The islands history is long and colourful. Some believe that the island has been settled since the 7th century, although the first written history of the island begins in 1402. Local legend speaks of the lost city of Hadibu, an Arab settlement buried beneath the rolling dunes of Shela Beach.
Shela was the scene of a great battle and massacre in the mid 18th century, as Lamu battled its neighbouring islands, Manda and Pate while the civilizations on these islands faded, Lamu prospered.
Lamu was also culturally influenced by the Bajun people. The Bajun are an indigenous tribal group, centred around the Lamu archipelago, whose origins and history have become blurred with the Swahili to the extent that one of their sub-clans, the Shiradhi claim to be direct descendants of Shirazi Arabs.
The Bajun are traditionally a fishing people, who also cultivate coconuts and mangrove logs. Many of their traditions have melded into Lamu’s cultural melting pot. Their traditional woodcarving played a major part in the development of the locally renowned Lamu carving industry, and their language was the genesis of Kiamu, a Swahili dialect that is the true language of Lamu.
Lamu saw many visitors over its long history, including traders and explorers from Portugal, China, Turkey and much of the Middle East. Its culture was inevitably influenced by most of them, producing this truly unique society.
Both Lamu town and the village of Shela are home to many fine examples of Swahili architecture. Some of the original mansions have been restored and maintained. Lamu is one of the most historically important Swahili towns.
On nearby Manda Island are found the ruins of Takwa, a civilization razed in the 17th Century. These ruins, now overgrown and overshadowed by baobab trees, show that Takwa was a holy city, where all doors faced Mecca. Some residents of Shela, who believe themselves to be descendants of Takwa, still visit the ruins to pray. Takwa can be reached by dhow from either Lamu or Shela.