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The Portuguese in Goan Folklore, paper by Prof. Teotonio R. de Souza


Goa and Portugal: Their Cultural Links,

Eds. Charles J. Borges & Helmut Feldman, New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1997, pp. 183-197.

* Footnotes have been dropped from the text reproduced here. The reader will need to consult the original in print to obtain these references.


The Portuguese in the Goan folklore

Teotónio R. de Souza

Some preliminary comments


I shall start by defining briefly the aims of this paper and its limitations. It will analyse some Konkani proverbs and a few folk songs which evoke some historical events and convey native reaction to those events and the native perception of the colonial attitudes implied by them. These folk expressions are here considered as genuine filters of the native sensibilities. There are certainly many other cutural and folkloric expressions that preserve the images of the many centuries of the Portuguese presence in Goa. I do not consider myself sufficiently qualified to handle all of them, neither a symposium like this would permit such an extensive and intensive exercise. I have spoken and written on other occasions about some aspects of Goan folklore as source of Goa's history, and some of these reflexions have been taken up again here, along with some fresh considerations.

Most historians are accustomed to rely almost exclusively upon the archival sources for their research productions, and only exceptionally make concessions to the oral sources, which they usually view with suspicion as methodologically weak and of doubtful value. The written texts tend to be accepted very often for the simple reason of being written, and this happens more often in the western tradition. In the Introduction to his The Portuguese Empire in Asia , Sanjay Subrahmanyam focus the attention on the «mythical faces of Portuguese Asia». He analyses a malay text of late seventeenth or early eighteenth century to illustrate the internal logic and the utility of such texts based on local native traditions as a source of historical evidence. He demonstrates how, despite the lack of chronological precision or even factual innacuracies, it succeeds in conveying the native perspective on the Portuguese entry into Malaca. He goes further, and draws parallel with the myths acccepted in Portugal as historical facts, and concludes with a note of caution: "Separating myth from reality is of course a task that any historian must approach with trepidation, for while history is the stuff from which myth is made, myth-making too is part of the historical process".

The folk traditions seem to have merited greater attention of the anthropologists, and also of some historians more recently, having taken greater interest in the daily life of the people and influenced by the trend of "new history", which was also responsible for the discovery of the "long duration". These innovations have helped to give credibility to the cyclical time concept of India. Fernand Braudel, a master "new historian" believes that half the life of mankind is made up of daily routine, which he defined as "little things one hardly notices in time and space…. The everyday happening is repeated, and the more often it is repeated the more like it is to become a generality or rather a structure. It pervades society at all levels, and characterises ways of being and behaving which are perpetuated through endless ages".

The problem with the oral sources, and with the folk traditions in particular, is that of determing their time of origin and of collating the variant versions. A useful utilisation of folk evidence requires advanced linguistic abilities and understanding of the pertinent culture. Rarely a foreigner is likely to possess these twofold requirements. Oftentimes, it is this lack of abilities, together with lack of interest or respect for the native view of events, that leads the foreign researchers to minimise the value of folk evidence as source of historical interpretation. It should not be forgotten that due to climatic and other problems connected with transmission of written documentation in India, the rules for oral transmission were all the more demanding, assuming even a sacred character that would reduce the chances of corruption. Inspite of these traditional precautions the western orientalist research have not treated kindly the Indian concepts of time and history. They did not find in the classical indian texts, like Mahabharata, Dharmashastras, or Puranas the linear chronology to which the western historical tradition is accustomed. The western scholars failed to comprehend the «cosmological time» scale of yugas and kalpas adopted by the above mentioned classics, from the jyotishastra literature dealing with mathematics and astronomy, and which took time calculation very seriously. Satisfied with a stereotyped indian concept of time, the western orientalists did not care till very recently to perceive diverse philosophical perceptions of time within the Indian tradition. The Indian cyclic time did not preclude other categories of time.

