& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Portuguese in India

My fascination for the Portuguese continues, and I’m reading Ahsan Jan Qaisar’s The Indian Response to European Technology and Culture (1498-1707) to know more about, and understand better, the Portuguese influence on India. 

Qaisar (1929-2011) was a historian at the Aligarh Muslim University. The book was published in 1982 by Oxford University Press, and a paperback edition was published in 1998.

Vasco Da Gama’s accidental discovery of a new route to India in 1498 is well known and well analyzed. It was the beginning of colonialism that brought with it European dominance of the world for the next four centuries.

It must be remembered that the Portuguese came to India even before the Mughal dynasty began its three century rule over large parts of the Indian subcontinent. 

In the 16th and the 17th centuries, a substantial number Europeans (Portuguese, French, English and Dutch) came and settled in India, mostly in seaport towns initially along the western and later along the eastern shorelines, congregating in large numbers in Bengal.

The Portuguese were infamous - at least initially - for their brutalities. Qaisar notes, “One of the results of the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese was the introduction of the element of force in the foreign commerce of India. When the Portuguese realized the Western coast, they found merchants, both Hindus and Muslims, plying their vocation cordially and peacefully, i.e. if we ignore the occasional acts of piracy. The Portuguese realized that since their financial resources were meagre they would fare very badly in peaceful competition with Indian and other Asian merchants. They could make a breakthrough only with brute force by taking advantage of their naval superiority. This they proceeded to do with a ruthlessness unprecedented in the history of Asian commerce.”

This violent behaviour gave rise to an impression amongst Indians that Europeans were a stronger race. This is best illustrated by a ‘proverbe’ current in India during the early decades of the seventeenth century that ‘one Portuguese will beate three of them [Indians].’

This policy of terrorization infected other European nations too in varying degrees. Not surprisingly, when some European nations approached Olpad in 1615 – a port-town in Gujarat near Surat – we are told that ‘the people were very fearfull of us and were readye to run all way out of the towne at the first sight of us’. (Quoted from The East India Company Journals of Captain William Keeling and Master Thomas Bonner, 1615-1617).

A minor digression: Olpad, incidentally, is where the Deshastha Brahmins from Kolhapur regions immigrated to, following the Gaekwads’ control over Vadodara. Legend has it that the Gaekwads, being of lower castes, could not find local Brahmins in Vadodara, who would anoint them as rulers. They had to cajole the Marathi-speaking Brahmins to perform this task, and in return, these Brahmins – known as known as Motalas – were given land in three villages – Olpad, Saras and Mota (all in close proximity to Surat).

Portuguese language held sway throughout the 16th and the 17th centuries in comparison to other European languages. One of the reasons was that Portuguese had the first entrant’s advantage, and had enjoyed close contacts with Indians for nearly a century before other Europeans reached India and began trade relations.

Proselytizing was an important factor in the spread of Portuguese culture, but the clergy operating in the west coastline of India was keen to develop religious literature in local dialects (notably in Marathi and Konkani). 

Qaisar explains, "Conversions took place through force, inducement, and, occasionally also by voluntary change of faith. It might not be true that the Portuguese policy of religious persecution of Hindus was not attempted outside Goa, yet it could be said that, except the Portuguese, none of the European nations appear to have employed violence of similar magnitude."

Given the arduous sea journey from Europe to India, not many European women came to India; and as a natural consequence, Europeans, and especially the Portuguese men, married Indian women. The Church allowed this for the fear of diminution of Christians in India. 

In relation to places under Portuguese jurisdiction, three terms came to be used to distinguish the three main social elements of Christian settlements. 

  • First, Reinos, those born in Portugal; 
  • secondly, Casticos, those born in Asia of Portuguese parents; 
  • and thirdly, mesticos, the offspring of mixed marriages. 

The latter group was derisively called kala firangi (black foreigner) by local Indians.

For many Indians, sweets are synonymous with Bengal. As Qaisar notes, “It may surprise many of us to be told that the present traditional excellence of and fondness for sweetmeats in Bengal is actually a contribution of the Portuguese.”  

The book contains fascinating vignettes from that period of Indian history, and quotes from European travellers such as Fray Sebastien Manrique's travelogue (Travels of Fray Sebastien - 1629-1643) and Niccolao Manucci's Storia do Mogor 

No comments:

Post a comment