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Fort Jesus

Updated on September 10, 2011


Fort Jesus is one of the most iconic figures in Mombasa Kenya. I went there the other day and I seem not to have enough of its magnificent stature and history despite have visited Fort Jesus many times. Currently Fort Jesus is a museum and once you are inside a guide takes you through the checked history of this coral reef hewn fort, which has seen many battles stretching for over 400 years.

We cannot write about Fort Jesus in Mombasa without mentioning Vasco Da Gama, the first European to set foot in the East Africa Coast on his search of sea route to India in 1498 and his hostile welcome from the Mombasa Arab ruling class. Besides the Portuguese were sailing using the flag of Order of Christ and regarded themselves as representative of Christendom while the Arabs and Turks were Muslims. This may be the reason the name selected for the Portuguese fort was Fort Jesus.

Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese under the order of then the King Portugal Philip I of Portugal or King Philip II of Spain. Philip was the king for then Portugal and Spain. The location of the proposed fort was coral ridge at the entrance of the port in Mombasa. Mombasa is an island in the Kenyan Coast and has a natural port that has attracted many military powers since the 11th century.

Designed by an Italian Architect and Engineer; Giovanni Battista Cairati, then Chief Architect for Portuguese properties in East and based in Goa, India, Fort Jesus Mombasa was first ever European-style fort constructed outside of Europe and designed to resist cannon fire. Fort Jesus was designed and built in the shape of a man looking up to the sky and occupies approximately 2 acres.

Fort Jesus became a strategic property for anyone wanting to control East Africa and this lead to wars with the interested parties which included then Indian Ocean powers; Portuguese, Arabs, Turks and lastly British.

Fort Jesus has not retained its original architecture design because each successful occupant changed something. The original plan by Giovanni Battista Cairati, the architect and engineer of Fort Jesus is in a manuscript atlas by Manuel Godinho de Heredia and dates 1610; it is the known document with the original internal layout of the fort. Other internal plans of Fort Jesus are by Rezende in 1636, Don Alvaro, and Jose, Lopes de Sa who changed the fort internal layout when the Portuguese reoccupied Fort Jesus briefly between 1728 and 1729. It was in the Marquis of Cienfuegas plan; the names of the bastions were changed. When the British made Fort Jesus a prison, the internal layouts were changed by removing huts and building cells instead

Below is a short chronology of Fort Jesus which from its building in 1593 and 1875, Fort Jesus was retaken and lost nine times by then the great colonial powers who wanted to control Mombasa and the Indian Ocean trade.

The Portuguese under leadership of Vasco Da Gama sailed in Mombasa on their way to India. This was not taken well by the Arabs in Mombasa, however because of bad blood between the Sultan of Mombasa and Sultan of Malindi, Malindi welcomed the newcomers. The Turkish attacked Mombasa in 1589 and to protect the growing Portuguese trade and influence, Philip I, the King of Portugal ordered the building of a Fort at the entrance of Mombasa old port to guard against the periodic attacks of the Portuguese interests and its soldiers from the Arabs in 1593. This was not the first time a military power had tried to build a fort in Mombasa; the Turkish had built a small fort in 1589.

Mombasa was an extension of the Oman and it was ruled by a Sultan. The Arab did not take it lightly when Fort Jesus was build at the port entrance and in 1631, the Sultan of Mombasa, stabbed a Portuguese Captain inside Fort Jesus and the Arabs for the first time took over Fort Jesus from the Portuguese. A series of attacks of the fort by the Portuguese aimed at retaking the fort back continued and it was in 1632, Sultan of Mombasa quitted Fort Jesus and Portuguese reclaim their ownership. For the next 35 years, the Sultan of Oman fear of attacking Fort Jesus kept the Portuguese in control of the fort. However in 1696, the Arabs lay a siege to Fort Jesus for two and half years. This killed the Portuguese soldiers inside the fort due to starvation and diseases. The siege of Fort Jesus started in the year 1696 and ended in the 1698 with the Oman Arabs succeeding in taking Fort Jesus from the Portuguese. This did not deter the Portuguese and in 1728 a mutiny saw the Oman Arabs lose the fort to the Portuguese once again; however this was short lived as the Oman Arabs retook Fort Jesus a year later in 1729. This was the last straw to the Portuguese quest of occupying Fort Jesus and Mombasa in general as they were pushed to Mozambique never to return.

The Oman Arabs started having internal war and in 1741, the Oman governor of Fort Jesus; Al Mazrui declared independence from the Oman Sultan. A series of war saw the relationship within the Oman Arabs community deteriorate and in 1746, an assassin hired by the Oman Arabs, killed Al Mazrui. The Assassin was not lucky to escape because Mazrui brother killed the assassin and became the new governor of Mombasa.

The coming of the British in the start of the 18th century saw the power shift. Al Mazrui who was the Mombasa governor sort British protection which was granted in the year 1824 but was later withdrawn.

The Sultan of Oman, Sayyid Said had established Zanzibar as his capital and 1828 he attacked Fort Jesus and the Mazruis in Mombasa and took Fort Jesus. Using the old trick of laying a siege, the Mazruis managed to drive the Sayyid Said soldiers out of Fort Jesus in 1829. Sayyid Said organized his army and 4 years later; in 1833, he bombarded Fort Jesus without success, the harassment by Sayyid Said made the Al Mazrui; the last governor of Mombasa surrender to the sultan in 1837.

The British were expanding towards Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world because of its strategic importance of being the source of Nile. Like the Portguese and Arabs before them, the new military power liked the natural port of Mombasa and again Fort Jesus was of strategic important. In 1875, Ali Al-Akida led a mutiny against the British and the British with their mighty naval power bombarded the fort flushing the mutineers out of Fort Jesus.

The British used Fort Jesus as barrack for their soldiers from 1837 to 1895. After colonizing Kenya and Uganda, and the building of Uganda railway commenced, the British did not see the military importance of Fort Jesus and in 1895, Fort Jesus was made a prison and it would remain so for 63 years. On 24th of October 1958, Fort Jesus was put under the custody of Trustees of the Kenya National Parks as a National Park. The change of use of the fort to a National Park led to excavations for archeological reasons with materials discovered displayed today in Fort Jesus Museum. In 1962, a year before the Kenyan Independence from the British, Fort Jesus became Fort Jesus Museum with a grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation. UNESCO, declared Fort Jesus a World Heritage Site In 2011.

If you ever visit Mombasa, Fort Jesus Museum is Mombasa is a must see. Beside the great history narrated by the fort’s guide, you will see various artifacts of those years. The torture rooms and prison cells are still visible and once Fort Jesus was used as slave storage before being traded and evidence of those days are at visible to Fort Jesus visitors.

Fort Jesus Museum is opened to public every day from 8.30 in the morning to 6.00 in the evening.


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