James Mill (1773-1836) was one of the early western critics of the Indian concept of cyclic time, which he interpreted as expressive of a «primitive» phase of social development. The biblical tradition of Christians passed through a chronology, from creation of the universe culminating with the creation of Adam and Eve, the phases of jewish history, and with the Final Judgement to come. It did not find parallels in the Indian tradition. For Christian Europe the linear concept of history was part of its tradition, and Islam, despite its other unpleasant features, shared the same concept of time. The modern science objections to biblical chronology were yet to come. The «new historians» with their concept of «long duration» are even more recent. Until then every event was unique and irreversible. If the Indians did not take time seriously as an expression of change, and if they had reduced all reality to mere illusion, they would not have bothered to create the tradition of horoscopes to determine an auspicious moment (muhurta) for the important decisions in one´s personal life, economic activity, social events, or political actions.

The Indian scholar Romila Thapar defends that the Indian concept of cyclic time (initially consisting of five years ou yuga, and later extend to longer periods) is not exclusive of other categories of time, incluiding those that come close to the linear time of the modern historians. The Dharmashastra of Manu refers to various divisons of time , including the twinkle of the eye. It explains the possibility of various concepts of time co-existing, and rules out a necessary dichotomy between the linear and cyclical concepts of time. The indian tradition of cycles never excluded also the influence of karma or of human actions in the process of samsara (transmigrations) and of moksha (salvation). Each cycle represented a decline in moral standard (dharma) and consequently an historic change. The last cycle of kaliyuga represented a total chaos in the moral order, and only the tenth incarnation of Vishnu as Kalkin could restore the mankind back to its original state. Curiously, the classic indian texts maintain a distinction between the mythic and cosmogonic time that preceded the great deluge and the time that followed, namely the time of the great dynasties of Kshatryas, the solar dynasty (Suryavamsa) and the lunar one (Candravamsa) . Two types of calendars were thus recognised. The term vamsa used to designate a generation means literally a bambu, and each knot represented a generation. It was a linear conception of the genealogical time, but always with the larger framework of yugas. Instead of dates some important historical events were chosen for periodization markers, such as the Mahabharata war, ou the exile of Ram. Vishnu Purana goes beyond and identifies the beginning of Kaliyuga with the appearence of a constellation. The astronomers have calculated the date of the phenomemon and placed that beginning at 3102-1 B.C. The end-part of Vishnu Purana provides dynastic lists. It utilises a new concept of regnal time for the period that follows the Mahabharata war. It enters that way in the realm of real and historical time. That is how are reckoned the various Indian eras: Vikrama or Samvatsa (58-57 B.C.), Saka (78 A.D.), Gupta (319-20 A.D.), etc. which utilise more precise dates to determine events and kingships. The formation of states influenced this process of time-reckoning in India, not unlike the process of state and nation formation that accompanied the evolution of the European historiography. The biddhist influence was quite decisive through the evolution of its sanghas and the importance they attributed to the chronology of the founder. Its commercial activities and many endowments that its monasteries received explain the buddhist interest in a more precise and chronological documentation.

The folkloric illustrations selected in this paper may share the quality of imprecisions which Braudel attributed to «everyday life», but we do have documentary evidence that can be utilised to locate many of the folk impressions on a more precise time-scale. But we need to be aware of the geographic and social provenance of the folk tradtions, including the caste and religious provenance, to avoid generalising the conclusions as applicable to all inhabitants of Goa. The sectorial provenance can help to identify also better the social diference of reactions to the Portuguese colonial presence in Goa. The illustrations will enable us also to identify the linguistic impact of the Portuguese upon the daily life of the Goan people.

The Portuguese in the Goan folklore

The Indian jesuit Anthony D'Costa describes in the Preface to his research publication on the Christianisation of the Goa islands a tradition that was current among several Christian families of Goa. According to that tradition the Portuguese soldiers were filling wax dolls with wine and then chopped off their heads to drink the wine. Many natives were scared by this practice, because they were under the impression that they really drank human blood, and this led many to adopt Christianity out of fear. The author concludes that if such a thing really happened, the tradition only suggests that some converts invented the storty to justify their interest in changing their religion. The author then goes on to prove with historical evidence that this what really happend to a great extent.

