Mombasa: Britain’s Shortest-Lived Protectorate?

Dr Mark Hobbs

Author

Gulf History Specialist, British Library
Captain Owen’s plan to take over the portal town of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean put British officials in a contentious situation with the Sultan of Muscat and Zanzibar.

On 8 February 1824, Captain William Owen, Commanding Officer of HMS Leven, sailed into the harbour of Mombasa on the African coast of the Indian Ocean, determined to take the town under British protection.

Ill-advised Annexation

Owen’s actions were divisive. On one hand, historians tell us that the Mazrui inhabitants of Mombasa, themselves of Omani origin and under persecution from the forces of Ṣaʻīd bin Sulṭān, ruler of Muscat and Zanzibar, welcomed the move. By contrast, Ṣaʻīd bin Sulṭān, who enjoyed a largely cordial relationship with the British Government at the time, was less than happy, as was the Government of Bombay, which had previously vetoed Owen’s proposal to make Mombasa a protectorate.

Owen had gone against the instructions of his superiors, acting on his belief that that the ruler of Muscat and Zanzibar was continuing to permit his subjects on the East African coast to trade slaves. Owen was also aware that the ruler of Muscat and Zanzibar had recently taken control of the island of Pemba, close to Mombasa, in his struggle against the Mazrui.

Unapproved Diplomatic Manoeuvres

British officials, who had hitherto endeavoured to foster friendly relations with Ṣaʻīd bin Sulṭān, were left in a fix by Owen’s actions. The Political Resident A senior ranking political representative (equivalent to a Consul General) from the diplomatic corps of the Government of India or one of its subordinate provincial governments, in charge of a Political Residency. in the Persian Gulf Historically used by the British to refer to the sea area between the Arabian Peninsula and Iran. Often referred to as The Gulf or the Arabian Gulf. was one individual directly affected by the political fallout of Owen’s unapproved diplomatic manoeuvres.

Extract from Letter no. 1044 of 1826 (Political Department) from T. Harden and R. T. Goodwin of the Bombay Government, to His Excellency Hood Hanway Christian, Commodore of HM Squadron on the Cape Station, dated 8 September 1826. IOR/R/15/1/39, ff. 11–15
Extract from Letter no. 1044 of 1826 (Political Department) from T. Harden and R. T. Goodwin of the Bombay Government, to His Excellency Hood Hanway Christian, Commodore of HM Squadron on the Cape Station, dated 8 September 1826. IOR/R/15/1/39, ff. 11–15

Two years later, Government officials in Bombay and senior naval representatives on the African coast were plotting a strategy for British withdrawal from Mombasa. Aside from the loss of prestige that the move might incur, officials were also concerned about the possible repercussions the withdrawal might have upon the inhabitants of Mombasa, if left at the mercy of Ṣaʻīd bin Sulṭān. They were also concerned that there was a high chance the French might take advantage of the British retreat.

Extract of a letter from David Greenhill, Secretary to Government in Bombay, to Commodore Hood Hanway Christian, dated 12 October 1826. IOR/R/15/1/39, ff 23-24
Extract of a letter from David Greenhill, Secretary to Government in Bombay, to Commodore Hood Hanway Christian, dated 12 October 1826. IOR/R/15/1/39, ff 23-24

On 5 September 1826, Commodore Hood Hanway Christian wrote to Lord Mountstuart Elphinstone, the Governor in Council in Bombay, to inform him that British protection had been withdrawn from Mombasa. Owen’s protectorate had lasted less than 1000 days.

Extract of a letter from Commodore Hood Hanway Christian, to the Right Honourable Mountstuart Elphinstone, Governor in Council in Bombay, dated 5 September 1826. IOR/R/15/1/39, ff. 21–22
Extract of a letter from Commodore Hood Hanway Christian, to the Right Honourable Mountstuart Elphinstone, Governor in Council in Bombay, dated 5 September 1826. IOR/R/15/1/39, ff. 21–22

Seventy years later, in 1895, Mombasa once again became part of a British protectorate, this time as part of the East Africa Protectorate, which covered an area roughly equivalent to modern-day Kenya.

Secondary Sources

  • Jacob Festus Ade Ajayi, Africa in the Nineteenth Century until the 1880s. v. 6 (Berkeley: University of California Press/UNESCO, 1989)
  • John Milner Gray, The British in Mombasa, 1824–1826: Being the history of Captain Owen's protectorate (London: MacMillan & Co., 1957)