The City in the Sun – A photo essay on the history of Mombasa

To write about Mombasa is to write about a city so old and true, that it embodies the life of an entire civilization. A city with a history as diverse as its people and as rich as its culture.

The founding of Mombasa can be traced back to 900 AD with oral history and commentaries attributing its establishment to two leaders; the first- a female ruler known as Mwana Mkisi whose dynasty was later superseded by another leader known as  Shehe Mvita.  However, most of the information available on pre-colonial Mombasa comes from explorers and traders. The world famous explorer, Ibn Battuta visited Mombasa in 1331 which was still a relatively small town at  the time. About the people he found there he had this to say,

“They are a religious, trustworthy and righteous people, their mosques are made of wood and expertly built “

As the years went by, Mombasa established itself as a central node in the Indian Ocean Trade network and by the 15th century, the town had grown into a flourishing commercial hub, with trade links in as far as China, India, Persia and Yemen. Given its geographical and strategic position, whoever controlled Mombasa held considerable influence over the Indian Ocean trade, it is for this reason that Mombasa was frequently fought over. Centuries of conflict earned the city the name, ‘ the Island of war ‘ or as it is known in Swahili “Kisiwa cha Mvita “ .

The Sultan of Zanzibar officially presented the town to the British in 1898 and it served as the capital of the British East Africa protectorate for 8 years before the capital was moved to Nairobi in 1906.


The Sub commissioners house in Mombasa circa 1897.

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The commissioner was answerable to the commissioner in Zanzibar. At that time, the sub commissioner was considered the most senior administrator in the Country.

Image courtesy Nigel Pavit

PC-s house


This building is reminiscent of  homes which were provided for very senior government officials in Mombasa, near the Lighthouse area and near the golf course. The flag mast indicates it could have been the home or offices of the Provincial Commissioner.

Photo by Robin Grayson - info by Ameer Janmohamed

A dhow sails off the shore of Mombasa circa early 1920’s

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Image courtesy : Nigel Pavit

Uganda Railway plate laying ceremony

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On the 30th of May 1895, Railway officials and government dignitaries attended a ceremony to mark the laying of the first plate of the Uganda Railway, Indian Bagpipers provided entertainment . However, construction on the main land begun in 1896 and the  railway reached the port of Kisumu in 1901.

Image courtesy Nigel Pavit

Railway line around Mombasa in 1899


Image courtesy Mansoor Shivji

Fort Jesus – Late 19th century

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Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese between 1593 and 1596 when they realized that they needed a permanent garrison from which they could administer the region.

Opposition to the Portuguese rule was rife, and  between 1631 and 1875 the fort was won and lost nearly nine times. Eventually it was captured in 1698 by the Omani Arabs after a siege that lasted nearly 3 years, during which thousands of men,women and children who were inside died of disease or starvation.

Near Fort Jesus- 1900

near-fort-jesusImage courtesy Mansoor Shivji

Mombasa Harbour circa 1900

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Image courtesy Nigel Pavitt

Fresh water well on Vasco da Gama Road

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Due to the scarcity of fresh water in the city, there were a few fresh water wells around the city, one of the main one was found along Vasco Da gamma street, whose facade was built in 1901.


Vasco Da Gamma street – late 19th Century

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Image courtesy Nigel Pavitt

Traditional loom used to make the Kikoy

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Commonly recognized for their beautiful, vibrant colors and designs the Kikoy is a traditional woven cloth that was one of the most common forms of attire for men at the coast.

Image courtesy Nigel Pavitt

 Mr.DE Souza’s – ‘The Africa Hotel’

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Before any hotel was opened in Mombasa almost all IBEAco staff used to sleep in tents. In the evening after work they would congregate at the back room of  Mr.DE Souza’s store which was one of the few stores that stocked and sold alcohol .With time Mr.DE Souza went on to open one of the first hotels in Mombasa,  The Africa Hotel.

Image courtesy Nigel Pavit

Mombasa High Court 1908

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The high court of east Africa ,can be seen on the left and the hotels Cecil and Grand on the right. The Hotel Cecil was built by Mesrop Mach John in 1903 and had 18 bedrooms.

