THE FALL OF FORT JESUS
By Daniel Karanja
New BedFord, MA
For a number of reasons, history is usually known and presented as a repetition of dry facts, figures and dates. This is unfortunate for not only does it drive us away from the subject, it also makes it hard to truly appreciate the context of significant historical events. A perfect example of this is the fall of Fort Jesus to Oman in 1698. This pivotal moment in East African history is usually mentioned in a few lines or perhaps a paragraph or two in school text books. This robs the reader of at least a most captivating story as we shall see.
By the close of the 17th century, Oman made significant gains at Portugal’s loss both in the Persian Gulf and the coast of East Africa. Beginning in the 1640’s the Portuguese were gradually edged out of Oman so that by 1650, the whole of Oman was free from/of them. But the people of Oman were not content at that and decided to take the war abroad to all Portuguese possessions within reach. Acting in concert with local co-religionists, this they did on the Malabar coast and simultaneously on the East African coast. What aided in the fight against the Portuguese was the cancerous corruption of their (Portuguese) officials and their rough way of handling their subjects. So the Arabs and other Muslims at Mombasa, Pemba, Zanzibar and Lamu began looking at Muscat for assistance. Kilwa, a major center in the previous century had been lost and regained a number of times and the same had happened in Mombasa once in the early 1630's and possibly also in the 1650’s. Pate and Zanzibar islands were getting restive and the former was probably in active revolt. In 1652 and 1660, Omani vessels set upon Zanzibar, Pemba and Mombasa causing considerable disquiet in Goa and Lisbon. Further attacks (real and imagined) in 1667, 1669 and 1694 only added to the desperateness of Portugal.
It was therefore not a total surprise when about March 11th 1696, a total of 17 Arab vessels of various sizes and capacities appeared off Mombasa island. As was common then, ocean travel was slow and they had been sighted and identified during their approach a while back. Since Mombasa was known to be a prime and likely target, food supplies began to be rushed into Fort Jesus and the necessary plans for withstanding a siege activated. The vessels stood off the island but within sight for two days probably on account of the prevailing weather and these two days were put into good use by the Portuguese in preparing their defenses. After the two days, they sailed into Kilindini and engaged the guns at Fort Joseph whose defenders immediately fled. (Portuguese in South-East Africa 1600 - 1700 p.158) (Portuguese Period in East Africa p. 215). When it was all over, the Portuguese and their Muslim allies had fled and the Arabs were therefore able to land and gain a foot hold on the island. From here, the invaders gradually occupied the old city and the entire Portuguese population fled to Fort Jesus followed by over 2,500 civilians who identified with them. With 50 Portuguese men and women inside the fort together with a sizeable fraction of the civilians, the space was so crowded that some hid outside the fort in the surrounding moats. To enhance their defenses, a small ship was intentionally beached near the outwork of Fort Jesus, its cargo offloaded but the hulk left there for use by the defenders. (Portuguese in South-East Africa 1600 - 1700 p.159).
Fort Joseph and the other one at Makupa causeway were occupied by the Arabs who took some of the guns and repositioned them elsewhere on the island in readiness for a final battle against fort Jesus. They also set up a forward position on the mainland across from Fort Jesus and began firing on it. Therefore, the defenders were nearly completely hemmed in from all sides. The captain at Fort Jesus sent an intrepid Jose Barrato to raise the alarm and seek assistance to Mozambique which he did successfully. Reaching Mozambique itself on June 8th 1696, he managed to get 25 soldiers (fitted at the captain's expense) and set off towards Mombasa on June 16th. The captain at Qirimba, Francisco de Mello had inexplicably not scratched together anything whatsoever in the way of supplies or soldiers. Why and how Francisco de Mello could offer no assistance to Mombasa which he must have known to be the most important Portuguese station north of Mozambique is unknown, but it was a preview into the acts of many other highly ranked officers at this critical juncture of history. A letter was however left requesting immediate assistance from any ship calling there from Lisbon. In July, two ships put in under Henrique Figueiredo de Alarcao and he was apprised of the great need at Mombasa. de Alarcao refused to offer assistance for bureaucratic reasons and instead sailed straight for Goa.
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