Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Mombasa: the Portuguese period


The Portuguese-built Fort Jesus in Mombasa

(An excerpt from Edward Corcoran's Mombasa Mission

 1888-1990 Part Two)

As far as Christianity is concerned, the first stirrings seem to have been in the island of Socotra in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. We have alluded to a description of St Francis Xavier's visit there. Christianity was brought there by Christian Arabs as early as 524 AD when Cosmas Indicopleustes visited the island. We cannot say why missionary activity did not radiate from there, nor is there any trace of any penetration of Christianity further south on the well-defined trade route along the East Coast of Africa.


What Christianity remained on the island itself was in a sorry state when St Francis Xavier called there. There was no longer a bishop or an ordained clergy; the inhabitants "...are Christians in their own opinion", according to Francis, "and pride themselves on having Christian names to prove it; they have churches and crosses and lamps; their 'clerics' do not know how to read or write; they know a lot of prayers by heart; they go to church at midnight, in the morning, at the hour of Vespers and in the evening at Compline time; the people are followers of St Thomas; these clerics do not baptise nor do they know what baptism is". Many of them implored Francis to remain with them and to introduce them to baptism and the Mass, but the Governor would not allow him to remain for fear of the Turks who used to come to this island, and who probably would make Francis prisoner. So he set sail and left behind him what we might call only a vestige of Christianity.


Returning to the southern shores of the Indian Ocean, we find that the first sign of a settled clergy was at Kilwa in 1505. In that year Francisco d' Almeida erected a fort there and left behind two Franciscan priests as chaplains to the soldiers. The following year forty men and women asked for baptism. The Sultan forbade it but the captain of the garrison recorded in a report, "It appeared to me that I ought not deny them the water of baptism".

The Kilwa settlement was dismantled in 1512 as unprofitable, and thereafter no more is heard of the Franciscans there. Presumably, they left with the Portuguese - a foretaste of what was to happen later in all the Portuguese settlements along the East Coast and a clear warning of the dangers involved in tying missionary activity to the apron strings of the civil authority. In 1554, the Viceroy of Goa gave instructions for the preaching of the Gospel in Mombasa, but when the Jesuit Fr Monclaro visited there in 1569 nothing had been done. It was not until the Portuguese had completed the building of Fort Jesus at Mombasa in 1596, thus making Mombasa their main settlement along the coast, that any serious effort was made in the field of evangelisation, however meagre and short-lived its results were to be.


Augustinian Canons were sent from Goa and by 1598 we find them at Faza, Pate and Lamu, but only the foundation at Faza had any permanency.

In 1606 a Franciscan, Gaspar da Santo Bernardino, visited the Augustinians there and found the Muslim King favourable to Christianity. The reason for his favourable disposition was that ". . . while I had no Christian church in my city, I lived in fear. Now, however, I live well content in peace because in the Church I have walls which guard my city, and in the Fathers, soldiers to defend it". By a stretch of the imagination, might we call this situation an example of the Church Militant? In 1624 another Franciscan, Jerome Lobo, visited Faza and celebrated the Holy Week ceremonies there with the four resident Augustinians and seventy Christians. Missionary work seems to have begun somewhat later on the island of Zanzibar and it is not until 1634 that we hear mention of a little church there. Little detail of its history has come down to us, and a veil is drawn over this important island's connection with Christianity, not to be removed for over two hundred years.

Finally, in our search for the earliest gropings of Christianity for a foothold in these parts, let us return to Mombasa which had now become the most important settlement of the Portuguese north of Mozambique. In 1599 we find four Augustinians there and they were able to report some six hundred converts, among them the exiled King of Pemba. As regards the Portuguese, as well as the soldiers in the garrison, there were up to fifty civilian families living at any one time in the Mombasa Christian community, bringing its total probably to something in the region of a thousand. We should note that a large number of soldiers in the garrisons were from Goa.

The civilians grouped themselves in what we would today call a ghetto in the area directly opposite the Fort down a street known as La Rapozeira, or Foxhole, which would appear to follow the line of the present-day Njia Kuu. Their most substantial buildings were a Customs House, an Augustinian Monastery (one of seven originally dotted around the island) and the parish church of the Misericordia which was the centre for the Fraternity of the Misericordia, an organisation of the laity which provided care of widows, orphans and poor converts.


Thus, in the early seventeenth century things looked rosy in Mombasa's ecclesiastical garden until 1631 when tragedy struck. In 1600, the Portuguese had made the son of the King of Malindi the new King of Mombasa. Apparently, he did not come up to Portuguese expectations as their puppet king and in 1614 he was murdered, apparently at the instigation of the Portuguese Governor. Seemingly as a gesture of reconciliation to the bereaved family, the King of Portugal ordered that the murdered King's son should be taken to Goa to be given the best education and training available with a view to his returning to Mombasa eventually to be a well accomplished monarch. He was baptised there and was known as Dom Jeronimo Chingulia. Having married a noble Portuguese lady, he was ready to return to Mombasa to take up his throne. He did so in 1627 and shortly afterwards wrote a letter of obedience to the Pope.

