The Story of Yusuf bin Hassan aka Dom Jeronimo, the Last Swahili Sultan of Mombasa


By Judy Aldrick*

 Portuguese Map of Mombasa d.1635

In 1592, the island of Mombasa was divided between the Portuguese and the Sultan of Malindi.  The Portuguese took the part facing the sea.  The new Sultan of Mombasa had been granted the prestigious title brother-in-arms to the King of Portugal and a share of the customs revenues of Mombasa in recognition of his support and help.  But cordial relations soon began to wear thin.  He had hoped his move from Malindi with the Portuguese to reoccupy Mombasa would make him the overlord of the whole Swahili Coast.  But it soon became clear that power lay within the slowly rising walls of the Fort and in the iron grasp of the foreigners, the Portuguese, not with him.  He wrote letters to Lisbon complaining about the lack of respect shown to him and the way the Portuguese were given unfair trade advantages, but no reply came.  When he asked for permission to send ships to China he was brusquely rebuffed and his insistent requests for the right to control the fertile island of Pemba and its revenues, stalled.

The old Sultan died c 1609 and was succeeded by his son Hasan, who continued to press the claim over Pemba offering 300 sacks of rice to the Portuguese for the privilege.

1611/12 relations between the Sultan of Mombasa and the Portuguese deteriorated further as a particularly greedy and unpleasant Portuguese Captain took over, who wanted more sacks of rice as payment from Pemba and a feud within the Sultan’s family stirred up serious trouble in Mombasa.  The king’s uncle Munganaja (Mwinyi Nasr) quarrelled with Hasan.  He went to the Captain in Fort Jesus and told him that Hasan was plotting a rebellion and had allied with the neighbouring tribesmen known as the Musungolos to overthrow the Portuguese.   When questioned, Hasan protested his innocence but the Portuguese did not believe him. They attacked his palace and appointed Munganaja as interim Regent.  Hasan fled Mombasa and settled in Kilifi but returned after negotiating an uneasy truce.  Relations between the Portuguese and the Sultan continued to deteriorate until 1614 when a Portuguese ship arrived intending to take Hasan for questioning to Goa.  Hearing that he was to be arrested Hasan fled to the mainland to the stronghold (Kaya) of his allies the Musongolos at Rabai.  But the African tribesmen, succumbed to a Portuguese bribe of 2,000 pieces of cloth, betrayed him and murdered him leaving his corpse at Makupa crossing as evidence of the deed.  The Captain ordered the head to be cut off and sent to Goa as a grisly trophy.

In Goa the news of this assassination was received with dismay.  Sultan Hasan had been called to Goa to explain himself and murder was not the intended outcome (This is according to the contemporary historian Antonio Bocarro – who died in Goa in 1642).   Hasan’s brother was appointed ruler of Mombasa in his stead and Hasan’s son, Yusuf, a seven year old boy, was taken to Goa to be brought up as a Christian.  The Viceroy personally acted as sponsor for the boy and his upkeep was paid out of Treasury funds.  When the case finally came before the Portuguese courts in 1618 the Sultan was cleared of treason.  It was declared that the loyalty of the murdered man had been wrongly impugned and his son was the rightful heir to the throne of Mombasa.  But the Portuguese Governor of Mombasa escaped punishment.

The Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon burial place of Vasco da Gama

Dom Jeronimo Chingulia as Yusuf was renamed was taught in the monastery of Our Gracious lady of Mercy in Goa under the aegis of the Augustinian order.   He was kept under the Viceroy’s watchful eye, and trained for his kingship role. In 1627, at a special ceremony in Goa, he was crowned King of Mombasa, Malindi and Pemba and made a knight of the order of Christ after swearing obedience to the Pope.  He then travelled to Mombasa and was installed as king.  His entourage included an Augustinian confessor and his wife called Isabella who was a Portuguese born in Goa. It appears that his great uncle, the mischief maker Munganaja, was still at large and had held power in Mombasa during the intervening years.

