Lesser-Known Heroes of The Pre-colonial Coast of Kenya

Lesser-Known Heroes of The Pre-colonial Coast of Kenya

20th October is Mashujaa day in Kenya. On this day, Kenya celebrates heroes who have stood up for our country and the values of humanity and dignity that define our nation.

Every year, I notice a massive gap in our celebrations. National media coverage rightfully recognizes freedom fighters who fought against British colonialism, but it often neglects those who resisted Omani, Portuguese, and other invaders long before Britain imposed their rule. 

Because all Kenyan imperial invaders came through the Coast, it follows that the first resistance to these invaders was at the Coast. The Portuguese first arrived at East Africa’s coast in the late 15th century. They came again in the early 16th century with the intention of taking control of coastal trading. By 1720 Omani Arabs drove out the Portuguese and claimed dominance. When they first arrived, the Omani and Portuguese found independent Swahili city-states in trade, partnership, and conflict with one another. They were also at some point invited by some of the Swahili leaders to resist Portuguese dominance, but then stayed forming treaties or laying imperial claims to the land with loyalty to Zanzibar and Oman.

By the time the British came to Kenya in the late 1800s, Omani and Zanzibar influence was already present and they ruled most of the Coast. The British therefore negotiated directly with the Sultanate and in many cases viewed the other rulers that weren’t part of the Sultanate as a threat to them and to their interests in Zanzibar. Through these negotiations, on June 11, 1920, Britain declared the Kenyan Coast a British Protectorate under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar. 

There are primary records of centuries of coastal freedom fighters and leaders who opposed foreign imposition prior to British entry. Unfortunately, these oral and written records created and passed down by coastal communities have become obscure. Many primary records were lost through intentional destruction or distortion by imperial interests, such as the Pate Chronicles, which were burnt in Witu by the British. Existing primary written sources by Swahili people were written in Ajami script, which has largely been replaced by the Latin alphabet, and our oral records were delegitimized by colonial education systems and values.

Utendi wa Tambuka - Wikipedia
Utendi wa Tambuka – Swahili writings in the old Ajami script before British colonisation

Colonial British, Omani, and Portuguese records do not explore in-depth the fire-spirited freedom fighters who existed on the coast of East Africa. Our current educational system descends from British colonial schools, which were originally designed to propagate their world view and imperial aims. 

As a result of the above, I can’t claim that it’s surprising that many of us are unfamiliar with the heroic tales of Coastal resistance against tyrannical oppression, especially if those freedom fighters were women. The advent of digital technology, however, has made formerly obscure information accessible for those who are interested. 

My passion for this subject inspired a personal project in which I’m attempting to address the glaring failures of mainstream education. Using available resources, I am working on a children’s book series that focuses on heroes of the East African Coast. On Mashujaa Day, I think it’s important to remember some of the names of our coastal heroes rather than sit on the information until I’m ready to pursue publication. 
This is not a comprehensive list, but one to encourage further exploration and perhaps spark a dialogue about gaps in our shared memories of decolonial heroes. We may never know what the Kenyan Coast would have looked like without the Coast heroes acting as a buffer for inland advancement. Without these early heroes, perhaps we would have been colonized by Portugal, or Oman would have had a much stronger hold beyond the Coast of Kenya. Who knows? Either way, this is my tribute to them.

Mwana Darini – Pate (1600s)

Mwana Darini was the daughter of Sultan of Pate, Abubakar bin Bwana Mkuu. Pate was a city-state located in the heart of the Lamu Archipelago. Mwana Darini played a significant role in Pate politics in the early seventeenth century. Mwana Darini’s paternal uncle Ahmed colluded with the Portuguese to kidnap Mwana Darini’s husband, Bwana Mkuu bin Abubakar, and her two brothers, Bwana Madi and Abu Bakr, and ship them to Goa. Upon her father’s death, Mwana Darini’s brother Sultan Bwana Bakari inherited the throne, but he was soon killed and deposed by her uncle Ahmad, who then became the Sultan.

Drawing of Awadh Bin Tamin, in Lamu, blowing a Siwa.

