Mombasa, Malindi, and Kilwa Reach Their Height

Following Islamic migration from the northwest and the establishment of trading networks across the Indian Ocean, gold, slaves, and ivory from Africa were traded for cloth, beads, metal goods, silks, and porcelain from Asia and Europe. Arabic colonies along the east coast of Africa prospered as they became major centers of trade and culture.

Summary of Event

In the late fifteenth century, the coastal trading towns of eastern Africa were thriving concerns, benefiting from their position between the African interior, rich in raw materials, and merchants the East and Middle East. The east coast of Africa had become an active site, not merely for trade, but for settlement, migration, and conquest as well. Some indigenous African groups moved up or down the coast, while others migrated to the sea from inland. Mombasa
Gama, Vasco da
Ibn Baṭṭūṭa
Gama, Vasco da

The strongest long-term influences on the area, however, came from two waves of outsiders who established trade routes up and down the Indian Ocean: Arab Muslim merchants from Turkey, beginning in the eleventh century or perhaps earlier, and explorer-conquerors from Portugal, who arrived at the turn of the sixteenth century. The Muslims were largely responsible for the rise of the coastal towns as commercial centers, while the arrival of the Portuguese brought about their swift downfall.

By the fifteenth century, trading in gold, slaves, mangrove poles, and ivory was concentrated in an area reaching from Malindi, in what is now Kenya, south to Kilwa, in modern Tanzania. Cities along this stretch of coast were populated by Muslim, Swahili-speaking peoples, who shared some cultural elements but who were in constant competition with each other for trade dominance. Kilwa was located at the farthest point south that a trading ship from the Arabian Peninsula could sail to and still return home the same year. Mombasa, farther north, exploited an unsurpassed natural harbor. Malindi, still farther north, was situated favorably to catch the trade winds that could send ships to all the major cities on the Indian Ocean.

In the early centuries of Arab influence, few foreign traders settled permanently in Africa, but gradually more stayed and created new communities into which local Africans were absorbed, generally into the lower classes. From the eleventh to the early fifteenth centuries, Kilwa was the most prominent trading center in East Africa, drawing much of its wealth from the gold trade. A familial line of sultans ruled the city but never sought to expand its influence. Like the other coastal cities, Kilwa operated independently and in competition with the others rather than entering into alliances.

The Moroccan traveler Ibn Baṭṭūṭa reported after a visit to Kilwa in 1332 that the city had a large mosque and several two- and three-story buildings made of coral blocks and decorated with decorative borders in carved stone. He described the lavish court of the sultan, and the wide variety of meats, fruits, and spices available. A century or two later, the largest homes had glass windows. Wealthy people had carpets on the floors, tapestries on the walls, Ming porcelain, and Indian beads.

Mombasa was a bustling harbor as far back as the twelfth century, recorded in the journals of visiting traders as a city of tall white houses and beautiful women dressed in gold and silk. The central buildings, unlike the smaller grass huts found only a mile inland, were made of whitewashed stone.

Malindi was first settled by the Arabs during the thirteenth century. Its economy was based on fishing, agriculture, salt collection, and Indian Ocean trade. Like most of the coastal cities, it was inhabited by an Arab ruling class and an African majority; many of the Africans lived on farms surrounding the central city. Malindi came to prominence by welcoming foreign trade. In 1414, the king of Malindi made overtures to China, sending the Ming emperor the gift of a giraffe and welcoming the trader Zheng He (Cheng Ho). Malindi at its peak in the fifteenth century was a walled city. The Arabs who lived within the walls had two-story stone houses, designed in the Arab fashion around a central courtyard, with heavily carved doors.

Gedi, located ten miles south of Malindi and a little inland, demonstrates the prosperity enjoyed by these coastal cities at their peak. It was built in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century and was home to approximately twenty-five hundred people. Most of them, the members of the lower classes, lived in mud huts on the outskirts of the town. A nine-foot-high wall surrounded a city of several buildings made of coral and clay, laid out in a deliberate plan. These buildings were decorated with carved wood and ornamented with blue and white Chinese porcelain bowls set into the ceilings.