The Portuguese missionary camapign in Goa was not seen by all sections of the population in the same fashion. For many Goans of higher castes, it was an opportunity to collaborate profitably with the new rulers, even though there were more conservative elements among them, and for whom a change of religion and traditions as demanded by the Church and Inquisition was not acceptable. There were naturally many Goans who preferred to go into exile to the neigbouring territories of Kanara and Malabar. A Jesuit visitor who travelled through Kanara in the second half of the seventeenth century calculated as 30,000 the number of Goans, chiefly hindus, who had migrated to that region to escape the religious and other pressures in Goa. It was among these communities of emigrants in Mangalore that appeared the proverbial saying Goeam firongi na mhunno khoim? (=Who dare say that the Portuguese are not in Goa?). It was a rhetorical question, which did not require an answer from the Goans who had experienced the heat of the conversion drive in Goa and had run away from there. The expression implied sarcasm and criticism aimed at those who stayed behind, hopeful of resisting the Portuguese control and pressures.

To continue along the same lines, the Portuguese missionary efforts manifested an interest to learn the language of the territory, not only the Marathi language that was used for religious texts, but also the spoken language of the people, namely Konkani. This missionary effort was seen in the creation of a boys´school attached to the College of St. Paul that trained the Jesuit candidates in the East. The initiative of setting up that school came from none other than St. Francis Xavier, who saw the need of training native interpreters who could accompany ans assist the Jesuit missionary in the endeavours all over the East. He was so serious about this plan that he lost his temper and even dismissed from the Society of Jesus a senior Jesuit and Rector of the College for replacing the native boys with Portuguese kids and half-breeds during one os his many absences from Goa. In 1563 the boys´school had 645 inmates, and some years later the register showed 800 boys of various ethnic origins. It was a boy of this school that help the Jesuits to prepare the first Konkani grammar, and also helped some Jesuits to learn that language. It was during this initial phase that some manuals were composed to aid the natives to prepare themselves and to make their confessions in Konkani. Also severam other books were composed and published in Konkani for training the missionaries, and also as manuals of devotion for the converts. However, this missionary zeal was no longer there in the latter half of the seventeenth century, and the trend had even reversed. There was missionary pressure upon the State administration to ennact legislation that would force the natives to learn and speak Portuguese language under penalty of not being allowed to celebrate their weddings in the Church, or of having their sons ordained as priests. The attempts were fruitless, because the natives were already used to liturgy in local language and had no great interest in hearing the sermons in Portuguese. Hence a traditional saying attributed to an old Goan lady: Sermanvak gel'lim axên, sermanv zalo firangi bhaxên (= I went to hear the sermon with great enthusiasm, but the sermon in Portuguese was a pain in the arse).

The above saying did not necessarily imply any critique of the colonial language, but it conveyed well the reality of the Goan life. Practically till the end of the Portuguese colonial presence in Goa the total of those who could speak and understand Portuguese language did not exceed 5%, and this was the case at a time when the primary edication in Portuguese was made compulsory. The compulsory education did not raise the level of literacy, and as noted by Prof. Dr. Mariano Saldanha, it only succeeded in creating «a unique class of illiterates who could read and write, a strange breed in the history of education». The need of migrating to British Indian and the dependance of Goans upon the remittances of the emigrants proved beyond doubt the futility of learning the Portuguese language with any degree of seriousness.

The colonial vicissitudes were not restricted to the vernacular language which had become increasingly corrupted, and even its use was discouraged. The natives who cared to use it in public were made to feel inferior social beings. The historian-administrator J.H. Cunha Rivara described this tragic state of the native language in his historical essay on Konkani, entitled Ensaio Histórico da Língua Concani. The socio-political relationship of dominance-subordination formed the essence of the colonial regime, and it is but natural that some sectors of the native population should have expressed their unhappiness about it from time to time. The more vocal elements were those who were more in touch with the people and had greater influence over them. They were the priests who experienced a sort of racist discrimination when it came to promotions. The white clergy dominated the scene with their ethnic and political links with the colonizers. Even though the Portuguese colonialism was relatively less racist, racial discrimination was not entirely absent. In the initial period or centuries the racist feelings were less felt, because they were not necessary. But as the natives proved their competence or even superiority in comparison with the many Portuguese who served in the East, references to colour and to patriotism became increasingly necessary for the Portuguese from the 18th century onwards. This was noticeable in the attitude of the white friars and the mestiços (descendentes) who felt threatened in their careers, and invited nationalist reaction from the natives. The franciscan friars ressented and resisted the pressure of the native clerics who wanted to take over the control of thei parishes in Bardez with the backing of the Archbishop Fr. Ignacio de Santa Thereza in 1724-28. One cannot help taking note of the overtly racist language utilised by the friars on that occasion against the native clerics: «All these black priests (with the exception of some by miracle) are by their very nature ill-natured and ill-behaved, lascivious, drunkards, etc. and therefore, most unworthy of receiving the charge of the churches.» They continued their accusations: «It must be pointed out in the 4th place that these natives naturally hate the Portuguese and all "white-skinned", and their hate is directed more against the parish priests, because these live in their villages and watch keenly their behaviour. That is why white priests and religious are a burden to them.

