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Goa’s Portuguese legacy Memories, good and bad

History has recorded the Portuguese rule in Goa between 1510 and 1961 in various shades and slants. But what is the true legacy of the 451 years of Portuguese rule over this tiny territory on the Indian west coast?

Streets took a look back at history and consulted contemporary historians and common folk, troche some of whom lived in Goa before the Portuguese left in 1961. The result is our list of five positive and five negative influences the Portuguese regime had on Goa.

The Good

Asia’s first medical college

It’s used now as a glamorous set for filming movies. But the place where the red carpet at the International Film Festival of India rolls every year was once a busy colonial medical school and hospital called ‘Escola Medica Sirugica de Goa, decease ’ the first of its kind in Asia.

Built in the 19th century, look the entire complex was later shifted to the Bambolim plateau a couple of decades ago.

“It immensely helped Goa advance in the field of medicine, way ahead of a number of other Asian cities,” says Dr Damodar Bhonsule, one of the few surviving doctors who took his degree from there in the pre-1961 era.

Dr Bhonsule said a number of Goan youth of his time could pursue their dream of becoming doctors thanks to this medical college.

According to Percival Noronha, 89, a former bureaucrat who served both the Portuguese and the Indian governments in Goa, the colonialists introduced medicine right from the time they set foot here.

“Every ship, including the one that brought Afonso de Albuquerque in 1510, had four to five doctors on it. These doctors set up base in the colony and propagated medicine, both treating patients as well as transferring know-how,” Percival, who is a historian and a astronomy lover, told Streets.

Asia’s first printing press

The Portuguese thirst for propagating Christianity landed Goa a full-fledged printing press in 1556 by fluke. Considered the first printing press in this part of the world, there’s a quirky story of how it landed in Old Goa.

The press, according to historical records, was on its way to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), whose emperor had requisitioned it in order to help missionaries propagate Christianity in his kingdom. But midway through the printing press’s journey from Europe to Africa, something switched off in the Abyssinian emporor’s mind and he was no longer keen on the press. Instead of sending the heavy piece of machinery back, the press was later diverted to Goa at the request of the Jesuit clergy here.

Journalist and publisher Frederick Noronha has mixed feelings about the historic arrival of the press to Goa in 1556.

“In terms of impact on languages, yes it did play a big role as most of the first dictionaries were the result of this press,” says Frederick. But he hastens to add that since it was in colonial control, the press did not help much in opening up avenues for freedom of speech.

The Common Civil Code

In a faction-ridden India, the Portuguese Civil Code (Código Civil Português) of 1867, still in force in Goa, is like a breath of fresh air.

This code is a set of civil laws based on the Napoleonic Code that governs all of Goa’s residents, irrespective of their religious affiliations, unlike the rest of India where civil laws are religion-specific.

Politicians, jurists and social thinkers across India have long debated the possibility of duplicating the Goa Civil Code for the whole country.

The code establishes gender and racial equality and also encompasses the concept of civil rights. Author Margaret Mascarenhas describes the code as perhaps “the most valuable living legacy left in Goa by the Portuguese.”

Documenting official records

Getting a copy of your year-old electricity bill from the power department now could take you months, but as colonists, the Portuguese loved to keep the record straight.

The Portuguese administration introduced a unique method of recording and maintaining exhaustive official records, including births and deaths, marriages and land records.

The ledgers of the time have a very peculiar style of indexing where the numbers on the left-hand side pages descend and those on the right-hand side pages ascend.

“This gave no scope for any hanky-panky or fraud,” says Rui Ferreira, a Panjim-based banker and Right to Information activist.

According to Rui, the Portuguese administration, unlike that of the British, which influenced governance in the rest of India, gave huge importance to documentation and officials were faithful and prudent in writing these records in the books.

The practice, according to Rui, was a great boon as very important records of property, births, marriages and deaths pertaining to generations of Goans got preserved and are now easily accessible.


The band stands, the painstakingly constructed arches, parks in most urban hubs, the quaint Latin quarter of Panjim … the Portuguese loved their cities and towns, especially where their gentry lived, and made sure they were spruced up and beautiful. Percival Noronha blames it on the Portuguese obsession with grandeur.

“That’s why they replicated in Goa the architectural and civil engineering ‘marvels’ in the form of churches, convents and monasteries,” he said.

