The Portuguese were the first European nation to begin to develop a true maritime empire outside of the traditional Mediterranean or Baltic Seas. Their initial explorations down the west coast of Africa took many years and were slow in paying back any real benefits. The real reward was a delayed gratification and it would be the reaching of the Far East by Portuguese captains.

Mombasa and Malindi are first included in the annals of Portuguese colonization with the name of Vasco da Gama. During his voyage to India, Vasco da Gama reached the area that is present day Kenya. The eastern areas of Africa had long since become predominately Muslim in culture. With the blended language known as Swahili (Arabic for ‘coastal’) and with its own sultans and sultanates, coastal Africa had over time become a very Muslim area, while the lands directly inland were controlled by traditional African tribes.

Mombasa and Malindi are two modern Kenyan towns. Mombasa lying to the south and Malindi to the north.

Vasco da Gama reaches Malindi

Vasco da Gama first reached present day Kenya in early 1498. With Muslim controlled coasts ahead, and the exact location of India unknown, da Gama realized that a base would be needed in East Africa, Mombasa and Malindi seemed to serve the purpose, and da Gama was determined to get one of the cities as a base. More importantly than even a potential African ally to Portugal, da Gama needed a navigator to guide them to India.

Vasco da Gama’s first foray into the lands of this area was around Mombasa, where he was met with outright hostility. Da Gama’s crew later captured a Malindi townsman and through conversations with him, da Gama became very impressed with the Sultan of Malindi. On April 15th, 1498 da Gama set anchor in Malindi harbor and awaited a reception from what he had come to believe was a very jovial sultan. At the end of the first day no envoy had arrived and the Malindi native was released in hopes that the man would be able to get someone from the Sultan.

It did in fact work and the Sultan and da Gama negotiated. Da Gama’s envoys were met with gifts including goats, oranges and sugarcane. He was now convinced that the Sultan was indeed a good man and the one that could help his goal of reaching India. Thus, with his good view of the Sultan, da Gama requested a navigator to guide the Portuguese to India. The Sultan agreed and a price of 50 gold crusades was set on for the use of the navigator. In a final act of goodwill Vasco da Gama is said to have disembarked and then led the creation of a pillar built on the coral reef near the coast of Malindi, the pillar was inscribed with the words ‘y Piono’.

Portuguese Opening of Mombasa

Mombasa as stated before had been initially very hostile to da Gama. This resulted in the sacking of the city in 1505. Francisco de Almeida, who had earlier that year led an expeditionary force which had attacked and occupied Kilwa and Sofala, sacked the city of Mombasa. Portuguese control was not exercised though and the city was simply plundered. As the Sultan of Malindi drew closer to Portugal, Mombasa became the center for the East African resistance against the Portuguese threat.

In 1529 a second attack was carried out. Again Mombasa was sacked and this time it was given to the Sultan of Malindi as a nominal vassal. An annual tribute was also demanded. Mombasa was ruled nominally by Mombasa, in turn by the regional governor in Gao (present day western India) and finally by Portugal. This act cemented the control of Portugal over both Malindi and Mombasa.

Portuguese Colonial Reign

The Portuguese were not interested in colonization at all. With a population of only 1 million in Europe, the country had very little of the same problems as the larger nations of Spain, France and England. Instead they, like the Dutch almost a century later, concentrated solely on the establishment of a trading empire. The introduction of New World foodstuffs would, like elsewhere in Africa, allow the growth of the native population, and the area became renowned for quite a few different crops and goods.

Mombasa would continue to be an area of brewing resentment for another half a century. Meanwhile the successive Sultans of Malindi grew ever closer to Portugal, finally becoming a sort of puppet state though they, in name at least, were the rulers of the two cities. Portugal also had control of the island of Zanzibar now, which commanded the coastal waters of the two cities.

In 1589 Mombasa renounced Portugal’s control and invited the famous Turkish (Ottoman Empire) corsair, Mirale Bey, to assume the protection of the city. The Turkish fleet was in turn defeated by a Portuguese fleet sent from Goa and the city was left defensless and at the mercy of the marauding Zimba tribe. The Zimbas raided Mombasa and then turned their attention on Malindi. Malindi was defended by a second tribe though, the Segeju. The Sultan of Malindi then employed the Segeju to take Mombasa and moved his court there in 1592. Portugal was now invited to install a permanent garrison in the city.

During the next few years, the Portugese did their only extensive construction in the area. Fort Jesus was built as both a slave trading station and a Portugese garrison, and commanded a good vantage over both Mombasa and the coastal areas.

Portugese dominance of the area was unchallenged for a long while after the construction of the fort. It wasn’t until 1631 that the hold on the area was threatened again. A marauding (sources seem to indicate he had lost his throne) sultan seized Mombasa temporarily. It would take eight years before Mombasa was recaptured.

By the time Mombasa was recaptured though the Portuguese were threatened by a new group. The Imam of Oman was steadily gaining in power. Portugal and Oman soon came to struggle of the northern coast of the area. In the year 1660 Oman seized control of Mombasa, though Fort Jesus was held until 1699 when it finally fell. The Portuguese made one last attempt to regain the area with an assault on Fort Jesus in 1728. The assault was a failure though and the area remained under the sway of Oman until they were ousted by the Mazrui line in 1741. The British would eventually contest for control of the area, in an attempt to deny it from Oman, during their period of antislavery activities.