A Swahili history of the period says of him : "He had been brought up among the Portuguese; he ate pork like them; he ruled in a most tyrannical manner; he compelled the people to eat pork, and was wicked, and an infidel". He seems to have been an unstable personality and to have had successive quarrels with the commanders of the Fort. He secretly reverted to Islam, a fact that came to light in 1631. Before the Portuguese commander, who had been informed of the situation, had time to act, Chingulia took matters into his own hands.  On August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption 1631, he visited the Fort on the pretext of paying a complimentary feast day visit to the commander whose throat he promptly slit. There followed a general massacre of the Christian population who were given the choice of embracing Islam, as he had done, or death. It is not within the scope of this brief history of Christianity in East Africa to describe the massacre of the Mombasa martyrs. Further reading on the matter is referred to in the bibliography. For reasons which are not too clear, the cause for the canonisation of these Mombasa martyrs was never concluded, but there is no doubt that many died a heroic death in defence of their faith. It is difficult to quote reliable statistics, but it would seem that very few, about fifty, embraced Islam; three hundred died for their faith, and four hundred were sent to Mecca as slaves. In 1632 Chingulia himself fled and the Portuguese once more took possession of the island. But the massacre had sounded the death knell for Christianity in these parts.


The hatred and animosity which had existed all along between Arab and Christian had now been rekindled, never to die down again as long as the Portuguese remained. The hold which the latter had after the flight of Chingulia was tenuous to say the least, and the remainder of the seventeenth century saw nothing but the violence of attack and counter-attack, capture and re-capture. A further menace to the Portuguese arrived when the Omani Arabs attacked their settlements. The Imam of Muscat captured Mombasa from them in 1660, having as part of his fleet two captured Portuguese galleons. The Fort held out, however, and gradually the Portuguese took over again.


The beginning of the end came in 1696 when a force of three thousand Omani Arabs under the Imam Saif Bin Sultan, approaching the Fort from Kilindini mlango, and not head-on from the sea, laid siege to it - a siege that was to last for thirty-three months. At one point during the siege, reinforcements arrived from Goa, but they brought the plague with them. This was as devastating as the occasional Arab attacks. By early December 1698 only the commander, eight Portuguese soldiers, three Indians, two African women and an African boy remained alive inside the Fort. The walls of the San Mateus bastion were scaled on the night of December 12th, but the gallant little group held out until the next morning. The commander was killed and the remainder surrendered. That was the end of Portuguese power in this part of the world. With a dying gasp, they recaptured the Fort for a brief period in 1728-29, and then the gasp turned into a death rattle. Their power was replaced by that of the Omani Arabs who set up Walis or Governors in the settlements up and down the Coast.

The first Wali of Mombasa was Nasir bin Abdulla of the powerful Mazrui family which consolidated the Arab hold on the island of Zanzibar and the coastal mainland until the arrival of the British. Their first contact with Mombasa was in 1824 when they declared a short-lived (until 1 826) Protectorate of Mombasa and flew the Union Jack over the Fort.

Needless to say, this period of violence and counter-violence between the Portuguese and Arabs ever since 1631 did not augur well for the spread, nor indeed for the survival of Christianity. As a religion it was associated with the foreign oppressor and by that very fact alone, leaving aside clashing eliefs, not welcome. When the Portuguese disappeared from the scene, so also did Christianity. Apart from that, the Augustinian clergy that came along with the Portuguese could hardly be called missionary priests. There is no evidence of their trying to leave the settlements; they were not "bushwhackers"; they ministered to the Portuguese soldiers and civilians and their converts were those who came to them - in many cases probably soldiers, many of the garrison being locals, servants and so on. It is useless trying to surmise what might have happened if the Mombasa massacre had not taken place. Here we cannot play the "what if?" game. We have to wait till the middle of the nineteenth century to witness the next stirrings of Christian life beginning with the shores of Zanzibar.

Let us finish this chapter by seeing what vestiges there are at the Coast of the Portuguese Period. First and foremost, of course, is the formidable Fort they built overlooking the approach to Mombasa, and which they simply called Fort Jesus. It is the best-preserved of all the Portuguese buildings, and one has only to visit it to see why. Building commenced in 1593 and was completed in 1596 by which time it presented an imposing sight to any would-be invaders. Its cannons peeping out through the emplacements in the immensely thick walls commanded the whole of the approach to Mombasa across the Creek to present-day English Point. It is today Mombasa's main tourist attraction. If you follow the coastline south from the Fort, you will come across two Portuguese ruins. The first is the Fort of St Joseph situated on the cliffs opposite the lighthouse. Part of the wall facing the ocean is still quite intact with its slits for the cannons. The French saying that "The more things change, the more they remain the same" is borne out by the fact that right alongside the Fort are the gun emplacements built by the British during the Second World War to safeguard Mombasa from enemy warships and



Continuing further along the coast one meets the ruins of one of the seven original chapels of the Portuguese Augustinian priests. This was the Chapel of Our Lady of Good Hope; all that remains of it are three or four heaps of masonry. Finally, here and there in the area around Njia Kuu and Mbarak Hinawy Roads there are signs of solid coral foundations which could easily have been those of original Portuguese buildings. The only other Portuguese monuments surviving are in Malindi. The more famous of these is the Vasco da Gama Pillar situated on a small promontory going southwards from the town. This was erected — on a different site, however, by Vasco da Gama on his return journey from Goa in 1498-99. It has a small cross on the top with the King of Portugal's Coat of Arms etched on it. Nearer the town along the coast road there is the Portuguese Chapel. Mark Horton of Cambridge

University wrote a report on it as part of a study for the National Museums of Kenya. He dates it between 1508 and 1512, which "... probably makes it the earliest Portuguese building surviving in East and Southern Africa". Until quite recently, Mass was offered in this little chapel twice yearly, on April 7th, the date of St Francis Xavier's arrival in Malindi, and December 3rd, his feast day. All these monuments and ruins are now in the care of the National Museums of Kenya

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