Gedi had six small private mosques and a Jumaa, or Great Mosque, approached through a courtyard. The Great Mosque included a well, a mimbar (pulpit) of three stone steps, pillars, and decorated niches for lamps. Gedi’s palace had a main entrance with arches and sunken courtyard, large reception rooms, a platform and bench for judicial hearings, kitchens, storerooms, lavatories, and private apartments. Its walls were hung with tapestries, and niches held lamps and Chinese celadon jars. Smaller homes in Gedi were single-storied, with concrete floors and concrete or tiled roofs. Residents owned goods obtained through trade, including glass beads from Venice and ivory and bronze from inland.

The arrival of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in Mombasa in 1498 marked the beginning of the end for these fabulous cities. Seeking to spread Christianity and to find new trade routes and partners for Portugal, da Gama was repelled by Mombasa, but he forged an alliance with the king of Malindi and established Malindi as a supply station for Portuguese ships. By 1518, Mozambique had replaced Malindi as Portugal’s primary supply station, in part because Malindi lacked a natural harbor. Exploration and colonization;Portugal of Africa

The competitive nature of the relationships between the cities helped speed their downfall. Kilwa, already in decline, was sacked and occupied by the Portuguese in 1502, but might have resisted if neighbors had come to its aid. The king of Mombasa attempted to enter an alliance with the king of Malindi in 1502, but he was rebuffed, because Malindi saw Mombasa as a greater enemy than the Portuguese.

Mombasa was burned to the ground in 1505, and the Portuguese took away so much treasure that they could not sail away with it all at once. Rebuilt, Mombasa was burned again in 1529 but resisted occupation through most of the century. It finally fell in 1592, to a combined force of Portuguese and Malindi invaders. Malindi declined through the sixteenth century because of shifts in trade routes, and by the time the Portuguese built Fort Jesus in Mombasa in 1593, Malindi’s importance to international trade was minor. Gedi was not located on the coast, and so was not important to the Portuguese; it was abandoned in the seventeenth century for reasons still unknown.


For some five hundred years, the cities along the East Coast of Africa grew steadily wealthier, providing wealth for traders all around the Indian Ocean and reaching the height of their prosperity in the late 1400’. Their exported gold, ivory, and slaves left their mark on the peoples who received them. The gold trade, in particular, attracted the attention of Portuguese traders and ultimately led to the European domination of Africa that continued well into the twentieth century. Trade;gold

The Swahili cultures Swahili culture that grew out of these cities remained active long after the cities ceased to influence global commerce. They are still active in modern East Africa, especially in the coastal towns of Lamu and Mombasa in Kenya and Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. A blending of Arab and African influences, Swahili people are generally Muslim, generally coastal, but as varied as any ancient group of people in a region where trade and migration have brought different people together. The Swahili language is learned as a second language by many Africans south of the equator and is used as a common tongue in many parts of the continent.

Further Reading

  • Kusimba, Chapurukha Makokha. The Rise and Fall of Swahili States. Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 1999. Study of the development of Swahili language, architecture, economy, and religion on the African coast from 100 b.c.e. to the sixteenth century European conquest.
  • Middleton, John. African Merchants of the Indian Ocean: Swahili of the East African Coast. Long Grove, Ill.: Waveland Press, 2004. Introduction to Swahili culture by a scholar with fifty years of personal contact.
  • Oliver, Roland, and Anthony Atmore. The African Middle Ages, 1400-1800. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981. This history covers the entire continent, emphasizing African encounters with the outside influences of Islamic migration and of European and Asian trade.
  • Pearson, Michael N. Port Cities and Intruders: The Swahili Coast, India, and Portugal in the Early Modern Era. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. A historical analysis of the international influences upon the culture and economy of the Swahili people of the East African Coast.

1460-1600: Rise of the Akan Kingdoms

c. 1464-1591: Songhai Empire Dominates the Western Sudan

1481-1482: Founding of Elmina

c. 1485: Portuguese Establish a Foothold in Africa

Aug., 1487-Dec., 1488: Dias Rounds the Cape of Good Hope

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

Jan., 1498: Portuguese Reach the Swahili Coast

16th century: Trans-Saharan Trade Enriches Akan Kingdoms

16th century: Worldwide Inflation

Dec. 31, 1600: Elizabeth I Charters the East India Company