To succeed his father and return to the land of his birth was the dream Jeronimo had been working towards all his life.  But the reality was far from ideal and he faced many difficulties. He had been brought up a Christian with a Christian’s distrust of Islam and found it hard to connect with his Muslim relatives and subjects. He was too Portuguese for his own good, wearing a hat instead of a turban, dressed in doublet and hose instead of a Muslim gown and accustomed to eat pork like an infidel.  He was not the leader the local people of Mombasa wanted to see. He arrived perhaps with rather high flown ideas of his own majesty and dignity, only to find that the Portuguese Captain did not treat him as an equal but instead little better than a slave. It was an unpleasant shock.  When he wrote to Goa to complain about the insults he had to suffer, and his many tribulations, his letters were shelved.  He began to realise that the Portuguese were not the friends he thought they were, and if he was to keep his throne he needed the support of his own Muslim people and relatives. It is understandable under the circumstances that his Christian faith began to waver.   The papal message sending him on his way when he left Goa to return to Africa had instructed him to rule to the best of his ability in the midst of foes.  This now had an ominous ring.

A Portuguese Merchant in India showing the costumes worn

He began to pay secret visits to his father’s grave at night and pray in the Muslim fashion.  A Portuguese spy saw him and reported his suspicious behaviour to the Captain of the Fort.  Apostasy was taken seriously in those extremely religious times and anyone who had been baptised a Christian and then denied the faith could expect a sticky end – including torture and inquisitions.  The spy reported to the Portuguese Captain on what he had seen, but then went back to the king to warn him that his actions were known.  Dom Jeronimo thanked the traitor for forewarning him, promising him rich rewards but then sent his slaves to murder him.

Dom Jeronimo who had spent many years with Augustinian monks understood the situation well.  If he was accused of apostasy, his life was in danger.  His hand had been forced and matters had come to a head.  It was time for action.    If he wished to avenge the death of his father and prove himself to his people there was no time to lose.

The following day 15th August 1631 was Ascension Day, an important religious holiday for the Portuguese.  The King hastily assembled 300 followers and with this retinue he went to the Fort as if to take part in the celebrations.  The Captain Pedro Leitao de Gamboa received his guests without suspicion but as he did so the King drew his sword and stabbed him in the chest and the King’s retainers then threw themselves on the Portuguese, who were completely taken by surprise, and all killed.  Yusuf took command of the Fort and town.

(This begs the question whether the Portuguese had taken the spy’s report as seriously as Yusuf believed.  Was it the King’s relatives, who had engineered the crisis by manipulating their young relative to set him up as the fall guy?   There is also some confusion in the accounts as to the date of the attack – some put it a day later.)

The official Portuguese account written down by the 17th historian De Barros then tells us how he sought out the wife and daughter of the murdered Captain, who were attending Mass and personally killed them together with the officiating Goan priest.

The King and his followers now turned to the Portuguese residential areas. They mercilessly slaughtered all the Portuguese they could find.  A few escaped to the Augustinian monastery where for seven days they held out until their food supply ran out and they had to surrender.  They too perished.

A group of Portuguese women tried to escape by boat but it capsized in the harbour and they all died.  Natalia de Sa is mentioned as being the leader of these unfortunate women.

This is 16th century carved ivory salt cellar from Benin shows a Portuguese lady on horseback, with other Portuguese figures

More than 100 Portuguese men, women and children lost their lives.  Only four Augustinian monks and one layman managed to escape the bloodbath and make their way by boat to Pate.  One sole Portuguese, an artilleryman in Yusuf’s employ, remained alive in Mombasa.  The native Christians fared somewhat better but those who refused to convert to the Muslim faith were sold as slaves to the Turks.  The king’s wife survived and converted to Islam.

(Details of the massacre can be found in the Vatican archives.  The death toll numbered 45 males, 35 female and 68 children.  The date given as 16th August, 1631.)

Yusuf now loudly proclaimed his faith in Islam, saying he had only ever pretended to be a Christian. He destroyed all the Christian images, altars, receptacles and vestments in Mombasa.  He also did his best to eliminate the Portuguese and Christians in districts outside Mombasa.  He sent messengers to neighbouring towns demanding they should follow his example. Some of the towns complied, but elsewhere his commands were not followed.  Zanzibar and Pate, which were the towns with the largest Portuguese settlements on the coast after Mombasa, failed to do so.

What was Yusuf’s state of mind during these terrible events?  Some idea can be found in a letter Yusuf wrote to the Portuguese King in Lisbon six years later in 1637 to explain why he acted as he did and ask for a pardon.

“I have to remind the government that I was born in the royal lineage and that my father and mother were unjustly executed by the Portuguese. And this in spite of the fact that my father was a brother in arms of His Majesty and had always been loyal to him.   This is all published in the official documents but the murderers have never been punished.

