Book Review: Goa, Through the Mists of History

It was on a 2008 trip to Goa that my parents and I came across Luis de Assis Correia’s book on the history of Goa at a book market. His Goa, Through the Mists of History from 10,000 BC-AD 1958; A Select Compilation on Goa’s Genesis looks to be a self-published book (it has no ISBN number and I had to create an entry for it on Goodreads), but with so few books on Goan history available in English for the general reader it was difficult to pass it by without giving it a chance. My ancestors on both sides are from Goa (my mother was born there) and I have visited Goa more times than I can count, so I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about its history.

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Correia begins by describing the mythical origin stories, some of which are mentioned in major Hindu epics, of the strip of land on India’s west coast that would come to be Goa. He describes the climate and geography and speculates as to its impact on culture. He shares the geological, anthropological and linguistic evidence of early settlement of humans in Goa during hunter-gatherer, monolithic and mother-goddess-worshipping phases of humanity.

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Se Cathedral, Goa, Consecrated 1640

‘Through the Mists of History’ is a good subtitle for this book as some of the things he says about this early period sound highly speculative. Such as when he suggests the societal structure and caste divisions that persisted during ancient eras, or on landing sites of Sumerian ships following the decline of their civilisation in Mesopotamia. He writes quite confidently and in some detail about events from 700 BCE and earlier that may be little more than legendary and make me squirm with scepticism. Gradually, the mist clears and as we get closer and closer to the Portuguese period, I felt more assured about what I was being told as it is increasingly based on surviving records and multiple sources that transcend regions and dynasties. In fact, I liked that Correia frequently quotes from historical accounts.

The main section of the book concerns the era of Portuguese colonisation. In 1494, Pope Alexander VI divided the world between into East and West for the Portuguese and Spanish Empires respectively. In 1497, Vasco da Gama leaves Portugal with four ships and 160 men, sails around the Cape of Good Hope and, picking up an Arab pilot in East Africa to guide them, lands in India; the first Europeans to do so sailing Eastward. On return to Portugal, with about half the men he left with, da Gama advises Manuel I to build a large fleet to challenge Muslim trade in the Indian Ocean, which he duly does.

Correia describes the motives for Portuguese conquest in the East as an extension of recent experience. The Spanish and Portuguese were still buoyant from the success of the Reconquista; the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule. Portugal’s Eastern interest was motivated by a Crusading mixture of religious zeal and economic opportunism. The hope was that breaking the Arab monopoly on the lucrative spice trade would bankrupt the Muslim world.

The Portuguese had grown into skilful seamen and explorers, inspired by Infante Dom Henrique in the early part of the fifteenth century. They had become accustomed to Oriental luxuries during the earlier Muslim occupation and hoped to capture a share in the spice trade hitherto controlled by the Muslims. The Portuguese national consciousness had been moulded by their numerous battles against the Muslims and their Indian Ocean venture was a continuation of their anti-Muslim thrust. Perhaps this may explain, if not justify, in the eyes of the Portuguese, the cruelty and barbaric methods they employed in Goa and wherever they encountered Muslim merchant ships in Asia.

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Basilica of Bom Jesus, Goa, Consecrated 1605

With these motives in place, Goa became a natural target for conquest; it was ruled by an unpopular Sultan, the locals were too divided to provide resistance, it had natural all-weather harbours and favourable lines of communication. Portuguese conquest eventually came in 1510, not without considerable difficulty nor a slaughter of the Muslims, and Goa would remain Portuguese for over 450 years.

Goa’s first Portuguese Governor, Alfonso de Albuquerque, was a skilled statesman who won over the locals with just legislation, low taxes and freedom of religion. But he was deeply unpopular with his fellow Portuguese and, if he had not been of poor health, would certainly have been ousted. Correia describes Albuquerque as ahead of his time, but from an empire that was well behind other European nations and while the Portuguese had an early advantage in Asia they were soon easily overtaken by the English, French and Dutch.

The mismanagement of Goa by the Portuguese would have to be the major theme of Correia’s book. Despite Albuquerque’s early example, Portuguese rule Goa would be marked by medievalism, massive corruption, cruelty, neglect, reigns of terror and the amassing of large private fortunes for the colonists while poverty rose rapidly for the natives. Even military defences were neglected which meant the Portuguese were fortunate to have held Goa for as long as they did as they faced repeated invasion and economic dependency.

