History of Kenya before 1900


Looking Blank into a Fading History

Turkana ladies adorned in their colorful beaded regalia.  Photo Courtesy
Turkana ladies adorned in their colorful beaded regalia. Image Courtesy

Addressing Early Beginnings

Notwithstanding that the history of Kenya is engrossed in her colonial bygones, struggle for independence, and tens of other concerns of a political inclination, often spiced with some supply of myth and prejudices to conceal the truth from the citizenry and to the world, an almost forgotten history before the 1900’s is slowly fading to oblivion: to an insignificant past. The impression that Kenya has little history before the 1900’s gets surprisingly little attention, considering the thousands of volumes written about her since the turn of the 20th Century. Many records of Kenya before the 1900’s read like relics of a distant lost world, and one that has so little to go by to spark any imagination.  The reason to pay attention to uncovering this past – especially the lost history – is the window of opportunity is bound to shut eventually.  The recent wave of information in our fast-growing technology world and the race-for-data appears to be shaping our future with some frightful rapidity.  Finally, we must contend the fact that oral traditions that sustained Kenya (and Africa in general) lacked the conventional written sources, which has been an omen in the telling of its history, and one of an irreconcilable nature.  Moreover, the available sources are widely scattered.   

Kenya before the 10th Century

There is very little available information about the history of Kenya before the 7th Century.  The foremost written chronicles of East Africa are a brief mention in the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea and in Cosmas’s Geography and Christian Topography of Cosmos Indicopleustes written during the first quarter of the 6th Century. By the time the Periplus was written (probably second century A.D.), coastal trade was connected to the trade of the Gulf of Aden and was therefore a part of the commercial system of the Indian Ocean. One of its most important mentions is that of Pyralaon Islands which appears to refer to the Lamu archipelago. According to the Periplus, the early inhabitants of the East African Coast are supposed to have been Cushites who were comparable to the late Stone Age agriculturalists.  This citing does seem to agree with the general pattern of migration into Kenya.  “Later on, there was a rapid infiltration of iron using folk, probably by Bantu speaking people into the coastal hinterland”.  The main occupation of these people was fishing and farming – as was with the rest of the hinterland. The Periplus also notes the existence of chiefs at each market town.  In generally, as regards migration into Kenya, the first group to arrive in Kenya was the pastoral Cushitic who arrived from Ethiopia and Somalia, about 2000 B.C.  The second group to migrate was the Nilotes, around 1000 years ago from Egypt and Sudan.  The last group to arrive was the agriculturally oriented Bantu from West Africa, around 700 years ago.  The very nucleus and origins of the Bantu, who are the most widespread in Kenya, can be traced back to Congo. 

The coast had a number of ports to which ships sailed from south-west Arabia and western India with the north-east monsoon, bringing grain, oil, sugar, ghee, cotton cloth and a number of manufactured commodities in exchange for cinnamon, frankincense, palm-oil, fragrant gums, tortoise shells, ivory and other natural products, dome of these items may have been re-exports. – Usam Isa Ghaidan

Early Visitors to the Coast

In the year 1328 when IBN Battuta, the Arabian geographer, visited East Africa, he recounted of large and populus towns, and Mombasa he pictured as, “large, abounding with banana’s, the lemons, and the citron,” and her native people as “religious, chaste and honest, and of peaceful habits.  Mombasa’s population by the middle of the 14th Century had stood at 10,000.  Mombasa’s unprecedented status and unique location, with access to Indian Ocean, announces an impetus of its headway through trade and contact with the outside world.  At that point there would be very little to contradict a presence of many traders from far and wide.  A Ptolemic gold coin excavated near Dar es Salaam points to 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 East Africa Coast in undeniable.  Indeed, “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 as Tsang-pat or Tseng-po.  They sought gold, ivory and animal skins. 

The discovery and excavation of a small pitted brass coin in October 2010, in a joint effort between Kenyan and Chinese archaeologists, further alluded to their early presence here.  The brass coin with the inscription “Yobgle Tongbao” can be dated back to 1400 when the coins were minted, and used. It predated their presence to more than a century before the arrival of Vasco da Gama, in 1499. Like the Arabs, the Perisians were regular visitors to the East African Coast.  As trade relations flourished they settled in some numbers, and lived alongside the locals and the Arabs who had also found the Coast as a favorable place to settle.  All signs point in the direction of a sizable presence of the Arabs at the Coast of Kenya by the 7th and 8th Century during the Rise of Islam that swept over most regions of Africa. Both the Arabs and Persian are responsible for the growth and development of Lamu and Zanzibar, two of the oldest continually settled towns in East Africa. Still and all, the Arabs are the most important of all the visitors to the East African Coast whose sway and influence spreads across 3,000 years.