 Since my accession I have frequently had cause to complain of the gratuitous insults offered me by the Captain, Marcal de Macedo in front of my own people.  The Augustinians will bear witness to this.  Never have I had redress.  No respect was paid to my person and my treatment did not accord with my station.  A royal heart is greatly affected by insults and affronts and by injustice.  Since Pedro Leitao de Gamboa was following in his predecessor’s footsteps I was compelled to seek my own satisfaction so that his Majesty might be better able to hear in what manner his Captains treated his royal brother.  Necessity recognises no law…..

The priest whom I make my representative will give other details.  Dominican P.  Fray Antonio de Guadilupe was the name of the envoy.

From this letter, wounded pride seems to have been a major factor as he writes that his ‘royal heart was greatly affected’ by the lack of respect shown him by the Portuguese Captains of Mombasa.  He also wanted to avenge the death of his father, as those responsible for the murder had never been brought to justice.  He was a mixed up young man dealing with a clash of cultures, religions and conflicted emotions.

Mombasa was a town at war with itself. It was full of spies and rival factions, where no one could be trusted and even Yusuf’s own relatives were secretly plotting against him.  If the Portuguese had hoped to improve community relations in Mombasa by appointing a Christian as their intermediary, they had failed spectacularly as their presumed ally now turned on them.

An Augustinian friar compiled a graphic report of the killings in Mombasa. His evidence was heard in an ecclesiastical court in Goa to decide whether the victims should be honoured as martyrs.  Documents were sent to Rome to present the case for beatification, but for reasons unknown, nothing further happened.

What did Dom Jeronimo do next?  Did he prove himself an able ruler for Mombasa or did the Portuguese swiftly reoccupy the town?  Neither and the events that followed often seem to me extraordinary, a verdict both on Portuguese inadequacy but also on Jeronimo’s character.

In the middle of December 1631 a fleet of Portuguese ships was sent to Mombasa to take revenge.  Financing these ships was a problem as funds were low, so low in fact that the usual trading expedition to Ceylon was cancelled that year. The ships first stopped off in Pate to gather information and then reached Mombasa on 10th January 1632, where others from Zanzibar and Muscat joined them eager to avenge the crimes of Yusuf and no doubt enjoy opportunities for loot.

Yusuf was well prepared, he had called in the neighbouring tribesmen, the Musungolos and strengthened the fortifications.  His efforts to bring the Turks to his side had been unsuccessful but they sent him a flag, which he now hoisted over the Fort, hoping its presence would be enough to deter the Portuguese.

The Portuguese first tried to blockade the island by sending boats to hold the fort at Makupa. On 16th January they decided to land troops at Tuaca (Mbaraki on the south west of the Island then called Nossa Senhora or Tuaca) but heavy seas made the landing impossible. Another landing attempt was repulsed at Kilindini and further footholds were lost under fire from the poisoned arrows of the Musungolos archers.

11th March, the Portuguese made a landing on the mainland at a place called the Turkish bastion opposite the Fort.  In spite of this new base, nothing was achieved. Finally it was decided on 15th March to raise the siege and withdraw and, as the monsoon was about to change, return to Goa.

The authorities in Goa were furious at the failure to punish Yusuf or re-occupy Mombasa and ordered a judicial enquiry into what had happened, which ended, as these enquiries tend to do, inconclusively.  Two ships had been left behind under Pedro Rodrigues Botelho, the revisioner for the post of Captain, to continue to blockade Mombasa.  Even this failed, as after their commander left for a more comfortable berth at Zanzibar, the crews deserted and abandoned the ships. (man power was a perennial problem for the Portuguese and many of the sailors would have been local recruits) The two Portuguese ships ended up in the hands of Yusuf.  Not long afterwards Yusuf left Mombasa leaving it open for the return of the Portuguese. Sailing away in the gifted ships.

Painting of a Portuguese carrack under sail

Botelho claimed victory from his base in Zanzibar and took possession of Mombasa Island later that year in 1632. There were to be no more Kings or Sultans of Mombasa.

Why did Yusuf leave?  Perhaps he escaped while he could – the two Portuguese ships provided an extraordinarily lucky break.  Many of the prominent Mombgasa citizens left with him together with family members, no doubt fearing the reprisals of the Portuguese.  Yusuf did not have strong ties with Mombasa his family came from Malindi and before that possibly somewhere in Arabia.  His roots were in the seafaring, mercantile people of the Indian Ocean and that is where he returned.

