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.


15 thoughts on “Why the name: Mombasa?

  1. I. M. Ahmed

    The name Mombasa is derived from the Arabic word ” مُّنبَثًّا”,
    (the word appears in the Quran, in Surah Al Waqiah, chapter 56, verse 6) written as “Manbasa” pronounced as “Mambasa”. Since “n” is a form of a special vowel in this case. The word means scattered or dispersed.
    As to the application of this name, is anybody’s guess. But it could be related to “Mvita”/ war. Could it be related to the crumbling of Fort Jesus


    1. Thanks very much , Mr. Ahmed. I have wondered how the word Manbasa came to be connected to the the current Mombasa. Now I have an inkling. The only thing
      I don’t understand is whether the word which appears in the Holy Book of Quran was used in general terms and/or if it was used specifically to Mombasa and if had been envisioned in tne Quran, and if so in what context?


  2. Pingback: Pembe za Mombasa – KickingItLikeLocals

  3. Bernice

    My first encounter with Mombasa was 1948 arriving on the S.S. Orbeta from a war ravished Britain still in the throes of ration books, destroyed building and war ravished: Arriving at Kilindini harbour it perhaps was the aroma of spices that first enslaved me, I was hooked and for the next 22 years called Mombasa, Nairobi, Kampala, Namasagali, Eldoret and Dar es Salaam ‘home’. I left in 1969 but memories to this day are ever present. You can take the lady out of East Africa but you can’t take East Africa out of the lady My skin is white but my blood is the colour of the Marram earth, English by birth, but Africa is my life and I still prefer to go barefooted whenever I can.


    1. How beautiful Bernice! You have lived a life… and had the amazing opportunity to see these cities so many years ago and see them grow… Lovely! I love going barefooted too..


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