Indians of Another Colour, Or why Goans are More than Just Portuguese: Hartman de Souza

This guest post by HARTMAN DE SOUZA is in response to Europeans of An Other Colour – Why the Goans are Portuguese

The news that Goa’s Catholics obtain Portuguese citizenship and flee wherever they can with their families, availing in fact of whatever loopholes are available, is not that new a phenomenon to Goans following matters on the ground – even though it may now serve to open out a new thread in the discussion of postcolonial societies, and in particular, the travails of immigrant communities in what is supposedly a ‘globalized’ world.

It helps to keep in mind that it is Goa that is the classic case of a ‘failed state’, and not Pakistan, as Indians like to believe. Goa was once a beautiful territory protected by Ghats on three sides, rich with an abundance of water, blessed with fertile land, and made up of villages each of which had control of their commons through a sophisticated system of village governance that far predated the Portuguese Colonialists. Today however it is a state governed by politicians who work hand-in-glove with their crony partners whether in mining, real estate or industry,  a state in a freefall towards entropy.

The Goan Catholics, it is sad to say, are the ones most to suffer – the issue of their identity still trapped in a time warp, and a future in the West the only possible occasion for them to celebrate it.  Should anyone doubt the veracity of this new-found magic, all they have to do is go to the Portuguese consulate in Panjim and see the serpentine queues. Not to forget of course that many of them now happily ensconced in the West, will settle their family squabbles without murdering each other, sell the ancestral house to someone from Gurgaon for a few crore and thank God for their good fortune. Goa then becomes a place you reconnect with thanks to a one week’s stay at a time-share.

It is also possible that for some Goans, the understanding of Portuguese Colonialism is more than just the discovery of a new route that opened out the unknown world to a rapacious sea faring nation anxious to strengthen its position in Europe.

I am connected to Goa, Portugal, East Africa and India and it is therefore as difficult for me to forget the barbarous Vasco Da Gama who sacked and plundered the ancient kingdom of Lindi in present day southern Tanzania, as it is for me to forget that the infamous inquisition in Goa probably forced my Gavde ancestors (Goa’s scheduled tribe) to convert to Catholicism.

Or indeed, as difficult to forget that the Fascist Portuguese dictator Salazar consciously took US and Apartheid South Africa’s armed support to fight Frelimo and MPLA guerrillas in Mozambique and Angola; or to forget that Great Britain’s security forces twenty years earlier, were running their own Gulag against the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

In that larger context then, it may not be that simple to be excited with an article attempting to prove that Portuguese Colonialism was somewhat more benign or liberal or whatever, and which, by default, then opens the door to retrograde jingoism.

Perhaps an earlier and not that distant a paradigm may still make sense – one where ‘The Third World’ was ranged against ‘The First World’, and where a concerted Non-Aligned Movement, in retrospect, kept US adventurism down to the minimum. Much though one may trumpet the virtues of globalization and attempt to give it new clothes, the earlier divides may not have been washed away.

And in any case, issues pertaining to the realities of colonialism are far more complex:

My ancestors in Goa for instance came from an earlier era, where being toddy tappers and serfs to a rich landlord they may have been ignored by the benign colonial practices prevailing courtesy the Portuguese Colonialists. They were probably dirt poor, the truism being, then as now, that if you didn’t have the land, the money, the education, the class and indeed the language of the masters, you could not be ‘assimilated’ in the prevailing culture.

The luck of my father’s family only changed when one of them was sent to the parish priest to learn the violin. He was so good at it a relative took him to play in the brass band of a Maharajah in Rajasthan, where he eventually retired as the band’s conductor – earning the nickname ‘pensaokar’ because he received a pension from the Maharajah. Running away from poverty, he came back to Goa to build the first mortar and mud house for the family with a tiled and not, thatched roof. He may not have needed a Portuguese passport.

But he also sent his son, my grandfather, to Mumbai to be educated at St. Xavier’s School where he matriculated and travelled to Kenya on a Portuguese passport.

