Mombasa’s Fort Jesus, the Unknown Past
Mombasa is a tourist destination town with a population of about one million people, borders the Indian Ocean, and is famed for its warm weather and sandy beaches. It has a long history as a strategic trading location, and as a place where immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, and Somalia have settled. This is a region of the Swahili and Mijikenda people, communities from inland Kenya, and Arabs. It is a cosmopolitan town with not only a rich mix of culture, but a violent past spanning hundreds of years. For centuries, nations engaged in battle for its control, and Fort Jesus, the town’s most prominent landmark and recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was at the very epicenter of this struggle. It is situated in Old Town Mombasa, a seventy two hectare enclave of settlers from Britain, Portugal, Asia, and the Arabian Peninsula. No other fort in recorded history has ever experienced such a turbulent past and it now stands as a monument to memories best forgotten and as a testament to the greed and cruelty of past civilizations as they fought for control of Kenya.
Fort Jesus, a Turbulent Past
The history of Fort Jesus dates back hundreds of years. During the 16th century, Mombasa had become increasingly vital for Portuguese trade in the Indian Ocean region, and their trade route to India. Interest in the town was purely for commercial reasons, particularly trafficking in ivory. However, there were persistent raids from the Turkish, and continuous threats from the Omani Arabs, a hard cruel lot who were intent on the East African slave trade. Slavery had become a mode of production along the coast, and within the East African region, it had reached an unprecedented level. Thousands of natives were captured from the interior and exported to the Persian Gulf and Arabia via Mombasa, to be used as concubines, laborers, guards, soldiers, and so on. It is actually the view in some quarters that the East African slave trade far exceeded the trans-Atlantic trade during this time.
The construction of Fort Jesus was therefore necessitated by the need to defend Mombasa and the surrounding areas, not for the sake of the indigenous people, but for an Imperialist Portugal that had to repel repeated incursions in a region they had occupied for a century. In the two hundred and forty four years after 1631, the fort was at the center of nine epic battles for its capture, particularly by the Omani Arabs who had sovereign influence over neighboring Zanzibar, the capital of the Indian Ocean slave trade.
Fort Jesus was used as a dungeon for slaves and all manner of trade by the Omani Sultanate or the Sultan of Zanzibar, and when under the control of the Portuguese, as a bastion for the protection of their trade routes. Many slaves perished in the fort, either from torture, disease, or hunger as they awaited ships to transport them to their fate in foreign lands. A Milanese architect designed the fort, and it was constructed in the four years from 1593-1596.
The location, at a coral ridge and right at the entrance to the harbor, was well thought out because any ship could easily be seen and at point blank range of the mounted canons. In addition, the location was suitable for delivery of supplies by small boats in the event of a siege, the most famous being that of the Omani Arabs from 1696-1698. When the British colonized Kenya, they took control of the fort and used it as a prison for political dissidents. The role of the fort for the security of the coastal region during the Mau-Mau uprising in the 1950’s, the most aggressive violent agitation by Kenyan’s for Independence from Britain, is well documented.
Touring Fort Jesus
When tourists first arrive at the fort on an evening, they are met by guards in flowing robes and with flaming torches who proceed to stage a carefully choreographed sound and light show that describes the fort’s turbulent past. A candle-lit dinner is served after the show. But Fort Jesus really comes to life during the day.
Inside the fort are ancient wall paintings of ships, chameleons, fish, and soldiers in armor, done with ochre and carbon by Portuguese sentries. There is an eighteenth century inscription and wonderful stone benches in the “Hall of Mazrui” located on the seaward end. There is a museum on the property with pottery over a thousand years old, and the vertebrae of a whale on a stool. There are also exhibits from archaeological finds of the Manda, Gede, and Ungwana sites. During the prolonged siege of the fort by the Omani Arabs in 1696-1698, the Santo Antonio de Tanna was sent as re-enforcement from Portugal. However, it sank in the Indian Ocean and thousands of objects that have so far been recovered from the ship are on display.
Everywhere you look, you will notice the presence of Portuguese, Arab, and the British preserved. Inside and outside are Portuguese and British canons, and on the doors and ceiling beams are inscriptions by the Omanis. Five stone pillars rising to the ceiling throughout the fort are another sign of Muslim culture. Oman House, occupied by the Sultan of the East African Coast, still stands. An open water cistern is evidence of how the Portuguese used to harvest rainwater, and there is a seventy six foot well that was sank by the Arabs, water they later found too salty to drink and instead used it for washing. One of the most disturbing scenes in the fort are the torture rooms and cells, the “Passage of the Arches” which illustrates clearly how slaves were marched to the waiting ships, and the “killing room” where slaves and other captives were presumably taken to put an end to their misery. Inside the fort is an eerie feeling of a dank past, interspersed with visual certainty of the horrors that took place. When you reach the eighteen meter tall rooftop, you are confronted with a breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean, and you finally begin to understand how effective Fort Jesus was against incursions.
Fort Jesus is a must visit when ending or starting a safari to Kenya. Touring Kenya has usually been to view the wildlife, or when at the coast, to enjoy the weather, coral reefs, blue skies, and miles of Indian Ocean’s sandy beaches. Therefore, Fort Jesus is usually caught between the different tourism experiences. Nevertheless, this World Heritage Site will leave lasting memories of a past that is unknown to many.