The Busaidi and the British: 1837–1964
The "heroic era" of Mombasa history came to an end following several rapid changes in rulers and considerable intrigue among the Mazrui. The Mazrui internecine conflict eventuated in an alienation of the Three Tribes from the Mazrui and the cooperation of this section in a conspiracy that brought Mombasa and its domains under the Omani ruler of Zanzibar and Muscat, the Busaidi sultan, Sayyid Said, in 1837 (Berg 1968:52). The final struggle between the Mazrui and the forces of Said led to the burning of Kilindini Town. Instead of rebuilding where they had been, the Three Tribes decided to establish themselves in their own area of Mvita, that is, Mombasa proper, adjacent to the Nine Tribes area, to form what is now the Old Town section of the city (ibid.). This provided the basic geographic division of the area, with the Three Tribes section called Kibokoni and the Nine Tribes section called Mjua Kale.
The move by the Three Tribes did not end the tension between the two sections of the community, but it did bring the two closer together physically than they had been during the long period when they lived in separate towns. They were also both responsible to the Busaidi official who ruled Mombasa even though he dealt with the sections through their own leaders, the matamim , and even though each section had its own religious courts that settled most disputes within the section (Swartz 1978).
Berg (1968:54) says that the matamim were subject to popular approval, as the Swahili saw it, and direct appointment, as the Busaidi thought of it. This last mattered little, however, since the sultan in fact allowed the Swahili internal self-government according to their own practices and with the officials they wanted. The matamim had considerable internal authority: they could imprison anyone they thought likely to benefit from it and appoint or discharge Taifa sheikhs as they saw fit (ibid.).
So long as the Busaidi liwali (local governors) were obeyed in their rather limited demands and some—but not most—of the port taxes and tarifs were paid to the sultan's government on Zanzibar, little was asked of the Swahili. The Three Tribes received a subsidy from the sultan every year for their help in the overthrow of the Mazrui (Salim 1973:41).
With the establishment of the Busaidi rule from Zanzibar, the status of the
Omani-descended families among the Twelve Tribes became somewhat more ambiguous than it had been. The Omani-derived families, informants report, always viewed themselves as "Arabs" and thus different from other Twelve Tribes members. This despite the fact that they were, according to universal—including their own—views, members of one or the other of the confederations. Other Swahili, however, reject the Omani-based families' view that they are "Arabs" living among the Swahili, with the others claiming that they are members of the community in all respects.
As support for this last view, it is noted that the Omani-derived families behave just as other Mombasa Swahili do, both in general and with respect to rituals (funerals, weddings, and circumcisions). The Swahili who do not claim to be Arabs point out that aside from the Mazrui, who have their own cemetery, the group members who "like to call themselves Arabs" nevertheless bury their dead in the cemetery of the confederation to which they belong. Their dead are not, in fact, buried in the cemeteries for resident, foreign Muslims, as were and are the officials and families of the Busaidi sultanate and, more recently, refugees from Zanzibar.
Informants, including members of the Omani descent lines in Mombasa, are quite vague about the dates of arrival of their Omani forebears, but it appears from all accounts that whenever they arrived, the original settlers were all men who married Swahili women rather than having brought wives with them from the Persian Gulf area (Cooper 1977:98). Historical accounts are sketchy, but it is clear that men from this area, including powerful and important individuals, have been arriving in Mombasa for many centuries. One Omani-based family, the Mandhry, are known to have arrived no later than the thirteenth century (Berg and Walter 1968:60), and the presence of other Omani-based families on the coast as early as the seventh century suggests that there were considerably earlier immigrants.
Part of the reason for the insistence on Arab identity on the part of community members with ancestral ties to Oman is the high regard in which the Omani regime on Zanzibar was held. In some respects, Zanzibar was Mombasa's Paris. As recently as the 1960s when the revolution radically changed Zanzibar, what was au courant there was to be looked up to and emulated in Old Town.
The Busaidi period when this Omani dynasty ruled from Zanzibar is looked on as a time when Swahili fortunes were still great, when people still behaved as they should, and when Islam, despite the efforts of Christian missionaries, still generally received the unquestioned respect Muslims believe God wills it to have. But with the rise of British influence and their eventual assumption of rule, all that began irrevocably to change. As F. J. Berg puts it,
The Busaidi period in one sense represents a continuation, even a further consolidation, of traditional Swahili life. In another sense it was a preparation
for deep-seated changes during the twentieth century. On the one hand, the Busaidi acknowledged Swahili home rule, and indirectly reinvigorated the agricultural and commercial economy. . . . On the other hand, they deprived the city of its independence and were the opening wedge for an influx of Asians, Europeans and, eventually, up-country [from the interior] Africans. Busaidi suzerainty came to an end in fact, though not in theory, when a British protectorate was declared in 1895 (Berg 1968:54–55; see also Pouwells 1987:164–172 and Salim 1973:34–35).
