BY Daniel Karanja
New Bedford, MA

First and most obvious is the imposing edifice of Fort Jesus Mombasa which still stands and is currently protected as a national treasure. Built to guard Portuguese possessions against new comers such as the Dutch and the Ottoman Turks, it has stood the test of time for more than four centuries despite both bombardment and neglect especially in the early years. When the first British and French visitors arrived in what became Kenya, and had a chance to visit and examine the fort, they found it in disrepair. The main structure had undergone some repair but this work was so poor (in comparison to the original work) that some considered it worse off. The buildings inside the fort had been either neglected to the point where they collapsed or sometimes torn down. The structures then put up were of simple construction and without too much planning. At the dawn of the British era, it survived a naval bombardment aimed against a recalcitrant local ruler who was holed up there before turning it into a jail. As a result of the damage and general neglect over the centuries, it had gotten run down and it was only in the early 1960’s that it was opened as a museum after extensive renovations. This restoration was made possible by the generous financial sponsorship of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation soon after its founding in 1955.


            As a testament to Portuguese and Spanish architecture, there still are many other similarly majestic forts all around the world dating to about the same period. Some of these extant forts are; St. Angelo Fort aka Kannur Fort at Kannur, India, San Sebastian in Mozambique and the Jalali and Mirani forts in Oman.
            But the fort and a few ruins from the same period are not the only remains of Portuguese rule in Kenya, languages another area where there still exists a very strong though less well known legacy. There are tens of words in especially Swahili that are of Portuguese origin and still in use. Because of the circular way that languages evolve and borrow from one another , the Portuguese origin of some of the following is readily obvious while some may require some study and could arguably be open to debate.






spirit (alcoholic beverage)















board game



playing cards (the game itself)



writing paper













Other than that, the record of Portuguese rule is poor indeed. In as much as Portugal was the flag bearer of Western European civilization, moral, religious and technological advancement, it was a total failure in East Africa. Even if one were to forget that cruelty and wanton violence were and are always wrong, the Portuguese especially in the early years engaged in these acts unnecessarily  when  diplomacy may have achieved similar results in due time at a lower cost.  Portuguese rule was marked from beginning to the end by violence, bloodshed, cruelty and in the end topped by enervating cowardice and corruption. Even Portuguese observers who were honest enough appreciated the complete lack of Christian evangelism amongst the locals. Fr Monclaro who journeyed form Kilwa to Mombasa in 1569 wrote that a fort whose construction had been ordered in Mombasa had the foundation laid “but the work was not continued, neither was the culture of Christianity which our people then pretended to establish there”. He laid the blame on the “Moors” due somehow to “their custom to administer poison”.1 After a 200 year rule, the East African coast had such a tiny community of Christians that it quickly withered away after 1698. For a people who were supposedly driven so much by religious fervor, this is a serious indictment and contrasts sharply with the evangelism of the late 19th century. Compare for example, the work done by the first missionaries in Uganda. They arrived in 1879 and within less than 10 years had such a strong group of new converts that when the literal trial by fire came, the native church survived and did so well. It is important to note that during critical times of that early history, the missionaries from both sides were away from Uganda and yet the young church made it through the upheavals.

Later visitors to South and East Africa were quick to take note of the comparative general backwardness of Portuguese rule. Some of these analogized it to a state of sleep but others were more scathing. Harry Hamilton Johnston in his A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races characterizes Portugal as having fallen into slumber only to be awakened centuries later by the heavy foot steps of competing European powers.2 An even earlier European visitor was Captain William F. Owen in 1822 at the head of the first detailed survey of the East Coast of Africa. After spending the better part of two years cruising about and observing during which he had ample time to examine the history and gain a first hand knowledge of the current state of Portuguese rule, he summarized his thoughts at the end of the voyage;
“it appeared to us that, the Portuguese had destroyed what little civilization they found, and in its place introduced their own vices and follies, without at the same time imparting the controlling principles of honor and religion, if they had any to impart.
         The effect of this system is apparent at the present day upon the natives inhabiting the neighborhood of the Portuguese settlements. Dishonesty and petty cunning, foreign to the character of the savage there met with, but these qualities are never to be feared far from the influence of the Portuguese…
          It must however be understood, that the Portuguese who leave their native land to fill situations on this coast have but one object, and that is to enrich themselves in as short a time as possible, without any considerations of the means employed to obtain this wealth … and leave nothing but the curses of the oppressed and plundered natives” 3
David Livingstone equally minced no words in his commentary on the Portuguese he met during his trips in Africa. Talking about the trade in liquor, he wrote that;
“the Portuguese south of cape Delgado have no scruples in the matter, and would sell their grandfathers as well as the rum, if they could make money by the transaction.” 4
Later on while comparing the harshness of slave traders he met from various regions and countries, he noted that "the Ujiji slavers, like the Kilwa and Portuguese, are the vilest of the vile.” 5 Perhaps the best summary over the entire period of Portuguese rule in East Africa is by Johann Ludwig Krapf who first arrived in East Africa back in 1843. This was a time when remnants of Portuguese rule in East Africa were obviously more in evidence than is currently the case. After traveling through-out the coast and the hinterland, he collected his thoughts and wrote in 1860 that;
“The supremacy of Portugal in Eastern Africa as in other parts of the world, gradually declined, in spite of the revenues which flowed into her treasury from every quarter … Battles by sea and by land, and deadly climates swept off soldiers and officers by thousands; governors and high officials became more and more unfit for the discharge of their duties, as their only wish was to become quickly rich, and to enjoy their ill-gotten wealth at home; added to which luxury came with the spoils of other lands into the mother-country, and gradually enervated and corrupted the Portuguese as a nation. … In East Africa … Portugal enriched herself by levying tribute and taxes … but East Africa received nothing in return. She ruled the East-Africans with a rod of iron, and her pride and cruelty had their reward in the bitter hatred of the natives. In East Africa the Portuguese have left nothing behind them but ruined fortresses, palaces, and ecclesiastical buildings. No where is there to be seen a single trace of any real improvement effected by them.” 6