Sultan Ahmed later conflicted with the Portuguese, but still didn’t have a very amicable relationship with Mwana Darini considering all the prior injustices against her family.  Hiistoriya published an article about the role she played in taking away the powers of holding the ceremonial horn, the siwa, from the Sultan. 

The siwa was a ceremonial horn used in Swahili states whose decision of use was held by the Sultan. Mwana Darini made it accessible to the public by commissioning her own siwa and freeing a slave whom she gave custodianship over it. This was a major democratic statement as it diminished the Sultan’s influence over such an important ceremonial process that was now delegated to someone who was considered much more inferior to the Sultan.

It is said that after the siwa incident, rain did not fall for seven years, which may have been interpreted as an omen. Sultan Ahmad abdicated the kingdom in 1689. He was succeeded by Sultan Abubakar bin Bwana Tamu Mukuu who is said to have had a much more aggressive relationship with the Portuguese. 

The new Sultan of Pate led an expedition against Mombasa and attacked the Europeans and slew them in the fort of Mombasa. Sultan Abubakar was well respected and lived on the most excellent terms with his subjects. Was the siwa incident really a precursor to Sultan Ahmad’s relinquishing his power? We will never know. It is not known how long Sultan Ahmed would have ruled, and what that would have meant for Pate. But one thing is for sure is that Mwana Darini altered Sultan Ahmad’s reputation during that incident and showed a woman can stand up and make a statement, even against a powerful and feared Sultan.

Yusuf ibn al-Hasan (Dom Jerónimo Chingulia) – c. 1607 – c.1640 – Mombasa

Yusuf ibn al-Hasan was the son of the Sultan of Mombasa in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In 1614, when he was just 7 years old, both of his parents were beheaded by the Portuguese. The Portuguese took the young orphan to Goa and converted him to Christianity, christening him Dom Jerónimo Chingulia. They were hoping to groom him into a sympathetic Christian leader.

In 1626, when Yusuf Ibn al-Hasan was 19 years old, he moved back to Mombasa and was crowned Sultan of the city. Soon after he began his rule, he realised that things were not as he was taught as a young boy and that the Portuguese were the oppressors. In August of 1631, he renounced Christianity secretly. When he was found out, he carried out a surprise attack and killed the Portuguese garrison at Fort Jesus, and took over the Fort. He killed the Portuguese captain, Pedro Leitão de Gamboa, and massacred the whole Portuguese population of Mombasa. A Portuguese expedition was sent from Goa to retake the fort but after two months of siege (10 January 1632-19 March 1632). Fearing a renewed attack, on May 16, 1632, he fled the city and became a pirate. In 1637 Yusuf ibn al-Hasan was killed at Jiddah in Southern Arabia, uncaptured by the Portuguese.

Old Portuguese Map of the Fort Jesus in Mombasa

Bwana Mataka (Mohamed Ishaq bin Mbarak Bin Mohamed) 1800-1848? – Lamu

Mohamed Ishaq bin Mbarak bin Mohamed, better known as Bwana Mataka, was the Shaykh of Siyu and almost regarded as Sultan. Siyu is a village on Pate Island in the Lamu Archipelago. It was one of the last villages standing in defiance of dominance by the Omani on the Eastern African Coast. 

Siyu defeated the Omani in several battles during the reign of Zanzibar’s Sultan, Sayyid Said. Their greatest win was in January 1844. Zanzibar attempted different tactics to take over Siyu. Sayyid Said sent monetary gifts, an army of two thousand men to Pate Island, and maritime chiefs of the Arabian coast on their own ships to help attack Siyu. They landed in Rasini on January 6, 1844, but they were rerouted before getting to Siyu. The Sultan’s trusted commander, Hamed bin Hamed, was killed immediately, and the Omani liwali of Mombasa and his sons were taken prisoner and killed. The guns of the fleeing soldiers that were left behind were captured by Bwana Mataka. Aided by the Oromo and Bajun, Bwana Mataka set up aggressive defences and attacks against the Omani until his death. It was not until the reign of Sultan Majid in 1863 that Siyu finally fell under Zanzibar’s dominance, becoming one of the last towns of East Africa’s coast to do so.

