When I was roaming around the streets of Fort Kochi in the latter part of November, it was a mighty struggle with the humidity. This was my first time in Kerala and I was very excited to set foot in the state where ‘India’ was discovered! Kerala was the first port of call for the Portuguese, the Dutch, Arabs, Chinese, and, finally the Europeans who sailed for trading in precious spices. I was told not to miss the oldest Church in Kochi, St. Francis Church near the sea which was also the place where Vasco da Gama was originally buried.
As I walked through the hallowed hall, I realised that this was a Church that was inextricably linked with India’s Colonial History. I could not help but wonder in amazement at how much this Church had seen over a period of 500 years, when it was established by the Portuguese.
History of St. Francis Church, Fort Kochi
St. Francis Church is India’s oldest European church and was first constructed around 1503 by the Portuguese. It was originally built with wood, but was subsequently replaced by the present stone structure in 1516 AD. In the present day, the St. Francis Church is an unassuming structure in light yellow set amidst greenery surrounded by high boundary walls.
The Church is believed to have been built by the Franciscan friars, and over the centuries passed through the hands of the Dutch who converted it into a Protestant Church; and finally under the British occupation it was converted into an Anglican Church. Regular services are held at St. Francis church which is now under the Church of South India.
Vasco da Gama was originally buried at St. Francis Church when he died at Le Colonial (name of the house) in Kochi in 1524. His body was later moved to Lisbon in 1538, but there is still a tombstone in Portuguese signifying the same.
The Church has a simple façade that was used as a model for Churches that were built later. There are many gravestones with inscriptions inside the Church. The hall has a high ceiling and gives the impression of a really old building. As with other religious establishments, one is required to leave the footwear outside the main entrance of the Church.
A signboard outside the Church indicates : “Surmounted by a bell turn over the gabled front, the Church, facing west, has an impressive façade with an arched entrance and windows flanked by steeped pinnacles. The earliest Portuguese epitaph in the Church dates back to 1562 AD while that of the Dutch from 1664 AD.”
Click on the pictures to see Vasco da Gama’s connection with the St. Francis Church.
Pepper, Spice Trade, & the Europeans
The Portuguese (and also the entire world!) was seeking a sea route between Europe and the East so they could trade directly in spices. It was the lure of pepper that meant – on 20th May 1498 Vasco da Gama made it to the Malabar Coast near the town of Calicut (Kozhikode). Everyone, including the Jews, Arabs, the Greeks and the Chinese were keen on the spice trade with India because of its lucrative appeal.
The Portuguese began their trade but moved from Calicut to Cochin after being expelled by the rulers of Calicut. It is said that around 1550, the Maharaja of Kochi gave permission for the construction of the first European fort in India. Cochin had hitherto been an obscure fishing hamlet that became India’s first European settlement.
In 1663, the Portuguese lost and thus Cochin fell to the Dutch, and in 1814 Cochin was occupied by the British until it was finally assimilated into the Indian union in 1947. All these foreign influences left their mark, with fascinating architecture spread across Fort Kochi.
Looking back in time, it was Vasco da Gama’s arrival in 1498 that opened the floodgates to European colonialism as the Portuguese, Dutch and English came and ruled at different times. Vasco da Gama guided the first expedition to reach the Indian coast via the Cape of Good Hope and Arabian Sea.
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