The motives that caused the mestiços to behave arrogantly and to manifest racist tendencies were not very different. As a part of administrative reforms of Pombal in Goa, the viceroy issued an ordinance that put the finger on the wound: «the pride that dominates in this part of the world is the chief reason for the misery of these natives… By Portuguese I also mean mestiços, and these suffer more from the diabolic vice of pride than the Europeans proper.». The decree warned the whites against calling the natives «negros» (niggards) e «cachorros» (dogs) . The «descendentes» held the control over militia in Goa, and this gave them a privileged position of power, but with the military reforms and abolition of a standing military corps, they lost this position. In this context must have appeared the Konkani saying: «Sorop mhoncho nhoi dakhlo, firngi mhoncho nhoi aplo.» (=None dare say that a snake is small or that a Portuguese is one of us) .

It is not necessary to depend upon the opinion of the colonized people to form a judgement of the weaknesses of the Portuguese administration. There are many recorded views of other Europeans about it, and also of the Portuguese themselves. The Portuguese dailies dedicate lots of space to the incapacity of the Portuguese to manage anything there is to manage, and to their great ability to interfere into other people's business. These are not new habits, because the sixteenth century Portuguese chronicler and humanist João de Barros says it in his Décadas da Ásia: "A Portuguese is hurt more by his neighbour being praised than his own deeds being forgotten." Nowadays, the Portuguese public accompanying the preparations for Expo-98 are much entertained by the political decisions and counter-decisions of their leaders. However, all admit the Portuguese skill to improvise. Probably, if it all ends up with happy results, it is because the expectations are never high. The Goan population had not failed to observe this trait of the Portuguese. They coined a proverb for that: Firngyachem kam' noveak vô Maiak (= The Portuguese do everything at the last moment. You will find them when the reaping season is on, or when the monsoons are about to start ).

The Portuguese administration of justice was the butt of most criticism. It was considered the most corrupt department of the Portuguese administration. Diogo do Couto, the founder-curator of the Portuguese historical archives in India wrote in his Soldado Prático: "Here, he who has more power can have more justice, and this cobweb can only catch mosquitoes: a Gujarati is penalised for squatting to urinate; a hindu is put in irons for quarreling with another of his kind or abusing him; but if a favourite of the authorities or a wealthy person breaks open the safe of a Hindu and takes away his goods by force, that is a light matter and permissible." Hence a Konkani proverb that does not find anything worse to wish for an enemy than the Portuguese justice: Goynchi neai tea gorar poddum (= May he be a victim of Goan justice). The administration of justice in Goa had become a profitable business for a host of solicitors, and as described by the chronicler who succeeded Diogo do Couto, Goa had become a big academy of solicitors who made a good living by court-suing. António Bocarro states in the middle of the seventeenth century that Goans had developed a great penchant for court procedures and were pretty skilled in drafting the papers. He had calculated more than a thousand such solicitors who made their living in the city of Goa and the adjacent islands. He noticed that the Portuguese encouraged this business. There were more than six thousand cases pending in the courts at this time» The financial consequences of such an administration of justice are expressed in another Goan proverb: Goynchi neai ani vaddhlelem cheddum sogleanchea ghorak nosai. (= Goan justice and a grown up girl no family would want) Both situations had one element in common, namely the uncertain costs. The dowry for marrying a grown up girl, and the fees of justice were equally worrysome.

