History

The coast’s written history stretches much further back than the history of the interior, and is essentially a tale of trade and conquest, with outside forces. By the 1st century AD, Yemeni traders were in East Africa, prompting one unidentified Greek observer to write about ‘Arab captains and agents, who are familiar with the natives and intermarry with them, and who know the whole coast and understand the language’. Merchants traded spices, timber, gold, ivory, tortoise shell and rhinoceros horn, as well as slaves.

The mixture of Arabs, local Africans and Persian traders gave birth to the Swahili culture and language. But the Swahili were not the only inhabitants of the coast. Of particular note were the Mijikenda, or ‘Nine Homesteads’, a Bantu tribe whose homeland, according to oral history, was located somewhere in southern Somalia. Six hundred years ago they began filtering into the coast and established themselves in kayas (sacred forests), which are dotted from the Tanzanian border to Malindi.

The riches of this region never failed to attract attention, and in the early 16th century it was the Portuguese who took their turn at conquest. The Swahili did not take kindly to becoming slaves (even if they traded them), and rebellions were common throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s fashionable to portray the Portuguese as villains, but their replacements, the sultans of Oman, were no more popular. Despite their shared faith, the natives of this ribbon of land staged countless rebellions and passed Mombasa into British hands from 1824 to 1826 to keep it from the sultans. Things only really quietened down after Sultan Seyyid Said moved his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar in 1832.

Said’s huge coastal clove plantations created a massive need for labour, and the slave caravans of the 19th century marked the peak of the trade in human cargo. News of massacres and human-rights abuses reached Europe, galvanising the British public to demand an end to slavery. Through a mixture of political savvy and implied force, the British government pressured Said’s son, Barghash, to ban the slave trade, marking the beginning of the end of Arab rule here.

Of course, this ‘reform’ didn’t hurt British interests. As part of the treaty, the British East Africa Company took over administration of the Kenyan interior, and it took the opportunity to start construction of the East African Railway. A 16km-wide coastal strip was recognised as the sultan's territory and leased by the British from 1887. Upon independence in 1963, the last sultan of Zanzibar gifted this land to the new Kenyan government.

The coast remains culturally and religiously distinct (most coastal people are Muslim) and there are calls by a separatist group in Mombasa for some kind of autonomy from the rest of Kenya. In mid-2014 there were still concerns those calls might be reinforced by an ongoing spate of insecurity and violence along parts of the coast, fuelled by ethnic tensions within Kenya and political tension with Somalia. In 2017, Mombasa was one of several epicentres of election-time violence due to the closely-fought race between the incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and locally popular opposition leader Raila Odinga.