The sight of the Vasco da Gama Pillar in Malindi might not elicit much excitement from a visitor who does not know the rich history behind it.
Actually the pillar today is famous not because of its aesthetics, which it does not have anyway, but more because of what it represents – the age of the dawn of exploration.
Built at the end of the 15th century in 1498 by Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, it is one of the oldest European installations in Africa. To see, touch and take photos of it, has been a long overdue bucket list project of mine.
What many may not know is that the pillar that today stands at the edge of a cliff, off of Silversand Road in Malindi, is actually the second one. The first, erected near the Sultan’s palace, where the old courts are today, was demolished by Muslims who felt that the cross at the top might encourage Christianity in Malindi.
The long and short of it is that somehow Vasco da Gama managed to convince the Sultan of the importance of the pillar in Malindi and that is why today it stands where it stands.
It is also not known to many that the bell-shaped pillar was a navigational aid, a sort of lighthouse without the lights. Its primary purpose had been to guide ships passing here to India. It was not to be a monument of Portuguese occupation of Malindi. The pillar was also one of 4 that Vasco da Gama put up during his voyage.
Seafarers arriving at this point would know that Malindi lay to the west of the pillar while India was to the east. The cross, made out of Lisbon stone, while seeming to represent the Christian faith, was actually an emblem signifying the route to India.
The Vasco da Gama Pillar did not always have the shape of a bell that it has today. In 1873, Captain Malcolm built a cone of cement around the pillar to support the cross hence giving it its new look.
This ancient monument that existed a century before Fort Jesus in Mombasa, was ruffled a bit by a tsunami which had hit the Indian Ocean not too long ago. The tsunami had caused the reef on which the pillar is grounded to disintegrate partially.
That now has been sorted out, thanks to a KES 15 million grant from the Portuguese government which also sent its marine engineers to assess the state of the pillar and stabilise the reef with rock boulders to break the strong waves.
Nowadays, I think the pillar serves no critical role, at least not a navigational one, but it still continues to be a pivotal part of Malindi’s landscape.
Everyone you meet tells you not to leave the town before you go to see the Vasco da Gama Pillar. Indeed visitors from around the world flock here to take selfies and portraits in front of it.
In the evening it gets quite romantic as couples arrive to while away the evening as they enjoy the warmth of the sea breeze. For others, a fish catch or 2 for sport is sufficient.
For me, the Vasco da Gama Pillar is a reminder of how, on that July 8, 1497, a man dared to make a historical voyage to a place he had never been to before so his country could benefit from his discovery.
He had set sail equipped with a crew of 170 men aboard a fleet of 4 ships; Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, Berrio, which was later renamed Sao Miguel and a nameless storage ship.
This 4th ship intrigues me because it is strange for a seaman to set sail with a vessel that has no name, particularly one involved in a voyage of such standing as this was. Usually, ship naming is a near-sacred ritual that is given great significance especially in those days.
The residents of Malindi regard the Vasco da Gama Pillar with a great sense of pride, especially the older ones. It reminds them of how one of their sons, Ahmad Ibn Majid, played a significant role in the success of one of the most monumental voyages in world history.
A skilful navigator familiar with the route to India and versed in navigating the monsoons, Ahmad was hired by Vasco da Gama for 50 gold Cruzados so he could show the way.
I have not yet figured out how much his fee would be in current terms but a Numismatic estimate puts the value of an antique gold cruzado dating back to this time at € 2,200 a piece. Whatever the value, it is highly likely this legendary voyage would never have happened without Ahmad’s input.
Photographers these days camp here hoping they can offer the opportunity of an instant photo or 2, especially for the odd visitor who is not confident they can take a lasting photo to a rare site.
The pillar is recognised as a national monument and is today under the management of the National Museums of Kenya who ensure it is protected for posterity. They charge a small fee, only KES 100.00, hopefully towards its preservation.
If you happen to be in Malindi, make sure the Vasco da Gama Pillar features in your bucket list. As for me, that is 1 bucket list idea done and dusted!