Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Love in the Time of Colonization" - O HERALDO: The Transient (Goa - 18 February 2012)

Catherine of Braganza
In this the month that celebrates love, the events of the year 1662 comes to mind. That year, in a far from romantic episode, the Portuguese infanta Catherine of Braganza was married to Charles II of England. A custom thought of as so South Asian, their marriage had been arranged as a royal alliance between the colonial powers. Portugal included one of its Indian ports in the royal dowry. Perhaps they gave up that possession thinking it far less significant than the natural harbour of Goa, but the gift was to become a major factor in the establishment of British commerce in the East. That port was Bombay.

The bestowal of Bombay upon the English suggests Portugal’s acknowledgment of that empire’s overlordship in the seventeenth century. Portuguese scholar Boaventura de Souza Santos ruminates on “the relations of hierarchy among the different European colonialisms” and sees British colonialism as “the norm ... in relation to which the contours of Portuguese colonialism get defined as a subaltern colonialism.” He rightly conveys the historical dominance of England over Portugal in the Early Modern period. In so doing, however, Santos literally colonizes the politically loaded language of subaltern and postcolonial studies which all but leaves out the colonized themselves. Further, where de Souza Santos would categorize the dowry offering as proof of Portugal’s subaltern position below England, this would obfuscate how the bond extended the imperial reach of both colonizers. In other words, the “marriage” of convenience – as unequal as it was – still benefitted England and Portugal.

Seventeenth Century Bombay
Because of this “gift,” Bombay became the conduit between Portuguese and British India. It cemented their relations – a collusive effort that played out in perpetuating European dominance in several parts of the world. The link between the empires was also useful to Goans, who were able to expand their horizons beyond Goa’s limited opportunities. From British India, Goans found their way to different parts of the empire, East Africa included. There, Goans were designated apart from other South Asians because of their Portuguese colonial connection, and were often employed in administrative positions in the racially segregated society. Portugal, meanwhile, supported the idea that Goans in British East Africa were somehow different, because it upheld the distinction of Portuguese colonial power in the subcontinent. In this way, even the colonized in the British Empire were used to maintain Portugal’s imperial power.

Jer Mahal, Bombay Site of Goan Clubs
Interestingly, the channel that Bombay provided for Goans would prove to be part of the undoing of their colonization. Writer Victor Rangel-Ribeiro notes how “once Goans began to emigrate en masse to Bombay in search of a university education and well-paying jobs, we became exposed ... to India’s push to independence; the more deeply we breathed in the heady winds of freedom, the more tenuous became Portugal’s grip...” Ironically, Bombay – the interlude in the colonial affair between Portugal and Britain - led to Goa’s divorce from its colonizer. Apparently, some relationships are not meant to last...

An online version appears here.