A Invenção de Goa: Poder Imperial e Conversões Culturais nos Séculos XVI e XVII – XAVIER (LH)

XAVIER, Ângela Barreto. A Invenção de Goa: Poder Imperial e Conversões Culturais nos Séculos XVI e XVII. Lisboa, Imprensa de Ciências Sociais, 2008. Resenha de: GUPTA, Pamila. Ler História, n.57, p. 149-152, 2009.

1 The idea of «invention» invokes a double dislocation, one of space and time. This is the premise upon which Ângela Barreto Xavier sets out to explain how Goa – what we understand it to be, that is – was invented in the context of the experience of imperial Portuguese expansion overseas during the span of the 16th and 17th centuries and in a particular region of South India. Certain viable political and economic conditions allowed for this invention to happen diachronically, and thus for there to be a very real Portuguese presence in Goa. At the same time, «Goa» was equally determined by the role of what Xavier describes as «another Goa» that consistently articulated with the first, that of the place of rural Goa and its inhabitants. Both factors were integral in shaping the nature of Portuguese imperial power during the historical period under study. This finely researched book is a revised version, including an updated bibliography, of a doctorate successfully defended by the author at the Instituto Universitário Europeu (Florença), four years prior.

2 In the very first pages, Xavier introduces us to the intriguing figure of António João Frias, an Indian Catholic clergyman living and evangelizing at the end of the 17th century in Goa. He serves as an emblematic figure for understanding the complexities of colonial expansion in this transitional period between pre-modern and modern, between the articulation of power and their consequences in the construction of new identities (social, cultural and political), and between the colonizer and the colonized. For Xavier, Frias is also a point of anchorage amidst the «grand narratives, inquietudes, and contradictions» (p. 19) that sustained imperialism. His personhood invokes the idea of «tensions of empire» (following Cooper and Stoler, 1997) that were necessarily part of the hierarchy and difference upon which colonialism more generally was predicated, and which took on a particular guise under the Portuguese at Goa. Thus to examine processes of Christianization in Goa is to not assume the existence a priori of an (Indian) population ripe for conversion; instead, persons were necessarily dynamic subjects who very often intervened (and collaborated in and were compromised by) the historical processes in which they were involved. Frias, as a subject of and in history, once again reiterates Xavier’s larger argument–to give space to the multiple voices that constituted and were constituted by the imperial experience (p. 23) in Goa. Moreover, it is both contexts of power and contexts of interpretation (p. 25) following Foucault that allows us to think of dichotomies (of dominator, dominated; colonizer/colonized) as less rigid in space and time, as having plasticity and as directly tied to the histories (parallel, consonant, and divergent) of all those actors involved, Frias being one of many who defines what we consider «Goa» to be. Finally, Xavier’s introduction also serves as an object lesson in Goan historiography at the interstices of postcolonial studies, subaltern studies, and comparative colonialisms. She delineates – very effectively I might add – different schools of thought and discusses the writings of particular authors on the topic of Goa (Catarina Madeira Santos, Luís Filipe Thomaz, Maria Jesus dos Mártires Lopes, Rowena Robinson, Teotónio de Souza, P.D. Xavier) who have been seminal in conceptualizing and contextualizing «Goa» as a subject for historical inquiry and analysis, including some of their often veiled sentiments of Orientalism. To use the Portuguese case to understand colonialism as a history of transformation is to view it as colonizing both the imaginary (following Serge Gruzinski, p. 27) and the conscience (following the Comaroffs, p. 27) such that changes in behaviors, attitudes, ethics, and aesthetics were not only first produced in (colonial) subjects, but then, just as importantly, were taken up by their descendents.

3 The monograph is organized into seven chapters. The first two chapters, set in the period between 1530 and 1540, take up as their subject of inquiry the attempts of D. João III to politically and administratively reorganize the Portuguese overseas territories, the result being a specific conceptualization of the «idea of imperialism» (p. 31). Herein the kings of Portugal were set up to oversee a vast territory with people living under their jurisdiction, in a territorial sense, and depending on both direct and indirect forms of domination. The first chapter then is dedicated strictly to providing a general overview from the extant historiography on the rule of João III, relying on the idea of «reform» rather than «crisis» to understand his reign. Here the role of political power (inspired by the Roman model) and religious power (both Catholic and Protestant) in Europe more generally serves as a backdrop for «recasting» the tensions of empire that took place between metropole and colony in the Portuguese case and during its beginning conceptualization, that is in the crucial period between the 15th and 16th century specifically. The second chapter picks up where the first leaves off. Its object of inquiry is those ways in which certain political, religious, and cultural practices were homogenized and thus developed specifically for export to the subject populations in the overseas territories. However, as Portugal created for itself the image of a new republic, this had repercussions, both short and long term, setting up processes of imperialism as far more heterogeneous, and thus with more arbitrary options available to both colonizer and colonized. The political culture of the elites, now relatively well established locally in Goa’s territories, could potentially filter down through to the subject populations.

