The towering man tested the edge of the cliff with the tip of his gigantic boot. With a look of trepidation, he gingerly extended his leg, changed his mind midway and planted it decisively on the solid ground and announced.
“I am not a good swimmer. You just go. I will hang around here until you come.”
With a resigned shrug of his hulking shoulders, he proffered his camera to his mates, unwittingly surrendering his only chance of reconnecting with 200 years of history.
And as the overcautious photographer turned his back to the decayed steps 20-feet beneath him, his colleagues crawled down the treacherous cliff.
Each step down the ancient footpath is a nightmare. A misstep could send one tumbling down the unforgiving coral cliff and end in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean.
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Although some daredevil tourists occasionally tread the decayed steps in search of adventure and a peek into the famous well with fresh water, local boys routinely dash down the path for their daily morning swim.
After their swim the boys emerge from the saline watersglistering and walk into an arched, cave-like opening, carved out of the walls of the cliff. Here they take turns to splash themselves with cool water which they claim is fresh.
Mohamed Anwar, a Form One student in a nearby school, draws water from the well whose walls are made of stones delicately joined together with limestone. His two brothers wait for their turns.
After splashing the water on his body, Mohamed offers some from his plastic container, explaining that it is suitable for drinking as it is not as saline as the ocean water.
Soft, fresh water
The water is softer and tastes less salty but as Coast Region Deputy Director for the National Museums of Kenya Athman Hussein explains, it has lost most of its freshness.
“In the olden days, ships would come and fetch water for drinking. Although it is just a short distance from Fort Jesus and the Indian Ocean, the water was fresh. For centuries wellsin Mombasa had clean water,” says Hussein.
The well, situated under the Bohra Mosque, has a rich and complex history connecting it with the abolition of slave trade in 1820s, which depopulated Mombasa and other parts of the hinterland as Arabs attacked villages and captured people.
We have traced its history to February 1824 when a ship, christened Leven, docked in Mombasa, captained by WFW Owen. It was in pursuit of notorious traders who were enslaving people in East Africa and selling them off in Middle East and Europe.
At the time, Mombasa was a base for the British soldiers and their natural choice was a house they later named Leven, after Owen’s ship.
When one of the naval soldiers, Lieutenant JB Emery, was appointed to head the base, he decided to improve the facilities at the Port of Mombasa.
According to Brian Hoyle in his book, Port City Renewal in Developing Countries: A Study of East African Waterfronts, Mombasa town at the time was orientated towards itself, turning its back to the harbour and sea.
The port was inaccessible and sat on uneven plateau of a vertical cliff between seven and 10 metres high. At the time, there was no pathway or steps at the place.
It was Emery in 1825 who started to extend the port facility by constructing a stone wharf.
In a letter to a friend, WP Cooley, written in 1834, the naval officer explained that he used 30 slaves to break the stones for the construction of the wharf and the custom office.
“I commenced making a landing place abreast of the house by cutting through a rock at the expense of the of the establishment by having repeatedly spoken to the Sultan and the chiefs of Mombasa to have a fit place for landing but to no avail,” wrote Emery.
He lamented that the custom’s house had been falling down for the last two months and he now had to repair it himself. At times gunpowder had to be used to blast away stones in the quarry in Ras Serani, which was located south of Fort Jesus, to construct the wharf.
“Wishing to give the Negroes whom I had rescued from a slave vessel a practical knowledge of free industry, I employed them under two Swahili masons in improving the port and paid them for their labour,” he said.
On the wharf, Emery excavated the solid cliff and formed an arched entrance where he made a startling discovery.
“Here fresh water was found which surprised natives very much as the top of the well was only two feet above the high water level mark. The depth of the well was eight feet. I chose that spot for sinking the well because it was abreast the anchorage and vessels of any kind might anchor within a cable length of it,” Emery explained in his letter to Cooley.
To ensure the well and the wharf were accessible from Leven House, Emery constructed a flight of stone steps at three angles.
The first line of steps led to a flight of 10 steps, leading to a square landing which in turn gave way to another rank of 20 steps, culminating in yet another similar landing.
Ultimately, this led to a third line, which had four steps that ran out to the wooden jetty.
When renowned missionary, John Hanning Speke, visited Mombasa in 1857, he vividly described how he had ascended the cliff through a flight of steps through a dark tunnel, which opened up to the Mission House, a double storeyed coarse masonry.
During this period, the British administrators had vacated Leven House which was at the time in the hands of the Sultan of Zanzibar who had kicked out the Mazrui dynasty in Mombasa.
There are accounts of how the government had tried but failed to sell the house, which at the time of Speke’s visit had been appropriated by the Sultan who allowed Church Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries to stay there.
The jetty and the steps have since collapsed. Leven House, too, has been through thick and thin. By 1895 when the British colonialists were laying the ground work of patching up communities, which they would call Kenya and colonise, Leven House was in a dilapidated state.
Long after the slave raiders and their masters were confined to the dustbin of history, and Kenya colonised, freed and is still fighting the effects of neo-colonialism, the Emery well still exists.
Due to the mechanised pumping of underground water in Mombasa, the fresh water well still retains some of the qualities that endeared it to rescued slaves when they docked at the old port.