Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 3

Continuation from Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 2

Chinese pottery can be seen at the Fort Jesus Museum and Africans were living in southern China eight hundred years ago. In the ninth century there were enough African slaves in Mesopotamia to organize a sizeable rebellion.

Strangely the Indian influence in earlier days was not significant, although there have been small numbers of traders domiciled at the coast for the last two thousand years. Most of the Indians living in Kenya today are descendants of the labourers brought in by the British to build the Uganda Railway or to work on farms or industries, and they include Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and Goans.

Then came the Europeans. The first sporadic contacts seem to have been with early travelers from the Eastern Mediterranean but more lasting were the voyages of the Portuguese Vasco da Gama and the construction of the massive Fort Jesus at Mombasa in the late sixteenth century.

Of more than curiosity value is the fact that the first gold coins produced in the thirteenth century AD at the London Mint have been shown by chemical analysis to have been made of gold from Africa.

But it was the sudden growth of general European interest and activity in Africa from around AD 1840-1850 that finally led to European colonization and the unseemly scramble for Africa.

Historians like documents and the first solid documentary evidence of the contacts sketched out above is a Greek traveler’s guide to the ports of the Indian Ocean, written around AD 150 and usually known as ‘The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea’. It mentions places now clearly identified as Lamu, Mombasa and Zanzibar.

The next piece of written information comes from Ptolemy’s Geography, probably put together around AD 400 by scholars from the famous library at Alexandria.

This mentions a snow-covered mountain and vast lakes in the interior. Between AD 1000 and AD 1500 the story on the coast seems to be a direct result of the gold finds in Zimbabwe’s interior, which were exported from Sofala on the Mozambican coast and were then traded on up the Eastern Africa coast through a whole line of small, half-independent, city states with their rulers drawn from the Persian Gulf area.

At first one and then another of them would become dominant and then be dominated. The most important were Lamu, Takwa and Pate, Malindi with the nearby Gede, Mombasa, Zanzibar, Mafia and Kilwa (which controlled Sofala).

All the cities were Muslim and many mosques were built, whose remains are still visible today. They were highly prosperous societies and at the peak of their development when, in 1498, Vasco da Gama’s fleet made its initial forays along the East African coast on the way to the Indies.

On the first voyage his only negotiations were with the ruler of Malindi and indeed for the next hundred years this ‘alliance’ was the foundation of the Portuguese network in the region.

But the peace did not last. Over the next decade the Portuguese attacked and ravaged one by one all the cities on the coast except their ally, Malindi. Mombasa resisted most strongly and was destroyed three times ( AD 1502, 1528 and 1588) before finally surrendering.

The ruins of Gede (a national monument) cover nearly 20 hectares. It is clear that its Muslim inhabitants lived a comparatively gracious life and there is still no explanation of its sudden evacuation in the sixteenth century.

The most important consequence of the Portuguese irruption, however, was that the Sofala gold trade was rerouted round the Cape to Europe. The East African coastal cities were soon blighted and decayed by the lack of trade.

The next threat to the Portuguese came from the north. The Turks, after capturing Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula, in 1585 sent a ship as far as Mombasa, urging the cities to rebel.

In 1588 they returned with five ships. After the Portuguese garrison on Pemba had been massacred, reinforcements were sent from Goa. But they were not needed. Regiments of Zimba, from the Zambezi region, destroyed Mombasa, only to be destroyed in turn by the Segeju when they moved on Malindi.

The Portuguese, not realizing that the power of the Ottoman empire was waning, and feeling their East African stranglehold was threatened, in 1593 began to build Fort Jesus and moved their ally, the ruler of Malindi, into Mombasa.

However, in 1631 the ruler’s son revolted and his supporters massacred all but five of the Portuguese inhabitants of the Fort. But once again the revolt teetered out in faction fighting.

However, a new power was coming into the Indian Ocean, Oman. In 1650 the Omanis threw the Portuguese out of Muscat and there began a relationship with the repressed East African cities which culminated in the Sultan of Oman sending a fleet and 3,000 men in 1696 to capture Mombasa.