How Religion Spread Across the Word. Published by Business Insider

The Spread of Islam in East Africa

Meanwhile, as the Arab were organizing their trade arsenal at the Coast, mostly specializing in frankincense and myrrh, and a mixed percentage of intermediary services, they were also responsible for growing Islam in their current domicile.  Although spread of Islam from Mecca to the East African Coast took some time to take root, its civilization forever changed the outlook of this part of Kenya.  It had brought with it the evolution of the Swahili language – “the lingua franca of the coast” – which, hundreds of years since perseveres as the most cherished common denominator along the coast of East Africa.  “Although Swahili, more proper Kiswahili, adopted a large number of Arabic words over the years, it is the most important single manifestation of the African contribution to Swahili culture. Others, by no means insignificant, include rituals related to birth and marriage, funerary and investiture ceremonies for chiefs, a belief in spirits and traditional dances”.  By the 12th Century, places like Kilwa, Mombasa, Zanzibar and Mogadishu had been convincingly Islamized.  These Islamized towns grew wealthy through gold, ivory and slave trade.  Even so, this is furthest in Kenya the Arabs ventured, as with the Portuguese, and did not explore the hinterland.           

The Rise of City States at the Coast

By the time the 1400’s came around, there was no less than 37 towns along the East African Coast, some small and some rich and famous.  By now, the Arabs and the Shirazis from the Persian Gulf had spread as far south as Kilwa.  As the towns thrived, controlling the surrounding countryside, so did their influence, with towns along the Coast of Kenya like Vumba, Gedi, Mombasa, Malindi and Lamu been for the most part wealthy and powerful.  “In 1500, the coast was still enjoying its golden age. The surviving ruins and material culture of the 15th and 16th Centuries conjure up a general picture of prosperity”.  Mombasa had also established good trade links with its hinterland in honey, wax and ivory, which precipitated her sudden rise – which until the time the Portuguese arrived had rightfully become “the most powerful city-state in the Coast Region of Kenya”. 

North of Mombasa, the prosperous town on Gedi was later abandoned in 1650 as a result of what many historians attribute to the lack of water.  Malindi, like Mombasa, had also been founded in the 12th Century.  It had gained from close association with Kilwa against Mombasa.  Malindi would play host as the seat for viceroy of the Portuguese.  Malindi’s trade was based largely on the export of ivory and on auxiliary items such as beeswax ambergris, honey and gum resin.  “Unlike most other settlements in the region, Malindi, even in the 16th Century, had large plantations of millet and rice worked by slaves”.  Her population in 1498, based on 1,000 stone settlements, stood at a conservative figure of 3,500 excluding plantation workers and the poor, who lived in mud-and-thatch huts.

In East Africa the Portuguese used different methods: they crushed the defense of Sofala, Mombasa and other coastal towns, installing garrisons there and raised taxes for the king of Portugal.  At the same time, the tried to take over the trade in gold, ivory and metals between the coast, its hinterland and India – The General History of Africa.


Portrait of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer.  Photo Courtesy
Portrait of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese Explorer. Image Courtesy

Enter the Portuguese

In stark contrast to West Africa, East Africa was of little interest to the nations of Europe.  Only the Portugal would seek to explore East Africa, in many ways to make the best use of her discoveries before she were challenged.  Eventually, Portugal would end up taking control of most of the coastal towns, keeping off the interior hinterlands.  The Portuguese interest in East Africa stretches as far back as the late 14th Century, eager to establish a trading empire in East Africa, and to outflank Islam commercially, politically, militarily, and religiously.  The Great Prince Henry, Grand Master of the Order of Christ, was the man behind Portuguese strategy of Africa, and lured by the legendary gold of Timbuktu he had successfully pioneered a lasting trading relationship with West Africa, long before Vasco da Gama arrived at East Africa.  Throughout the 15th Century and the early 16th Century, Portugal had established numerous trading posts on the West African Coast, long before the arrival of the French in West Africa in the 1520’s, and that of England in the 1550’s.  The decision to conquer East Africa was taken by the Portuguese after Vasco da Gama’s return to Portugal in 1499. 

