previous chapter
2 Akher Zamani Mombasa Swahili History and Contemporary Society
next chapter

Akher Zamani
Mombasa Swahili History and Contemporary Society

Swahili men and women say "Akher zamani" (the end of time) to express their despair at the changes they see around them and at people's failure to behave properly. They explain that the phrase refers to a decline in the quality of life and that Muslims believe that this began with the death of Prophet Mohammed in the seventh century and is accelerating now.

Whatever the world as a whole may be doing, it is true that the Swahili community is declining economically, politically, and demographically when compared to its stature in the first half of the last century. The group's members are still more affluent than most—but by no means all—of their fellow Mombasans: they occupy diplomatic and civil service positions out of proportion to their small numbers; the community continues as a vital and effective force in its members' lives; and the commitment to Islam by all group members could hardly be more complete and binding.

But the wealth of members of some recent immigrant groups far surpasses that of the Swahili, who have lost most of their land and traditional occupations; their influence on governmental policy is quite limited, and they form only a tiny minority in the city. Young group members do not dress as conservatively or behave as decorously as those of their parents' generation remember themselves as having done; respect for high-prestige individuals is less obvious and complete than senior group members would like; some of the most cherished symbols of group membership, such as the veil for women, have been appropriated by members of other groups who have, in the Swahili view, no right to them; and group rituals are far less commonly held or universally attended than they were as recently as the 1960s.

There is nothing new in the fact that this, or any, group is changing. Unless


archaeologists and historians have been deceiving us, every human society has changed throughout its existence, with differences between societies and eras being a matter of rate of change rather than its presence or absence. The Mombasa Swahili have changed quite noticeably in a number of respects during the brief period (1975 to 1988) I have been visiting them, but I will try to show that, significant as the current changes are, change has been the most constant process in this group during its long history.

The history sketched here is approached with an emphasis on culture and its parts, statuses, and their interrelations in social structure. Attention is mainly accorded social structure because the data from which other parts of long past culture can be inferred are far harder to obtain in reliable form than is information about groups and their arrangements. This is quite true of the secondary historical sources I used for early Swahili history and only somewhat less true of the informants' accounts that I combined with these published sources to produce the history of much of the current century.

After briefly examining the development of the community from its earliest period to the present, I close the chapter with a hypothesis suggesting an important influence on the overall structure of the community as found in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Swahili in Contemporary Mombasa

Mombasa is a major city, the most active seaport on the East African coast. The city proper is an island, a rectangular bit of land roughly three by five miles. It is set within the jaws of the coastline but is completely separated from the mainland by a narrow semicircular inlet of the Indian Ocean (each part of the inlet is called a "creek" locally) which surrounds the island on three sides. This is nowhere very wide, and on each side it has narrow parts that separate the island and the mainland by only a few hundred yards or less. The island's ocean-facing east side is entirely within the north-south line of the coast and thus completely sheltered from the open ocean while offering entrances to its harbors through the north and south creeks.

The island has been connected to the mainland beginning with a railroad bridge in 1896 and, since the 1930s, by a causeway on the east, a bridge on the north (a new one was built here in 1977), and a car ferry on the south (DeBlij 1968:39–40). Ships have been calling at the Old Port on the northeast side of the island for centuries. And Kilindini Harbor, the new port on the western side, now seethes with activity as cranes unload the endlessly arriving cargoes that supply imports and carry away exports not only for Kenya but also for Uganda, Burundi, Ruanda, and parts of Tanzania.

The city is, and long has been, as cosmopolitan as would be expected


of a major port. The Old Port, in the Swahili section, is now used mainly by fishermen, local boats, and the coastal trade, but for centuries and as recently as the 1970s, it was the stopping place of traders from Arabia, India, Persia, and Somalia. The single masts of their dhows bristled from the port every year during the period when the monsoons blew out of the north, and their goods were being traded from Mombasa into the interior long before the Portuguese conquered the city in the sixteenth century.

The once vigorous dhow trade has declined after many centuries of great activity to a few coastal boats as of the 1980s (Martin 1978), but the streets of the city continue to be crowded with people from an impressive assortment of nations. One sees Arabs from different regions of what is now Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait as well as Iranians, Indians, Pakistanis, Europeans, Americans, and Japanese. In addition, of course, there are Africans from the coastal, Mijikena, peoples and many of the inland ethnic groups throughout Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and farther afield.