He first of all sailed to South Arabia, hoping to find a safe haven there. But the need to provide for his followers and family drew him into a life of piracy.   He is next heard of in 1634 when he was caught in a fierce sea battle off Shihr and after losing a ship at Cape Guardafui he returned to East Africa and based himself at Pate.  Its Portuguese population had been transferred to Mombasa along with merchants and traders to replace those lost in the uprising.  Ships from India no longer stopped at Pate but had orders to go on to Mombasa to disembark their wares.  This had annoyed the islanders and they were now fiercely anti-Portuguese.  Yusuf stayed awhile in Pate but in 1635 he was recorded in the Mozambique area ‘formenting sedition in the villages and waylaying vessels’.  The NW Coast of Madagascar was another of his bases, where there was a Swahili settlement.

Rumours that a Dutch fleet were looking for Yusuf and wanted to make use of him to gain a footing in East Africa concentrated the minds of the Portuguese.  They made a more determined effort to put a stop to Yusuf’s activities.

Dislodged from Madagascar, Yusuf now established himself at Johanna, one of the Comoro Islands.  The Portuguese engaged the services of a notorious Portuguese pirate called Sallema, who offered to ferret him out dead or alive at his own expense in exchange for a free pardon from the Portuguese State.

Sallema’s plan was to lure the king and nobles of Pate onto his ship and then kidnap them and compel them on pain of death to hand over Yusuf or assist in capturing him.  He also proposed punishing Mtangata, Tanga and Lamu as these towns were guilty of murdering Christians. Faza, Otondo and Zanzibar were to be spared as they had remained loyal to the Portuguese.

Sallema set sail early in 1636 but went not to East Africa but to Aden where he lay in wait.  Failing to meet up with Yusuf he raided a Dutch merchantman going to Muscat, carrying valuable trade goods.  The Portuguese Captain of Muscat imprisoned him on charges of piracy but on payment of a fine he was freed.  He then proceeded to East Africa in 1637, looting and plundering where he could, on the tail of Yusuf.

In the meantime Francisco Seixas de Cabriera the new Captain of Mombasa decided to take matters in his own hands and force the people of Pate to help capture the fugitive.  He stirred up a hornet’s nest as the various island settlements turned on each other and arguments escalated into fighting.  In January 1637 the island sultans signed a peace treaty with Portugal.   Pate agreed to assist Portugal in capturing Yusuf and sent a dhow to Johanna.

Hearing that his former friends in Pate had changed sides and were coming to catch him, Yusuf decided to leave Johanna.  He left his family and remaining followers behind travelling with just 40 picked men. His first call was at the island of Lupululu (in the Mozambique channel) where he found a Dominican friar whom he sent with a letter to the Portuguese – previously described.

In 1637 there is one final reference to him at the island of Amissa off Cape Delgado, where he failed to make a surprise raid.  He is then supposed to have gone to Shihr in Eastern Yemen to pick up another ship.  He died in November 1638 robbed and murdered in the Red Sea by Arab pirates.

So ended Sultan Yusuf’s short and tragic life, aged about 30.    I find his story a fascinating one, providing insight into the mind set of the Portuguese era.  Yusuf found himself in an impossible situation. As he said ‘necessity knows no law’. He was an educated man and we get a glimpse of his character in his letters and then in the description of the desperate action he takes.  His successful defence of Mombasa and his life on the high sea shows him to be a man of action with considerable leadership skills.  The Portuguese never caught up with him, he eluded all efforts to catch him, and it was with cruel irony that he died at the hands of fellow pirates in the Red Sea.  It was a violent age and he died a violent death.

His descendants however survived and in Mombasa there are still Swahili who claim descent from the Sultans of Malindi

oil painting of Fort Jesus, Mombasa


Main Sources:

  • Justus Strandes: The Portuguese Period in East Africa, Translated from the German, 1961, East African Literature Bureau
  • Richard Hall, Empires of the Monsoon, 1996, Harper Collins
  • Roger Crowley: Conquerors; How Portugal Seized the Indian Ocean and Forged the First Global Empire, 2015, Faber & Faber


  • Old Map of Mombasa, British Library Sloane MS 197
  • Jeronimos Monastery p 322 Crowley
  • Portuguese Merchant in India:  internet
  • Ivory Salt cellar, Lisbon National Museum
  • Painting of Carrack, by Peter Breughel the Elder, Brussels Royal Museum
  • Painting of Fort Jesus, by Norman Wilkinson, collection of the author

* Judy Aldrick is an independent historian with a specialist interest in the coast of East Africa.

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