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Vasco da Gama pillar: The Kenya, Portuguese link

SUNDAY MAGAZINE
By Nehemiah Okwembah | September 19th 2021

Vasco Da Gama Pilla at Malindi in Kilifi County. [Maarufu Mohamed,Standard]

The Vasco da Gama pillar in Malindi is perhaps the most prominent physical reminder of the Portuguese influence in Kenya.

The town dates back 600 years ago and the Vasco da Gama pillar remains one of the few remaining European monuments along the Coast of East Africa.

Vasco da Gama was on a world exploration tour that took him round the Atlantic Ocean to the Cape of South Africa before landing in Malindi and eventually India in the 1490s.

On arrival in Malindi he found the Sultan who welcomed him. He constructed the Vasco da Gama pillar and a chapel for his entourage.

At the Malindi Museum, a librarian told The Standard that Malindi was already trading with the outside world by the time Vasco da Gama arrived.

“When he (Vacso da Gama) and his team arrived, the Sultan gave them provisions and someone to show them the sea route to India and on his return and as a sign of appreciating the Sultan courtesy he build the pillar. In their sailing tradition, the Portuguese team built such monuments, and one was built at the Cape of Good Hope but it went down,” she said.

She added that the pillar is the only remaining monument and according to recorded history it was built at the Sultan’s palace and later relocated to the current location.

Efforts by the National Museum of Kenya to discover the location of the palace has been unsuccessful despite several archeological studies.

The old Malindi town is easily noticed by the number of old buildings with unique architectural designs and stretches from the Portuguese chapel to the point where the Malindi Heritage Museum is located.

The chapel was built in around 1498 by Vasco da Gama and his team. It was a place of prayer and also burying their dead.

It measures five-by-five metres square and has white walls made of coral rocks and sand.

There is also security window in one wall that was used to look out for enemies across the ocean.

It hosts 36 graves of sailors and prominent people in the compound; including those of Malindi pioneer Commander Lawford of Lawfords Hotel, first Malindi District Commissioner J. Bell Smith who died on September 1, 1894 and Charles Arnold Frank Matthews, who was buried in 1968, among others.

The chapel is sometimes used by local Catholic churches for special masses once or twice per month in remembrance of St. Francis Xavier. The Malindi Catholic Cathedral is named after him.

“We know Portugal has a lot of interests because in 1998 there was celebration of 600 years of Vasco da Gama visit to Malindi and their embassy in Nairobi was really involved,” said the librarian. 

When we visited, Geoffrey Kegode, a photographer and local guide said that the Museum pillar has helped him and many others earn a living from the site.

“This is a historical monument and it is in the Kenyan school syllabus and there is no exam in school that lacks a question on the Vasco da Gama pillar. I encourage Kenyans to visit this place because I have come across people who have stayed in Malindi for more than five years but they don’t know where the pillar is,” he said.

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