In January 1498, Vasco da Gama’s exploratory voyage had reached the island and town of Mozambique, now under the influence of Kilwa, before arriving to a very hostile welcome in Mombasa, and more significantly to a friendly one at Malindi – arch-rival of Mombasa.  On April 7, 1498, Vasco da Gama arrived in Mombasa aboard the ‘San Raphel’.  Soon after his arrival, da Gama set off for the coastal town of Malindi (or Melinda, as he liked to call it), 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 da Gama erected the “stone pillar” as was customary, as a sign of amicable relationship. 

On the return voyage to East Africa, the Portuguese were determined to use force, in the place of lengthy persuasions, cooperation and alliances. “In 1503, Ruy Lourenço Ravasco indulged in plunder and piracy around Zanzibar, before landing there and using force to impose tribute”.  In 1505, Kilwa would be next in line to face the gunfire, prescribed by Dom Francesco de Almeida, who went on to be the viceroy of India.  Hitherto, Mombasa, which had been disputatious with Vasco da Gama, in 1498, faced Almeida’s expedition of 20 ships and 1,500 men.  Not easily intimidated, it put on a fine show of defiance, trusting a canon recovered from a sunken Portuguese ship.  “The king of Mombasa and his folk put up a determined resistance to the Portuguese, but eventually the king was forced to surrender.  The town was looted and burnt before the fleet departed”. 

It seems that the Portuguese aim was to break the power of Mombasa in order to enhance that of Kilwa, which was to be their stronghold.  In similar fashion, the superiority of the Portuguese was unmatched by the natives, and the lack of unity between Mombasa and Malindi was extra ammunition, in addition to the weakness of the Turkish and Persian navies along the East African Coast.  Even before the situation could clarify itself, the Portuguese made hastened alliances with the rulers at Pemba, Malindi and Zanzibar, with promise of more military reinforcements expected from their station at Goa in India.  In time, they grew more punitive and ruthless, using garrisons for retribution. In 1528, Mombasa was attacked again and occupied for four months.  The short occupation, which ended in the town being razed, gained the Portuguese nothing but the loss of many lives.  Withal, in Sofala, disease had dealt a tragic blow to the Portuguese, rendering it as non-functional in 1512, and transferring the garrison to India.  


Artist impression of European Arrival in Africa.  Photo Courtesy
Artist Impression of European Arrival in Africa. Image Courtesy

Decline of Portuguese Rule in East Africa

The first signs that trouble was brewing for the Portuguese was the arrival of the eminent Turkish principal Mir Ali Bey, in 1585, to a warm welcome by the people of the coastal towns.  He left with a promise to return with a stronger force to combat the Portuguese.  True to his promise, he returned in 1588 with 5 ships and won the support of most towns, except Malindi.  At the same time, as the threat of the inevitable Portuguese retribution was gaining momentum, the cannibalistic Zimba from the interior arrived at Mombasa, threatening to take it over.  As a result, the towns people and their Turkish deliverers found themselves caught between two enemies.  As the Portuguese went about cutting down to size the Turkish fleet and unleashing retributive anger on the coastal towns of Mombasa, Lamu, Pate and Faza, the Zimba also busied themselves ambushing smaller towns.  In the end, the ruling dynasties at the coast and its king were tremendously weakened, yet, “the Turkish expeditions had revealed the fragility of the Portuguese hold on the Swahili coast.  To strengthen it, the Portuguese decided to erect a fortress in Mombasa and place a garrison there”.  

Building Fort Jesus

From the moment they had entered the Indian Ocean, the Portuguese had aroused hostility of almost all the coastal town.  Even so, by 1505, they had completely taken over Malindi and declared it the seat of the government for the Viceroy.  To continue with their success of taking over the East African coast, it was paramount that they secure Mombasa, and be able to react apace to any attempts at resistance and revolts which might arise.  By virtue of its position, its climate and fine harbours, Mombasa was one of the important hubs – a big centre ruled by the Shirazi families alongside Malindi and Kilwa. 

Fort Jesus Museum, completed in 1596 – at Old Town Mombasa – is the most outstanding and well preserved of the landmarks left from the Portuguese era.  The location chosen was a coral ridge at the entrance to the harbor, modelled on designs by an Italian Architect and Engineer Joao – Batista Cairato.  It was built primarily to secure the safety of Portuguese living on the Coast of Kenya.  Although, romanticized as an early European military fortification, it existed at a huge cost to life and liberty of the people of Mombasa, and holds a history of immeasurable disruption and violence on the local communities.  The image of the Portuguese in Mombasa is one of vehement subjugation and an unfriendly, indifferent-rule, marked with ruthless retributive acts.  The earliest known plan of Fort Jesus is in a manuscript Atlas by Manuel Godinho de Heredia – dated 1610, which show the original plans of the building and layout inside the fort. 

