This small port 10km north of Mtwara, with its sleepy old Swahili town of narrow alleys, balconied double-storey homesteads and carved Zanzibar doors, is of far greater historical significance than its upstart neighbour. Indeed, for much of the 19th century, Mikindani was the most important port south of Kilwa Kivinje, and it is from here that Livingstone launched his last fatal expedition into the interior.
Named for the palms (mikinda) that flourish in the vicinity, Mikindani town is not so antiquated as its timeworn façade might suggest. A late 19th-century settlement, it peaked commercially as an exporter of rubber and agricultural produce during the years that divided the abolition of the slave trade from German colonisation. It remained an important administrative centre until the end of World War II; the time-warped aura that envelops Mikindani today is attributable to lack of urban development after 1947, when it was abandoned as a regional centre in favour of Mtwara.
Human habitation of Mikindani Bay, the arc of small harbours and inlets on which both Mikindani and Mtwara are sited, stretches back for millennia. The proto-Makonde had arrived on the bay by the 9th century, and Shirazi traders may have settled there at about the same time, though no ruins survive to confirm this probability. The first known reference to Mikindani Bay (under a different name) is on a 1796 map drawn by Alexander Dalyrimple.
The oldest first-hand account of the area was penned by Lieutenant Boteler of the HMS Barracouta, which anchored at the bay in 1824. The major settlement at this time was Pemba, on the northern entrance of the harbour on which Mikindani stands today. Boteler describes Pemba as being dominated by a ‘fine castellated building of the old Portuguese … on the side of a steep hill … neatly whitewashed [and] most likely garrisoned’. Boteler also noted that the bay was ‘inhabited by Arabs, probably under the Sultan of Muscat’. It is known that Pemba was then a major supplier of slaves to Reunion, Seychelles and Comoros: the Arabic inhabitants mentioned by Boteler were almost certainly Omani slave traders, and it would have been they, rather than the Portuguese, who constructed the castellated hillside fortification.
Livingstone in Mikindani
The explorer David Livingstone arrived at Mikindani on 24 March 1866, rented a house in the nearby village of Pemba, and rested up for two weeks before embarking on his final expedition into the African interior. Livingstone cited Mikindani as ‘the finest port on the coast’, but was unimpressed by its Arabic inhabitants, whom he characterised as ‘a wretched lot physically, thin, washed out creatures – many with bleary eyes’. Nor were they particularly devout: ‘many of them came and begged brandy, and laughed when they remarked that they could drink it in secret, but not openly’.
Upon enquiring about the settlers’ history, Livingstone was told they had ‘not been here long’ but noted that ‘a ruin on the northern peninsula … built of stone and lime Arab fashion, and others on the northwest, show that the place has been known and used of old’. The fort described by Boteler was evidently disused by then, perhaps due to a slump in the slave trade, and the sense of economic decline is reinforced by Livingstone’s reference to the ‘agent of the Zanzibar customs house [who] presides over the customs, which are very small’. Eight years later, Vice Consul Elton reported that the district had ‘been subjected to attacks from the inland and neighbouring tribes, who have burnt the houses [and] lifted the cattle … It is proposed to desert Mikindani and make a stand at Lindi. Trade is at stand still.’
By 1880, when Vice Consul Holmwood undertook an extensive tour of the south coast, Mikindani was entrenched as the main urban centre on the eponymous bay, with a rapidly growing population ‘both Arabs and natives … Banyans and Hindi’. Its fortunes, too, had undergone a dramatic upswing. Holmwood noted that ‘Mikindani had prospered immensely since Livingstone had visited it’, and felt that the recently established rubber plantations had resulted in ‘a complete revolution [with] all classes deriving their income from it or through it’. He remarked on the ‘large number of goats and cattle’, and on how ‘trade had increased exceedingly [with] almost all the produce of the Rovuma region finding its way there’. Holmwood ended his glowing appraisal by stating that ‘South of Bagamoyo, Mikindani will now rank in importance next after Kilwa and Lindi’.
Prosperous Mikindani formed the obvious choice for Germany’s southeast regional headquarters, and it was settled as such in 1890. Mikindani remained the most important settlement on the bay, and the administrative centre for Rovuma region, until the late 1940s, when the colonial government relocated to Mtwara to develop its harbour to service the infamous post-war groundnut scheme.