The occasional Swahili man is seen walking in this crush, but in his work clothes—sport shirt and slacks—he looks like every other middle-class Mombasan, and after work, when he wears his ankle-length white kanzu (the famous Arab-style "night shirt" or djellaba) and gleaming kofia (an intricately decorated skullcap), it is hard for outsiders to distinguish him from the Arabs. Swahili women are not often seen on the streets, but when they appear, their full-length, black veils (buibui in Swahili), leaving only their faces and hands uncovered, make them indistinguishable from Arab women but quite different from the women of other Muslim groups who wear colored veils or anklelength gowns with face cloths.

The Swahili man's kanzu has a distinctive beige design embroidered on the yoke, and the kofia is embroidered in off-white rather than the darker colors favored by Muslim men of other ethnic groups. Both of these characteristics are apparent only on close examination and, as with many contemporary symbols of Swahili group membership, are muted and meaningful mainly to those who know to look for them.

Most students of the Swahili agree that, like the members of other communities of their group, the Mombasa Swahili, at least after the period when they can be identified as the Theneshara Taifa (see below), were understood by their neighbors as being of a somewhat medial ancestry. Thus, one of the leading students of the Swahili language wrote, "Regarded as 'Arabs' by many up-country Africans, they are deemed not-wholly Arabs by those Arabs of 'pure' descent who frequent the island, and occupy, so it seems to me, an anomalous position between Arab and African" (Whitely 1955:11).

Even members of other local ethnic groups sometimes fail to identify Swahili for what they are. For example, while walking down the Digo Road on the western edge of Old Town, the Swahili section of the city, with two men from the Mijikenda group, I saw two Swahili friends dressed in kanzu


and kofia walking on the other side of the broad street. "What tribe are those men?" I asked my companions, both native-born Mombasans. "Arabs," they replied with confident error.

Despite the difficulty many Mombasans from other groups have identifying them, the Swahili have been part of the city longer than any other group. Old Town was the first settled area on the island and is now crowded and rundown. Its narrow streets admit only the smallest cars, and its houses virtually touch one another.

Members of the Swahili ethnic group founded what is now the city of Mombasa[1] not less than seven centuries ago, but the founders were members of a Swahili community different from the one now living there. As will be described below, the Swahili group, organized as it now is into two major sections or confederations that are jointly referred to as the Theneshara Taifa, or Twelve Tribes, has existed since the seventeenth century.[2] However, they finished settling in their present neighborhoods in what is now called Old Town as recently as the nineteenth century (Berg 1968:45–48, Cooper 1977:98).

Contemporary Old Town and Mombasa

The houses in Old Town are closely packed together. Winding footpaths between them lead to the narrow streets. Most houses are constructed of mud spread on a frame made of wooden poles plaited together with this core faced inside and out with cement. Roofs are generally of sheet metal, but a few are now tile, and, as recently as the 1970s, a few were still of the older and less desired thatch. Two-story houses are highly prestigious and are found primarily in the relatively affluent neighborhood of Kibokoni (the neighborhood traditionally occupied by the Three Tribes section) and only rarely in Mjua Kale (the Nine Tribes section's neighborhood). Even many of these large houses, like their more common single-story neighbors, are in need of paint and refacing, and the entire Old Town area has a somewhat neglected quality. Here and there, a few new apartment buildings and cement block houses with shingled roofs stand out, but the majority of these are owned by Indians or, in a few cases, Yemenis rather than by Swahili.

The old neighborhoods of Old Town including Kibokoni, Mjua Kale, and their subdivisions retain their traditional names. Most of the contemporary Swahili population are the descendants of families that have been in the same immediate area, often the same house, for many generations. But in most of these neighborhoods, a large proportion of the families, now a majority in most areas, are Indians or Yemeni Arabs whose roots go back a century or, more often, less and who have not merged into the Swahili group as immigrations of Omani Arabs more or less did a number of generations ago (see below).


Each Old Town neighborhood has its own Swahili mosque, and the adhan from the loudspeakers during the five daily calls to prayer rises above even the noise of the traffic in the narrow streets. There are Indian and Yemeni mosques in the same areas. Some of them, especially those of the Indians, are bigger and more expensive in construction and design than the older Swahili mosques.

Scattered throughout the residential areas are tiny shops, called reshoni (from the English word, rations), mostly run by Yeminis, where snacks, bread, rice, flour, cigarettes, kerosene, charcoal, matches, flashlight batteries, pots, pans, and sundries are sold. In most of the neighborghoods, these small shops are the only nonresidential buildings. Most of the larger businesses, banks, and commercial buildings are in the areas on the western side of the island, just beyond the Digo Road, the western boundary of Old Town.

