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Recalling Two Former Liwalis [Governors] Of Mombasa
Salim Bin Khalfan And His Dynamic Son, Ali Bin Salim

Coastweek -- 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 Mombasa.

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 subjects.

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 | Coastweek

  Coastweek -- 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 resist.

This has led to Ali bin Salim being accused of becoming a British puppet.

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 settlers.

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 his position. 

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 illiterate.

“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 participated in.”

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 today.

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 ceremonial.

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 colonial administration. 

Initially Sir Ali bin Salim had wanted parity of power with district commissioners and district officers, but this was refused.

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.

Christine Nicholls

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