, the Swahili communities along the coast went into steady decline, although illicit trading continued right up until the 1960s, when slavery was finally outlawed in Oman. These days this dark chapter of African history is seldom discussed by Kenyans.