Ureno

Vasco da Gama and his fleet arrived at Mombasa, on the coast of (what is now) Kenya, on April 8th, 1498.

It is an ode to serendipity that on the very same day, five hundred and twenty four years later, I was walking the ramparts of Fort Jesus—the bastion that guards the approach to Mombasa.

The sailors of The India Road were made welcome by the sultan but did not disembark. Gradually, Gama realized a trap was being set—the journey up the east African coast was fraught with political difficulties—just as the way down west Africa had been a massive navigational challenge.

Arab progress south from the horn of Africa stopped short of Mozambique—the Arabian Sea widens into the Indian Ocean along a parallel between Somalia and Ceylon, and south of that the Arab dhows were anything but seaworthy.

The spy Pero da Covilhã described the ‘indifferent construction’ of the Arab dhow, which did not allow it to negotiate rough seas.

The limitations of the dhow were twofold: the planking was bound with hemp rather than nailed, giving the hull less structural rigidity—by the time you get to Mombasa, the tidal range is identical to Lisbon—I measured it myself last Friday.

With a ten foot tide, strong winds, and the fast flowing Agulhas current, the hull takes a hammering, if you excuse the pun.

And then there’s the deck—dhows don’t have one, so as the Arabian Sea broadens into an ocean the waves that break over the ship fill it with water rather than sloughing off.

My companion postulated that perhaps the construction was not improved because no one ever survived to tell the tale.

The great plateaus that make up central and western Kenya mean that pleasant temperatures are the norm, even on the equator. Nairobi is five thousand nine hundred feet (1,795 m) above sea level, and Kisumu, on the shores of Lake Victoria, is at an altitude of three thousand seven hundred feet (1,131 m).

Not so Mombasa and Malindi—both ports are on the ocean and on the equator, so they are hot. When I arrived there was not a breath of wind and the temperature was a cool one-oh-five (forty Celsius).

Ramadan was in full swing, and like Gama five and a quarter centuries earlier, I was struck by the prevalence of Islam. Forty-one percent of the population of Mombasa is Muslim, and signs, schools, and mosques make this plain across the city.

Kenya is a watershed nation in Africa—just as the Balkans are in Europe—where ancient wars between Christian and Muslim linger. The country is eighty percent Christian—a legacy from centuries of Portuguese and British rule.

At the institutional level, the Christian dominance is clear, which causes unrest between the two religious groups—Kenya is the only Christian nation I’ve ever visited where government meetings begin and end with a prayer.

A rockin’ band I was lucky enough to see in Nairobi, all part of the Kenya vibe. The guitarist on the right is a southpaw, and like Albert King, plays his axe upside down. Hendrix occasionally did that also.

The history of Mombasa and Malindi is one of religious conflict. Above the outer gate of Fort Jesus there is a Portuguese inscription.

In 1635, Fransisco de Seixas de Cabriene, aged twenty-seven years, was made for four years Captain of this Fort, which he had reconstructed and to which he added his guardroom. He subjected to His Majesty the people of the coast who, under their tyrant king, had been in a state of rebellion. He made the Kings of Otondo, Manda, Luziwa and Jaca tributary to His Majesty. He inflicted, in person, punishment on Pate and Siyu, which was unexpected in India, extending to the destruction of their town walls. He punished the Musungulos and chastised Pemba, where in his own responsibility he had the rebel governors and all the leading citizens executed.

You get the picture…

In 1635, the King of Portugal was Philip III of Spain—there were five years left of Spanish occupation prior to the defenestration of the Spanish regent from a second floor window in Lisbon’s Black Horse Square and the subsequent expulsion of the Spanish from Portugal—today, they’re all back for the Easter weekend, but instead of muskets they bring euros.

Fort Jesus, and the city it defends (several government offices still cluster around the fort) were conflict zones for centuries. Portugal built the fort one hundred years after Gama’s first voyage to provide the Lusitanian naus, or carracks, with a support base on their return from India and prevent attacks by the Moors.

  • 1593: Fort Jesus is built by the Portuguese—Portugal has been under Spanish occupation since 1580
  • 1661: Mombasa leaders travel to Oman to seek military assistance to oust the invaders
  • 1696: The Omani Imam Said lays siege to the fort
  • 1698: The Omanis capture the fort after a siege of two years and nine months
  • 1824: Suliman bin Ali Al-Mazrui, Wali of Mombasa, asks the British Royal Navy for protection
The Portuguese crown and the letter ‘P’ clearly stamped on one of the cannons defending the harbor entrance. The date is 18th February 1627.

All history makes its mark. In the Kiswahili language, there is a word called Ureno.

It is an adaptation of the Portuguese word O Reino—The Kingdom.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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