Mombasa is one of the oldest settlements on the East African coastline, with a long and exotic history. There has definitely been a town here for the past 700 years, but the island may have been settled long before that. The writings of Arab, Roman and Egyptian explorers and scholars dating back to 2,500 years ago make mention of Arab settlements in this region.
When Vasco de Gama sailed into the harbor on Easter Sunday 1498, he found a thriving Arab port. He landed, but the received a cold reception from the locals, and after brief trade sailed North to make an alliance with the settlement of Malindi.
De Gama had paved the Portuguese way, and by 1505 a fleet of 14 ships sailed into the harbour. They were met by a wave of poisoned arrows from the troops of the King of Mombasa. The Portuguese response was immediate and brutal and with cannon and rifles they attacked the town, slaughtering the King’s army, looting the town and starting a massive fire that burnt Mombasa to the ground.
The survivors set to work to rebuild the town, and in 1528 the Portuguese sailed back into the harbour and looted and burnt the new Mombasa. This cycle continued with a further two attacks by the Portuguese, who enlisted native troops to help massacre the citizens of Mombasa. In 1561 Mombasa declared war on the northern settlement of Malindi, which had remained a Portuguese ally. The armies of Mombasa were utterly defeated, and the Portuguese moved their garrisons of troops onto the island, starting work on Fort Jesus in 1593.
The eventual undoing of the Portuguese came with the rise of the powerful Omani Arabs, who united forces from the islands of Lamu and Pate to fight against the European power. Mombasa was ruled by powerful Omani families until it was declared a British protectorate in the late 19th Century.
The Mombasa Club was founded by the British in 1885, and built directly beside Fort Jesus. Today the club remains a functioning private club, commanding an impressive view of the harbour.
The British were determined to claim their chunk of Africa, and saw that control of an East African protectorate would give them influential control of the Suez Canal to the north. The only way to control and administer East Africa was to link the coast to the Source of the Nile, and plans were laid to build a railroad from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. Work began in Mombasa in 1896 on one of the most ambitious and dangerous railway projects in human history. The railway was built by labourers imported from the British colony in India. The majority of these railway workers came from Gujarati in Northern India. The city still has a large Asian population, both Hindu and Muslim.