Not all the problems of the Goans were caused by the Portuguese. Many Goans felt the oppression of the caste structure or of the traditional class structure. Many had changed their religion to escape from these structures and with the hope of improving their life conditions. The conflict was not necessarily between the higher and lower castes, but it occurred also within the two upper castes, namely brahmins and chardos, fighting for preheminence. Instead of reducing the caste differences after conversion, confraternities were created on caste-basis and with distinguishing colours. Mas conversion were preferred and so also the preservation of the social structure to solve the problem of marriages. These considerations were responsible for the perpetuation of the caste system among the converts. The caste exclusivism is beautifully illustrated with an incident that seems to have occurred in the Guirim parish of Bardez in Goa. The parish had a confraternity of Jesus and another of O. Lady of Rosary. An old woman was being helped with spiritual assistance on her death bed. She was instructed to call upon the name of Jesus. She was indignant and replied angrily: Jezú? Jezú nam! Jezú tencho! (Jesus? By means, he belongs to them) Obviously, she was of chardo caste, and the confraternity of Jesus was of the brahmins!

Another curious incident refers to two Goan historians, namely Felipe Nery Xavier e Miguel Vicente de Abreu. Their contribution to Goan history has been signficant. The former was a first grade officer of the finance department, and he had already made a mark as historian before the arrival in Goa of the Portuguese historian-administrator Cunha Rivara in 1855. The latter was a low-grade employee of the Government printing press, and was a disciple of Cunha Rivara who trained him as historian. At some stage Miguel Vicente de Abreu felt victimised by his country colleague who decided to reduce his pay to half. At the bottom of the quarrel was perhaps an academic rivalry between the two, even though both belonged to the same caste. Miguel Vicente de Abreu presented a letter of protest to his patron Cunha Rivara, the then Chief Secretary of the State. He stated in that note: «If Your Excellency deem that the law is on my side, please do not leave its interpretation to the intelligence of Mr. Felipe Nery, because this native chief (sorry to use this expression) has no concern for his subjects as the Portuguese masters have for their people. Perhaps that is the reason why God has placed you over us. May God keep your Excellency for many years as my boss. ». Such situations must have occurred often, and they help us to interpret another Konkani saying: Firngeanchea paeam melolo hoi, punn Kan'ddeachea sangata jielolo nhoi (= It is better to die at the feet of a Portuguese than to live in the company of the Goan christians).

Goans may have preferred the Portuguese as a lesser evil in some ways, but there were other aspects of the Portuguese behaviour that left the Goans in a more doubtful attitude.

The British military camps had found a solution to the sexual needs of their men in the «red-light areas». The Portuguese had adopted a more catholic policy. Instead of «divide and rule», they preferred to «multiply and dominate». Soon after the conquest of Goa, Afonso de Albuquerque chose some «fair and good looking»( alvas e de bom parecer) captive Muslim women and gave them to his soldiers in marriage. But there were also some local Hindu women that seduced the Portuguese and entered in the class of the so-called «casados», or married settlers. However, the sexual apptetites of the Portuguese were not always fulfilled within the bounds of Christian marriage. Afonso de Albuquerque was once writing to his king: "Some of your men are tired of sleeping with the Christian women and are going to hindu women". They were the kolvontam of the Hindu temples, and others who lived as prostitutes. Fr. Gonçalo Martins, a Jesuit procurator of missions in Goa had the bright idea of purchasing the island of Combarjua and making it the haven of prostitution after paying him a tax. The minutes of the pastoral visitations of the Archbishops of Goa refer to the villages where there were Portuguese military bases, such as Rachol and Tivim. The documents reveal frequent cases of prostitution in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1858 the Secretary of the State was addressing a memo to the President of the Health Board and described the gravity of the problem of venereal disease among the Portuguese military personnel in Goa. It is in this context of the sexual behaviour of the Portuguese soldiers that one should interpret the native reactions expressed in some folk songs that warn the women to watch out against bearded «pakle» that roam at late hours of night (Êdê ratiché pakle bonvtai khaddache…, or try to peep through the key-holes. In the folksong Modgovam Thoviager (= In the house of the carpenter of Margão) a Portuguese is told to stop peeping through the key-hole. He is informed that the lady inside is a widow, and not a young girl (Teka ek paklo choita burkan ghalunu tonddu….Arê paklea choinaka rê, cheddum tem bailu randdu). The composers seem to have forgotten or not known that the Portuguese had enacted legislation already in the 17th century inviting the poor Portuguese to marry local widows of means, despite the native tradition against it.