The difficulties experienced by the Mombasa Swahili and their Busaidi rulers with the coming of British sovereignty were most immediately and directly concerned with slavery. The interest of the British in ending the slave trade and their general opposition to slavery was a constant source of irritation between the Swahili and Arabs (i.e., unassimilated families living in Mombasa and elsewhere) together with Mijikenda slave owners, on the one side, and the British-sponsored missionaries and officials, including the sultan, on the other (Salim 1973:41).
Under British influence, but still technically acting on his own behalf, the Busaidi sultan, Bargash, issued proclamations in 1876 aimed at ending the slave trade by land (ibid., 47). Only a British warship prevented a rebellion from beginning in Kilwa in the south when the proclamations became known. In the Mombasa area, a Swahili and Arab mob attacked the Frere Town mission station (on the north mainland immediately opposite Old Town across the north creek) established earlier by British missionaries to provide freed slaves with land, jobs, and protection (ibid.).
The direct involvement of British officials began in 1887 when the British East Africa Association was granted a concession on the coast from south of Mombasa to just south of Lamu where it was to act as agents for the sultan (ibid., 61). The Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEAC) was also active and had virtually complete authority over the entire coastal region that had been ceded to it by the sultan acting with British advice. Although its charter included the requirement that it suppress the slave trade, it sought to lessen the antagonism of slave owners toward the missionaries who harbored freed slaves by paying the former owners compensation.
In 1888, for example, IBEAC paid owners $25 each for more than 1,400 former slaves who had found sanctuary in five coastal missions (there were eleven; the other six also had large, but uncounted, numbers of newly freed men and women), but this had little long-term effect because the missionaries refused to stop harboring newly freed individuals after the payments had been made for the original group (ibid., 63–64). The IBEAC encountered many and serious difficulties in its efforts to administer the coast, deal with the slavery issue, and negotiate with Italian and German interests then active in the coastal areas adjacent to the Sudan, in the first case, and Tanganyika, in the
second (ibid., 65–73). The company finally chose to withdraw entirely form the area (ibid., 72).
Instead of returning its authority to the sultan, the British government decided to govern directly, and in 1895, it proclaimed the British protectorate, which, while under the nominal authority of the sultan, explicitly put all legal governing power directly in the hands of British officials (ibid., 73). The proclamation coincided with a succession dispute among the Mazrui who had been relocated by the Busaidi in the town of Takaunga to the north of Mombasa (Berg 1968:55). The Mombasa Swahili became involved in this dispute on the side of the Mazrui group opposing the intervention of the British, and some members of the Mombasa community, including the Nine Tribes tamim and his son and the sheikh of one of the Three Tribes, joined the rebels in armed hostilities against the British (ibid., 55–56).
The rebellion gave those Swahili who were deeply suspicious of European, Christian involvement in their affairs an opportunity to stand against what they, informants say, viewed as a drift toward the hated Christian missionaries, the abolition of slavery, and anti-Islamic teachings and practices. Still, many Swahili stood aside in the conflict or collaborated with the British during the rebellion (Salim 1973:76). When the British crushed the revolt and drove its leaders into exile in Dar es Salaam, the Swahili effort to remove European, Christian influence was at an end, and changes in the community were now to proceed at a much accelerated rate (Berg 1968:55).
The British administration, under Sir Arthur Hardinge, sought to staff an administration for the coast and the interior with young Arabs and Swahili "of good family." Hardinge explained his wish to do this in a report to the British Foreign Office:
The Arabs and upper-class Swahili are the only natives [except a few Somalis] who can read or who have any comprehension of politics, justice, or government. Community of religion, language and intermarriage gives them influence over the negro coast population which the European stranger cannot as a rule possess (quoted in Salim 1973:77).
The Mombasa Swahili, however, did not fare as well in the colonial service as their fellow ethnics from other communities, and only the lowest-level government jobs were given them (Kindy 1972:27–29). Unassimilated Arabs, many from or related to the Omani ruling families from Zanzibar, got the responsible and rewarding positions in the Mombasa city administration and in that of Mombasa's Coast Province (ibid.).
