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TAMING THE COASTAL STRIP
FORT JESUS, MOMBASA


September 2012; I’m very excited as I pack my bag to head back to college for my fourth semester which was going to be an internship semester. At Tsavo Institute of Technology in Voi internships were like a promise of a good time for three months. This of course depended on where you were posted. There was a rumor that being posted to a “good place” depended on how early you reported for the internship semester; first come first served basis, kind of. Therefore the reason I was returning to school two days before we were supposed to be back. I could not risk being posted to the Kitale Museum; that was very far for me plus I had a better place in mind.
That established, it was a good thing to thing to find out that I had been posted to Fort Jesus in Mombasa. I was beyond the moon with the news; it was a coveted post especially at this time of the year. It was the high season and Mombasa was going to be full of stereotype tourists looking to have a good time at the coast and more importantly, they’d be loaded so tips were going to be great. And for an eighteen year old living alone in Mombasa earning good tips and also receiving upkeep money from his parents, safe to say that life was looking up. So I packed my suit case and went to Mombasa.


You know that feeling you get when you go to a new place; the thrill of discovery and opportunity? This was more than that because this was Mombasa. For people who grow up in the country miles away from the coast, Mombasa is like a legend. A city steeped in culture, fine Swahili, food, beauty and more importantly, the ocean. The slogan, ‘Mombasa raha’, just goes to fuel the wild imaginations of anyone who’s never been to the city. I had been to Mombasa before of course but never alone. This time around I had months in time to get acquainted with this fantastical city and I loved it. I personalized it; I loved spending the evening just on the ferry at the Likoni Channel watching the sun set while eating ‘njugus’. I loved discovering intimate spaces like the oldest bar in Mombasa or a restaurant tucked away along a residential street that would have been mistaken for someone’s outdoor kitchen. I loved waking up early and walking through the old town of Mombasa.



Walking from Mackinnon Market
on Digo Road through the narrow and winding streets lined with jewelry and tailor shops that weren’t open yet thinking of how chaotic the streets were going to get in just an hour’s time. Further into the heart of the old town, coffee shops and antique shop owners making those final preparations for the day’s activities calling out joyful ‘good mornings’ to their neighbors and anyone on the street; me. Then down on Thika Road and then right Along Ndia Kuu Road that eventually delivered you at the beacon-like Fort Jesus; tall, huge and imposing easily beating every picture you have ever seen of it
anywhere.I remember walking through the entrance for the first time when I was just eleven years old. I was in class five. We had gone for a family vacation to Mombasa for the first time ever. I was thrilled beyond imagination; everything was new down the very air I was breathing. Food was spicier here and may be it was because my imagination but everyone seemed to be on vacation. Even those who were working seemed to love their jobs; like they were the best in the world. I later learned that that is called hospitality and it is imperative for a person working in that industry to figure out how to wear a smile even if the world outside was burning. But when we went to Fort Jesus and I was walking through the entrance I had this weird feeling like I was walking into some building straight out of the Jesus film they always brought us to watch in school. I was amazed! And although I did not catch its history that time around, the experience left and impression of a wonder I saw. So to be an intern at this mythical looking monument almost eight years later was nothing short of fantastical.
As an intern you had to know the history of Fort Jesus by heart and the fact that it was the high season m
eant that you had no choice but to. The number of times you narrated the same story everyday embedded it in your mind. After receiving guests you’d lecture the about the history and then walk them around the 2.36 ha area that was the fort pointing out the different and notable features and when all was going good, you’d slip one of the few treasured anecdotes to increase you tip prospects. But the fort was always a source of wonder and curiosity for me as I imagined what it must have been like when it was at its peak; whether the commissioners of this project all those years ago had the faintest idea how their creation would impact a people thousands of miles away in a foreign land for generations.In 1585 and 1588 the Turkish raid occurred. The Ottoman Empire was inciting cities in the East African coast to rebel against the Portuguese who had been masters here for a century now. One of these cities was the City of Mombasa. Mombasa was a nerve port in the Indian Ocean Trade that can be traced back to the 1st century AD. Portuguese ships that were unarmed were looted which meant that unless something was done Portugal would lose the city to the Ottomans. By the order of King Philip 1 of Portugal (also King II of Spain, Naples and Sicily) a fort was built between 1593 and 1596 to guard the Old Port of Mombasa. It was named ‘Fortaleza de Jesus Mombaca’ by Mateus Mendes de Vasconcelos, the then Captain of the coast residing in Malindi.
Portrait of King Philip I of Portugal (Wikipedia)

