Vasco da Game Pillar

Dawn of the Portuguese Era

View of the Vasco da Gama Pillar in Malindi.  Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor
View of the Vasco da Gama Pillar in Malindi. Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor

Setting of the Stage

America and Africa were discovered around the same time, the one by Spain and the other by Portugal. Christopher Columbus discovered America around 1492, as part of his four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean under the auspices of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain.  By the same token, Christopher Columbus, having discovered the West Indies, had half solved the riddle of India and which ignited exciting prospects for the discovery of Africa.

Voyages were expensive endeavors which required legislation and lengthy approvals by the highest offices of the land and many of the voyages of discoveries – for new lands and regions – were primarily dependent on who received this “support” first. Christopher Columbus, who had just recently discovered the Americas, was hardly in a position to solicit for resources to undertake the treacherous voyage of rounding the Cape of Good Hope.Maxed out and with no support, the Portuguese had all the incentives to redouble their efforts to go further to the South and East Coast of Africa.

The Arrival of Vasco da Gama

​By 1491, the arrival of the Portuguese in Kenya was getting ever closer.  In 1497, an expeditions by the Portuguese sailor Pedro de Covilha, to the north eastern coast of Africa and subsequent voyages of Bartholomew Diaz, who had attempted to round the Cape of Good, had both provided great insight to the Portuguese – who were now aiming for East Africa.

On Saturday April 7 1498, Vasco da Gama anchored off the Coast of Mombasa near the present day Fort Jesus. His ship, San Raphel. had now made it into the history books as the first successful voyage by the big nations to reach this far in Africa. Soon after his arrival in Mombasa, Vasco da Gama set off for the coastal town of Malindi which at the the time was a considerable town and its houses, as the chronicles narrate, “were lofty and well white-washed and had many windows.  On the land side were palm grooves and all around them maize and vegetables being cultivated.” 

The welcome in Malindi was pleasant, unlike in Mombasa, and before departing for India, Vasco da Gama erected the famous Vasco da Gama Pillar, also known Vasco da Gama Cross, as was customary with navigators of the day, as a sign of amicable relationship with the native communities.

From Mozambique to Mombasa, Vasco da Gama discovered that he was not welcomed by the Muslim inhabitants who had already established a presence on the east coast. However, he found a friendly reception at Malindi. Part of the reason was that the ruler of Malindi was always at war with his more powerful neighbor in Mombasa. He thought that the Portuguese might be allies. Vasco da Gama erected a marble pillar at Malindi to commemorate the friendly treaty that was concluded between Malindi and Portugal – Zablon Nthamburu

Unknown to the natives of Malindi, if an adventurer set up a flag or pillar in the capital of a native ruler to commemorate the adventures of his voyages, it was also considered enough to establish claim over the territory, for the sovereign to which the adventurer owed allegiance – for Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese.

The Vasco da Gama Pillar

A year later in 1499, Vasco da Gama made his second visit to the Coast of Kenya, on a return voyage to Calicut. This time round, the Portuguese meant business! To secure the East African Coast as a corridor to India. “Privately, Vasco da Gama also wanted to spread the Christian faith in Africa as a way of counteracting Islamic faith, and he supposed that it would have a civilizing effect as well. His fleet on his second voyage had ten ships, plus an additional 9 ships led by his brother Estevam da Gama – with yet more ships set to arrive from Portugal.  Vasco da Gama made his second visit to Malindi, or Melinda as he liked to call it, where he had erected the infamous stone pillar on the south harbour. 

Close up view of the Vasco da Gama Pillar.  Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor
Close up view of the Vasco da Gama Pillar. Photo Courtesy of Trip Advisor

Trimmed Down Ship or Sword?

In its official version, the Vasco da Gama Pillar depicts a sail-ship trimmed down to its basic elemental form: the mast, the sail and the sea. Others argue, the monument can also be seen as an abstracted depiction of a sword: to memorialize Vasco da Gama as a hero; since the pillar could also act as a metaphor for ‘…a history of oppression, exploitation and slavery’. Still to others, the Vasco da Gama Pillar was merely a navigational aid.

Getting to Vasco da Gama Pillar

The edifice is located on the south habour in Malindi

Portrait of Vasco da Gama.  Photo Courtesy of India Today
Portrait of Vasco da Gama. Photo Courtesy of India Today

Timeline of Vasco da Gama

July 1497: Vasco da Gama leaves Portugal to find a sea route to India. He has 4 ships: San Gabriel, the San Rafael, and the Berrio. The fourth ship does not have a name as it is only used for storage, and 170 men.

March 1498: Da Gama and his crew land in Mozambique, an Islamic city-state on the east coast of Africa. Da Gama attempts an audience with the sultan, but he offers only limited gifts and the locals force him to leave.

April 1498: He procures the skills of a Muslim pilot at Malindi, who helps him navigate the difficult winds and currents of the Indian Ocean

May 1498: Da Gama finally gets to Calicut, India, and becomes the first European to complete a sea voyage to India.  Among other things, the spices of India are popular in Europe.

July 1499: Da Gama arrives back in Portugal where he is hailed a hero.  He receives the full backing of the government to establish trading posts in East Africa and in India.

March 1519: The title of “Count of Vidiguiera” is bestowed on Da Gama

March 1524: King John II names Da Gama the Portuguese viceroy in India and asks him to return east to deal with mounting corruption among Portuguese officials. Da Gama sets sail once again on the familiar route.

December 1524: Da Gama dies in Cochin, India, after contracting malaria. His body is eventually returned to Portugal for burial in 1539