Standing on the northern part of Kenya’s coastal city of Mombasa is a truly monumental structure curved out of a huge coral rock more than four hundred years ago. Fort Jesus was built by the Portuguese in 1593 as they sailed along the East African coast with the main purpose of safeguarding their commercial interests. The Fort is specifically located in Mombasa’s old town area – close to the old yet famous social club, Mombasa Club, on the left and the upmarket Mombasa Hospital on the right. The Portuguese regarded themselves as representing the Lord Jesus Christ and so found it appropriate naming the Fort after Him.
The Fort has a simple reception area with friendly, youthful guides eager to show visitors around. A small fee is usually charged at the entrance and as you pass the area, you are introduced to Three Passages: Arches, Steps and Secrets. These are actually paths along which you will be guided around as you view the various cannons that surround the Fort, as well as other features inside. These Portuguese cannons are smaller in size as compared to the British ones. At the mouth of each cannon is a cannon ball made from castor iron and weighs about four kilogrammes.
The passage of the Arches consists of steps leading to the underground cubicles that are slightly dark and dusty with rustic floors where the inhabitants used to hide and plan their military strategies. Next is the passage of Steps, through which you are led upstairs to the towers where the occupants could sit and watch the coming enemies before shooting at them. Adjacent to the towers are the kitchens for both the captains and soldiers where the meals were prepared and utensils washed. Here, the rooms have been renovated and the floors plastered. Close to the soldier’s kitchen, which is now a curio shop, are the cycad trees found only along the Kenyan coast. They resemble palm trees slightly but are shorter with wide stems and have particularly lovely leaves. From the upper cubicles, you are led downstairs through the passage of Secrets which takes you to the ocean. This was used as an emergency exit through which the army could escape whenever battles heated up.
Though built and mainly used by the Portuguese, the Fort was actually a battle ground inhabited by various groups of people and the Arabs too took control of it after chasing away the Portuguese. Out of self-adulation, they made a few additions to the wall and put doors on some of the cubicles to serve as a reminder to their capture of the Fort in 1693. Amongst the cubicles were the Gun-powder room where the Portuguese made the substance used in their guns and the Paintings room that has drawings of all the other structures within the Fort such as the Church which symbolised that they were Christians. There are also sea vessels, a proof that they sailed from Europe using their ships.
Opposite the tower is the church foundation which is reasonably large and surrounding it are many cubicles which served as barracks for the army. There is also a huge cistern where they stored drinking water. The tank is now fitted with a pump and the water is used in sprinkling the flowers and grass around the Fort. Interestingly, when the Arabs took over, they shunned the cistern thinking that it could have been poisoned and went on to dig their own well. The water from the well proved too salty for domestic use. Some distance from the well is a big and deep latrine where the dwellers went to relieve themselves. It is, however, not in use at present.
When the British took over Kenya in 1895, the Fort was turned into a prison and a museum was constructed a few years later to preserve certain antiquated items such as the Goan stone that was used for grinding cereals, various Artemesian earthenware plates, drums, jugs, a large copper tray, silver anklets, mbuzi (goat) stools with blades for shredding coconut. Incidentally, stools similar to it are still in use by the local people. There are also smaller sea vessels called Mtepe that depict the kind of ships that were used at that particular time.
The Fort is frequented mostly by foreigners but locals turn up in reasonable numbers during holiday months of April, August and December when schools and colleges have closed and the students and teachers are free to visit places. Besides being a learning centre where students learn about the 16th century wars between Arabs and Portuguese, the Fort is also a tourist attraction site through which the National Museums of Kenya earns foreign exchange and employs young people.
To ensure the smooth running of the fort, a charity called Friends of Fort Jesus (FFJ) was formed more than thirty years ago and has been active in promoting environmental conservation among the local people. Under the effective leadership of Ms. Marlene Reid, the society has ploughed back to the community proceeds from fees and contributions to the fort and now children from disadvantaged families in the area can learn skills such as carpentry, masonry and marine conservation for the good of the entire community. The society also organizes bird walks in the nearby nature trails such as Nguuni and Bamburi so that members can have an opportunity to learn about the various types of birds in the area. Environmental experts such as those from the Marine Research Institute and the forestry department are often invited to sensitize the public on the importance of conserving forests and marine life so as to curb depletion of the ozone layer and fish stocks. A recent lecture from a neighbouring Turtle Watch has seen many members from the charity visiting and supporting the conservancy.
Fort Jesus is a really fascinating place for all those interested in the history of the Kenyan coast and the features inside will definitely remain indelible on the visitor’s mind.
More information can be found at www.museums.or.ke