In the last century and earlier, when Mombasa was inhabited mainly by Swahili and those closely associated with them, the western parts of the island were given over to Swahili fields and coconut plantations. This area now includes the business district and neighborhoods occupied by members of other ethnic groups. A substantial part of Mombasa's population lives on the northern or southern mainland, but few Swahili live outside Old Town. Those who do are either younger professional people living in affluent areas on the western part of the island or north mainland or relatively poor families whose forebears lost their Old Town house sites through some economic reverse and now live in the areas beyond the Digo Road now mainly occupied by others of limited means from different, mainly African, ethnic groups.

Old Mombasa

Beginning: 1000–1500

The first published reference to Mombasa is in the work of the geographer, al-Idrisi, in the twelfth century (Berg and Walter 1968:51), so the town has existed for at least eight centuries, but there is little agreement on just when it was founded or by whom (Mathew 1963:94–127; Prins 1967:40–42; Salim 1973:9–10). Horton's excavations at Shanga on Pate Island south of Mombasa show that the "Swahili were African [not Arab] in origin" and by the ninth century were becoming Muslim and establishing settlements at numerous sites along the East African coast (Horton 1986, 1987:88–89). Considering both archaeological and linguistic evidence, Nurse and Spear (1985:57–58) conclude that the city "was founded . . . ca. 1000" by Swahili whose ancestors came from the north in Lamu archipelago and the adjacent mainland where the Swahili ethnic group may have originated several centuries earlier.

According to at least one historian of the Mombasa Swahili community,


the city founders were Swahili but not those who are the direct forebears of the contemporary Swahili community (Berg 1968:38–39). In this view, the latter, who are sometimes called Theneshara Taifa, the Twelve Tribes, did not come to live on Mombasa island until three or four centuries ago and were preceded there by two earlier Swahili groups (ibid.).

At first, what is now Mombasa was called Gongwa and was occupied by a Swahili group under Queen Mwana Mkisi (ibid., 42). Her dynasty was followed in about 1500 by a Shirazi dynasty founded by Shehe Mvita whose name thereafter became the Swahili name, Mvita, of the city (Nurse and Spear 1985:73). Early in the sixteenth century, during the reign of this dynasty, the Portuguese made their first visits to Mombasa. They found it to be a stone-built city with twenty to thirty thousand Muslim inhabitants trading with other parts of the East African coast and with ports on the west coast of India (Berg and Walter 1968:51–52). In this and subsequent visits, the Portuguese ships and troops devastated Mombasa three times: in 1505, 1526, and 1589 (Berg 1968:45). Despite this, during the early sixteenth century, Mombasa was described by the chronicler of Indian Ocean trade, Tomé Pires, as "a place of great traffic" in produce of every kind (Freeman-Grenville 1963:152).

The ethnic orgins of all these active early residents of the city are not entirely clear, but, despite the vital and large part played by African sources in much that is Swahili (Nurse and Spear 1985; Horton 1986, 1987:87), there were doubtless cultural and biological contributions from peoples from outside the continent. Thus, although the role of Omani Arabs in the history of the Mombasa Swahili will be seen to be a significant one, it is difficult to establish clearly whether or not immigrants from Oman had already become part of the community before the arrival of the Portuguese, the first Europeans to affect the group directly.

We do know that families and rulers of Omani origin were well established on Pate Island (250 km to the north of Mombasa) and elsewhere on the coast in the fourteenth century (Salim 1973:21). And it is quite likely that there were other influential immigrants from that area present on the coast as early as the seventh century (Prins 1967:40–41).

Arabs from another area, the Hadhramaut, in what is now northern Yemen, arrived on the East African coast during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. They profoundly influenced the culture of the Swahili ethnic group, including that of the Mombasa community, in a number of ways, including, especially, religion (Salim 1973:141).

Currently, and for at least several centuries, all members of the Swahili ethnic group are and have been adherents of the Shafi madhahab (canon or sect) of Sunni Islam (Swartz 1978). This faith seems to have been brought to the area no later than the fourteenth century by a large migration of Sharifs (descendants of Prophet Mohammed) from the Hadramaut (Salim 1973:141–142). The same group of immigrants also founded the poetic verse form,


utenzi, characteristic of the Swahili, as well as their method of religious teaching and the according of prestige to the families of Sharifs (ibid.; Harries 1962:86–88).