4 These same aspirations are evidenced in the clergymen who are the main protagonists of chapters three and four. Here it is members of the Franciscan and Jesuit religious orders who, in their attempts to Christianize and convert the people of Goa, upheld these same ideals of political culture, inserting themselves into village life to transform local cultures more fundamentally. Whereas chapter three focuses specifically on the means by which the clergy was able to accumulate power in the context of the longstanding political alliance between church and crown, and at the same time inscribe themselves into pre-existing local networks, chapter four addresses the social mechanisms (education, aid, etc.) that Franciscan and Jesuit fathers adopted and adapted to reproduce distinct «cultures of conversion», and thus to effect change on a quotidian basis.

5 Chapter five is groundbreaking research in its attempt to complicate our anthropological understanding of conversion. By taking up Vicente Rafael’s crucial argument to look at conversion as a process of translation,1 only now applying it to the historical and cultural specificities of the Goa case, Xavier returns to her thesis, complicating Goa’s «invention» in the process. Her case study is the island of Chorão, and the attempts to convert the native population on the part of the clergy based there. Only her analysis is from the viewpoint of those subject to conversion, rather than from those Portuguese holding elite positions of power. This «inversion of perspective» (p.33) or writing of «history from below» to return to one Xavier’s central arguments set out in the introduction, allows the reader to realize the full range of behaviors and attitudes – from acts of resistance to those of pragmatism – that local groups and individuals took on in the face of conversion. Here Xavier argues convincingly that conversion, seen in this light, can more effectively be understood as also always a political act of dissension, following the work of Gauri Viswanathan who examined similar processes in the context of British India. Thus, for some of the more impoverished social groups on this island, conversion to Christianity constituted a choice, one which rejected pre-existing social and economic patterns of local dominance for a different set of political matrices. Chapter six takes on the idea of resistance as a set of explicit modalities, using the well documented case of the «Martyrs of Cuncolim» that took place in 1583 to frame a larger discussion of resistance in the quotidian (following the works of Scott, 1992 and Adas, 1985). Even as realized acts of resistance such as that of Cuncolim failed to destroy the dominance of imperial power and presence in Goa, it did have serious consequences – in the types of concessions the imperial crown ceded afterwards, in the way the memory of the repression affected the shape of future acts of resistance, and finally, in the way that subsequent generations of local indigenous elites, an expanding group now, including seminal figures like Frias whom Xavier introduced early on, defined and configured themselves in relation to imperial power.

6 The final chapter, with its intriguing title, «Apologias da ‘verdadeira nobreza’. Conflitos de memória, identidade e poder» returns to the author’s set of original themes by looking at how the diachronic effects of Portuguese imperial rule produced a distinct culture of conversion, one which allowed for a subject such as António João Frias to exist between colonizer and colonized. His spiritual writings, glorifying the faith of God, alongside many others produced by native subjects not dissimilar to him with regard to their identity politics, contributed to the beginnings of a collective local memory in Goa, one produced very importantly by members of the elite who operated as the mediators of crown rule, in the interstices of religious and political power. Relying on the language of the Bible, having access to local social and economic networks, and in the name of or for love of country, members of the local nobility of Indian origin like Frias flourished, reproduced, and in some ways set the pre-conditions for the infamous «Pinto Rebellion» which was to take place in 1787, and which was dramatically poised to expose the fissures between the ideals of Portuguese domination and the realities of social equality for Goa’s native populations moving up the political, religious and social ladders of hierarchy and difference.

7 Historian Anthony Pagden’s argument that «the world is a place much larger and more varied than we can imagine» (p. 24) is not only taken up in historically «inventive» ways by Xavier in this theoretically grounded monograph, but contributes greatly to understanding the complexities of the colonizer/colonized dichotomy by focusing on the historically little known figure of the colonized (and converted) elite who functioned in the in between niches, both constitutive of and constituting «Goa» through space and time. At another level, Xavier builds on and contributes to our deeper understanding of Goan history and historiography for the 16th and 17th centuries, respectively. I only hope that in the near future, Xavier takes up this same endeavor, only to extend her historical analysis to the later centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in Goa.


1 Rafael, Vicente L., Contracting Colonialism: Translation and Christian Conversion in Tagalog Societ (…)

Pamila Gupta – University of the Witwatersrand (África do Sul)

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