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Fort Jesus walls risk taking down rich history of Coast slavery

By Amos Kareithi | Aug 12th 2018 | 6 min read
Sectional sea view of Fort Jesus at Old Town in Mombasa.[Maarufu Mohamed,Standard]

At the height of the hostilities, vultures hovered above the bastion and Indian crows squealed in delight every time the mighty canons thundered around the battlefield. Those were the days when a man’s strength was measured by the  might of his fist, the sharpness of his machete and the caliber of his gun.

The last of the big guns directed at the fort may have fallen silent but the stories of the exploits of the heroes and the treachery suffered by the victims of the diabolical schemes still makes hairs stand on end as if the atrocities were committed last week.

Tomes of theses have been written but if the wallssurrounding Fort Jesus could speak, their stories would terrify the bravest or the most treacherous of men. Despite all this, it appears, nature too has been unobtrusively adding some chapters in the fort’s history, writing down its own account, not with a pen, sword or gun but with a thousand tongues.

The end result of this is a story so devastating that if there are no interventions, Mombasa’s 500-year historywill be washed away all together. And what an anticlimax! After defying man and nature for five turbulent centuries, the bastion whose walls and grounds have witnessed rivulets of blood running down its stairs is about to go down.

Ironically, although no canon has been fired, or siege staged or treacherous plots hatched in about two centuries, slowly but surely, one of the oldest buildings in East Africa is racing against time.

“Last year the waves were so strong and it was so windy that a crack developed at the foot of the fort,” Amran Hussein, the Keeper, Antiquities, Sites and Monuments, Coast region elaborates.


Another expert, Purity Kiura, who is the Director of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments at the National Museums of Kenya says that Fort Jesus’s problems have been building up for five centuries.

“Its possible climate change and sea waves have been hitting at the coral stones for the last 500 years. In the past, there was a wall to protect the fort from the waves but this was eaten away. The waves have now reached the base of the fort,” Kiura says.

The consequences of this eating away of the corals by the waves has a devastating effect, not only for the fortwhich might collapse and take down with it the richhistory of the Coast and the foundations of Kenya as we know it today, but also how the East African coastinteracted with the international community before the age of colonialism. Fort Jesus, as James Kirk demonstrates in his  book, Men and Monuments on the East African Coast, is a depository of the superiority wars between the super power of 16th century, Portugal  and her underlings India, against an upstart Oman empire, whose tenacity to terrorise and build alliances is legendary.

Caught in between are the Africans of the Coast who when not being shuffled around like pawns on a chessboard also at times acted decisively, changing alliances when it suited them to deliver victory to either the Europe and Middle East when circumstances demanded.

The monument, designed by an Italian architect Joao Babtista Cairato, who had earlier worked on the fortifications of Milan and Malta was not meant to win any beauty contest but withstand the hostilities of man and nature.

When it was built and ultimately dedicated on April 11, 1593, some of the main features of the fort were a gate house and most of the thinking was how to keep off invaders. The elliptical bastion could be covered by fire while the northward side was covered by two gun ports. There was a gun platform facing the sea which gave a wide view of fire.

Despite these attacks on the fort that were as perennial as the monsoon winds, and no matter how long one of the combatants occupied the fort, he was always routed out with disastrous consequences.

It has been a theatre of bloody confrontations as well as evil scheming by outsiders to gain access and use it as a military command post as insiders determined to retain it and the power it had always wielded over centuries.

The fort changed hands nine times, twice by trickery in 1631 and 1828, twice by scaling high walls by ladders, especially in 1698 and 1746. At one time, while under siege by the Arabs who had surrounded it, a ‘dying’ man was lowered by women who used his energy to fire swivel guns, as the African women pulled the ladders and hurled grenades, ultimately breaking the siege.

On two other occasions in 1729 and 1828, the occupants were driven out by starvation while sheer rocket power and shells were employed in 1875 to capture the military installation and twice by negotiations in 1728 and 1837.

During all these operations, the fort remained relatively unscathed by the constant firing of heavy artillery on its walls, although there were instances when dereliction threatened it, as happened when it was unoccupied -- as was reported on August 5, 1632 -- for two months.

During this period, a special envoy was sent from Goa to go and see what refurbishment was needed. It was during this time that all the walls were raised and an outer gate added, as well as an elliptical bastion to make it impossible to fire into the gate. Meanwhile, a second gate was created and a sea front remodeled by the addition of towers in the angle of the gun platform.

Danger of slipping

This, it appears, did little to protect the fort from the most vicious adversary, nature, which Kiura explains has been slowly eroding the base after clearing the original wallwhich was meant to stop the waves from reaching the monument.

It is against this background that the a cofferdam has been erected, six meters away from the base of the fort.

“The cofferdam is three metres in tandem with the high watermark. It is 1.5 metres thick with strong scaffolds which will be filled with coral sand. This embankment is not meant to last more than one year as it will collapse,” Amran explains.

He adds that a Chinese company, Yangguang Property and Development Limited is currently constructing panels for a wall that will protect the walls of the fort from the tidal waves, which are also threatening the adjacent Mombasa Hospital, also in danger of slipping into the sea unless something is done.

“The wall is costing the Government Sh480 million. Currently, the form works are being constructed and will consist of two tonne bricks, which will be used to make the wall. The bricks are being made at a different site and will be taken to  protect the fort once they are  complete,” Amran added.

Once the wall is complete, National Museums of Kenya hopes that it will protect the monument for another five centuries.

In the meantime, experts agree that Fort Jesus should serve as a lesson of how construction of buildings ought to be undertaken in a country where some multi-storey houses have turned out to be deathtraps for both builders and tenants even before they are completed.


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