If, as seems likely, the Hadhrami brought the Shafi canon to Mombasa, they arrived not later than the early fourteenth century, or perhaps the thirteenth, as can be seen from the reports of Ibn Battuta who visited Mombasa in 1329 or 1331. He observed that the people, although living in poverty, had well-constructed wooden mosques and were pious followers of the Shafi canons of the Sunni branch of Islam (Berg and Walter 1968:51).

Whatever the exact dates of arrival of the various Arab immigrants, the active trade noted by Ibn Battuta doubtless contributed to migration into the area. By the fifteenth century, this trade was largely focused on traffic to and from the Red Sea area (Pouwells 1987:38), and Mombasa, with its northern neighbor, Malindi, and, perhaps, Mogadishu, surpassed the once dominant southern town of Kilwa as the main entrepôt to Eastern Africa (ibid.). During this same period, the people of Mombasa, both slaves and their owners, were highly productive farmers in the plantations on the island and adjacent mainland (Cooper 1977:100–102).

Probably because of this economic activity, migration to the island in the sixteenth century continued despite a disastrous military campaign against neighboring Malindi, attacks by marauding groups from the north and south, and a number of political upheavals. Even as political instability grew and rulers came and went at shorter and shorter intervals, the Mombasa Swahili continued to become cosmopolitan at a rate that increased with time (Berg 1968:45–46).

The Coming of the Two-Section Community: 1500–1836

By the time the Portuguese arrived in the first decade of the sixteenth century, the post-Shirazi period of the Mombasa Swahili community had begun. It was an era of instability and rapid change, with the Portuguese arrival occurring at the same time the city was attacked by the cannibalistic Zimba (ibid., 45). Having survived this, the Mombasans mounted an attack on the Portuguese and their Malindi allies the year after the Europeans arrived, but this was a debacle (ibid.). The defeat ended forever the Mombasa Shirazi[3] reign and led to the formation of the two-section organization, called the Twelve Tribes, that has characterized the Mombasa community for the three and a half centuries leading up to and including the present (ibid., 42–44; Nurse and Spear 1985:4–5).

The Shirazi rulers of Malindi were allied with the Portuguese and ruled in conjunction with them from 1593 until 1632, when the acquisitive Portuguese captains took control of Mombasa into their own hands (Berg 1968:45)


without, however, establishing a stable peace in the area (ibid., 50). The descendants of this Malindi dynasty became integrated into the Mombasa community and now number themselves among the Tisa Taifa , or Nine Tribes, confederation or section, which, largely because of its Shirazi connections and its earlier presence on Mombasa island, considers itself senior to the other Twelve Tribes section, the Thelatha Taifa , or Three Tribes (ibid., 45–46).

While the political situation remained unstable on the coast as a whole throughout the sixteenth century,[4] sometime around 1600, various immigrant groups joined the Mvita "tribe"[5] already living on Mombasa island. Like the other tribes that make up the Twelve Tribes, the Mvita are a collection of Swahili partrilines not claiming a common ancestor but tracing its origins to a common, earlier location. They believe their ancestral area was in the north, and they claim ties of kinship and marriage with the Malindi Sherazi rulers. The Mvita settled in the area on the eastern side of the island in a location overlapping with what Berg (1968:48) refers to as the "southern portion of the [older] Shirazi town," and it was there that they were joined by other "tribes" to form what became the Nine Tribes section of the Mombasa Swahili community.

At the beginning of the formation of the Nine Tribes confederation, the Kilindini tribe, which was to become a major part of the other Mombasa Swahili section, the Three Tribes, was still living in mainland villages some distance to the south of Mombasa (ibid., 46).[6] This collection of patrilines did not migrate to the island and join the Mvita as some other Swahili groups were doing in the late sixteenth century. In fact, the Kilindini declined an invitation from the sheikh of the Nine Tribes to join the latter confederation, which was already well established on Mombasa island (ibid.).

Instead, the Kilindini first moved north to a mainland area immediately south of the island. Only after affiliating with two other Swahili "tribes" to form what became the Three Tribes sometime between 1593 and 1632 did they move onto the island where they founded the independent city of Kilindini, in the western area now occupied by the modern seaport (ibid., 47).[7] The settlements of the two confederations were initially—and for two centuries after that—separated by about two miles of unoccupied bush and fields.

