Tuesday, 29 November 2011

COLONIAL HISTORY, POST-COLONIAL INTERPRETATIONS



Teotonio R. de Souza is an authority on Indo-Portuguese history.  The doctoral dissertation he had submitted to the University of Poona was published in 1979 as Medieval Goa: A Socio-Economic History.  Thirty years later, a second edition of the book was published thereby displaying its usefulness and academic merit. This text was widely distributed and read. It sought to “…get closer to the common man’s reality [and]…replace the myth of a ‘Golden Goa’”. There was such a need because, “During colonial times, Portuguese studies were concentrated largely on the history of navigation and expansion of Christianity by the Portuguese in the East. They do merit attention and their long-term consequences can hardly be ignored. However, following the end of colonial era, it was necessary to maintain the historiographic balance and to question the exaggerated myths about the ‘Discoveries’ and ‘Civilizing Mission’ of Portugal, and the playing down of, or ignoring, the harmful consequences that accompanied and followed those feats and mentality.”
            I had read this book a few months ago and had always hesitated to write a review because I feared that I might not be able to evaluate the book properly. But as a student of history I have tried to read whatever Dr. de Souza has written. This review is written mustering much courage and much effort to marshal my thoughts in the right direction.
            Medieval Goa focuses mainly on the ordinary people of the urban areas and the country side, which included native as well as Portuguese commoners who had suffered and were victimized by the policies and excesses of colonialism. Dr. de Souza’s work marks the first formal and best known effort in Goa to write histories that are not dynastic in nature and by including the race and caste relations of the rulers and the natives Dr. de Souza has moved away from the Nationalist paradigm of giving us conflict-free and sanitized accounts of the past. Just as the noted historian of Ancient Indian history, Romila Thapar has credited the writings of the Marxist historian D. D. Kosambi as a watershed moment in Indian history writing, Dr. de Souza’s work can also be termed as a watershed moment in the history writing of Goa.
            The influence of Marxism on the work of Dr. de Souza can also be observed in the pages of this book. Shifting the focus from the (suspected) greatness of the rulers of the past to the socio-economic conditions is a major Marxist contribution to Indian historiography. Besides, Dr. de Souza also uses words like ‘Praxis’ which brings to mind the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci who reinterpreted Marx and his ideas and who was jailed during the fascist regime of Mussolini referring to Marxism in his prison notebooks as ‘philosophy of praxis’ to escape the prison censors. Praxis means a set of examples for practice.
            A major contribution of this book is the recognition that native elements had actively collaborated in the empire-building activity of the Portuguese. I shall reproduce a few excerpts below:
…when the Portuguese captured Goa, the success of the Portuguese was made possible by the native Hindu population which fought side by side with the Portuguese to defeat their former Muslim overlords (p. 6).
After 1656, when the Bijapuris had to grapple with both the Mughals and the Marathas, they had no energy to spare for further conflict with the Portuguese. However, the latter was not free from embroilment in the politics of these powers since many of these provincial officials, the desais, had revolted against their masters and sought frequent refuge in the Portuguese territory. The Portuguese secretly favoured the guerilla movements of these desais to keep the powers concerned distracted with campaigns to bring the rebels to book (p. 12).  
The Hindus in Goa were not just shopkeepers and tax-farmers. They were in every kind of trade and profession, and were much appreciated not only by their common clients but every religious and State official (p. 84).”
            Caste and racial prejudices seeping into the Christian realm in medieval Goa can be observed by the following excerpt, for many of us are generally of the naïve opinion that caste does not exist in Christianity: “Where social integration was concerned the Christian preaching of brotherhood and equality of all men did not prevent the missionaries from establishing religious confraternities (confrarias) based on castes: and, just as their doctrinal wealth failed to promote greater social cohesion, their vast income and unlimited political influence did not achieve proportionate results in raising the standard of living of their native converts. Even in admissions in their own ranks, religious orders, particularly the Jesuits, maintained strict racial qualifications during the period covered by this study.”
            The work of Dr. de Souza by his own admission “left many loose ends than it has succeeded in tying up.” It threw up a lot of new questions for future students to dwell upon. How far these questions have been taken up as topics of research is in itself an important question to ask. Scouring the internet for scholarly material published in journals and other publications on Goa written by Goan academics returns minimal results. Because there are many loose ends, it gives us an opportunity to think about the past in many different ways and also to hear the many voices of history. Dr. de Souza’s work potentially can break an elitist narrative of the past that prevails amidst us and makes us see who benefits and why from a particular type of rendering of history. Dr. de Souza acknowledges his intellectual debt to D. D. Kosambi, who stopped us from treating the history of India and Goa “as an episode of colonial historiography” and that our history has a much more distant past and a promising future. This hope of a “promising future” is yet to materialize.
I would like to end by a cautionary quote from Dr. de Souza’s valuable work, “Willingness on the part of the native subjects to collaborate was not lacking, but this factor is being misinterpreted in the wake of Goa's liberation from colonialism, threatening thereby to continue the evils of colonialism and the exploitation of one section of population by another.”

Medieval Goa: A Socio-Economic History, 2nd edn by Teotonio R de Souza (Saligão, Goa: Broadway Book Centre & Goa 1556), 2009; pp. xviii+265, Rs. 395/- [ISBN: 978-81-905682-6-5]
Web: goa1556.goa-india.org, www.flipkart.com

(A version of this article appeared on Gomantak Times, dt: November 30, 2011)