THE FIRST ENGLISH VISITORS TO KENYA
An AjabuAfrica contributor
The year was 1591 when the first known visit by the English to the Kenyan coast took place. Fort Jesus had not yet been built but was being planned in the aftermath Mir Ali Bey’s spectacular success against the Portuguese all over the East Coast of Africa. At the time, the center of Portuguese power on the East African coast was at Malindi though this would change after Fort Jesus was built. England was one of the smaller rivals to Spain and Portugal (both at the time united in a political union) and it is perhaps due to this reason that the appearance of a lone English merchant vessel did not cause the fluster amongst the Portuguese that a Dutch or Turkish vessel would have.
Before 1590, the English visited the Orient via overland routes. But due to the difficulties and rigors of overland travel, there were vigorous efforts to look for other sea routes to the East other than the one round the continent of Africa which Portugal hoarded as her own. Because success in these ventures was not and did not look very promising, the Portuguese route was always in consideration and the only hindrance was the risk of offending a nation who was at times neutral to the English. In the course of time however, Portugal’s union with Spain threw her into the lot of England’s enemies and these assuaged any fears of crossing her path.
After the successes of both Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish in circumnavigating the world, Captain Raymond was appointed to lead voyage of three ships to India which weighed anchor from Plymouth England on April 10th 1591. One of his subordinates was a certain Captain James Lancaster in charge of the Edward Bonaventure. They followed the familiar route round the Western coast of Africa and somewhere just south of the equator he;
“took a Portugal caravel laden by merchants of Lisbon for Brasile, in which caravel we had some 60 tunnes of wine, 1200 iarres of oyle, about 100 iarres of olives, certaine barrels of capers, three fats of peason, with divers other necessaries fit for our voyage; which wine, oyle, olives and capers were better to us than gold” (The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies p. 2)
Continuing on, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope after July 28th 1591 and landed soon after because of the health of his men who were “weak and sick in all our ships” (The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies p. 2). They then decided to transship men and stores from one ship to the other two because their numbers were much reduced especially by scurvy. The two remaining ships continued and off Mozambique stopped a small vessel; a Portuguese man on board the vessel was captured for future use as an interpreter. While stopped at the Comoros Islands to stock up on fresh water, some misunderstanding arose with the native people and a fight ensured. The outcome of these was that 32 men and the single remaining boat were lost to “the perfidious Moores and in our sight for the most part slain, we not being able for want of a boat to yield them any succor”. (The Voyages of Sir James Lancaster, Kt., to the East Indies p. 2).