A Layman's Lamu History Lesson!
For thousands of years, merchants from India, the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabia and the Persian Gulf set up trading posts along the East African Coast, shipping gold, animal skins, elephant tusks, rhino horn, ambergris, fruits, salt and human cargoes of slaves and concubines. Payment was usually made in the form of bartering cotton cloth, silks, axes, knives, wheat, rice, and glass. Fine porcelain from China was also exchanged.
These merchant traders eventually began to settle along the coastal strip and widespread intermarriage took place with the African inhabitants who had created the original coastal settlements. The people of the coastal strip became known as the Swahili People, because although they lacked a common heritage, a Bantu based language known as Kiswahili evolved as the means of communication between people of African, Arab, Persian, Portuguese and English origin, who at various times colonised the East African coast. Swahili is derived from the word sahils-awahils, the Arabic word for edge or coast. Over time powerful dynasties evolved and became established along the coast from Lamu Island to Zanzibar. The Great Omani Dynasty and the Mazrui Clan were particularly prominent and played a major part in the formation of the Swahili culture
The oldest known settlement on the Kenyan coast is at Shanga on Pate Island dates back to the 9th Century. By the 13th Century the Nabhani, a dispossessed group of Omani rulers had laid claim to Pate and were trading with Persia and visitors from even further afield. The presence of Chinese artifacts from wrecked exploration vessels and the occurrence of such oddities as noodle making presses in the Swahili culture puts the Chinese in the archipelago as early as the mid 1400's.
In 1505 the King of Lamu agreed to pay the Portuguese for protection from the Nabhani and for the next 180 years the island was under Portuguese control until they were themselves driven out by the Omanis. Lamu then became a republic ruled over by an installed 'yumbe' council of elders. For the next 150 years, the island prospered in all respects, creating its own architectural style. The town is famous for its amazing architecture and stone houses with exquisite carved lintels and doors that still stand to this day, keeping the original town plan intact.
Lamu became the leading centre for trade on the East African Coast, with a busy port, exporting ivory, tortoise, shell timber, mangrove logs and thousands of slaves, who were transported to the Persian Gulf and Arabia, as well as to countries in Europe and India. Lamu Fort was built for the Omanis in about 1812 but not completed until 1821. From 1910 until 1984, it was used as a prison.
Such was the success of the rulers that they even defeated the ruler of the neighbouring island of Pate at the Battle of Shela in 1812, when he tried to take Lamu Island with help from the Mazrui family in Mombasa. The victory was short lived because the yumbe panicked and requested help from Seyyid Said, the Sultan of Oman who happily sent a garrison to occupy Lamu, then go on to defeat the Mazrui clan in Mombasa and take control of the East African Coast, moving his headquarters from Oman to Zanzibar. In 1873, the British forced Sultan Barghash of Zanzibar to close down all the slave markets and with the abolition of slavery, Lamu's economy went into decline. It only began to recover in the early 1960's when the gentler invasion of tourism first came to the island.
Every year in November, to mark the birth of Muhammad, Lamu celebrates with a week long Festival that draws in pilgrims from all over East Africa and the Indian Ocean and where the entire town is involved in processions and dances.
There is another major religious festival in the Swahili year called Maulidi which has been celebrated in Lamu since 1866. Besides the religious aspects of the celebration it is notable for traditional dance and music as well as the more contemporary carnival activities (Dhow and donkey races, competitions etc.)
From a tourist perspective, a walk around Lamu Town is a truly memorable experience. There are so many traditional Swahili homes to be seen and over recent years there has been a massive revival in Lamu woodcarving. The town has a couple of the most interesting small museums in Kenya with a well documented nautical section. Lamu is also famous for its citrus and tropical fruit farms that produce the sweet juicy grapefruit and the giant aromatic mango. A rebuilt produce market in front of the fort has a huge array of fresh fruit, fish and shellfish. There is also a crab and lobster market close by.
Lamu Town was designated a World Heritage Site in 2001 by UNESCO based on several criteria including architecture and multicultural Swahili pedigree of Indian, Arab, Chinese and European influences. Lamu Old Town is the oldest surviving Swahili settlement in East Africa.
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