With regard to the advancement of knowledge, this was another area that suffered from total neglect during the Portuguese era. There are virtually no extant studies of the surrounding geography, flora and fauna on the East Coast of Africa. Studies of the people especially the black Africans’ culture and languages are no where to be found if they ever took place. Rightly, much has been made of the fact that there is no mention of the term Swahili in period Portuguese literature. Even the coastline near the main cities of Mombasa, Malindi and Pate were so uncharted so that as late as 1823;
“the whole coast from” cape Guardafui “to Zanzibar, scarcely any certain information was known to the public, so that in Malte Brun’s celebrated Geography, he only exclaims, ‘What has become of the famous city of Melinda, and he twenty churches of Mombas? – do they exist?’” 7

On more than one occasion, the Portuguese commanders selected to relieve or retake Mombasa excused themselves by pointing out the lack charts around the island. If the coastline had been studied and charted (as one would assume), the information must have been either lost or kept secret so that Portuguese sailors in the twilight of their era in East Africa would have difficulty navigating in these waters. This secrecy was driven by fear and apprehension about their rivals and when even the slightest suspicion was aroused, it caused great fluster all the way to Goa and Lisbon as illustrated in the following anecdote. Way back in 1583, four Englishmen were captured in Hormuz by Portuguese authorities. They then managed to escape in April 1585 and thereafter travel to the Persian Gulf and South East Asia for the next number of years. Initially while they were under arrest, King Phillip I of Portugal himself ordered an inquiry to be held and continued to urge that “neither these people nor similar ones be allowed in those parts” When he therefore learnt of their escape, he was understandably livid and ordered not only their recapture but “an examination of the persons incriminated in their escape”. Even then the king was not satisfied. In 1589, he urged “further efforts to find out the intent of their going, and of those inculpated in the escape”. As late as January 1591, the king was still smarting over the Englishmen’s escape. 8

Had a snow topped mountain been reported so near the equator, it would have featured as prominently as it surely did in the 19th Century. But With Mt. Kilimanjaro literary just beyond eyesight of Mombasa where there was continued Portuguese presence till 1698, this did not happen and it indicates total lack of exploration except within the immediate vicinity of the Coast. As in Ethiopia and the Zambezi river system, the Portuguese could travel hundreds of miles inland when circumstances warranted. But this did not happen in East Africa, perhaps because there were no reports of precious metals, major political powers etc.

Exact knowledge of Mt Kilimanjaro in Europe has been the stuff of myth and conjecture for centuries. It is correct that Martin Fernandez de Encisco mentions a high mountain in his Suma de Geographia, and many have used this to imply that the Portuguese were the first Europeans to know about Mt. Kilimanjaro. But it is reasonable to conclude that the often quoted and extrapolated reference to Mt. Kilimanjaro was a mere repetition of myth. Here is the entire section in question;
"Before this cost be many litle ylondes by lond, and in the parage of this coste be the troglodites australes, and on the west parte is the mount olimpo ethiopico which is very hie, and before that is the mountaynes of luna where is the beginnying of nylus. In al this contre is moche golde and many wilde beastes" 9
There are two possibilities, one that he was just repeating rumors and reports that had been bandied about for eons and two that it was a report of an actual confirmation. There are several reasons why the former is more likely correct and this will be expanded on later.

1 The East African Coast: Select Documents from the First to the Earlier Nineteenth Century.  p. 140
2 A History of the Colonization of Africa by Alien Races p. 199
3 Narrative of Voyages to Explore the Shores of Africa, Arabia and Madagascar VII p. 223-224
4 The Last Journals of David Livingstone p. 292
5 ibid
6 Travels, Researches, and Missionary Labors p. 528
7 Narrative of Voyages to explore the Shores p. 203
8 Travels of Pedro Teixeira p. xxviii - xxix
9 A Brief Summe of Geographie p. 110

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