Saturday, September 10, 2011

"Becoming Portuguese" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 6 August 2011)

Identity Malaise

An instructor from Portugal who was to teach in Goa took ill upon arrival. She had fallen victim to that age old oriental problem: the infernal heat. Admitted to a hospital, the nurse in charge looked over her chart, only to quickly look back at the white woman lying in bed. “You have a Goan name!” she amusedly remarked. Taken aback, the Portuguese teacher was quick to retaliate: “No! It is you that has a Portuguese name.” The nurse was unconvinced, her departing expression one of much concern for her patient’s state.

In this month that commemorates India’s independence from the British, Goa finds itself between the 500th anniversary of colonization by and the 50th anniversary of decolonization from the Portuguese. At this juncture, the intriguing impasse between the aforementioned postcolonial characters serves as a metaphor of what history has wrought: The legibility of Portuguese identity because of Goa. Consider that the teacher does not have to realize her “Portugueseness” until discomfited by the Goan nurse’s comment. It is in the deep offense felt at being challenged by the “other” that the teacher attempts to rectify her displacement, recalling the identity bequeathed her by colonial history.

Afonso de Albuquerque
500 Years Not So Long Ago

In 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque defeated Adil Shah, the ruler of Goa, and quickly enacted his Politiรงa dos Casmentos. The Marriage Policy’s purpose was to encourage inter-marriage, particularly with the desirably fair-skinned widows of the vanquished Muslim soldiers, and create a progeny of “white” children. This new white tribe, created out of racialized and gendered subjugation, would ostensibly form the basis of Portuguese rule in the East.

However, the Portuguese inception of whiteness in Goa would require a suspension of disbelief that it was not miscegenated. If this newly established identity was to function as a continuance of Portuguese identity in the colonial sphere, then it would also function to subsume the miscegenated culture of Iberia, coloured by its Moorish past. To rename the new miscegenated identity as authentically Portuguese, would reinvent what it meant to be Portuguese in the new world order. The defeat of Goa, especially in being ruled by a “Moor,” not only allowed Portugal to redeem its former subjugation by the Moors, but also the opportunity to recreate whiteness. Yet, race-making in the new colony was not predicated on any illusion of erasing difference; it rather served to perpetuate racialized colonial hierarchy. Ultimately, the Portuguese would still be whiter and more powerful than their native wards.


As Goa approaches the 50th anniversary of its decolonization, nostalgia dangerously veers towards recovering the erstwhile colonizer’s legacy. The argument between the Goan nurse and the Portuguese patient offers a counter-intuitive way of thinking about that legacy: The patient would have hardly thought about her identity had she not been challenged. Undoubtedly, Goan identity has also been transformed in the colonial encounter, not least through the Inquisition, conversion, and syncretism. An examination of what constitutes the evolution of colonial and postcolonial identities from an indigenous standpoint cannot be complete without including the too easily overlooked perspectives of gender, race, and caste – It is only in so doing that reengaging the colonial legacy can be truly liberatory in understanding Goa’s contribution to itself and the world. 

A version of this article appears in print and here.

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