Eventually, it would be a multiplicity of factors that eventually led to the fall of the Portuguese.  Firstly, there was a growing concern of the inefficiency of her trade and growing corruption of its officials.  Secondly, declining gold slumped her trade.  Thirdly, the growing settlements of people in Mombasa – to include Oromo, Miji Kenda and Maasai – increased insecurity and uprisings.  Equally important, was the entry of the Dutch and British in East Africa to challenge the Portuguese.  Fourthly, the deterioration of the relations between the Portuguese and the new rulers of Mombasa and their traditional allies.  Last but not least, the continued struggles between the Oman Arabs and the Portuguese. The 1652 Omani expedition attacks on the Portuguese in Zanzibar triggered more attacks in Mozambique (1659), Pate, Siyu, Manda and Lamu (1679).  Although in 1694 the Portuguese managed to temporarily suppress the Oman Arabs, Oman Ships carrying more than 3,000 soldiers easily occupied Mombasa before laying siege to Fort Jesus in 1698, officially raising the red flag of Oman in November 1698. 

“From 1728 to 1729 the Portuguese managed a brief return to Mombasa, taking advantage of the scanty Omani presence on the coast and of Swahili disaffection in some towns with Arabs”.  In November 1729, Fort Jesus was retaken again and the Portuguese were allowed to sail to Mozambique.  Other town, including Pemba and Pemba, followed Mombasa’s lead – driving out the Portuguese.


Defensive wall of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya.  Photo Courtesy
Defensive wall of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya. Image Courtesy

Fall of Portuguese Rule in Relations to Her Tade

Portugal might be though to have ventured upon a path of lasting economic and that of political expansion.  However, its backward and sluggish socio-economic structure prevented this from ever happening.  Overseas expansion necessitated large financial outlays, and the purchase of gold and slaves that depended upon supplying Africa with large quantities of iron, brass and copper products, cheap textiles, silver, food stuffs and salt.  These good were not produced in Portugal but had to be bought from foreign traders or in the Bruges and, later, from the major European trader centers of the time.  Furthermore, expansion of the fleet depended on the import of timber, mainly from Baltic countries.  Portugal was unable to develop its own production because of her modest population and the severe competition from abroad, most notably of industrial goods.  Europe’s economic boom triggered a gradual rise in prices from the 1470’s.  During the second half of the sixteen century this rise became enormous, affecting both her agricultural products and industrial goods. – General History of Africa, B. Ogot

Rise of Omani Rule in East Africa

When the Portuguese were first driven out of the East Africa Coast, in 1698, it came under the rule of the Oman Arabs.  Effectually, the Iman (ruler) of Oman became the ruler of the Coast Region of East Africa.  The Omani’s contributed significantly towards the economic resurgence of Kilwa, as did the slave trade.  Together with the ivory, the slave trade was to dominate the economic history of the coast until the late 19th Century.  The trade developed initially to supply the French with the slaves they needed, after 1735, for their plantations in the Mascarene Islands.  The Oman Rule at the Coast Region of Kenya was enforced by prominent Arab families to rule on their behalf.  The Island of Mombasa was ruled by the Mazrui family, while Lamu was ruled by the Nabahani family. 

By around 1746 with the overthrow of the Ya’rubi dynasty in Oman, the Mazruis declared their independence from Oman Empire. During the following decades Mombasa grew in strength and signed a treaty of alliance with its old time rival town, Pate. The alliance came to a breaking point in 1812 after the joint forces of Mombasa and Pate lost a decisive battle against Lamu town. Lamu, fearful of similar acts of agression appealed to Oman for protection. This gave Oman’s new leader, Seyyid Said, an opportunity for direct intervention and a base which he later consolidated by terminating Mazrui rule in Pate and then in Mombasa. In 1832 Seyyid Said transferred his capital from Muscat to Zanzibar.

The Mazrui were troublesome to the Imams, ever hungry for independence and autonomy.  Eager to establish their foothold over the Coast Region, they forced towns like Malindi, Pate and Pemba to pay allegiance to Mombasa.  Although in theory the Coast came under Oman rule when Oman Arabs liberated it from the Portuguese, it was first made effective by the distinguished ruler Seyyid Said who reigned over from 1804-1856.  Seyyid attacked and captured Mombasa in 1829 – tempering the rule of the Mazrui dynasty.  Seyyid Said spent most of his time in Zanzibar, which he finally made his capital in 1840.  To promote trade, Seyyid signed commercial treaties with different countries to include those with United States (1833), Britain (1839) and France (1844).  It was under his reign that the European begun to penetrate into the interior hinterlands of Kenya. 

