Just two or three hours by ferry from Lamu, totally unaffected by tourism and rarely visited, Pate island has some of the most impressive ruins anywhere on the coast and a clutch of old Swahili settlements which, at different times, have been as important as Lamu or more so. There are few places on the coast as memorable.

Pate is mostly low-lying and almost surrounded by mangrove swamps; no two maps of it ever agree – ours shows only the permanent dry land, not the ever-changing mangrove forests that surround it – so getting on and off the island requires deft awareness of the tides. Its remoteness, coupled with limited transport, deters travellers. In truth, though, Pate is not a difficult destination, and is an easier island to physically walk around than Lamu, with none of that island’s exhausting soft sand.

It’s wise to take water with you, as Pate’s supplies are unpredictable and often very briny. Most islanders live on home-produced food and staples brought from Lamu and, although there are a few small shops on the island, it’s a good idea to have some emergency provisions. Mosquitoes and flies are a serious menace, especially during the long rains.

Brief history

According to its own history, the Pate Chronicle, Pate was founded in the early years of Islam with the arrival of Arabian immigrants. This mini-state is supposed to have lasted until the thirteenth century, when another group of dispossessed Arab rulers – the Nabahani – arrived. The story may have been embellished by time, but archeological evidence does support the existence of a flourishing port on the present site of Pate as early as the ninth century. Probably by the fifteenth century the town exerted a considerable influence on most of the quasi-autonomous settlements along the coast, including Lamu.

The first Portuguese visitors traded with the Pateans for the multicoloured silk cloth for which the town had become famous, and they also introduced gunpowder, which enabled wells to be easily excavated, a fact which must have played a part in Pate’s rising fortunes. During the sixteenth century, a number of Portuguese merchants settled and married in the town, but as Portugal tightened its grip and imposed taxes, relations quickly deteriorated. There were repeated uprisings and reprisals until, by the middle of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese had withdrawn to the security of Fort Jesus in Mombasa. Even today, though, several families in Pate are said to be Wa-reno (from the Portuguese reino, “kingdom”), meaning of Portuguese descent.

During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, having thrown out the old rulers, Pate underwent a cultural rebirth and experienced a flood of creative activity similar to Lamu’s. The two towns had a lively relationship, and were frequently in a state of war. Pate was ruled by a Nabahani king who considered Lamu part of his realm. The disastrous Battle of Shela of 1812 marked the end of Lamu’s political allegiance to Pate and the end of Pate as a city-state.

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