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Welcome to Malindi’s 1498 Portuguese chapel

By Benard Sanga | Mar 13th 2022 | 6 min read
By Benard Sanga | March 13th 2022

Inside the Portuguese chapel in Malindi along Baobab Beach Road. It was built by Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama and some of his sailors in 1498 while on their way to India. St. Francis Xavier later visited Malindi in 1542 and used the same Chapel. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard].

Thousands of people have for the last five centuries prayed at St Francis Xavier Chapel in Malindi. For most Christians, especially Catholics, the chapel is a spirit-filled little shrine.

The chapel was constructed in 1498 after Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama visited Malindi. He left a group of soldiers in Malindi who built the chapel.

Vasco da Gama made the first voyage from Europe around Africa to India. This is why he is regarded as the discoverer of the sea route from Europe to Asia.

From the friendlier Malindi, a Gujerati navigator guided him to India. Earlier on, it is written, he had found Mombasa hostile and looted unarmed Arab merchant ships before sailing to Malindi which was at war with Mombasa.

According to the National Museums of Kenya this is over three centuries before Dr John Ludwig Krapf landed at the shores of Mombasa in 1844.

The chapel was built 389 years before St Paul Anglican Church in Rabai, Kilifi, considered the oldest church in Kenya, was consecrated in 1887 by Rev Henry Perof Parker.

According to the NMK, the chapel is the first church in Kenya but catholic church leadership in Malindi says it can only be described as a chapel.

The chapel is cared for and maintained by the NMK after it was declared a national monument through a gazette notice in 1935.

 Unlike a church, a chapel is a place of worship that has no pastor or priest and no permanent congregation.

"This is the oldest Christian Church in East Africa and was gazetted a National Monument in 1935," says NKM Administrator in Malindi Omar Abdallah.

Malindi Catholic Archdiocese Bishop Wilbard Lagho agrees with Abdallah that the first Christian mass in Kenya was conducted at the chapel but insists it is not a church.

“It is the oldest Christian shrine in Kenya. Hundreds of pilgrims come to worship and commemorate St Francis on December 3. It is smaller compared to other churches,” says Lagho.

Bishop Lagho says the St Paul Church in Rabai, Kilifi, is the oldest church in Kenya but adds that it was still debatable whether St Francis chapel could be considered a church given its size.

He, however, says every year the Catholic faithful converge at the place to mark the feast of St Francis Xavier in line with the church’s calendar.

St Francis Xavier died while on a desolate island in the Bay of Canton, China on December 3, 1552. He is celebrated across the world on that day.

And the Makuti thatched chapel built like the old navigators at Segres in Portugal measures about 5 by 5 metres plays host to hundreds of Christians and tourists from Portugal.

“It was still heart-warming to spend time there. It has complete imagery of what went on here centuries ago,” says Joyce Kadenge, a catholic faithful who has visited the Malindi chapel.

The chapel is located near Vasco da Gama Pillar on the seafront at Shella Beach, Malindi.

Mandhry Mosque in Mombasa Old Town is one of the oldest mosques in the town. [Omondi Onyango, Standard

It features a rooftop cross, an altar and other catholic paraphernalia, two chairs, and about ten wooded benches.

"It has a seating capacity of about 35 people but it can hold about 50 more standing," says Abdallah who has worked at NKM and preserved the chapel for over two decades.

"Portuguese soldiers come to church with guns and sat near the window to watch the shores," explains Omar while pointing at the only window of the chapel facing the Ocean.

But why is the chapel named after St. Francis Xavier- a catholic missionary?

According to NMK and Catholic Church records, Francis Xavier landed n Malindi to bury two seamen in 1541 who had died aboard a ship en-route India.

The Portuguese presence in Malindi began in 1498 with the arrival of Vasco Da Gama during his second voyage to India. He left a group of soldiers in Malindi who built the chapel for prayers.

It was the time Islamic worship in Malindi was paramount, according to written history that puts the number of mosques in the town then at 17.

The town was then under the reign of Muslims who were was at war with the Omani rulers of Mombasa.

"Malindi rulers were at war with Mombasa. So Malindi rulers saw Vasco da Gama as an ally who could help them to win that war. It was a union based on mutual interests,” says Abdallah.

Da Gama was allowed to build the Chapel. But he had marked Muslims as an obstacle to his plans in the region, and privately, had hatched a plot to spread Christianity.

But the chapel did not gain international recognition after Xavier conducted the first requiem mass for the two sailors who died aboard the Santiago and buried them there.

Religious and historical accounts do not attribute the spread of Christianity of evangelism in the country to St Xavier but the fact that he was the first to conduct the holy mass on Kenyan soil.

 “It is during the burial of the two seamen that the first-ever Catholic or Christian mass was conducted in East Africa,” says Abdallah.

Religious scholars say that St Francis Xavier Chapel and mosques like Masjid Mandhary along Sir Mbarak Road in Mombasa prove that Coast was a melting pot of creed and culture in Kenya.

The history of the chapel is obscure after the Portuguese departed from Malindi in 1593.

 In the 17th and 19th centuries, it is recorded at NKM that Malindi declined and nearly disappeared. During this period, the town was described as “a ruined and deserted town”.

But the graveyard at the chapel could again be used in 1894 after J. Bill Smith was buried there.

Smith was the first Malindi District Commissioner for the Imperial British East Africa Company.

The chapel was constructed in 1498 after Portuguese sailor Vasco da Gama visited Malindi. [Nehemiah Okwembah, Standard]

“Col. Lawford, Frank Matthew the son of Canon Matthew, a pioneer tea grower in Kericho, were later buried at the graveyard outside the chapel,” adds Abdallah. The famous Lawford hotel is named after the colonial military officer who founded the facility

But the chapel was built during the reign of Sayyid Said, Sultan of Oman under whose jurisdiction Mombasa fell and who was also keen to spread Islam in the Coast region.

According to the National Museums Assistant Director of Museums and Monuments (Coast), Athman Hussein, the oldest Mosque in the country was Masjid Mandhry which is near Fort Jesus.

It is 23-years older than Fort Jesus which was built between 1593 and 1596. Four centuries later, Masjid Mandhary along Sir Mbarak Road in Old Town still stands strong.

The education officer at Fort Jesus Raphael Igombo says after Omanis arrived in Mombasa to help the locals to fight the Portuguese they required a place to worship.

"They settled at the old town and constructed Mosque which they named after the Mandhry Clan, which settled in Old Town. This is the oldest mosque," he said.

The mosque is one of the three mosques with minarets. Others are Mbaraki, Basheikh, and Shela. Inside the mosque are numerous inscriptions, benches, and arched windows.

"These are the items the Omanians used while worshipping. The interior structural design is still intact,” explains Igombo.

Archaeological reports have also confirmed evidence of century-old Mosques some dating o AD 950 in Pate Island in Lamu archipelago.

Prof Hassan Mwakimako of Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Pwani University says different religions coexisted peacefully at the Coast because they espoused tolerance.

“But the most significant point is that Islam which was the religion of the majority of elite recognized the significance of these other religions and their rights even though they did not agree with their teachings,” he says.

According to Prof Mwakimako, Muslim rulers did not find it objectionable to grant land to build a church or Hindu temple and that is why in some places different religious houses are found near each other.

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