There are many folkloric composition of mandó type that transmit the popular nationalist feelings against the Portuguese administration that sought to interfere in elections in favour of white candidates in Divar and Margão. The Divar incident took place in 1854 and is registered in the mandó «Luizinha, mojea Luizinha», which laments the tragic end of Capitão Joaquim Garcez who sought to interfere in the elections. The village inhabitants pretend to hear calmly the anxious queries of his wife, who wanted to know what had happened to her husband. The villagers pretend to sypathise with her and describe how badly he husband was treated (foddleai pole, keleai vantte). There are at least four other folksongs of this type referring to the incident of firing in Margão in the wake of the elections of 1890, and resulting in 23 deaths and exile of many. (Setembrache ekviseri / Camarachem foddlem re darui, Corneti vazoun soldad re aile, Povak marle faru, Rogtache zale vallu, Niti na re Goeantu / Justis na re Saxttintu, Inocenticheam rogtanu / Vasco Guedin kelem re eleisanvu.)

To conclude, just a few more proverbs that convey popular impressions about the Portuguese in Goa. «Pão» or bread is an important Portuguese contribution to the Asian staple food. Even some years back the Goans were called «poder-pão» (=bakers) in Bombay, and the Portuguese bread-making art was considered inimitable. Hence the saying: Te firngi gele, te undde kabar zale (= The Portuguese have gone and the bread is no more). It is also possible that the reference to «those» Portuguese sought to compare them with poor quality of their latter day counterparts

Goans have also retained the memory of the Portuguese ceremonials and pompous ways of behaviour. There is a current saying in Konkani: kumpriment kori naka (= do not make fuss). There is also the proverb: Chodd firngi bhas, haddank urta mas (= Too many Portuguese speeches leave the bones with meat ). Initially it may have meant the need to use hands, rather than knife and fork to eat chicken, but it tries to convey to someone the need to get down to the point and leave the long-winded discourses. The Portuguese have the habit of making long speeches or using many words to say little or nothing. This same tendency is also recorded in the Konkani proverb: Faz favor, kortten dhunvor (=Too many speeches, but no action). We could cite dozens of sayings in which the Portuguese linguistic influence is noticeable, but have no other historical content. For instance: Girest pielear alegre mhonttat, dubllo pielear bebdo mhonttat (=When a rich man drinks he is in happy mood, when a poor man drinks he is a drunkard) to indicate the different criteria adopted to judge the rich and the poor; Amcho Juze Mari dekor kantar kori (= Our José Maria sings by heart ) to say that he talks without evidence or a good foundation.

The few folkloric-linguistic expressions that we have analysed consitute the sedimentation of the folk memory with references to the Portuguese colonial presence in Goa. These expression have survived the dulling effect of time, and one wonders how much longer they will retain their hold upon the memories and the usage of the Goans. The new generations of post-1961 Goans do not utilise many of these sayings, and when they hear or use them, they no longer comprehend their background. Only a resumption of contacts between the people of Portugal and Goa could help to sustain and reinforce the cultural legacy left by the Portuguese in the soul of the the Goan people and their language. If many Portuguese visit Goa today and fail to find the Portuguese soul there, that happens because they are looking for the Portuguese soul in the ruins of old monuments, or because they go looking for the Goans who can speak Portuguese. The fail to understand that Goan soul is expressed in the Goan language, just as the Portuguese consider their language as an expression of their soul. Five hundred years after the arrival of the first Portuguese in India, the Portuguese are yet to discover the Goan soul. The Portuguese are proud of the «universalism» of their Discoveries and of their national identity, but in reality they seem to run all over the place in search of themselves. The Discoveries do not seem to have been an encounter with the «other» as «other».

We cannot forget that popular culture is an expression of the historic identity of a people and as such it is a process in constant evolution. If our present analysis revealed some negative images of the Portuguese, it is due to the fact that they relate to the colonial past. The new relationship that is evolving is a new challenge to create different images that could be more positive. For the first time in the history of Goa, its people have its own political identity as a State within the Indian Union, have financial support to develop its language as never happened in the past. It is a privileged situation to enrich the language of the Goans, and it is to be seen how this process integrates the colonial past and seeks new links for its future growth.