My grandfather retired as the District Clerk in Nairobi and came back to Goa on his Portuguese passport to build a bigger house, one with a balcony, a hall, a dining room and three bedrooms. He sent my father to St. Vincent’s School and Wadia College in Pune. Like his son, the black sheep of the family, my father forged his father’s signature and enlisted as an officer in the army to fight on the Burma front. Like he often told me, he would either have been cannon fodder or a general.

The matter was taken out of his hands by a Goan clerk who recognized him and cabled his father, who travelled three days to take him out of the boot camp and straight to Mumbai. Within a week he was shipped first class cabin to Mombasa with two trunks with clothes and other accessories, and letters of introduction to Goan friends of his father who got him a job as a clerk in the colonial government of the time. He travelled in this style, of course, on a Portuguese passport.

Portugal’s liberal colonial practices may also not have percolated to those in my mother’s side of the family. They were known as ‘Mitt’ or ‘Salt’ Gavde because they farmed the salt pans taking salt on the backs of buffaloes across the Ghats into Maharashtra. They could have been poorer than my father’s side of the family because they fled Goa so far back in time, my grandmother was born on the island of Zanzibar, where her father had a tailoring shop. She married my grandfather when she was thirteen and they travelled to Mombasa by dhow, eventually landing up in Nairobi, where my grandfather too got a job as a clerk. They travelled of course on a Portuguese passport.

I mention ‘Portuguese passport’ deliberately. While my grandfather may have held on to his as a badge of honour, the first thing my father did on landing in Kenya was set about changing his ‘nationality’ and getting another piece of paper. He came back to Goa on an Indian passport.

While it may be the flavour of the month to refer to the ‘invasion’ by India given Goa’s recent, and somewhat enfeebled attempts to press for ‘special status’, equating this with the present government’s oppressive policies to subjugate the people of Kashmir, shows a simplistic understanding of the geopolitics of an earlier time, preferring it would now seem, the earlier ‘protectionism’ of the US. In that larger context of decolonization, it is specious to see the nationalisms sought at that time as being parochial.

I continue to be very proud of the fact that on Goa’s Liberation Day, December 19th, 1961, my father bought a box of firecrackers and exploded them in the garden of the Portuguese Consul in Mombasa, Felix Dias, who happened to be a Goan with a Portuguese passport.

Moreover, there are other hidden threads. As a friend of mine succinctly puts it:

“What I find troubling with postcolonial discourse personally, is the apparent negation of spatial and temporal belongings. In the effort to counter British racism, what one ends up doing is propose a version of global citizenship that denies any local belongings whatsoever. I do not have a theory of how to justify that “localism” yet – but somewhere there needs to be a check to the notion of a boundary-less being that is proposed by postcolonial theory – because only the privileged are privy to that kind of mobility. Are the unprivileged then left out of the ambit of postcolonial global citizenship? In its effort to deny nationalist parochialisms, postcolonial discourse ends up conforming to the notion of globalization they themselves claim to oppose”.

6 thoughts on “Indians of Another Colour, Or why Goans are More than Just Portuguese: Hartman de Souza”

  1. Fantastic piece of writing- it makes daily newspaper reports and articles in the West about India, look crude, tepid and plain dumb, by comparison. Imagine juxtaposing this lucid, yet eloquent article, to the junk about India( whether Goa or anything else) penned by Barbara Crossette, Eric Margolis, Peter Goodspeed or Owen Bennet-Jones, among others.


  2. The idea that colonialism represents some kind of liberal cosmpolitanism, while anti-colonial nationalism is parochial and narrow minded, is hilarious as well as offensive. Imperialism was essentially about exploiting certain areas of the globe, so that the major European power benefits, and the colony is kept in a permanent state of dependency. A corollary is that the European powers divided the world up into spheres of influence, where it was understood that no other country would tread on its zone of influence. Anti-colonialism was a progressive movement to end this very unequal system and ideology, and to start the process of genuine interdependence and internationalism. Of course, the latter was opposed to various degress by the ex-colonial powers, and the US.


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