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Leven House: The anti-slavery base that hosted Dr Krapf

 Leven House, Mombasa Old Town. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Situated at the heart of Mombasa’s Old Town, Leven House is a priceless gem rich in Kenya’s history on religion and the fight against slave trade as well as the battle to protect her territorial integrity.

It housed British soldiers who arrived at the Coast in 1824 to combat slave trade. It is from the same Leven House that the Mazrui dynasty briefly resisted the Sultan of Zanzibar.

The Sultan of Zanzibar ruled between 1856 and 1964 and his territories varied over time. At their greatest extent, the territories spanned all of present-day Kenya and the Zanzibar Archipelago of the Swahili Coast.

After the Mazrui dynasty fell in 1937, by the sword of the Sultan of Zanzibar, Leven House became home to the first German Missionary, Ludwig Krapf, who is credited with publishing the first Swahili dictionary.

Going up the polished wooden stairs in the house, one gets a feeling of the challenges the aging Krapf and his wife may have experienced accessing the upper rooms when they occupied the house. 

Naval ship

Leven House was named after HMS Leven, a British naval survey ship that docked at the coast in 1824, according to the National Museums of Kenya (NMK).

Historical accounts indicate that the British soldiers were enticed to live in the house by the Mazrui dynasty, which was fighting with the Sultan of Zanzibar over control of the Kenyan coastal belt.

Mazrui dynasty rule in Mombasa fell in 1837, and the Sultan of Zanzibar replaced them with a representative, who also took over management of the spacious and modern Leven House.

The head of Mombasa Old Town Conservation Office, domiciled within the NMK, Abdulswamad Ali, said Dr Krapf rented the house in 1844.

“Dr Krapf used to ride on a donkey from this house to Rabai where he built the first Anglican Church of Kenya,” said Mr Abdulswamad.

Abdulswamad, a building engineer whose main job is restoring historical buildings that hold Kenya’s rich cultural heritage at the Coast, said several dignitaries have also lived in Leven House.

The house overlooks the old port and the Krapf Memorial Site where he buried his first wife, Rosine Dietrich Kraft, who died in July 1844, and their daughter.

Abdulswamad said just months after he arrived in Mombasa, Krapf lost his daughter who was two days old. Later, his wife Dietrich also died. He buried the wife at Mkomani as per her wishes.

“It is documented that the bodies of Dietrich and the baby were ferried by boat across the English channel for burial at Mkomani on the North mainland,” he said.

The deaths of his wife and daughter greatly devastated Krapf who decided to preoccupy himself with the complex task of learning Kiswahili and writing a dictionary, which was later published in 1892.

“He is remembered for producing the first Kiswahili dictionary. He started traveling to Rabai in Kilifi County in 1846 in the company of another missionary, Johannes Rebmann,” said Abdulswamad.

Mombasa Anglican Church of Kenya bishop Alfonse Mwaro Baya said apart from spreading Christianity, Krapf is remembered for setting up schools in Kilifi and Taita Taveta.

One of the schools established by Krapf is Isack Nyundo Secondary School. This was during the same time the German established the first church in Rabai.

Spread of christianity

Hassan Mwakimako, a professor at Pwani University, said: “The spread of Christianity and Western education in Kenya is attributed to the pioneer missionary, Dr Krapf, who established early churches and schools.” 

Leven House is more of a symbol of the first resistance to slave trade. A naval force led by Lt James Emery set up an anti-slaving base in the area. Documented history indicates that hundreds of slaves were freed by the force.

The building played a major role in anti-slavery operations because of its location near Mackinon Market, which was the main slave and ivory auction centre.

While staying at Leven House, Emery also constructed a tunnel beneath Mombasa Island where he kept his small patrol boat that he used to patrol the sea to ensure no slave left Mombasa.

Part of Leven House was later turned into a warehouse and in 1936, it was auctioned to Valji Bhanji before the Pujura family bought it in 1936.

The house was gazetted as a national monument in 1991 as part of Mombasa’s Old Town conservation. It is also a cultural heritage site. It was acquired by NMK in 1997.