Siyu Fort (Photo by Samia Omar Bwana)

The Palace of Sultan Fumo-Bakari (The Graphic, Dec 6 1890)

Fumo Bakari – Witu (Late 1800s)

Fumo Bakari was the son-in-law and nephew of the Sultan of Witu, Sultan Ahmed bin Sheikh (otherwise known as Sultan Simba) who was also once the Sultan of Pate. Fumo’s family, who are part of the Nabahani clan from Pate, left Pate permanently in 1962 and settled in Witu following conflict with the Siyu and Zanzibar Sultan Sayyid Majid bin Sa’id. Fumo became the Sultan of Witu after his father-in-law’s death in 1888.

The villages surrounding Witu were populated by formerly enslaved people (called watoro) and fugitives of all kinds. Mtoro,  pl. watoro was the name given to runaway enslaved people, many of whom who sought refuge in Witu after fleeing from their old masters. Those considered watoro were mostly formerly enslaved, who were brought from Zanzibar and other lands beyond Lamu and couldn’t identify with the other major ethnic groups. Former Swahil, Oromo or Somali enslaved people easily reintegrated back with their ethnic groups and thus maintained their unique identities, and were not called watoro.

Fumo Bakari has a strong reputation among the British for being a firebrand. When Fumo inherited the throne, Witu was a German Protectorate. 

During his reign, the Germans signed the Anglo-German Agreement where they ceded Witu to the Omani in 1890. Following, there were widespread protests against Europeans and several Germans were killed, including German businessman Karl Horn who was murdered by some unidentified persons. Britain was requested to avenge the deaths and punish Sultan Fumo Bakari. 

Sultan Fumo wrote to British Consul General Euan-Smith:

 “And your people began it; and if anyone goes to another person’s place and beats or kills people, is it not yow custom and law to punish the wrongdoers? Please let us know so that we can learn. Or is it that only you want to come against us for nothing?”

– Sultan Fumo Bakari (1890-91)

Sultan Fumo was summoned to Lamu with the murderers of Karl Horn for an inquiry. Having failed to do so, the Royal Navy was dispatched to punish Witu. While marching towards Witu, an Advance Guard under Commander R.A.J. Montgomerie was attacked by Fumo Bakari’s troops consisting of 500 riflemen and 1,500 spear and bow and arrow men. Three sailors were wounded.

The British Troops Outside the Village of Witu (The Graphic, Dec 6 1890)

On the morning of October 26, 1890, the British sent 950 men to the town of Witu. All the stone buildings, including the palace, were blown up using explosives. While only two men were killed since the residents were alerted early to get to safety, the attack resulted in the irreparable destruction of written records on the history of the rulers of Pate. 

On 19 November 1890, Witu was declared a Zanzibari protectorate. Very likely under British instructions, Sultan Fumo Bakari was poisoned in early 1891. Unrest in Witu continued for another four years until Fumo Bakari’s successor, his younger brother Bwana Shehe, was deposed and imprisoned. Another brother, Fumo Omari, was arrested by the British.

Burning of the Village of Witu (The Graphic, Dec 6 1890)

The greatest lesson is that we can never preserve our own history until we write it ourselves and also guard it with our lives. While at that time Lamu saw Witu as its foe, the overall loss of the writings about the history of Pate is an irrecoverable loss for Kenya as a whole. While attempts have been made to record the history through the oral recollection in later years, known as the Pate Chronicles. What remains known if the history of Pate is still splintered.

It is my hope that as information becomes more available online and for free, we can slowly help learn our own history. There are many more shujaa that we don’t know, and that I can’t attempt to talk about in this one blog. Perhaps this is but a catalyst that we open those dusty books, translate the stories of our conquerors and seek out our own truth.


