Annamaria on Monday
The setting for my upcoming book—The Idol of Mombasa—has a fabulous exotic history: connected to the Sultanates of Oman and of Zanzibar, trade with ancient China, Portuguese global exploration, the Raj, and the search for the source of the Nile. The romance of this list gives me gooseflesh. What a place! My series character—Vera Tolliver—describes it as a locale where you “expect to see Aladdin walking along, carrying his lamp.”
There has been a trading post on this island at least since the early Middle Ages. Local oral tradition says it was founded, sometime around 900 AD by a woman—Mwana Mkisi and became the birthplace of the Swahili culture. The first people to settle there permanently were traders and skilled craftsman. Links were established with the Indian sub-continent and east as far as China. Trade was in gold, spices, and ivory. Once plantations, which relied on slave labor, were in place, trade expanded to include millet, sesame, and cocoanuts.
|Modern picture of the historic souk|
Mombasa’s harbor and its position on the Indian Ocean made it a natural as an international city, the most important port on the East African coast. Persian and Arab traders were there early on. One Arab geographer mentioned it in his documentation of 1151. The first written account comes from a Moroccan traveler, writing in 1331. He stopped in overnight and wrote in his journal, “a religious people, trustworthy and righteous. Their mosques are made of wood and expertly built.”
As with many other faraway places, Vasco Da Gama was the first European to show up in Mombasa—in 1498. He must have lusted after what he saw, because he returned two years later and sacked the place. At the time that Vasco—that villain—arrived, the city was ruled by the Sultan of Mombasa. At which point there began a series of turnarounds for the citizenry. Over the next four hundred, years hegemony over Mombasa went like this:
1528—Portuguese attack again and take over
1587—Zimba cannibals (!) put in a brief appearance
1589—Portuguese return and this time build Fort Jesus, which still stands
1698—Sultan of Oman tosses out the Portuguese
1728—Portuguese make another cameo appearance
1729—Sultanate of Oman is back and endures for a century
1824—Britain makes its first sally
|Fort Jesus, as it looks today|
|Tunnel within the fort|
|Ancient Portuguese grafitti|
Then, through a series of deaths, deals, and inheritances within the Sultanate of Oman, by 1886, a ten-mile wide swath of the coast had become the property of the Sultan of Zanzibar. The Brits had been active in that part of the world for a number of years, trying to get a permanent foothold. It was from Mombasa that they launched many of their forays in search of the source of the Nile. British missionaries had moved into the hinterlands with dual and interlinked purposes—to convert the pagans to Christianity and as an important part of their effort to wipe out slavery worldwide. In 1886, the King’s empire builders made a deal with the Sultan of Zanzibar, who gave them a concession in his territory along the coast.
At that point Mombasa became the capital of the Protectorate of British East Africa, into which they also included all the land going west to Lake Victoria and north to the southern border of Uganda.
Just then, the Brits started to build a railroad from Mombasa to Lake Victoria, a bold, fascinating project that I have described in two posts before—here and here. Once the railroad was completed, laborers imported from India for its construction often stayed on and settled in Mombasa, giving the city yet another facet of its fascination.
In 1906, since most of the European settlers were ensconced up country, the Brits moved their administration to Nairobi, where the capital of Kenya remains to this day.
Modern-day Mombasa stands as a pinnacle of historical exoticism.
My characters walk around in the place as it was a hundred years ago. Fortunately for me, photographic evidence of what it looked like still exists. Here are just a handful of the photos I have collected:
Lucky, lucky me, I also have eleven volumes of eye-witness accounts—on my shelf in the New York Public Library.