Understanding the nuances of the Goa ‘conversion’ and persecution debate

From colonisation, persecution, forced conversion, and the Inquisition, this article from a chapter in a forthcoming book by the authors explores the dynamics of Goa’s early colonial population dispersion  

The recent issue of Casa de Goa included the article Goan Diaspora: Past and Present by Ms. Sneha Ghadi, Asst. Prof. of History at Goa University. In the abstract, the article is described as a research paper on the diaspora. The well-written document is a detailed presentation of pre-colonial history, which is followed by the three phases of Goan migration. Due to space limitations, I will focus on only the first phase of colonial migration. Those interested in knowing our views on the other phases as well as the roles of education and the British occupation of Goa on migration can read pertinent sections in our book.

The causes of migration in the first phase (16th/17th century) are attributed to colonisation, persecution, forced conversion, and the Inquisition. Many writers endorse those claims.  So, in the spirit of academia, I would like to express my concerns.

For starters, I am not asserting that these events did not occur. It is the cause-and-effect about which we may have a difference of opinion.  For those readers who are not familiar with Goa’s history, the colony was established in 1510, yet the first conversion reportedly did not occur until 1535.

This fact refutes Lisbon’s oft-quoted goal of coming to the east for “Spices and Souls.”  As stated in our book, “There were a lot more spices sent to Lisbon’s king from 1498 before any Asian soul was offered to the King of Heaven.” Considering that Muslims were in power at the time, that group was likely the majority population pre-1510 and had already left before Lisbon’s rule began. The victor’s persecutions of Hindus were aimed at driving them out and engage in a land-grab. The Portuguese rulers’ priority was to settle their own soldiers and settlers — a standard practice of all conquerors.

Continuing conflicts with the Bijapur sultans, who were trying to regain Goa, continued throughout the 16th century.  In the following century, there were continuing Dutch attacks on Lusitanian territories on land and sea. During the 18th century, there were repeated clashes against the Marathas in Goa and the North Provinces (Bassein).

Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam states that the 16th / 17th century experienced a marked increase in Asia’s population. During that period, Goa’s population in the three talukas increased even faster due mainly to the annual arrival of 4,000 Lusitanians — soldiers, traders, and settlers, whose purpose was to defend the territories and settle the land.  They were also attracted to Goa by the land-grants which were offered under Emphyteusis policies. In addition, Goa’s expanding economy attracted migration from India. The government adopted various assimilationist polices (critics label as persecution) to homogenise the polyglot cosmopolitan community, (today termed melting pot) to make it easier to govern.

In addition to wars and natural disasters, population increase has been shown to cause migration since time immemorial. There is evidence that human migration began even during pre-recorded history. Humans emigrated from Africa in multiple waves and travelled across continents in several phases. In a “survival of the fittest” natural strategy, the self-reliant, independent, and resourceful made their way out of their native soil and left their less enterprising contemporaries behind.

The GSBs have been leaving Goa for Karnataka and Kerala since the 13th century – long before the Portuguese arrival. Purushotham Mallaya in his book, Saraswats in Kerala History dates their arrival to Kerala to 1294 when General Allaudin Khilji conquered Deccan and Goa. It has been historical that Goa land could not produce enough rice to feed the population since time immemorial, which was the structural cause for emigration.  An added attraction for Goan farmers to emigrate was the land given to them by rulers of South Kanara, a tranquil area the newcomers could rehabilitate and farm.

After persecuted Hindus left Goa for neighbouring talukas during the few decades following colonisation, the native Christians (mainly farmers and landowners – Bamons with their kunbi mundkars) imitated their Hindu ancestors and left Goa for Mangalore and Cochin to escape the unrest and the war-ravaged territory.  Many preferred to leave the land to arriving defenders, merchants, and colonisers rather than be conscripted by the military to fight or to work on repairing roads, bridges, forts, etc. during or after the skirmishes. Bamons increasingly resented forced labor, higher land taxes (needed for post-war reconstruction), conscription, and other security measures imposed on the population. It is very likely that peasants who defied those measures lost their land. On the issue of emigration, they adamantly stated, “We asked for no quarter, and we expect none from the government.” The native fighters (Chardos), whose caste motto was: “Fighting is better than fleeing,” stayed to fight and were likely rewarded. This may explain the marked disparity in the ratio between the two strata of Goan Catholics in Goa and Mangalore. Historian Alan Machado notes that the inquisition was active during periods of and in regions of conflict, and that the main migration to Mangalore occurred during these times and from these regions.