When the groups that were the nucleus of the Three Tribe section moved to Mombasa island from the mainland, according to Berg, their presence led to "a breakdown in the Mombasa state system that enabled the Thelatha Taifa (Three Tribes) to feel a sense of autonomy on the island" (ibid., 48). Now the Nine Tribes no longer absorbed all immigrants since the newer Three Tribes grouping not only remained separate but had its own parallel political structure.

In both confederations, newcomer families retained their identity as separate descent lines (mbari , sing. and pl.) and banded together into "tribes" according to common areas of origin and shared political leaders. The Three


Tribes, as we have seen, came onto the island from the mainland at the beginning of the seventeenth century with all of its three subgroupings already formed and in association with each other.

It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the senior section, the Nine Tribes or Tisa Taifa, had acquired its full complement of constituent groups. Although further Swahili immigrants, almost all from the north and mainly single men, continued to arrive in Mombasa (ibid.)—in fact, they are still arriving—following the beginning of the eighteenth century, they were included in one or the other of the existing mbari rather than forming new ones. An immigrant man's family belonged to the mbari of his wife's family (Cooper 1977:98, but cf. Eastman 1988:5).[8]

The Nine Tribes, which counting the most recent addition, Bajun, actually number ten, are, and for centuries have been, composed of the following tribes (Taifa): Mvita, Jomvu, Kilifi, Mtwapa, Pate, Shaka, Paza, Bajun, and Katwa.

The Three Tribes are, similarly, made up of the Kilindini, Changamwe, and Tangana.

All of the tribes had the same basic political organization with a leader, or "sheikh," from a particular descent line in the tribe and each mbari (i.e., descent line) having the senior man of its senior family serve as a subordinate leader and adviser (called mzee , pl. wazee ) to the tribe's sheikh. It is not entirely clear whether the two sections had established rulers for the entire section before the Busaidi took control of the city in 1837 (Berg 1968:52), but from the time each of them established their separate communities on Mombasa island until about the time of the declaration of a British protectorate in 1894, the two groupings—Nine Tribes and Three Tribes—maintained separate identities under a considerable variety of regimes that ruled the city and beyond. Each of the confederations came to have a leader, a tamim , who was always chosen from a particular descent line in the Tangana Tribe for the Three Tribes and a designated line in the Mvita Tribe for the Nine Tribes (Kindy 1972:47–49).

The Twelve Tribes were subordinate to outsiders from the sixteenth century onward. A partial summary of the succession of the regimes that ruled Mombasa from the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century is provided by Berg (1968:49) and shows the variety of regimes that controlled the Swahili community and its sections:

Between the end of the Shirazi dynasty and the beginning of the Mazrui hegemony, Mombasa was ruled by an uneasy condominium administered by the Sheikhs of Malindi and the Portuguese Captains of Mombasa (1593–1631), by the Captains of Mombasa alone (1632–1698), and by various representatives of the [Yarubi] Imam of Muscat (1698–1735) with a brief reversion to Portuguese control in 1728–1729.


This summary omits the brief presence of the Turks and the three times Mombasa was sacked during the sixteenth century, including the last by the cannibalistic Zimba. In 1588, these Bantu speakers from the southern part of what is now Malawi brought "a destruction of the utmost horror" (Freeman-Grenville 1963:138–139) on Mombasa. Shortly after the Zimba, as Salim puts it, "literally ate their way northwards up to Malindi" (i.e., through and including Mombasa) the city was set upon by the Galla from the north (Salim 1973:21). By 1593, this general destruction along the coast led the Portuguese to reorganize their administration and make Mombasa a captaincy separate from that of Mozambique.

In the mid-seventeenth century when the Portuguese established themselves in East Africa, they also took Muscat in Oman (Pouwells 1987:97–98). When the Omani under the Yarubi imam, Sultan ibn Saif, overthrew the Portuguese in Muscat, the people of Mombasa sent a delegation to the Omani asking that they be relieved by their coreligionists from the "iron yoke and the injustices" of the Europeans (Lambert 1958:42). The Yarubi mounted a number of raids on the Portuguese in the following decades, and, finally, in 1696, a large Omani fleet laid siege to Fort Jesus, the Portuguese citadel (it still stands in Mombasa in Kibuokoni). Two years later, the fort fell, bringing victory to the Omani (Pouwells 1987:98). This event was a further stimulus to Omani immigration. "Many Arab soldiers and their descendants remain[ed] on the Coast, first as garrisons . . . and later as permanent settlers" (Lambert 1958:42).

