In the early years of the 16th century, the Portuguese des¬cended on the Indian Ocean like wolves on the fold to scatter and destroy the littoral societies of Asia and Africa. To a man they belonged to a breed of hardened criminals. They had no scruples. They spared nobody. Thus, during his second voyage to India, Vasco da Gama intercepted and destroyed any vessel he came across without warning. His compatriot, Admiral Alva¬rez Cabral, responded to the friendly gesture of the Zamorin of Calicut by setting fire to the city!
The story everywhere was the same. The Portuguese indulg¬ed in acts of barbarism in order to spread Christ’s gospel among the heathens of the East. At the same time they searched for a monopoly of Asia’s spice trade. A familiar mix: Christianity combined with Commerce to explode in¬to unmitigated vio-lence!
As lords of navigation in the Eastern seas, the Portuguese established colonies in Asia and Africa. But as adminis¬trators, they proved an exe¬crable lot. In Goa, Portuguese officials pilfered custom dues to cheat their own king. In Mozambique, they found a profitable business in ‘men-stealing’ and ‘men-selling’.
There is little that is positive in the Portuguese colonial record. But on two counts they may have some claim to distinction. First, as horti¬culturists: being indiscriminate even in their habits, the Portu¬guese picked up and trans¬planted various species of fruits and vegetables in differ¬ent parts of the world. Second, they were prolific writers: One to all, Portuguese governors, soldiers, fidalgos and mission¬aries had, a penchant for the pen. Perhaps, this was a Lusitanian trait which was rein¬forced by the Jesuit passion for maintaining records of the activities of their own sect.
The Jesuits also had an excel¬lent spy-system. They develop¬ed a method of collecting and codifying secret information which, as a Goanese priest once confided to me, put to shame the clumsy contempo¬rary methods of the CIA and the KGB! ‘The nib of a Jesuit’s pen’, ran an Indo-Portuguese proverb, ‘is more to be feared than the point of an Arab sword’. In Goa alone, Jesuit records run 10 over 400 volumes. On the other hand, because of their Vatican con¬nections, a great deal of church records of the east can be found in various archives in Rome. Some of these are mentioned, along with their contents, by Joseph Wicky in his chapter on Archives and Libraries in Rome concerning India.
As regards official records, V.T. Gune informs us that there are over 40,000 volumes in the Goa Archives. Another ‘40,000 volumes of the past regime are yet to be appraised, acquired and centralized’. Among the bulk of Portuguese documents located at Tore de Tombo de Lisboa, the Mon soon Codices, covering the period 1605-50, are briefly reviewed by A. da Silva Rego. He mentions a few documents concerning Portuguese mili¬tary organi-zation in India. There is frequent reference to the need for artillery, and one source mentions how the Chinese were held in high esteem for their skill in making melted iron cannon. Silva Rego mentions that Albuquer¬que confessed to a feeling of enmity towards Islam and its adherents, the Moros. There is a reference to a curious event that took place in 1560. ‘By royal order, a strange sale was held in Goa: the chief charges and posts, such as captaincies, fortresses and voyages, were sold to the highest bidder. This measure impaired local administration for many, many years’.
Notwithstanding the bulk of Portuguese records, the ques¬tion that must be raised is, how far should one rely on them? Consultation of foreign sources, as Ashin Das Gupta puts it, raises three types of problems; first, the world view of the writers of these docu¬ments; second, the problem of distance that makes historians easily prone to giving labels to men and events and, third, the problem of reliability. As he says, ‘if we failed to regard our sources with the gravest suspicion, then plain dishonesty would create insuperable diffi¬culties’.
In these circumstances, how do we assess Portuguese his¬toriography? The Portuguese themselves obviously had a lofty opinion of their own handi-work. In their world vision, they came to the East to carry out a divine mis¬sion. As a Goan cleric claim¬ed, the Portuguese were sent by God to India to be ‘the new Peters and Pauls chosen to exalt the holy name of Christ’. The trouble is that such an outlook naturally jaundiced Portuguese views of other people, especially of non-Christians.
Nevertheless, we may find valuable materials in the Portuguese sources. This is the stand Genevieve Bouchon takes in her contribution to the volume. According to her, Portuguese documents ‘are distinguished by their rigorous precision: financial accounts, inventories and christening registers contain figures and dates which have been entered with the greatest care’. Secondly, Portuguese docu¬ments give priority to econo¬mic affairs. This can help reconstruct the economic his¬tory of the Indian Ocean in the 16th century.
Filipe Thomaz, on the other hand, finds several short¬comings in Portuguese sour-ces. He lists them as fol¬lows: first, since the Portu¬guese pre-sence in India was essentially littoral, references to the hinter-land are rather scarce, second, being mainly concerned with trading, the documentation ‘enlightens us chiefly on the movement of goods and only indirectly and scantily on the production activities’. A third limitation derives from the fact that, though records relating to official trailing activities sur¬vive, practically nothing is available to enlighten us on private trade. Finally, the most important limitation is the fragmentary character of the documents.
With that we may turn to some other issues raised in the volume. In his chapter on the Portuguese empire in India, Anthony Disney complains about the Euro-centric pre¬occupation of reading Por¬tuguese history merely in terms of maritime trade and communication. He cites seve¬ral instances to show how the Estado da India took on an increasingly territorial charac¬ter. This may be so, but Disney misses the point which Ashin Das Gupta stresses in-his paper. Das Gupta under¬lines the distinction between maritime history and magis¬terial history even in terms of methodology. Land-based his-tory, according to him, has mostly been studied against the framework of given politi¬cal structures. But this frame¬work is insufficient to under¬stand the history of the coast. For, as he puts it, the society, the economy and the polity which we would ideally aim to recons¬truct would cut across many a known political formation and may well evolve a logic and a language of its own at variance with those of the conti-nental historian.
Scammell puts forward by now the familiar thesis that like other empire-builders, the Portuguese sought collabo¬rators to sustain their hold on India. Albuquerque, the captor of Goa, swiftly pressed into service local dancing girls, musicians, war-elephants and mercenaries. In his paper, C.R. Boxer makes some suggestions on possible fields of research in the history of Portuguese India. He upholds Scammells’s thesis that No colonial empire, whether the Portuguese or the British in India, or the Spaniards in the Philip¬pines, or the Dutch in Indonesia, could have been established, let alone pre¬served for any length of time, without active indi¬genous support, or at least a considerable degree of acquie-scence.
This volume of essays, first presented in an international seminar on Indo-Portuguese history, held in Goa at the end of November 1978, indi¬cates new lines of historical investigation into the socio¬economic and cultural life of 16th and 17th century India, mainly based on Portuguese documents. Being poorly acquainted with the Portu¬guese language, I am not sure about the extent to which one can place reliance on much records as were left be¬hind by a people who excelled more as professional buccane¬ers than as scribes. I would rather take the advice of R.H. Tawney and ‘mud my boots’ to explore India’s western coast in person and move among its people!
Anirudha Gupta is Professor, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.