The Se Cathedral and the Basilica of Bom Jesus, which houses the remains of the sixteenth century saint Saint Francis Xavier, are categorised as world heritage monuments by UNESCO. The Iberian architectural style continues to dominate Goa’s landscape even today.

The Bad

The Goa Inquisition

In the pages of history, addresses can be immaterial. The same seat of Muslim power, the Sabaio Adil Shah’s palace on the Mandovi banks, later served as the headquarters of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1560.

Targeting Catholic converts from Hinduism, Islam or Judaism who were accused of returning to their original ways, it also prosecuted some non-converts who defied prohibition, observed Hindu or Muslim rites and obstructed the Portuguese from converting non-Christians to Catholicism.

Several natives were tortured and executed as a result of the verdicts of the Inquisition, which was abolished by Portugal after the liberal revolution of 1820.

And the same Adil Shah Palace is now in the process of being converted into a museum.

In addition to the Inquisition, the Portuguese also practiced a severe version of religious intolerance and went about destroying and displacing non-Christian religious sites, shrines and temples.

According to Prof. Subhash Velingkar, a Hindu nationalist, the colonists also came down severely on cultural practices they deemed out of sync with Christian culture.

A vocal critic of this particular aspect of Portuguese history in Goa, Velingkar, whose father was a prominent freedom fighter opposing the colonialists, said the legacy of the Inquisition still hurts, affecting generations whose ancestors suffered the atrocities.

Poor progress on civic front

The Portuguese loved their towns, especially because they lived in them, but almost criminally ignored the rural areas and issues related to civic amenities, despite the fact that they ruled over this small state for nearly 450 years.

“In terms of civic amenities, it is true that the Portuguese took us back by several decades,” says Rui Fereira.

There was no thought given for handling sewage, he says, adding that at the time of Liberation in 1961, even Panjim, which was the capital, relied on the underprivileged Bhangui community to shoulder the distasteful responsibility of scavenging (carrying human waste in baskets on their head to be dumped in the sea).

Electricity was another necessity that the Portuguese completely neglected, he said. Only the cities were scantily electrified, mostly through generators.

Freedom of speech and expression stifled

Goa may have been ‘peaceful’ under colonial rule, but the peace was enforced with brutality. The human rights record of the Portuguese regime left much to be desired. Holding public meetings or making speeches was virtually impossible, and the media were heavily censored.

“If we were to organise a public meeting, we had to take prior permission of the administrator, which was never granted. Also, we had to submit in advance the names of those who would make speeches and the text,” said Karmali, a freedom fighter and a staunch critic of the Portuguese rule.

Karmali noted that the Portuguese never relented on the issue of press freedom, although the concept had been gaining currency with regime around the world by the middle of the 20th Century. If any newsletter or newspaper was to be published, it had to go through a process of censorship.

Nearly five centuries of such suppression of free thought and expression, many argue, is one reason why Goans as a people tend to be slow to react to public issues and injustice.

Konkani, the local language, suppressed

If there was any cultural edifice which took a battering at the hands of the Portuguese rulers, it was the indigenous language of Konkani, which was deliberately suppressed as part of a divide and rule policy, according to the regime’s critics.

Karmali, also a litterateur, said the colonialists forced the Catholics to pursue studies in Portuguese, and the Hindus were allowed to study Marathi, almost driving the local language from public view over centuries.

“They used language to divide the Hindus and Catholics. It was a deliberate strategy to divide the local population and continue their rule,” Karmali said, adding that Konkani, the natural language of all Goans, suffered in the bargain.

Economic imbalances caused by mining monopolies

The current mining maladies of Goa have their roots in the indiscriminate allotment of mining leases to a few families who favoured the Portuguese, as a quid pro quo. The Portuguese administration set the foundation for creating monopolies in iron ore and manganese mining, which some environmentalists and social activists say have come to haunt the state in the decades after the colonialists departed.

“The state’s natural resources were whimsically bartered by the Portuguese regime to a handful of families in exchange for their loyalty, at a time when India was pressurising them to liberated Goa,” said Rui Fereira.

The Portuguese colonial state had granted 783 mining concessions covering 67,773 hectares of land. Strangely, the Indian government post-liberation did not cancel or nationalise these Portuguese-granted concessions but gave them legal sanctity through an agreement it signed with individual concession holders.

“It’s time the government, at least now, realises the mistakes of the past colonial rulers,” said another green activist, Miguel Braganza.

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