Musing about identity in Democracy in America, his 1840 classic of political analysis, Alexis de Tocqueville made the penetrating observation that “peoples always feel the effects of their origins.” He contended “if it were possible for us to go back to the origins of societies, and to examine the first moments of their history, I doubt not that we could discover in them the first cause of prejudices, habits, dominant passions, of all that finally composes national character.”
Tocqueville noted ruefully that this kind of principled self-scrutiny almost never happens. Instead, “the spirit of analysis has come to nations only as they aged, and when at last they thought of contemplating their cradle, time had already enveloped it in a cloud [and] ignorance and pride had surrounded it with fables behind which the truth lies hidden.”
Not very much has changed since the 19th century. All around us, confabulations and myths are being purposefully blurred with history, often with the express purpose of manufacturing consent for persecution, pogroms, massacres and war. Against this backdrop, every effort of evidence-based historiography stands out even more valuable, and in this regard, we have much to be grateful for in India, where more and better history is being researched and written with each passing year (even if the obverse is dismayingly equally true).
Here in Goa, we already know enough to celebrate 2022 as an unprecedented leap ahead in our collective understanding of the disruptions at the underbelly of contemporary Goan identity: the hyper-violent advent of European colonialism, a wave of coercive evangelism that converted the native majority of 150 villages (aka “the Old Conquests”) to Catholicism, and surviving 250 years of the “holy office” of the Inquisition, which finally came to an end only in the nineteenth century.
These are areas where much of the available thinking has blundered between the blinkered tropes of colonial propaganda and Indian nationalism. But now we have Ângela Barreto Xavier’s instantly invaluable Religion & Empire in Portuguese India: Conversion, Resistance, and the Making of Goa (Permanent Black), and Dale Luis Menezes’s outstanding 8-part video series The Goa Inquisition: New Scholarship on the State and Religious Violence (https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/handle/10822/1064525/recent-submissions). In addition, released just this week, Alan Machado’s quirkily compelling Goa’s Inquisition: facts – fiction – factoids (Goa 1556), is an excellent resource for general readers.
In his blurb for Religion & Empire in Portuguese India–previously published as A Invenção de Goa: Poder Imperial e Conversões Culturais nos Séculos XVI e XVII (Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2008) – the visionary historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam (whose older brother is India’s minister for external affairs) commends this “first detailed and sophisticated treatment of the transformations wrought in Goa during the first couple of centuries of Portuguese colonial rule [and an] important contribution to various fields, including religious history, early modern Indian history, and the history of the Iberian overseas empires.”
Barreto Xavier’s book is all that, and more. We can easily see why she won the 2021 Infosys Prize in Humanities for “works of notable theoretical sophistication combined with rigorous archival research.” The University of Lisbon researcher expertly marshals “a dense body of both secular and ecclesiastical texts and archives” (in Subrahmanyam’s characterization) to probe the fundamental underpinnings of the political, social and cultural order that sustained the 451-year Estado da India, where – quite different from the rest of India under the British – she says “the distance between resident Portuguese and [the] local population tended to diminish for a complex group of reasons” and a substantial proportion “stopped seeing themselves as colonised.”
Barreto Xavier says “if it were possible to isolate a single variable or instance to explain this transformation, the choice would fall upon the Christianisation and cultural conversion of the local populations.” She uses terms like “colonisation of their imaginations” and “colonisation of their conscience” to describe this unmaking, where “becoming almost identical to the coloniser…also disturbed the order of imperial relationships, and the hierarchy and difference that such an order necessarily presupposed.”
All this is bedrock to the historical Goan identity (and in no way limited to Catholic converts), yet even history students in India’s smallest state are foggy on how and why, because successive generations both prior and after 1961 – being justifiably vigilant about the communal harmony that has been maintained for at least two centuries–have clung to the conservative wisdom of their ancestors: Moddim ustun kaddchim nhui.
Those cultural mores were never sustainable, however, and widespread ignorance of our own basic history has only wound up serving manipulative political actors. This is why Barretto Xavier’s book is a landmark, with its unstinting diligence in seeking to understand the “hegemonic imperial presence in which the colonised were also able to reinvent themselves and transform their condition using the language and cultural code of the coloniser.”In the same vital vein are the efforts by Dale Luis Menezes, and, albeit quite differently, Alan Machado, who have made the latest research on the Inquisition easily accessible for the first time, just when itis most needed.
Menezes is one of our very best and brightest young scholars, who is pursuing his doctorate at Georgetown University in the USA, and also an opinion columnist for this newspaper. Precisely two years ago in July 2020, he wrote, “Paolo Aranha [an Italian scholar of Mangalorean origin] suggests that we might profit from a series of video podcasts, with interviews with historians who have undertaken scholarly research on the Goa Inquisition…The way forward for all Goans is to invest in (and demand) empirically-sound scholarship and politically-neutral (as far as possible) information on the history of the Inquisition in Goa. If not, the current dog whistle politics of religious sectarianism and hatred will continue unabated.”
Following through rather impressively on that initial thought, Menezes beavered inexorably through Covid-19 lockdowns to make it happen: eight conversations with the foremost historians in the field. Now in Panjim to pursue archival research, he told me, “The project was aimed at educating our Goan people about the topic. Reliable and factually correct information was hard to come by on the Inquisition in English before the web series was aired. Most of the research was done by Portuguese or Brazilian scholars as the remaining archives are available in those two countries today. So, people in Goa and India needed resources primarily in English and along with my associates we decided to invite some of the top experts on the Goan Inquisition to talk about their research.”
Barretto Xavier and Menezes operate in the continuum of high academe, and the older scholar features in an episode of the latter’s video series: The Goa Inquisition and Conversions to Christianity. Altogether different is Goa’s Inquisition: facts – fiction – factoids, where Alan Machado’s approach is unimpeachably solid on the facts, and admirably current with the latest research, but also intensely personal at the same time. In quite a surprise, it’s elevated by an eccentric - but ultimately endearing - layout and design, including some really interesting photo illustrations by Alpa Machado (who is the author’s daughter). The book is an engaging, gallant, unblinking, and profoundly sincere multi-generational project to decode one Mangalorean family’s connections to the “mhalgado ganv”. I found it rather moving, and recommend it highly.
(Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer, and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival. You can follow him on Twitter: @vmingoa)