– Elliot, J .A.G (1925). A Visit to the Bajuni Islands. Journal of the African Society I. 5:10-22, 245-263.
– Elliot, J .A.G (1926). A Visit to the Bajuni Islands II. Journal of the African Society 5: 147-163, 338-358.
– Russell E.  (1913). The land of Zinj, being an account of British East Africa, its ancient history and present inhabitants by Stigand, C. H. (Chauncy Hugh), 1877-1919; Train Africana Collection (Smithsonian Libraries) DSI
– Stigand,C .H.1966. The Land of Zinj: Being an Account of British East Africa, its Ancient History and Present Inhabitants. London: Frank Cass & Co Ltd.
– Spear, T. (1984) The Shirazi in Swahili Traditions, Culture, and History Thomas Spear History in Africa History in Africa Vol. 11, pp. 291-305 (15 pages).
– Stigand, C. H., and Dagmar Weiler (1993). The Pate Chronicle, edited by Marina Tolmacheva, Michigan State University Press.
– Ylvisaker, M. (1979).  Lamu in the nineteenth century: land, trade, and politics. African Studies Centre: Boston University.

27 thoughts on “Lesser-Known Heroes of The Pre-colonial Coast of Kenya

  1. Great work kudos! “When you know your history then you know where you came from” Bob Martley et al. Accessing the primary or secondary source documents will be of great help to many interested readers. Good luck with the project.

    Best Regards

    1. Swahili is tribe called wangozi long time ago which changed to swahili. Wangozi are original swahili who spoke the swahili language long before coming of the Arabs. There is nothing like two tribes forming a third one.

  2. Thank you Samia for posting this piece of history. It is indeed a very powerful and significant cultural impact of our heritage.
    However, much needs to be fixed and done soon, before we fall into the abyss of obscurity!
    I was sooo impressed with the article, you’ve nailed it!
    Well done 👍🏽

  3. I wish these past events could be narrated to people in the places they happened to erase the ignorance and awaken the spirit that’s asleep.

  4. The history of the Swahili Coast is crucial. It must be pursued with earnest and preserved for future generations. Thank you for fighting the good fight. Tuko pamoja!

  5. MashaAllah! Very enlightening, I’ll have to share this with my children who got roots in the Lamu archipelago. The late Marcus Garvey said, ‘A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.’
    Thank you Samia for this.

  6. That was a very enlightening article. May God grant you wisdom and strength to reveal more about the history of coastal peoples

  7. Samia, what you fail to say is that all of the personalities you mention are non other than Omani descendants who intermarried with the local Bantus and thus the Swahili and Swahili culture evolved through centuries of their settling in the coast of E Africa.
    The Omanis did not come just “yesterday “ . History has recorded their arrival and settlement long before anybody else. Gedi for instance.
    The Omanis later came and threw out the Portuguese.
    I will not go into details but please do not attempt to distort history.

    1. Thank you for your reply. Yes many Arabs came before the Portuguese. But not just Oman. We had Persians, Yemeni, Chinese and so many others come to East Africa as early as the first century. But they came as individual traders, not an imperial power to take over lands, those are two different things.

      Also let’s remember the Coast is big and stretches a long way, it’s not homogenous. So Omani didn’t land everywhere and not everyone who is Swahili is of Omani descent. Every Swahili state had its own independent experience with Oman. Saying otherwise is the real distortion of history.

      Nonetheless even if hypothetically all the above do have a drop of Omani blood, it doesn’t change the fact that they didn’t identify themselves as being Omani and fought against the Omani Sultanate as Wasiyu people and Wapate. If Ngina Kenyatta, Uhurus daughter, today leads a rebellion against Germany if they came to colonise us, she still remains a Kenyan, it won’t matter if she is mixed race or not.

  8. Great work, thank you for letting us know our history. Now where did the other clans come from those who consider themselves as locals?

    1. It depends on which clans and which part of the Coast you are talking about. Are you referring to the 12 Swahili clans?

  9. Impressed by this bold attempt to rightly fix the coastal history.A lot of incidents of historical significance are normally and deliberately left out in attempts to water down the coastal’s contribution in the struggle for independence.A notable example is that of Mbaruk who fought the British with his rag tag fighters and claimed many victories before he was captured and incarcerated in a solitary confinement till death.This place where he was confined is still known by his name ‘Mbaruk’ which is located between Nakuru and Kericho.Why is there no mention of him at all????!

  10. Great information, and piece of history particularly the account on those who resisted the Omani, Portuguese, and other invaders way before the British imposed their colonial rule. Truly, this goes to show how there’s a huge gap in-between the people and ‘heroes’ we ‘celebrate’ during Mashujaa Day in Kenya.

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