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Oral traditions credit the founding of Mombasa to two Swahili rulers: Mwana Mkisi (female) and Shehe Mvita (male) and the “Thenashara Taifa” (“Twelve Nations”) Swahili lineages and families associated with the Twelve Nations are still considered the original inhabitants of the town.

Early records put the founding of the Mombasa to around the 8th century whilst Indian historians confirm definite trade links with the Chola Empire of South India (peak 9th to 13th century) with key exports being ivory, millet, sesame, and coconuts. (1)

Mombasa dhow 1920.jpg

An Indian Ocean dhow (Vahan) - the person on the deck gives a good idea of the immense size of these ocean-going dhows.

Through several centuries before steamboats, many Arab ocean-going dhows were made in the shipping yards of Mandvi, in Kutch. The wood was imported from Kerala and the dhows were exported to the Gulf and Arabia. This provided an opportunity for the ambitious Kutchee to find work as sailors or to stow away to distant lands on the Indian Ocean trade routes.

"In the 18th century, the Mandvi merchants collectively owned a fleet of 400 vessels trading with East Africa, Malabar coast and the Persian Gulf". Wikipedia.

“The presence of Indians in East Africa is well documented in the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea or Guidebook of Red Sea by an ancient Greek author written in 60 AD. The ancient Indian work the Puranas also mention the East African coast as well interior of Kenya as far as Lake Victoria, which was known as ’ Nil (Nile?) Sarover,’ Lake Nil, and knew the source the of ‘Nil’ Nile.” '(2)'

The Omani Arabs controlled most of the Indian Ocean trade during those centuries and appointed local governors for Mombasa.

The Portuguese arrived though the merchant-adventurer, Vasco da Gama in 1498, who was rebuffed by the local representatives of the Omani rulers. He found Indians there and the oral tradition of the Badala’s of Mombasa is:

“you want to know who was the first member of our family to be in Africa and when? Well, his name is Mohammed, he was known as “Kanji Maalim”. That name means’ master of the tille’, because in the language of Gujarat, which is where we Badalas are from, the word for tiller or ruder, is ‘sukhan’. He was the pilot who showed Vasco Da Gama the way from Malindi to India." '(3)'

Almost a century later, in 1589, they captured the town and shortly after, built Fort Jesus to administer the region.

The 16th-century Portuguese voyager, Duarte Barbosa enthused: "[Mombasa] is a place of great traffic and has a good harbour in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships, both of which are bound from Sofala and others which come from Cambay (Portuguese India) and Melinde and others which sail to the island of Zanzibar." '(4)'

A century later, however, in 1698, the Omanis were back, re-capturing the fort and for next two centuries, Mombasa came under the influence of the Sultanate of Oman, (sometimes interspersed by semi-autonomous local Swahili rulers or a brief British Protectorate in 1824-1826)

Because the Omanis also controlled the present-day Pakistani port of Gwadar since 1786, many Khojas migrated to and from Muscat, where a separate walled quarter was tolerated for them by the Sultans. It is not just likely but certain, that Khoja merchants not only traded in Mombasa but lived there under the security of the Omanis and the Swahilis, who would have likewise protected the Indian merchant traders, so vital to their prosperity.

Khoja oral records show that the Brothers Musa & Sayan Kanji of Surat had established themselves in Mombasa before 1820 after which they moved into the interior and establsihed the settlement of Tabora in present day Tanzania.

Other records only show that in 1867, Waljee Hirjee, a prominent Ismaili Khoja merchant of Zanzibar, opened a shop at the Old Port. (5)

Mombasa Oldest shop 1895.jpg

Mombasa's oldest continuing Indian Shop (since 1895)

"The first (Khoja) Ithna-asheri to settle in Mombasa was Abdalla Datoo Hirjee. He arrived on the island from Zanzibar in 1882." (6)

In 1887, the British bought Mombasa and in 1888 its administration was given a private corporation, the Imperial British East Africa Company. Consequently,

“Large numbers of Khojas began to arrive from the old mercantile centers of Zanzibar, Bagamoyo, Lamu, and Kilwa; others came directly from India. Khojas who had already established firms in Zanzibar, Bagamoyo or Lamu decided to open branches or shift altogether to Mombasa” '(7)'

In 1887, the combined Khoja population (both Ismailis and Ithna-asheris) on the island was estimated at only twenty-five compared to around 1,900 in Zanzibar and 385 in Bagamoyo. (8)

In 1887, Nazerali Dewji left Lamu and moved to Mombasa to manage a branch of Dewji Jamal & Co.

The IBEACo opened its first inland station Machakos in 1889.

In 1888, Suleman Virjee was appointed as a Mukhi of Kuze Jamatkhana. (9)

Mombasa became the capital of the newly established British East Africa Protectorate in 1887 and later, the sea terminal of the Uganda Railway, (started in 1896, completed 1901). Some 32,000 indentured laborers were recruited from British India to build the railway and the city's fortunes soared opening opportunities for Khoja businesses.

'“For example, in 1893, Dharamsi Khatau called his brother Jivraj Khatau from India to manage a branch of Dharamsi Khatau & Co in Mombasa. Also at this time, two famous Bagamoyo merchant princes, Allidina Visram and his Ithna-asheri nephew, Nasser Virji decided to shift their businesses to Mombasa and opened branches in 1895 and 1900 respectively.” (10)'


(1) Ali, Shanti. The African Dispersal in the Deccan: From Medieval to Modern times. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 1996. 24.



(4) abid – Ali (pp-24)

(5) Zahir Bhaloo-Khoja Shia Ithna-asheries in Lamu and Mombasa, 1870-1930 2008 ( (pp-5)

(6) abid: Bhaloo (pg-5)

(7) abid: Bhaloo (pp-5)

(8) abid Bhaloo (pp-5)

(9) Kassamali R. Paroo-Pioneering Ismaili Settlement In East Africa (Published Essay in Ismailimail( (pp-3)

(10) abid: Bhaloo (pp-5)

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REMEMBERING MOMBASA (author unknown)

I left Mombasa, island of raha (happiness),
To emigrate to England, land of opportunity.
Forsook the tropical sun
For cold frigid weather.
Left behind the warm ocean breeze
For the wind-chill of winter.
Abandoned white pristine beaches
For brown muddy shores.
Turned away from a turquoise ocean
For polluted lakes.
Gave up mangoes, papaya, mabuyu, achari and sunflower
For processed apples, pears, peaches and cherries.
Gave up white snapper and kingfish
For boxed cod and sole.
Gave up mishkaki, nyama choma maambri and bharazi
For cereal, bagels, cheese, and salads
Gave up drinking coconut water straight from the coconut
And settled for bottled water.
Left behind the street coffee seller (Kahava)
For the office coffee pot.
Left behind the exotic fragrance of phapa and langi langi
For the pungent smell of sulfuric emissions.
Deprived of hearing the call to prayer
For the sound of police and fire sirens.
Deprived of seeing women clad in mysterious black buibui
For women dressed in jeans and miniskirts.
Deserted a slow relaxed pace of life
For the fast lane.
Gave up afternoon naps
For gym workouts.
Gave up riding a bicycle through the narrow streets
For driving a car on the highways.
Discontinued a course on the coral marine life
For a course in stress management.
Discarded mud and thatched dwellings
For concrete and steel.
Left behind a community-based life
For a human zoo.
It makes me wonder
If I have also left my soul behind in Mombasa?