During the Yarubi rule that followed their victory, the tribes of the Mombasa Swahili had not yet settled into the contiguous neighborhoods that have characterized the city for the past century and a half. Unlike this still-present arrangement, the two sections of the community continued to occupy noncontiguous areas separated by unoccupied land and were united only by their being subject to the same foreign authority (Berg 1968:50–51). Competition between the confederations for power and position within the imam's government continued to be sufficiently strong to lead, on several occasions, to armed clashes (ibid.).

In 1735, Yarubi rule on the East African coast was overthrown by the Mazrui, who had been brought to the East African coast by the imam's government as soldiers and governors. Once established as rulers in Mombasa, the Mazrui mediated between the two Swahili sections. Their efforts, including the granting of considerable autonomy to each of them, managed to bring relative peace between them. Outsiders' attacks on the city helped consolidate the Nine Tribes with the Three Tribes and draw them closer together, "but bridging the gap between them required 150 years and a foreign dynasty" (ibid., 50).

The absence of conflict between the two sections was not, and did not


remain, a notable feature of the Mombasa Swahili community. Soon after the beginning of their suzerainty, the Yarubi ruler in Mombasa, Salah bin Mohammed al-Hadhrami, in alliance with the Nine Tribes, drove the Three Tribes off the island, and they took refuge with kin in mainland villages (ibid.). The Mazrui ruler who succeeded Salah, Mohammed bin Athman, invited the Three Tribes back to the island and reestablished his and the Mazrui government's ties with that section (ibid., 51).

Active conflicts and ultimate reconciliations between the two sections of the Twelve Tribes are common in that group's long history. What seems to have been the last armed clash occurred about ten years after the incident just mentioned. In this case, the Three Tribes conspired with one of the Mijikenda peoples, the Duruma, with whom they maintained a patron-client relationship, as they also did with the Digo (ibid., 47–48),[9] until the end of the last century, to restore Mazrui rule after it was disrupted by the assassination of the local Mazrui ruler. This murder was committed by agents of the new Omani dynasty on Zanzibar, the Busaidi, with the collaboration of members of the Nine Tribes confederation (ibid., 50–52).

Despite their role as mediators, the Mazrui rulers often sided with the Three Tribes. This can be seen in the fact that their wazir , or local subordinate ruler, was always chosen from a descent line in the Kilindini Taifa, a Three Tribes constituent (ibid., 52). Because of the ties between the Mazrui and the Three Tribes, the Nine Tribes were often at odds with their Mazrui rulers (ibid.). On one occasion, the Nine Tribes, at the prompting of members of their constituent Kilifi "tribe" who wished to assault the Three Tribes and their Mazrui allies but who did not themselves want to be involved in a civil war, called in kin and allies from the island of Pate. These raiders sailed to the Three Tribes Mombasa island settlement of Kilindini where they surprised the residents and burned their town before sailing to safety (ibid., 51).

Once again, the ensuing conflict was ended when a new Mazrui ruler succeeded to power in the city and reconciled the two parties. The end of armed fighting, however, did not mean the beginning of concord and unity between the Mombasa Swahili sections (ibid.). In fact, quarreling and intrigue can only have been said to have ended, if it has ended,[10] in the 1970s with the decline of the community as an active group and the concomitant change in affiliation of some section members (discussed below).

Mazrui rule lasted more than 150 years, continuing into the nineteenth century during which, as Berg notes, Mombasa enjoyed a period of power and influence unrivaled since the first Shirazi dynasty (ibid., 52). Under the Mazrui, the coast from Tanga to the Bajun Islands was subject to or dependent on the city, with the important islands of Pate and Pemba under its control for part of this period. The great Mombasa poet, Muyaka (now so called by community members with a taste for poetry but whose full name is Muyaka bin Mwinyi Haji), celebrated this period in his epics (Knappert 1979).


The heroic and powerful image of the city that comes from Muyaka's poems and from the oral history of this period offers a sharp contrast with the comparatively powerless and far less affluent present. This may be part of the basis for the view, to be examined below, expressed by several of those most concerned with the prestige and standing of the community, that it is now and long has been in a state of decline which has accelerated over the decades of the current century.

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."


previous chapter
2 Akher Zamani Mombasa Swahili History and Contemporary Society
next chapter