By Maina Kiarie
Fort Jesus is located in Mombasa Island in Kenya’s Coast Province. Fort Jesus was constructed on a coral ridge at the entrance of the harbour by the Portuguese in 1593 – more than a hundred years since their occupation of the East African coast. On October 24, 1958, Fort Jesus was declared a National park under the Custody of the Trustees of the Kenya National Parks.
The colonial government assigned James Kirkman the task of excavating the monument from 1958 to 1971. On January 1, 1969, it was transferred from the custody of the National parks Trustees to the Museum Trustees of Kenya.
The Portuguese were the first Europeans to explore the coastal region of the current-day Kenya, Tanzania, and Mozambique by sea. In late 15th century, Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer and his fleet ventured down the western coast of Africa, rounded the Cape of Good Hope and headed up the continent’s eastern coast. They arrived in Mombasa en-route to India in 1498.
Vasco da Gama had embarked on this voyage after the Republic of Venice had gained control of the trade routes between Europe and Asia. Gama’s voyage was successful in reaching India and this permitted the Portuguese to trade with the Far East directly by sea, thus challenging the older trading network of mixed land and sea, such as the spice trade routes that utilised the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and camel caravans to reach the eastern Mediterranean. By 1505, when the Portuguese presence at the East African Coast officially began, most of the indigenous Swahili trading towns, including Mombasa, had either been sacked or occupied by the Portuguese – marking the end of the Arab monopoly of the Indian Ocean trade.
The Fort built by order of King Philip II of Spain (King Philip of Portugal), then ruler of the joint Portuguese and Spanish Kingdoms, was the first European-style fort constructed outside of Europe to resist canon fire. The Fort was designed by an Italian architect, Jao Batisto Cairato, who was the Chief Architect for Portuguese possessions in the East. The Plan consists of a central court with bastions at four corners and a rectangular projection facing the sea, in all covering about four acres. The bastions were named: S. Felipe, S. Alberto, S. Mathias and S. Mateus. The main gate was near S. Mathias bastion. On April 11, 1593, the fortress, built in the shape of a man (viewed from the air), was dedicated and named “Fortaleza de Jesus de Mombasa” by Matteus de Vasconcelos, the Captain of the coast residing at Malindi. The Fort was completed in 1596.
The Fort was built to secure the safety of the Portuguese living on the East Africa Coast and to protect their trade routes to India, and as a defence base against enemy invasion from sea or land. The fort quickly became a vital possession for anyone with the intention of controlling Mombasa Island or the surrounding areas of trade. Between 1631 and 1875 the fort was won and lost nine times by the nations contesting control of Mombasa.
Between 1837-1895, the Fort was used as barracks for soldiers. On July 1, 1895, when British East Africa was proclaimed as a protectorate the Fort was converted into a prison.
In May 1958 the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation gave a grant of £30,000 towards the restoration of Fort Jesus as an historical monument and the building of a museum. In 1962 the Fort became a museum and was opened to the public. The exhibits consists of finds from archaeological excavations at Fort Jesus, Gede, Manda, Ungwana and other sites. Other objects on display were donated by individuals notably Mrs J.C. White, Mr C.E. Whitton and Mrs W.S. Marchant.
Fort Jesus hosts numerous research programs, a Conservation Lab, and Education Department and an Old Town Conservation Office. Today Fort Jesus is hailed as one of the best examples of the 16th century Portuguese military architecture. However, it has been influenced and changed by both the Omani Arabs and the British.