St. Catherine of Alexandria’s feast day links the Portuguese conquest of Goa and António Costa’s rise to power. But what are the pitfalls of believing in such coincidences?
Much will be made of the fact that António Costa became Prime Minister of Portugal on 25 November, 2015, his ascension to power occurring on the anniversary of the conquest of Goa, just over 500 years ago. On that day in 1510, Afonso de Albuquerque defeated Adil Shah, then ruler of Goa, and dedicated his victory to St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose feast day it was. Five centuries later, and on such a significant date, that a person of Goan descent should now be at the helm of the nation that had previously colonised the homeland of his ancestors is an interesting fact, but it would be erroneous to think of this political event as being a reversal of the colonial past. In other words, Costa’s Goanness may be undeniable, but his rise to power should not be seen as a Goan takeover of Portugal.
Indeed, the major difference between de Albuquerque’s defeat of Adil Shah and Costa’s ascent in Lisbon is that the latter was born in the country he now runs and came to power via democratic process. On the other hand, de Albuquerque seized power in Goa, having come to the region in the aftermath of Portugal’s search for the sea route to the Indies. Rather than continue to allow traders who happened to be Muslim to control their access to, and the price of, spices and other desirable commodities from the East, the Portuguese attempted to navigate to Asia themselves. Having once been ruled by the Moors who were African by origin and Muslim by faith, cutting out the Muslim middlemen in the early modern sea-trade game may have allowed the Portuguese to feel like they were avenging that past, even though there was little more than a shared faith that connected Iberia’s former rulers and the Eastern tradesmen. In addition to its Moorish past, Portugal shared Europe’s fears of an “Islamic threat”, the Crusades having played their part in widening religious differences amidst power struggles prior to the Age of Discoveries. Thereupon, that the Portuguese would have encountered a ruler in Goa who was Muslim and that victory against him came to them on the feast day of a saint whose defence of her Christian faith led her to be martyred in Alexandria – a Middle Eastern site of mercantile importance – would have borne much portent for the Iberians who were now poised to start an empire in Asia.
Yet, there is a deep irony to be found in the choice of Catherine as the patron saint meant to herald the imperial pursuits of the Portuguese in the East because of the steadfastness of her faith. The Roman Emperor Maxentius, who was pagan, had decreed that Catherine should be put to death as she refused to recant her Christian faith. The daughter of a Roman governor in Alexandria, she is believed to have lived around the third or fourth centuries, AD. However, the similarities between Catherine’s life story and that of the pagan figure Hypatia of Alexandria, caused the Christian martyr’s legend to come under scrutiny. This resulted in a removal of her name from the Catholic calendar in 1969, a decision that was reversed following popular protest.
The Church’s flip-flopping on Catherine occurred within a few years of the change in Goa’s colonial status in 1961. Following the short war waged between Portugal and formerly British-colonised India in December that year, Goa went from being an overseas territory of Portugal to then being a colony of a postcolony. It was also the year of the birth of António Costa, the son of writers Maria Antónia Palla, who is ethnically Portuguese, and Orlando da Costa, the renowned Goan author of mixed race origins. Like the once celebrated Catherine, da Costa, too, had links to Africa, having been born in Portuguese Mozambique. And it is precisely the Portuguese citizenship of both his parents, in addition to his own Portuguese birth, that makes the current Portuguese Prime Minister distinctly Portuguese. Despite being of mixed race origins, Costa is no less Goan, but his ethnicity is still the product of a past when being Goan was tantamount to being Portuguese, albeit in geographically distant locations. Simultaneously, Costa’s contemporary Portuguese identity harkens to Goa’s past, one written about by his father. Just as America’s Obama cannot be seen as a Kenyan simply due to his ethnicity, it is still arguably his African heritage that makes the world view him as being better informed about more than just his nation. So too one might hope for António Costa, a leader whose heritage crosses continents while he leads a country whose multicultural legacy he epitomises.
From The Goan.