The Fortress of San Sebastian is focus for the restoration and conservation efforts championed by UNESCO in Ilha de Moçambique. The fortress was constructed on the northernmost tip of the island to protect the Portuguese trading settlement founded in 1507 – less than ten years after Vasco da Gama made a halt in Ilha de Moçambique on his way to India in 1498. The little island was chosen as the point connecting trade from continental Africa and India. Immediately a small fortification was set up to keep Swahili sultans, Arabs and even Ottomans showing interest in the Indian Ocean, at bay.
In the 1540s, construction of the fortress of São Sebastião was initiated, and the fortress stood strong as the Dutch repeatedly laid siege to Ilha and in 1607-8 reduced the rest of the settlement to ashes. Arab forces attacked the fortress, and as late as 1790, an assault by French expansionists was resisted by the fortress, which in the independence war served as a stronghold for the last time.
A small museum was installed in São Sebastião already in the 19th century, and from this time restoration efforts have also been going on, gaining force in the 1950s and 1960s, after Ilha had lost all its political importance and turned into the “historical capital” with a lot of symbolic value. The fortress became the focus of Portuguese conservation efforts in Moçambique as the most important monument on Ilha de Moçambique. After independence, the fortress was abandoned. Today it has a character of a stripped bare military command centre, a ruin with very little romantic flair. The rational military organisation which was partly in use up until modern times invokes a sense of discipline and functionality far from the sumptuousness of the civilian command in the Governor’s Palace near the old landing point for arrivals from the sea.
The comprehensive water collection system on the roofs did not decay completely and continued to serve the population of Ilha after independence. The water system took first priority when a UNESCO conservation effort with mainly Japanese and Dutch funding, ushered on by damage in a cyclone of 2008, concentrating on the roofs of the building complex and cleaning the coral stone work of the ramparts. Many of the roofs were already cast in concrete from alterations in the 20th century, and roofs generally in good condition were kept while others rehabilitated. The roof landscape has been given a thick shiny sand colour paint finish contrasting with the decaying white of all the buildings. The roofs thus become visually quite heavy and a lot of attention is drawn to the currently perfect cleanliness of the water collection system.
Recently it has been raining a lot, and the cistern at the heart of the water collection system is full. The space is cool, the turquoise of the water covering a large staircase going down into the cistern – with faint echoes of artful complex infrastructures in other parts of the world. This particular space has a poetic quality lacking in most of the military complex. Outside the walls a new cistern has been built with water taps for a local population which is seriously short of water supply.
The fortress also provides access to another very atmospheric space – the chapel of Nosso Senhora de Baluarte which is considered the first still standing example of European Architecture built in the southern hemisphere. The chapel dates from 1521-22, before the fortress was established around it. The little church is also the only example of manueline architecture in Moçambique, representing the relatively short but very influential period of Portuguese naval supremacy and the exorbitantly sumptuous court of King Manuel 1.
The chapel has been plundered and damaged, graves opened and treasures stolen. However, after lots of damage and considerable restoration and conservation, the chapel has a variety of strange quirky corners giving rise to contemplation about what kind of place this once was. The guide tells stories about slaves tortured and murdered. Some of the stories might be true, some myths of oral history. Before being executed, thieves or criminals from the fortress prison were given salvation by the priest in Nosso Senhora de Beluarte, my guide asserted, so that even if their bodies were lost, the souls could be saved.
There is a plan to revitalise and challenge the empty militariness of the fortress with new civilian functions and bringing the fortress to life in a completely new way. However, UNESCO bureaucracy is slow, and Paris is very far from Ilha de Moçambique, and coordination with the Japanese donors must be done in Maputo. Norwegian researchers with very relevant expertise came by this week and may be able to help establishing a documentation centre for the heritage on the island and on the Swahili coast. Establishing an archive in the somewhat windswept, lifeless spaces in the fortress may initially lead to a lonely life for the researchers working there, but would be a great asset to the island at some point in the future, after 20 years as World Heritage this year.