Historic Sites at the Coast

45 Historic Sites at the Coast of Kenya

View of Mnarani Ruins in Kilifi County.  Photo Courtesy of PlanetWare

For the casual visitor, Fort Jesus, Gede Ruins, Jumba la Mtwana, Takwa Ruins and Siyu Fort are perhaps the most interesting and striking of the historic sites at the Coast Region of Kenya, yet, these are among the dozens of well-studied and accessible historic sites along the Coast. Some of the historic sites located here are composed of the old settlement towns and outlying groups of tombs. It is awash with a collection of historic sites, found mainly along the coast, many of them on private lands; consisted of ancient mosques, ruins, palaces, houses, walls with gates and tombs. Owing to their isolation and overgrown vegetation, some are hard to reach. All historic sites found at the Coast are protected under Chapter 215 of the Laws of Kenya: The preservation of Objects of Archaeological and Palaeontological Interest Ordinance. This collates a list of those ruins and monuments listed as protected under the Subsidiary Legislation of Chapter 215, as revised in 1962, considering only historic sites in the Coast Region of Kenya.

Brief Overview of the History of the Coast of Kenya

Political Map of Kenya. Image Courtesy of Research Gate

In the year 1328 when IBN Battuta, the Arabian geographer, visited East Africa, he recounted of large and populous towns, and Mombasa he pictured as, large, abounding with bananas, the lemons, and the citron, and her native community as religious, chaste and honest, and of peaceful habits. Mombasa’s population by the middle of the 14th Century had stood at 10,000. Its unprecedented status and unique location, with access to Indian Ocean, gave it great impetus, making use of the coast to trade and contact with the outside world. Before 1500s there would be very little to contradict a presence of multifarious traders from far and wide. A Ptolemaic gold coin unearthed near Dar es Salaam reveals the presence of the Greeks at the East Africa Coast who would have likely been exploiting the untapped ivory trade as well as benefiting from the East Asia spice route. On all accounts, the Chinese early presence along the Swahili Coast is undeniable. In any case, the Chinese authors during the Dynasties of Sung (960-1279) and the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were well acquainted with East Africa – which they dubbed Tsang-pat or Tseng-po. They sought gold, ivory and rare animal skins.

Portugal’s Naval Prowess

Portugal pioneered and utterly dominated advanced ship building and naval artillery in the 15th and 16th Century when they established a nexus of sound, indomitable naval marvels, making considerable voyages, that played a key role in the age of discoveries. Having a deep-pocketed government that could freely finance the buildout of modern ships, including the small highly-maneuverable caravel, gave Portugal a momentous advantage to discover new sea routes to the East and routes to South America and Northern North America. This ability to navigate faster and further helped to maximize the influence of Portugal around the world and lead-in what the west could potentially gain from distant trade and acquiring of colonies. This naval business model, playing pioneer, enjoyed a gainful century long run with Portugal dominating most of the Atlantic Ocean south of the Canary Islands, the Indian Ocean and access to the western Pacific.

A Race to Round the Cape

Africa and America were discovered almost at the same time, the one by Spain and the other by Portugal. Christopher Columbus discovered America around 1492 and, having previously discovered the West Indies, had half solved the riddle of India and garnered exciting prospects for the proverbial discovery of Africa. The discovery was dependent on who got “support” first. The Portuguese did, receiving unwavering financial support, and by 1486 their arrival to Africa was getting ever closer. The 1497 expeditions of the extraordinaire Portuguese sailor Pedro de Covilha to the North Eastern Coast of Africa and the ensuing heroic voyages of Bartolomeu Dias, formidably rounding the unassailable Cape of Good Hope, opening the sea route to Asia via the Atlantic and Indian oceans had added great insight. Bartolomeu’s odyssey is considered to be the greatest of the Portuguese pioneers who explored the Atlantic during the 15th century.

Portugal Reaches the Swahili Coast

On April 7, 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived in Mombasa aboard his beloved ship the San Raphel, a 200-ton storeship.  Soon after his arrival da Gama set off for the coastal town of Malindi, which at the the time was a considerable town, and its houses, as the chronicles narrate were lofty and well white-washed, and had many windows. On the land side were palm grooves and all around them maize and vegetables being cultivated. The welcome in Malindi had been pleasant and before departing for India he erected a stone pillar, prefabricated in Portugal, as was customary, as a sign of amicable relationship. A year later in 1499, Vasco da Gama made his second visit to the Coast of Kenya on a return voyage to Calicut. His fleet had ten ships, plus an additional 9 ships led by his brother Estevam da Gama with more ships set to arrive from Portugal. He made his second visit to Malindi, or Melinda, as he liked to call it. Second time around the Portuguese meant business, to secure the Swahili East African Coast as a corridor to India.

Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal. Image Courtesy of Learnodo-newtonic
Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal. Image Courtesy of Learnodo-newtonic

Taking Over the Swahili Coast

By 1505, the Portuguese had taken over Malindi and declared it the seat of the government for the Viceroy. To ensure success it was paramount they secure Mombasa. By virtue of its position, its climate and fine harbours, it was one of the important centres. A thriving centre ruled by the Shirazi families alongside Malindi and Kilwa. Unlike Malindi, Mombasa was not as receptive to da Gama, and the relationship improved very little over the entire era of their occupation of the Coast. Still and all, the Portuguese had little interest in other regions in the interior of Kenya. Their interests were economic, not imperial.  Their focus on trade, trade routes and trading posts, as Krapf, the German missionary and traveller recounted: “In East Africa the Portuguese have left nothing behind but ruined fortresses, palaces and ecclesiastical buildings. Nowhere is there to be seen a single trace of any real development.” Fort Jesus Museum, completed in 1596, is the most outstanding and well preserved of the edifice left from the era. By 1507, the Portuguese had invaded and taken over most of the coastal cities along the Coast of Kenya including Pate Island which unlike Mombasa, offered little resistance is an much to avoid the repudiated brutality and repercussions.

The island of Mombasa in 1636.  Image Courtesy of Learnodo-newtonic
The island of Mombasa in 1636. Image Courtesy of Learnodo-newtonic
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45 Historic Sites at the Coast of Kenya, arranged as one would visit these - south to north - with the aid of in-depth narratives, images, strip maps and distance chart:

Vumba Kuu, The Ruins at Vanga, Kagugu, Wasini Island, Chambocha Cemetery, Wasini, Pongwe, Hurumuzi (Hormuz), Shirazi, Munge Ruins, Gazi Ruins, Galu Ruins, Ukunda Mosque, Kongo Mosque, Twiga Mosque, Fort Jesus, Santo Antonio de Tanna, Smaller Ruins near Fort Jesus,  St. Joseph’s Fort, Mbaraki Pillar, Mtwapa Ruins, Jumba la Mtwana, Vipingo Mosque, Kinuni Ruins, Kitoka Ruins, Mnarani Ruins, Uyombo Ruins, Kilepwa Ruins, Mgangani, Kiburugeni, Gede Ruins, Portuguese Chapel, Vasco da Gama Cross, Jemadari Mosque, Mambrui, Kibirikani Ruins, Matondoni Ruins, Kipungani Ruins, Takwa Ruins, Nabahani Ruins, Siyu Fort, Shanga Ruins, Atu Ruins, Chundwa Ruins, Ashuwei Ruins, Ishakani Ruins