However, the expulsion of the Portuguese from the East African coast did not mean an automatic entry by Oman. Attempts by Oman to impose garrisons on the coast even led to plotting with the Portuguese and a reinstatement of their power for a short period (1728-29).

Life in the Hinterland before 1900’s

Each to their own, over many hundreds of years, the tribes of Kenya had settled across her land.  It’s worth pointing out that the modern-day intra-boundaries are based largely on these settlement patterns.  By the start of 19th Century, the process of occupying Kenya had almost gone full-cycle, with dislodging of some weaker tribes like the Wadorobo, Ogiek and Gusii by dominant groups like the Maasai and Agikuyu.  Excepting the Wanga Kindgom in Western Kenya ruled by the Nabongo (or king), most other tribes were only government by the basic foundation of family and clan.  When the Agikuyu for example settled in their present area, they lived in small groups scattered around the forests of Central Kenya and did not need a ruler, instead their traditional system was essentially based on 9 clans and the core of the system was nyumba, or elementary family. 

Still and all, Kenya at this time was only sparsely populated and, as the society grew (and in response to the dangers of warfare) many tribes began to appoint chiefs and clan leaders to portray a united fronts.  Inevitably, wars and tangles took place, often in the form of raids and ambushes, and many found ways of defending their villages and set up a system of native councils to govern several villages.  The dominant pastoralist Maasai were the big antagonists of the day, often raiding the Agikuyu, Akamba and some of the tribes in the Coast Region of Kenya.  In the west, between 1750 and 1850, the Gusii suffered attacks from the Maasai and Luo, forcing them to resettle in the Gusii Highlands, of present day Kisii County.  Throughout the 19th Century, the Maasai influence spread far and wide, to as far as Uasin Gishu plains, Lake Victoria and south to Tanzania.  In the latter part of the 19th Century, prolonged drought, rinderpest attack and internal ranges between its factions led to decline of Maasai dominance.  The Nandi of Rift Valley who were entangled in unending fight with the Maasai took advantage of the downfall and expanded their territory in Luhya and Luolands. 

Early Trade in Kenya

By the 19th Century, trade connections among the tribes of Kenya, and some across the borders, had already been established.  Around Lake Victoria barter trade flourished early and the growth of centres like Kisumu (the place of trade or place of plenty) is evidence of this early trade.  In the interior, the Akamba specialized in long-distance exchange of goods between the varied tribes.  They traded with the Miji Kenda, Agikuyu, Taita and Chagga.  In the Rift Valley, the Kipsigis traded with the Gusii, Luo and Luhya.  At the Coast Region of Kenya trade was much more developed with merchant ship arriving at the Port of Mombasa to trade in ivory, gold and slaves.  They supplied the Arabs and other merchants with grain, fruits, trinkets, timber, iron, beads, clothes and slaves.    


St. Paul Church, at Rabai or Kraph Memorial Museum.  Photo Courtesy
St. Paul Church, at Rabai or Kraph Memorial Museum. Image Courtesy

Spread of Christianity in Kenya

While the Portuguese had garnered some success with trade and domination, they did not fair well with spreading Christianity in East Africa. They had won some converts in Mombasa and Malindi but their endeavor had no permanent success. One of the very relics of their forlone attempt at spreading Christianity is the pocket-sized Portuguese Chapel in Malindi, build around 1500. The real nudge for Christianity in Kenya would come 344 years later, in 1844, with the arrival of Johann Ludwig Kraph under Church Missionary Society of England. On arrival at the Coast Region of Kenya, he had taken note of his predecessors, remarking: “In East Africa the Portuguese have left nothing behind them but ruined fortresses, palaces and ecclesiastical buildings.  Nowhere is there to  be seen a single trace of any real development.” Kraph had received the blessing of Seyyid Said by form of a letter asking the governors of the coastal towns to give him any assistance. In 1846, he was joined by Johannes Rebmann, also with the Church Missionary Society, and together they established a mission station at Rabai, near Mombasa, to serve as base before moving into the interior. In 1862, members of United Methodist Church arrived from Britain, led by Kraph, to put up stations at Jomvu, Lamu and Sagalla. Despite initial resistance, it eventually swept through much of Kenya, and today 70% of the population are Christians.