Pate Island

Pate Island

Pate island or Paté island is located in the Indian Ocean close to the northern coast of Kenya, to which it belongs. It is the largest island in the Lamu Archipelago, which lie between the towns of Lamu and Kiunga, close to the border with Somalia.

From the seventh century, Paté island was an early site of Arabic colonisation. It long vied as a Swahili port with Lamu and with Takwa on Manda Island and came to prominence around the fourteenth century, but was subjugated by Lamu in the nineteenth century.

There is no motorized transport on the island. The main administrative centre on the island, with the police station, is Faza.


Faza town, on the North coast, dates back at least to the fourteenth century. In 1587 Faza was destroyed by the Portuguese as the local Sheikh had supported Mirale Bey, a notorious privateer who had earlier played a key role in ousting the Portuguese from Muscat. The Portuguese arrived from Goa with some 650 men on their punitive expedition, and unleashed their fury on Faza. Everybody they could find was killed, including the local Sheikh. The Portuguese preserved his head in a barrel of salt for display in India. After 4 days of looting they invited Fazas arch-rivals from Pate town to take away anything that they liked from Faza. (Martin, p.6)

Faza was later resettled. The Portuguese in Faza constructed a chapel there, however, nothing remains of it. In the 18th century Faza again fell into decline due to the rise of Pate. The English Consul Holmwood visited the place in 1873 and found it "dirty and infected with diseases". (Martin, p.22)

Pate Town

Pate Town is situated on the South-West coast of the island. According to the Pate Chronicle, the town of Pate was founded by refugees from Oman in 8th century and re-founded by members of the Nabahani family, also from Oman, in 1204. The Pate Chronicle also claims that in the 14th century Pate was so powerful that it had conquered most of the coastal towns of East Africa. However, recent archeological findings (by Neville Chittick) suggest that the early references in the Chronicle to Pate are wrong and that the town is in fact younger.

The 18th century was known as the "Golden Age of Pate", when the town was at its height of powers and also prospered in fine arts. Builders constructed some of the finest houses on the East Africa coast, with extensive elaborate plaster works. Goldsmiths made intricate jewelry, fine cloths (including silks) were made by Pate's weavers and carpenters produced fine wooden furniture. The use and production of the musical instrument known as "Siwa" were most famous. Two examples of Siwas still remains in the museum in Lamu.

Both men and women wrote poetry in the Kiamu dialect of Swahili. The Utendi wa Tambuka, one of the earliest known documents in Swahili, was written in the royal Yunga palace in Pate Town. The poetess Mwana Kupona (d. 1860) also lived at Pate Town.

The downfall of Pate town came as a consequence of continuous quarreling/warring with its neighbours from the end of the 18th century. In 1813 the famous "Battle of Shela" took place at Shela. This was an attempt by Pate, allied with the Mazrui clan from Mombasa/Oman, to subject Lamu. The attempt failed totally, and many were killed. Only a handful of people managed to return to Pate, and their losses were felt for years. By 1892 the number of inhabitants had fallen to only 300, down from 7000. Today, the town have recovered some. Agriculture is today the main economic activity. (Martin, p.25-26)


Siyu town is situated on the North coast of Pate island. As no major excavations have been done in Siyu, its age is not known, but it might date from the 13th century. Gaspar de Santo Bernadino visited the town in 1606, and stated that it was the largest town on the island. (Martin, p.23)

Siyu's main claim to historical fame is that it through several battles withstood the Sultans of Zanzibar. In 1843 the Sheikh of Siyu, Bwana Mataka, and the new Sheikh of Pate, repudiated the sovereignty of Seyyid Said, Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. In response, Seyyid Said assembled an army consisting of 2000 people from Muscat, Baluchistan and Lamu. Leading them was his relative General Seyyid Hamad bin Ahmed Al-Busaidy, known as Amir Hamad. He had previously been Governor of Bandar Abbas (in 1824). He landed at Faza in early January 1844. On January the 6th they moved towards Siyu, but were ambushed and forced back to Faza. After three weeks without victory Amir Hamad sailed off.

In 1845 Siyu gave Seyyid Said one of his greatest military defeats. When Siyu finally succumbed to Zanzibars dominance, under Sultan Majid in 1863, it was one of the last towns on the whole of East Africas coast to do so. (Martin, p.23-24)


Kizingitini is situated on the North coast (east of Faza) and is the largest fishing port on the island.


Shanga is an important archaeological site, situated on the South-East coast of the island. It was excavated during an eight year period, starting in 1980. The earliest settlement was dated to the eight century, and the conclusion drawn from archeological evidence (locally minted coins, burials) indicate that a small number of local inhabitants were Muslim, probably from the late eight century onwards, and at least from the early ninth. (Horton, p. 421). The excavations also revealed a major break in the development of Shanga in the mid or late eleventh century, with the destruction and the rebuilding of the Friday Mosque (Horton, 425). Horton relates this to the writing of the historian João de Barros, about members of an Arab tribe, generally believed to be Qarmatians, who arrived at the Swahili coast. De Barros connects these new arrivals with a republican style of government (Horton, 426).

Shanga was abandoned between 1400-1425; the event was recorded in both the History of Pate and in oral tradition. The Washanga ("the people of Shanga") consist of a clan who still live in the nearby Swahili town of Siyu (Brown 1985, 67, 71, quoted in Horton, 5). Rezende's description of Siyu in 1634 states that "the kingdom of Sio has no king but is ruled by governors" (Freeman-Grenville 1962, 181, quoted in Horton, 426)

ee also

*Scientific Adam


*Martin, Chryssee MacCasler Perry and Esmond Bradley Martin: "Quest for the Past. An historical guide to the Lamu Archipelago." 1973.
*Mark Horton; with contributions by Helen W. Brown and Nina Mudida: "Shanga: the archaeology of a Muslim trading community on the coast of East Africa." Memoirs of the British Institute in Eastern Africa; No. 14 London: British Institute in Eastern Africa, 1996. ISBN 1-872566-09-X

Further reading

*Tolmacheva, Marina; Weiler, Dagmar (translator): "The Pate Chronicle: Edited and Translated from Mss 177, 321, 344, and 358 of the Library of the University of Dar Es Salaam" (African Historical Sources) ISBN 0-87013-336-5
*Brown, H. (1985) "History of Siyu: the development and decline of a Swahili town on the northern Swahili coast." Unpublished PhD thesis, Indiana University.
*Freeman-Grenville 1962 "The East-African coast: select documents from the first to the earlier nineteenth century." London: Oxford University Press.
*Allen, J. de V. (1979) "Siyu in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries." Transafrican journal of History 8 (2), pp. 1-35,
*Brown, H. (1988) "Siyu: town of the craftsmen." Azania 26, pp 1-4.
*Allen, James de Vere: "Lamu, with an appendix on Archaeological finds from the region of Lamu by H. Neville Chittick." Nairobi: Kenya National Museums.
*Strandes, Justus: "The Portuguese Period in East Africa."
*Kirkman, James: "Men and Monuments on the East African Coast ."
*Werner, A; Hichens, W: "The Advice of Mwana Kupona upon The Wifely Duty", Azania Press, 1934.
*King'ei Kitula: "Mwana Kupona: Poetess from Lamu," ISBN 9966951059, Sasa Sema Publications, 2000.

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