Fort Jesus Musuem

The Portuguese Fortification

View inside the Fort Jesus Museum.  Photo Courtesy
View inside the Fort Jesus Museum. Photo Courtesy

Setting of the Stage

By 1505, the Portuguese had completely taken over Malindi and declared it the seat of the government for the Viceroy.  To continue with their success of taking over the East African Coast, it was paramount that they secure Mombasa.  By virtue of its position, its climate and fine harbours, Mombasa was one of the indispensable centres that played an important role in the development of the East African Coast. A thriving centre ruled by the Shirazi families alongside Malindi and Kilwa. Little is known of the earlier years of Mombasa prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. It is since their arrival that we have many of the enchanting chronicles of her history. 

In 1328, when IBN Batuta – the Arabian geographer – visited Mombasa on his trip to East Africa, he recounted it as “of a large and populous city abounding with banana’s, the lemons, and the citron,” and her people as “religious, chaste and honest, and of peaceful habits”.  Mombasa’s population by the turn of the 14th century stood at 10,000.  Unlike Malindi, it was not receptive to the Portuguese and this relationship deteriorated fast over the entire era of their occupation of the East Africa Coast.

History of Fort Jesus Museum

The Portuguese had little interest in other regions in the interior of Kenya. Their interests were economic, not imperial and focused on trade, trade routes and trading posts. Johann Kraph, the German missionary and traveler, would later recount “in East Africa the Portuguese have left nothing behind them but ruined fortresses, palaces and ecclesiastical buildings.  Nowhere is there to  be seen a single trace of any real development.” Fort Jesus Museum, completed in 1596, was the most outstanding and well preserved of the landmarks they left.

Romanticized as an early European military fortification, Fort Jesus Museum existed at a huge cost to life and liberty to the people of Mombasa. Fort Jesus holds a long history of immeasurable disruption and violence on the local communities of Mombasa. The existence of Fort Jesus in Mombasa gave rise to vehement subjugation and an unfriendly, indifferent-rule, marked with ruthless retributive acts. In subsequent generations, the dark past of Fort Jesus, its tales of brutal torture and the worst kind of human suffering were conveniently framed and smoothly grossed over.   

View of Fort Jesus Museum.  Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor
View of Fort Jesus Museum. Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor

About Fort Jesus Museum

The Portuguese built Fort Jesus Museum in 1593. The site chosen was a coral ridge at the entrance to the harbor. Fort Jesus Museum was designed by an Italian Architect and Engineer, Joao Batista Cairato. The earliest known plan of Fort Jesus was printed in a manuscript Atlas by Manuel Godinho de Heredia in 1610 which shows the original layout of the fort built to secure the safety of Portuguese living on the East Coast of Africa.

Unique to the hauntingly beautiful Fort Jesus is that its dark past haunted all its subsequent occupants, after the Portuguese were ousted from dominance. Arguably, no other fort along the East Africa Coast has experienced such turbulence as did Fort Jesus. Omani Arabs, who attacked Fort Jesus in 1696 and finally conquered it 1698 carried on its dark legacy from the the Portuguese had left if off. The state of the Fort Jesus Museum can be understood from the plans of Rezende of 1636 and plans by Don Alvaro, Marquis of Cienfuegas and Jose Lopes, made during the brief reoccupation by the Portuguese in 1728–1729.

Built by the Portuguese at the end of the 16th century at the southern edge of the town of Mombasa, over a spur of coral rock, and kept under their control for one century, Fort Jesus, Mombasa, bears testimony to the first successful attempt by Western civilization to rule the Indian ocean trade routes, which, until then had remained under Eastern influence. The design of the fort, with its proportions, its imposing walls and five bastions, reflects the military architectural theory of the Renaissance. – National Museums of Kenya

Getting to Fort Jesus Museum

Fort Jesus Musuem is located 14 kms from Mombasa Airport and 4 kms from Mombasa City off Nkurumah Road, near Mombasa Golf Club.

View inside of Fort Jesus Museum.  Photo Courtesy
View inside of Fort Jesus Museum. Photo Courtesy

Fort Jesus World Heritage Site

Fort Jesus Museum was inscribes as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 for its outstanding history and cultural importance: “Fort Jesus, Mombasa, eminently exemplifies a new type of fortification that resulted from the innovations in military and weapons technology that occurred between the 15th and 16th centuries. In its layout and form, the Fort reflects the Renaissance ideal whose architectural proportions and geometric harmony are to be found in the proportions of the human body, while at the same time meeting the functional needs of a modern and well-defended fortification. The original layout of the Fort, despite several changes, has survived almost unchanged over centuries of continued occupations and re-occupations.” – UNESCO

Timelines of Fort Jesus Museum

May 1593: Construction of Fort Jesus, designed by Jao Batisto Cairato, is completed.  Its main function is to secure and protect the Portuguese extensive trading network in the Indian Ocean.  Highly fortified, its walls  offer a safe refuge and which can resist among other things, canon balls.

November 1698: Portuguese lose Fort Jesus to the Omani Arabs who over the next 200 years use the fort as a centre for the Omani Sultanate.  Fort Jesus facilitates the safe movement of thousands of slaves to waiting ships.

1900: The Imperial British East African Company occupy Fort Jesus and convert the fort to a prison to suppress any opposition at the coast.

1948: British archaeologist James Kirkman is appointed warden at Gede.  He is charged with the responsibility of re-imagining and discovering iconic historic ruins in the coast region of Kenya. Kirkman would later be responsible for the transformation of Fort Jesus Museum.

1958: The Government of Kenya declares Fort Jesus a national monument.

1960: The Portuguese Embassy, through the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, funds the restoration of Fort Jesus Museum, in part to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator, who inspired many Portuguese voyagers including Vasco da Gama.

1960: During the restoration of Fort Jesus all prison cells are demolished and any traces of the Oman Era removed.  James Kirkman, among others, want Fort Jesus to retain its original image as a European Fort.