Friday, April 25, 2014

"Tracking Down History" - THE GOAN: I'm Not Here (26 April 2014)

“[Their] … naturalization as British citizens moved the location of identity for Goans from Portugal to Britain. Geographically though, they lived in Africa.” In so saying, A Railway Runs Through: Goans of British East Africa, 1865-1980 (2014), Selma Carvalho’s latest book, encapsulates the complex socio-cultural and political identities of Goans in a history spanning Asia, Africa, and Europe. Because of my own familial connections with once-British Kenya, it has often been a source of wonderment that a community as small as the Goan one has not only found itself in so many parts of the world, but also been enmeshed in global histories. East Africa is so embedded in Goan cultural memory that even for those not connected with that diasporic history, the Swahili song “Malaika” is one that forms part of the “Goan soundtrack” – that aural legacy that continues to be heard at family and village celebrations, like stories of relatives in far off places. Bearing witness to the importance of oral accounts, Railway successfully transits from interviews to written sources to record a storied past.

In comparison to her previous book Into the Diaspora Wilderness (2010), Carvalho is far more attuned to the formation of racialized Goan identities in East Africa in Railway. This is apparent in her analysis of how Luis Antonio de Andrade, born in 1865 of mixed Portuguese and Goan origins, prospered in Zanzibar in the early 20th century. A shrewd businessman, Andrade capitalized on his position “[a]s medical assistant to Sultan Sayyid Ali Bin Sayid,” while “never […] compartmentalis[ing] his identity. He was a Portuguese man; […] a member of the European clubs […]. But that did not preclude him from being an intrinsic part of Goan society” in Zanzibar. “Photographed on occasion wearing an African-styled fez,” Andrade was awarded the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar and honoured as a Chevalier of the Order of the Immaculate Conception by Portugal. 

 Yet, this analysis may have been extended by comparing someone as high profile as Andrade with such other transnational figures as the Goan cooks who also traveled between Asia and Africa. How might we understand their racialization as cosmopolitan figures who traversed continents and empires, even? This is not to imply that Railway does not address issues of class and caste. One notable area where it does so is in speaking of the 1936 “break-away and founding of the Goan Gymkhana” in Kenya, which “made a faction of upper-caste Goans even more insular and exclusivist.” However, even in highlighting the peculiar nature of political rifts in the community, it is still the history of the elite that dominates, further obscuring subalterns.

Because most of the oral history the book relies on emerges from interviews with East African Goans now resident in Britain, Railway eschews how those accounts might have been “coloured,” had
Africans also been interviewed. Apart from a reference to Joseph Zuzarte Murumbe, decolonized Kenya’s second Vice President a man of Goan and Masai heritage there is little other mention of the names of black Africans. Nonetheless, Carvalho effectively explores intersectionality in the making of identities in East Africa. For example, note her observation of how “[t]he unsung African-Asian partnership was pivotal in the emancipation of Goan women and the development of a middle class.” This astutely demonstrates how colonialism may have subverted entrenched notions of gender and class, but did so by participating in a larger system of racial difference. Accordingly, Railway is a useful text not only for those with an interest in postcolonial studies, but also for those wishing to explore the multiple tracks of global Goan history.  

An online version of this piece as it appears in print can be seen here. For more on the Histories of British-Goans Project, visit their website.