Sir Ali bin Salim and
the Making of Mombasa, by Judy Aldrick, 175 pp., Old Africa
Books, 2018, available from Old Africa books and Amazon.
This book must have been difficult to research, but it emerges
as a fascinating study of the reactions of local Arab rulers on
the East African coast and the compro-mises that had to be made
when the British arrived.
Its subjects are two former Liwalis [governors] of
Mombasa, Salim bin Khalfan and his son, Ali bin Salim.
Salim bin Khalfan was appointed as Liwali by the Sultan
of Zanzibar in the 1880s, before the Imperial British
East Africa Company established its headquarters in
Once the British had come, they insinuated their
influence not only on the coast but further inland as
the railway opened up the territory to Lake Victoria.
Salim faced a dilemma.
His master, the Sultan of Zanzibar, became increasingly
beholden to the British, even though on paper he ruled
the ten-mile coastal strip.
He was being increasingly pressurised to put a stop to
the slave trade and the ownership of slaves by his
As the economy of Mombasa rested heavily on slave
labour, Salim was in an impossible situation.
He was being urged by Mombasa’s European missionaries to
insist that his people freed their slaves.
But his people said they would be ruined, and in any
case, the missionaries were paying compensation to slave
owners and using the slaves in Freretown (a freed slave
settlement) as free labour.
So were not the ‘wazungu’ also slave owners, having
‘bought’ the slaves?
Salim had no alternative but to cooperate with the
British, especially when their numbers in Mombasa
increased and they interfered in local administration.
Book cover: Sir Ali bin Salim and the Making of Mombasa
He and his son Ali, his successor as Liwali, tried to compromise
but saw the writing on the wall when it became obvious that the
British were there to stay.
It would be better to throw in their lot with them than try to
This has led to Ali bin Salim being accused of becoming a
He was indeed fascinated by all things British, attending the
coronation in London of Edward VII in 1902, and sending one of
his sons to be educated in England.
He was lavish in his hospitality to British officials and
The year 1902 also saw the establishment of the British rule of
law in Mombasa, to supersede Sharia Law.
The author tells us how Ali had a keen interest in the processes
of law and in seeing justice done.
However, he faced unpopularity amongst his own people over
property rights and land tenure.
The British did not understand local land tenure and there were
so many disputed cases that arbitration boards were set up in
Mombasa, upon which Ali sat.
He used his position to help the British buy land cheaply for
government public works and farming projects.
The local people felt he dismissed their claims unfairly and was
biased in favour of the British, at the same time profiting from
But there is another side to the story and the author brings
this out well.
Ali was something of a visionary who had a genuine desire to
modernise Mombasa and improve the lives of its citizens.
Having been to England he saw what could be done, especially in
the realm of education.
He pressed for an Arab school to be built in Mombasa and this
happened in 1912.
Its education however was purely Islamic, a considerable dis-advantage
to its gra-duates who therefore failed to get govern-ment jobs
because they could not read and write in English.
Rather, such jobs went to Indians.
The author finds the local Swahili and Arabs partly to blame for
this because they did not adjust to the new order:
“Their lack of inte-rest in education meant they remained
“Unaccustomed to manual labour or business, they did not make an
effort to better themselves.
“They left their plantations and land uncultivated, since they
no longer had slave labour, and lost that source of income.
“The railway took over the caravan trade, which they had
The author covers well the politics of Mombasa, the First World
War, the Arab Rifles led by Arthur Wavell, and the postwar
adjustment to the changing times.
In 1919 Ali Bin Salim was chosen to be the Arab nominated member
of the new legislative council.
But as the Liwali’s power ebbed steadily away, so he became keen
to maintain the pomp and ceremony he regarded as his due.
He continued to believe in progress and trying to foster
prosperity in Mombasa by enabling public works and projects,
although his intentions were often misunderstood and he was
thought to be dishonest and guilty of profiteering.
He got on well with the Governor Sir Edward Grigg, who
understood the value of ceremonial and official entertainments,
as did Sir Ali (he was knighted by the British in 1929).
When the Griggs left Kenya in 1930 Sir Ali gave them an enormous
tea party at his house overlooking Kilindini Harbour.
This grand old man of the coast took official retirement in
1931, continuing to be generous with charitable donations, among
them gifts to Mombasa library and the Goan community.
Many of the schools Sir Ali founded are still in existence
If a project needed money or a sponsor the first port of call
would be Sir Ali.
By now the post of Liwali of Mombasa was almost entirely
The traditional British/ Arab partnership in the local
government of the coast, and especially of Mombasa, was fatally
weakened and the Arabs were now only minor cogs in the wheel of
Initially Sir Ali bin Salim had wanted parity of power with
district commissioners and district officers, but this was
Yet the British recognised his value and wanted to keep him on
their side, in the position of a ceremonial local prince rather
than an executive ruler.
All this is handled skilfully by the author, who enlightens us
with an entertaining and scholarly book.