The Vasco da Gams Pillar on a headland over-looking the marine park at Malindi. It was first erected from Lisbon stone by the navigator in early AD 1499. It was broken down but restored by the Portuguese and finally saved in 1873 by a Royal Navy ship which protected it with concrete.

The Portuguese, however, had been warned and over 2,500 people were locked in Fort Jesus to defend it. Bubonic plague decimated the besieged fort and by the end of the year only 50 survived. Somehow they held on nearly two years until September, 1698 when a small relieving force joined them.

More reinforcements arrived in December but they were too late. The fort had fallen and with it the Portuguese presence on the coast, except for a brief but unsuccessful attempt to return in AD 1728. Apart from the monumental Fort Jesus, the Portuguese also left behind maize, cassava and cashew nuts, which they had introduced from South America.

For the next hundred years or so, the coastal cities resumed their independence and their petty bickering. In Mombasa the Mazrui family successfully declared their independence from the Sultan of Oman.

It was, however, at this time that the slave trade intensified in the region, being conducted especially through Kilwa and to some extent from Bagamayo and Zanzibar.

This led to a hideous and shocking period in East Africa’s history, leading to misery and desolation in the interior. Its evil practices and influence were, of course, used by the British to justify their increasing interest in the region in the 19th century. In 1806 Seyyid Said, after murdering his brother, became the absolute ruler of Oman.

A strong, decisive personality, he first consolidated his position in Oman and then decided to assert his authority over the cities of the East African coast. This decision and the awakening of British interest in the area heralded the opening of the modern period in our history.

The Zanzibar Sultanate

Seyyid Said, the most outstanding of the Busaidi rulers, began increasingly to make his presence felt on the East African coast and responded in 1822 to an appeal from the Pate leaders for help against the Mazruis in Mombasa.

The Mazruis, sensing extreme danger, twice wrote to the British in India for help and were twice rejected. However, in 1824, the British ship HMS Leven, commanded by Captain Owen and engaged in survey work off the East African coast happened to arrive in Mombasa just as an Omani fleet was attacking Fort Jesus.

Owen decided to assist the Mazruis because he felt a base in Mombasa could do much to assist the abolition of slavery in the region. 21-year old Lt Reitz landed with a small shore party and a short-lived protectorate was established under the British flag.

It was speedily revoked in 1926 at Seyyid Said’s request. By this time Zanzibar Island was becoming an increasingly important centre on the East African coast. In addition to the traditional ivory, beeswax and tortoiseshell, Zanzibar was handling increasing numbers of slaves, required to work the sugar plantations on the French Indian Ocean islands.

In 1840 Seyyid Said moved his court from Muscat to Zanzibar where he lived, apart from one brief visit to Muscat, until he died in 1856. Seyyid Said’s permanent residence in Zanzibar as Sultan enabled him to complete the disarray of the Mazruis, whose major leaders he had arrested and exiled in 1837.

The final flickers of independence in Mombasa and the other coastal cities were extinguished and Seyyid Said slowly but remorselessly extended his sway. The junior Mazruis still gave cause for concern.

Mbarak, who had been allowed to live and rule at Gazi, assembled a mixed force of Masai and local people 2,000 strong and in 1882 attacked Vanga. A British naval officer, called Lloyd Mathews, commanding the Sultan’s army, took Mbarak’s stronghold by storm.

Allowed, to his surprise to return to Gazi unharmed, Mbarak gave no more trouble. Another challenge came from Pate Island where the Sultan had built a fort at Siyu. This was destroyed by Ahmad, a member of the Pate ruling house.

When the Sultan’s troops returned to rebuild it, Alrmad escaped to the mainland and set up a fortified forest stronghold at Witu, where he built up an independent sultanate. In time-honoured fashion Ahmad then played the Germans against the British.

In the 1880s he appealed for German protection so successfully that in 1887 a German Witu Company was established.

Continue reading Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 4

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Pre-Colonial History of Kenya – Part 1
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