[Below] Front view of the Law Courts in  Mombasa


Image courtesy Rajni Shah

 William Mackinnon statue at Treasury Square


William Mackinnon was the first president of the Imperial British East African company. His statue was situated near The Grand hotel which was one of the very first hotels in Mombasa read the story of the locals’ reaction to its erection here .. The Grand hotel


Mombasa municipal market around 1927

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Image courtesy Nigel Pavitt

Mombasa old town 1930s

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Image courtesy Nigel Pavitt

Mombasa Club as seen from Fort Jesus

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Mombasa Club as seen from Fort Jesus, the club was only for the expatriate community, it was founded by the Bousted brothers in 1897 and had a total membership of 60.


Bousted & Clarke premises


Bousted & Clarke was a company founded by the Bousted brothers in the early 20th century. Their offices were located on Fort Jesus road. They were the one of the largest import companies at the time. The firms managing director was Mr. Coventry who was the ONLY person at the time during the 50’s who drove a Rolls Royce

bousted-clarke2info provided by Ameer Janmohamed and photo by Robin Grayson

S.S.State of Bombay

S.S state of Bombay was one of the few passenger ships that made trips from Mombasa to Bombay and back.


It was also one of the best ships available


Other ships  included SS Karanja[below], SS Amra and SS Muzzaffari


Image courtesy  Rajni Shah

Coffee grading and sorting in Mombasa circa 1920’s

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 Image courtesy Nigel Pavitt

First mission building erected in Frere Town

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Frere town was established as a  centre for freed slaves by the  Missionary Society,  It was named after Sir Bartle Frere who played a significant role in ending  slave trade. The society also established an educational and recreational center for the freed slaves where they were taught how to read and write.

Image courtesy Nigel Pavit

Allidina Visram


 Allidina Visram -was a pioneer and founder of modern East Africa. Known as an excellent man and very good businessman who had  many businesses  all over East Africa. The Allidina Visram school in Mombasa was built in his honor. 


Bust of Allidina Visram  at its original site  in Piggot Place,near Kuze Mosque. It  was removed due to post-independence xenophobia and was rescued by Count Kassamali Paroo.

The Allidina Visram school


Image courtesy : Dhansukh Vaghela

Nyali Bridge around 1950


Image courtesy : Dhansukh Vaghela 


The road from Nairobi to Mombasa  in 1954


Image courtesy : Ron Bullock

Tusks along Moi Avenue Mombasa circa 1950’s


The Tusks were first built in 1952 to commemorate the visit of then Princess Elizabeth II and Her Husband Prince Philip in the company of their Two young children. However the Visit to Mombasa was cancelled owing to the sudden demise of Princess Elizabeth’s father  King George VI in England whilst the family was in Nyeri residing at the famous treetops hotel.


Image courtesy  Ron Bullock and info by KIRTI S. VARIA

A restaurant , petrol station and rest house along Mombasa road in 1985



The same place in 2012


 Image courtesy Harjinder

 One of the oldest shops in Mombasa, established  in 1895


My visit to Mombasa in March 2012 revealed this shop near the market, which was established in 1895, just when the Railway Line was to start from Mombasa. I was told that this shop’s owner catered for those semi skilled and skilled workers. The third generation own the shop -still in the same old surroundings and furniture

 photo and info by Harjinder

The city in the sun…..Mombasa City Pics

Unlike most towns in  Kenya whose growth can be attributed to the construction of the railway, the history of Mombasa begins way before the railway, way before the British and way before Kenya as we know it, came into being. Today Mombasa is the second largest city in Kenya with a population of 1.2 million as per the last census held in 2009.

Every year, this picturesque city attracts thousands of tourists, both foreign and local. People from all walks of life, people from different places, different races and different religions. It is no doubt that for a long time, Mombasa has held a  a special place in the hearts of many, and will continue to do so for much longer

Read Khalid Maliks beautiful piece on Mombasa as it was in its heydays here… Mombasa memories


© The Agora 2014