On the 500th anniversary of Afonso de Albuquerque’s death, how does his conquest of Goa serve as a metaphor of the complexities of Goan and Portuguese identities?
At a recent conference presentation where I considered the differences between Portuguese and British colonisations, a member of the audience insisted that such nuances were negligible. It struck me that, in raising this concern, my interlocutor had been focused exclusively on the role played by the colonisers, completely eschewing any consideration of how the colonised might have exercised power within colonial systems. For instance, I explained, Goans travelled between Portuguese and British India, most notably in the nineteenth century, in pursuit of employment opportunities, and then to other parts of the British Empire for the same reason. Often, these Goan travellers, generally Catholic, parlayed their Portuguese colonial identity as cultural currency, having been set apart from other South Asians in such multicultural locations as British East Africa. That Goans were then slotted into and partook of a racialised system that disprivileged black Africans is also important to note, as is the fact that the Portuguese supported the distinction drawn between Goans and other South Asians in the British colonies, particularly as decolonisation movements ramped up in the twentieth century. Indeed, as we approach the 500th anniversary of the death of Afonso de Albuquerque, who perished at sea near Goa on 15 December, 1515, it is useful to think about how this Portuguese figure influenced the ways in which Goans and Lusitans would come to be defined for half a millennium.
For instance, examining de Albuquerque’s legacy reveals that the making of Catholic Goanness began, not with groups that we would now refer to as Hindu, but with Muslim women. Upon his defeat of Adil Shah, ruler of Goa in 1510, de Albuquerque had the widows of the deposed king’s soldiers baptised, whereupon they were married to the various members of the Portuguese fleet. Historians have commented on the colonial pragmatism of this move, which was meant to instantiate a new ‘race’ – an intermediary between distant Portugal and the Indies. And even as de Albuquerque hoped that his Politica dos Casmentos (a law promulgating mixed marriages) would create a white race in Goa that would expand Portuguese power in Asia, this racial fantasy had as much to do with remaking Portugueseness as it did with establishing Goanness.
Because the Portuguese had been reigned by the Moors for some 700 years – rulers who had only been ousted a short period before the Iberians began to explore the sea routes to Africa and Asia – the conquest of Goa, whose potentate, like the Moors, happened to be Muslim, functioned as a retroactive avengement of Portugal’s occupation by that race. Yet, this conquest also provided the possibility of remaking whiteness. Iberia – Spain and Portugal – in having been a former Moorish enclave, could not and cannot forego a history of being marked, culturally or racially, even after the conquerors’ exit. The creation of a new state allowed for the making of new laws and, therein, generated the potential to remake the European self by creating a new Indo-Portuguese breed in Goa.
Nonetheless, this attempt to recast whiteness through miscegeny would inherently bear witness to the impossibility of purity. Reimaging the miscegenated identity of the first Indo-Portuguese as an authentic reflection of Portugueseness remade Goan and Portuguese identities. In effect, it established a global Portuguese identity in a new world order. Additionally, inculcating Catholicism beyond Iberia’s shores, would not only lead to the localisation of that faith, but also the creation of Europeanness outside Europe through non-white bodies. It should thus be noted that even as the Portuguese tried to check Islam during the Age of Discoveries, their conquest of Goa may have limited the rule of Adil Shah, but did not succeed in wiping out the presence of Muslims in the soon-to-be colony. Rather, by favouring the Muslim widows because of the lightness of their skin, de Albuquerque’s conversion of them to Catholicism inadvertently guaranteed that their bloodline would be part of the founding of Portuguese India and, moreover, that this heritage would be protected and perpetuated under his aegis.
It is evident even from his name, an Arabic derived one, that de Albuquere’s family’s legacy was, at least culturally, influenced by the rule of the Moors in Iberia. Five hundred years later, in recalling his time in Goa, it serves as a reminder of the complexity of identity in the region and the need to question origin myths as claims of purity.
From The Goan.