Why the name: Mombasa?

Mombasa in 1572

Have you ever wondered about the origin of the name of Kenya‘s oldest and biggest port city? Why? I am talking about Mombasa of course, the coastal and beautiful city of Mombasa; the city visited by the famous Moroccan scholar and traveller Ibn Battuta in 1331, as well as the great Chinese navigator Zheng He in the 1413.

Mombasa_Moi avenue1
Moi Avenue with its tusks, Mombasa today

The earliest recorded mention of Mombasa is in the works of Diogenes, a Greek merchant in the First Century (supported by  Ptolemy). Diogenes reported that he had been blown off course from his usual route to India, ending up in a port town he called Rhapta. Rhapta has never been conclusively identified, but Roman coins have been found on several islands that were part of, or near, what became the Sultanate of Zanzibar, of which Mombasa was a core town. In 1151, the Arab geographer Al Idrisi described it as prosperous trading town. Other pioneers of maritime exploration also visited Mombasa, including the Portuguese Vasco da Gama (1498), Pedro Álvares Cabral (1500) João da Nova (1505) and Afonso de Albuquerque (1507). 16th-century Portuguese voyager Duarte Barbosa claimed, “[Mombasa] is a place of great traffic and has a good harbor in which there are always moored small craft of many kinds and also great ships,

View of Old Town Mombasa (Wikipedia)

The island was first referred to as Manbaça or Manbasa in 1502, when the Sultanate became autonomous from Kilwa Kisiwani. Manbasa is the Arabic form of the Kiswahili name, Mvita, derived from Shehe Mvita, the founding father of the island city (not sure how Mvita made it into Manbasa – another case of a foreigner playing with phonetics, i.e. not hearing well). It is also known as the “Island of Mvita.” Some sources claim that Mvita is actually derived from Mombasa’s violent history over the centuries. The history supposedly earned the city the Kiswahili nickname “Kisiwa Cha Mvita”, or the “Island of War”.

Map of Kenya with Nairobi and Mombasa

Most European travelers referred to it as Mombaz or close forms of the word. While it was a British Protectorate for 2 years between 1824 and 1826, Mombasa was turned over fully to the British Imperial East African Company in 1898. The Sultan of Zanzibar officially leased the town to the British government in 1895 as a follow-up to an 1885 agreement. Mombasa became the capital of the Protectorate of Kenya sometimes between 1887 and around 1906 until Kenya’s capital was moved to Nairobi around 1906. Technically, and legally, the coastal strip that is today the Kenyan coastline remained part of Zanzibar until it was ceded to independent Kenya in 1963.

Nyali beach in Mombasa (Wikipedia)

The town of Mombasa is centered on Mombasa Island, but extends to the mainland via two creeks, Port Reitz in the south, and Tudor Creek in the north. Today as always, Mombasa is a major trade center, and home to Kenya’s only large seaport. Because of its proximity to Zanzibar, Nairobi and the Indian subcontinent, Mombasa is a melting pot of diverse cultures and people. It is the center of the coastal tourism in Kenya. Enjoy this great video on Mombasa, the city of Mvita, named after its great leader and founding father.