So, it is very likely that the population displacement was the result of wars and the uncertainties those entailed, rather than an effect of the Inquisition. The migration of Hindus and Catholics from Goa was precisely what the military authorities wanted. The vacant land attracted an increasing number of white and mestizo settlers to the area. The Lusitanian soldiers were not interested in native conversion or in the converted.  Their primary goal was acquiring land in the (only) three talukas which they could share, own, settle, and call their hacienda (home). The progressively increasing mestizo population from legitimate and illegitimate unions began in 1510 — the first year of conquest. Interestingly, the government cooperated and facilitated the migration. There are reports that Goans who sailed to Mangalore were escorted by Portuguese warships (to protect against pirates), and probably returned with a cargo of rice. Under those trying conditions, Goans (Hindus and Christians) had no time for introspective analyses of their dire predicament, a luxury that today’s academic may indulge in, retrospectively.  Visiticao Bonaventura Monteiro, the author of the book ‘Goan Village Communities,’ is a Diocesan Goan priest, who has researched early Goan diaspora and the Goan Communidades and Ganvkaris.

Goa’s 451-year colonial history, as generally presented, lacks scientific stratigraphy i.e. it fails to place the specific event in its proper chronological order to provide context and explanation for why the event transpired in relation to other concurrent events. Instead, broad strokes are used to paint wide conclusions.  If one is lucky, one may find texts which present history organised according to the centuries in which the relevant events occurred.  Historians keep repeating the mantra of ‘forced migration,” which was probably started as a Black Legend and other works of fiction. No explanation is presented on why and how this migration took place, especially in light of the fact that most of the population remained in Goa. This is like claiming that the migration post-1961 was due to the MG, Congress, or BJP rule. Perhaps a few Goans were troubled by those issues. In Goa and India, the 20th century has seen the greatest migration without colonialism, religious persecution, and the Inquisition. Most would agree that this exodus was inspired by the need to improve socio-economic conditions. So, why do we assume that our ancestors in the 16th and 17th centuries did not migrate to improve their own socio-economic conditions by seeking to apply their entrepreneurial and farming skills more productively?

There are reports that Goans were recruited to migrate because of their skill and knowledge in copper smelting. Goan farmers were often recruited with land grants by rulers in South Kanara and in Kerala for their unique knowledge and skills to construct bundhs and sluices to reclaim backwaters, and maintain farmland that flooded with sea water at high tide or with river flooding.  The farmers learnt this proficiency from the pre-Portuguese Communidad system of land management. In the 16th-18th century with agriculture being the mainstay of the economy, the farmer with his knowledge and skill at water management was the home-grown hydraulic engineer in much demand along India’s west coast.  Add to this were rotation and other farming and grafting techniques and new plants he learnt from the colonists who brought new species to India. Unfortunately today’s articulate and college graduated historians and writers are not willing to accord the lowly loin cloth-clad farmer his due.  This may also have caste overtones.  The hallmark of the prosperous Goan community of Hindus and Catholics in South Kanara and Kerala (about 200 villages around Cochin) is their continuing link with their ancestral religious shrines in Goa and their Konkani language.

In summary, the major causes for Goan out-migration during the 16th /17th centuries were:

  1. Persecution and displacement of Hindus as a way to acquire their land on which colonialists could settle.
  2. Famines due to uncertain monsoon conditions, (too little, too much, too late, too early rains), subsistence farming, and poor distribution of food; feeding the Brown population was low on the government’s list of priorities.  Even under the best conditions, Goa does not produce sufficient rice to feed its populace.
  3. Death of the bread-winner due to short life-expectancy (about 40 years).
  4. Wars causing loss of life, livestock, and property, as well as raids by soldiers of both sides.
  5. Fear of conscription to fight the war, or forced manual labour to repair war-damage and later to construct new capital cities.
  6. Repeated epidemics, pestilences, and droughts.
  7. Farmers recruited by rulers in South Kanara and Kerala with land grants for land management expertise to reclaim land after high tides or river flooding.

Remember, not all Mangaloreans are of Konkni origin and not all South Kanara Konknis live in Mangalore.  We hope this essay provides the readers with a vital framework of the GEM diaspora’s historical journey.

As Shashi Tharoor wisely stated, “If you do not know where you have been, how do you know where you seek to go? History belongs in the past, but understanding it is the duty of the present.”

Extracted from “Insights into Colonial Goa”

Published by Amazon in paperback and e-book.

For details about the book and authors see: Insights into Colonial Goa.



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