The fort was designed by an Italian architect from Milan, who was the Chief Architect for Portuguese possessions in the East, Giovanni Battista Cairati. Its plan is a quadrilateral with four beautiful bastions namely St. Felipe, St. Mathias, At. Alberto and St. Mateus. The fort’s design is said to have been inspired by Pierto Cataneo who was an Italian architect. Viewed from above however, the fort appears to resemble the general physic of a human being with a head, two hands and two legs. A story goes that the Portuguese being Christians wanted to have a fort that symbolized the fact. So they had the architect design it in that specific way which was the closest to a man on the cross they could get. The legitimacy of the story is unknown but it always made for a fine discussion subject.
The fort served the Portuguese and the people of Mombasa well for the 35 years until the departure of the Captain of the coast in 1631. In the same year Pedro Leytan de Gamboa was appointed the commander of the Portuguese forces and was based in Fort Jesus. He was widely considered a ruthless sadist. At this time the Sultan of Mombasa was Muhammad Yusuf. He was born in 1608 to Sultan Hassan who was a former leader of Mombasa. He was well educated; he’d gone to attend a Catholic school in Goa, India, where he was christened and became and became a Catholic. After fifteen years of receiving Portuguese education in Goa he returned to Mombasa and he was made the Sultan of Mombasa by the Portuguese who were happy with the fact that he had learned their ways.
The Portuguese felt that they could trust Yusuf. They had not anticipated that he had also learned about the oppression the Portuguese inflicted on his people. He loathed the Portuguese and this was portrayed by his actions for instance; he was caught praying at his father’s tomb which was considered by the Portuguese as an abomination. Yusuf was also polygamous; he married many wives who just happened to be the daughters of the top families in Mombasa at the time. These acts put him in a collision course with the Portuguese and the fort. He could not care less however because he was secretly planning to oust the Portuguese and not just in Mombasa, but in all cities along the East African coast. He sort and got support from the Imam of Oman for his ambitious plan.In 1632 Yusuf led a rebellion that saw the killing of many Portuguese officials, soldiers and commanders and their families.  He himself killed Commander Pedro Leytan de Gamboa and the Portuguese were defeated and expelled. For this he was known as the Lion of Mombasa. Fort Jesus became a coveted place of power; anyone who wanted to rule the city had to do it from the fort. From this time to 1895 Fort Jesus was captured and recaptured between the Portuguese and the Arabs nine times during which the fort was reinforce to make it even more secure and imposing. In 1696 the Omanis laid a siege on the fort that lasted until 1698. Supplies into the fort were cut off and after more than two years of the siege and constant bombardment it left the Portuguese lacking weapons and necessities like food water and medicine. Those that did not escape died of hunger and thirst or were too weak to fight and the fort had new occupants. The Portuguese recaptured the fort again between 1728 and 1729 but the fort came into local power of the people of Mombasa until the Omanis recaptured it from them in 1837 and converted the fort in to barracks. The Omanis left the fort peacefully for the British when Kenya became a protectorate in 1895. It then became the first prison in the country before the construction of the Shimo la Tewa prison in Shanzu. It is said that the legendary independence activist Mnyazi (Mekatilili) wa Menza was imprisoned in Fort Jesus in the Captain’s House.

In 1958 the prison was closed and the fort was declared a national park the becoming a national monument and museum. In 2011 Fort Jesus was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization (UNESCO). It is highlighted as one of the best preserved and outstanding 16th century Portuguese military engineering. Today it combines Portuguese, Arab and British features. Some of the notable features of the fort are the Captain’s House, the four main passages of the fort (three of which are blocked), the Omani House, the gun powder store, a Portuguese cistern and a well as well as tens of restored British, Portuguese and Arab cannons in the courtyard and bastions. A museum in the fort displays the different tools and equipment excavated from and around the site including a display of the Mombasa Wreck Excavation.
Chances are that if you’ve been to Mombasa you’ve been to Fort Jesus. And may be to you thought like many others that there was nothing interesting to see but a ‘huge chunk of rock that was build a long time ago by the Portuguese’. But next time you are there take a moment; think. Think about the power that sat in the fort that controlled hundreds of thousands of people in Mombasa and the other coastal city-states for nearly five centuries. About the stories of souls that were born, peaked and died here. Let your mind imagine/wonder about and your heart feel the numerous consequences of the fort’s existence that ripple through the immediate communities and the whole country today; feel them, and be one with them because that history does not belong just to the coastal communities but the for the whole country; you inclusive. And remember, as much as Fort Jesus is amazing to see, it is the awareness of it coupled with your imagination that will leave you enlightened.








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