In fact, the Swahili have been in economic, political, and demographic decline for all of the twentieth century. The census taken by the district commissioner in Mombasa in 1897 was the last in which the Swahili were a majority of the city's population. The opening of the Uganda Railway at about the
same time played a key role in the influx of Asian and European immigrants while also encouraging the immigration of members of other African ethnic groups from the inland areas of what was then Kenya Protectorate and, later, Kenya Colony.
At the same time, the end of slavery and the changes in the trade with the interior deprived the Swahili of their most important and substantial sources of income (Salim 1973:100–138). The Mombasa Swahili, like most of their fellow ethnics on the coast, did not work the land themselves (see Cooper 1977:98) but depended on slaves to produce the generally bountiful harvests that provided quite adequate incomes for landowning families. Informants tell me that many, probably the majority, of Twelve Tribes families not only owned the land on which their houses were built on Mombasa island but also had agricultural plots (sing. shamba , pl. mashamba ) either on the island or on the adjacent mainland.
The British-prompted antislavery edicts began in the 1870s. These made the replacement of slaves impossible and the expansion of slave-worked shambas unreasonable (Salim 1973:100–101). Further restrictions on slavery were promulgated at frequent intervals until, in 1907, slavery on the mainland was abolished (as it had been on Zanzibar ten years earlier) and owners could gain compensation only by bringing court cases against the government documenting their losses (ibid., 110).
This loss to the Swahili took place at the same time that developments related to the opening of the Uganda Railway were also affecting the community. The railroad ran across the paths that the ivory-trading caravans had taken for many generations and rendered them superfluous as trade routes (ibid., 105). The British inaugurated game regulations that included the requirement that elephant hunters buy a 500 rupee license and deposit "heavy security" before undertaking a hunt (ibid., 105). Europeans and Indians, many of whom were attracted by the employment opportunities and general development associated with the beginnings of the railroad, took up ivory hunting and introduced competition into an area where Swahili and Arabs had had a monopoly, so that the profitability for the original participants was greatly reduced (ibid., 105–106).
As part of the ivory trade or in association with it, the Swahili bartered manufactured goods (especially cloth and iron tools) with the peoples of inland groups. Indian traders involved themselves in this activity and did so with a vigor and organization unknown by their Swahili and Arab predecessors, thereby virtually ending the participation of the latter in this once-remunerative trade (ibid., 106–107).
Nor were the dual blows from the railroad and the end of slavery the only ones for the Swahili in the early decades of the century. The Land Titles Ordinance passed in 1908 and allowed the government to declare as Crown Land vast acreages of Swahili land that had been under cultivation when slaves
were available but which had reverted to bush with the loss of that source of labor (ibid., 114–115). This alienation of land together with the loss of labor led to a sharp decline in agricultural production and made the sale of remaining lands seem both necessary and sensible so that
the elders of the Twelve Tribes in Mombasa, sensing the wind of change, adopted the simple argument: "wait until the government wants your land and you lose it and get nothing; sell it and you [at least] get something." By the liberal implementation of this philosophy, Indians and other speculators had acquired cheaply most of the best land in the district of Mombasa by the time the government decided to introduce the Land Ordinance in 1908 (ibid., 116).
The Three Tribes confederation tried to get the colonial government to recognize their claims to lands north of Mombasa which they held to be traditionally theirs, and, separately, the Nine Tribes made similar claims. In 1915 and 1918, these claims were disallowed by the colonial courts, and both confederations lost huge acreages of what had been communal property (ibid., 129–130). While all this was going on, individual parcels of land were being sold to Indians and Europeans by the elders of the two confederations on the basis of their interpretations of Islamic law (ibid., 125–128).
The result of the abolition of slavery and the Land Titles Ordinance was to undermine the "two main pillars of the economic structure of coastal peoples" (ibid., 133). Kenya Colony reports advert to the "unrelenting depression, stagnation, apathy, and poverty" found along the coast and refer to the people of the area, including Mombasa, as "lazy and thriftless" (ibid., 133–134). Still, the position of Mombasa as an entrepôt and the origin of the railroad gave it something of an advantage over the rest of the coast, with migrations to the city from other coastal areas giving it a net growth in the 1920s (ibid., 136).
The new migration of Arabs from the Hadhramaut in the early decades of this century brought in a supply of vigorous and entrepreneurial residents who contributed to the city's, if not particularly to the Swahilis', prosperity (ibid., 135). The Mombasa Swahili were slightly better off than their fellow residents of the coast, but in comparison to their past power and prosperity, their main progress was, in their view, toward "the end of time."