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Ceiling Fresco, Se Cathedral, Goa

The failures of the secular authorities were matched by those of the religious orders – Franciscans, Dominicans, but particularly the Jesuits who had the largest presence in Goa, where St Francis Xavier’s body is still interred. They too amassed great fortunes in the name of Christianity while paying no taxes and operating above the law. Hindu temples and bureaucratic structures were destroyed in waves of religious frenzy which also included land seizures, destruction of homes and forced conversion. The arrival of the Inquisition saw villages and crops deserted as people fled persecution, Portuguese was made the only official language and all books in the vernacular were burned.

Despite all of this, like many European colonies, the fatal impact is not completely negative. For example, Correia devotes a chapter to discussing the pioneering of the printing press in Asia by the Portuguese in Goa. Though largely a missed opportunity and not without periods of suppression, the press brought an explosion of Goan intellectualism. The first grammar book of any India language was of the Goan language; Konkani. The first printed novel by an Indian in any language was first published in Lisbon in 1866. Correia also devotes chapters to Goans who achieved particular prominence both in Goa and in Portugal. Just as many Indians in British India were able to study at Oxford and Cambridge and became politically influential, the same is true for many Goans who were able to study in Portugal.

Over the centuries, Portugal slowly inched its way towards enlightenment, republicanism and democracy. The Inquisition was abolished and the Jesuits expelled. Such changes came too late to save Goa where the costs of religious zealotry, corruption, war and destroyed trade, left the colonial government bankrupt and Goa’s golden age fell into rapid decline. Correia laments the loss of the first non-Western culture that accepted some aspects of Western civilisation. While, from the 19th century, Goa began attracting tourists drawn to the beautiful churches, much of the treasures of the golden age have been lost. Correia quotes from a Scotswoman who wrote in 1948:

By far the most important was the day I spent in Goa’s Pompeii, if it may be thus termed. Until I went there, I could not understand the mentality that accepted and permitted this. I came back grieving deeply and hotly angry, a just anger I maintain. Renaissance Churches, Monasteries and Convents, all in varying states of decay and disrepair. Huge Sacristies and Chapter Houses containing enormous cabinets full of vestments. The sort of chests carried by Spanish galleons, at the time of the Armada, and which figure in pirate films. […] exquisite treasures of the 16th and 17th centuries, silk and embroidery closely compressed one upon the other […] squashed and crumpled […] there were crypts and choir lofts where the frescoes had grown damp and were decaying as one stood there.

The contrast between Goa, whose natural advantages were exploited but never developed, and British India, became increasingly stark and Correia’s comparison between Goa and Bombay (which was once also a Portuguese holding) is apt:

Goa, a small territory, conquered by Afonso de Albuqueque in 1510, was by 1530 the capital of a vast Portuguese Oriental Empire. But by the 1800s it was shorn of its past glory, languishing in an economic morass, while neighbouring British India marched towards untold riches. The British transformed the swampy island of Bombay, with a population of 10,000 Kolis – fisherman and bandharis – which was given to King Charles II of England as part of his wife’s, the Portuguese Princess Catarina de Bragança’s dowry, into a great port, a commercial metropolis and an opulent city of two million people, by the end of the 18th century.

Correia’s history continues to 1958, the year Correia left Goa; more than a decade after the rest of what is now India became a unified and independent nation, but before India annexed Goa in 1961. As interesting as some of the material was, it is a book with many flaws.

The book contains a large amount of superfluous material; information that may be important for information’s sake, but is largely disconnected from the main themes or conclusions of the book. A chapter that lists and details each village of Goa was one of a several painful sections to read through and would have been best put in an appendix. There is a lot of detail with not a lot of relevance. The book could also use a glossary and an index.

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Ruins of Church of St Augustine, Goa

The book also has a lot of repetition. Once Correia covers the basic history of Goa, he moves on to a thematic structure covering topics such as Portuguese Goa’s relations to Mughal India, or to the Maratha’s or British and covering the lives of some prominent Goans. This means going back and covering the same time periods again, but often he repeats the same material, even whole paragraphs. This makes the second-half of the book read like a succession of independent essays with no regards for material already covered and is in bad need of an editor. It may be harsh to say that of a self-published book except that Correia thanks his editor in the Acknowledgements!

I would not recommend this book to anyone who, unlike me, is not invested in the subject. While I learned a deal, it was a difficult and frustrating read. Which is a shame because Correia does enough to convince you that Goan history is important. Goans and the Portuguese in India played important roles in the forming of British India, the Wellesly brothers were both in Goa during a period of British occupation and Napoleon formed a fleet with the aim of taking Goa for France. I will keep searching for other histories on Goa for it is a subject waiting for a skilled popular history writer to take and run with.

PS – Photos are mine, taken from my last visit to Goa in 2014.

 

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