The rise, fall and rehabilitation of Garcia de Orta

Norman Berdichevsky

The great joy of my hobby as a collector of banknotes has been the unexpected journey of discovery it has afforded me. I have made it a point to try and find appropriate souvenir banknotes for the destinations I have spoken about in my talks to passengers as a guest lecturer with the title of “Destination Enrichment Speaker” for a number of cruise lines. The fascinating information I have gained has enabled me to acquire an appreciation of personalities, landscapes and events that would have remained dry facts had I learned about them by simply looking necessary information to do research.

Being selected to appear on any country’s paper currency is a great honor although sometimes it is a cheap way to make partial and symbolic amends for past injustices and assuage guilt – witness the many American postage stamps honoring American Indian chiefs such as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse or German stamps honoring outstanding German-Jewish personalities in the fields of science, music, literature and art.

I recently returned from a two week cruise to Spain and Portugal including Madeira, the Canary Islands and Lisbon. In my most recent university position as an instructor in the Hebrew language and Judaic Studies at the University of Central Florida in Orlando (2010-2013), I was proud to have utilized my knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese to develop a new course on The Sephardim – their Culture, History and Folklore.

In Madeira, I had the chance for a few minutes to encounter a dealer in coins and banknotes. One note quickly caught my attention featuring the portrait of Garcia de Orta on the face and a market scene in Goa on the reverse. The combination struck my attention as my wife and I had spent one of our most enjoyable holidays in Goa where we had been guests at the home of a descendant of the last Portuguese governor before the Indian take over in 1973.

Upon returning home, one of my first enjoyable tasks after getting over unpacking, jetlag, and sorting through the accumulated mail was to find out more about Garcia de Orta and why he must have had some connection with Goa. I was stunned, humbled and embarrassed by my ignorance in discovering that he had been one of the greatest scientists, physicians and linguists Portugal had produced and that as in the case with Germany, his homeland had for centuries repaid him, his family and descendants with ritual murder, hatred, persecution, humiliation, and contempt. To make the final score even worse, his elevation to the honors bestowed on him not only by banknotes, coins, and public gardens in his name in Lisbon and Goa, his memory had been manipulated during the last few years of the Salazar regime and its successors in order to justify Portugal’s attempts to hold on to its empire in India, Africa and Southeast Asia.

Garcia de Orta was born in 1501 four years after the expulsion of all the Jews in Portugal – both the native born and the refugees from the explusion of 1492 from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella. He was the son of Fernão (Isaac) da Orta, a merchant, and Leonor Gomes. His siblings were three sisters, Violante, Catarina and Isabel. Their parents were Jews from the Spanish town of Valencia de Alcántara who were among the many refugees from the 1492 expulsion and who had paid a huge fee to be allowed to take up residence in Portugal.

All had been forcibly converted to Christianity in 1497, although the Portuguese monarchs were for a time not anxious to follow the strict requirements of the Inquisition and resented being regarded as under the thumb of Spain. Nevertheless, they eventually regarded their new Jewish subjects as a despised caste – the Cristãos Novos (New Christians). Many of them secretly maintained their Jewish faith but the Portuguese monarch King Manuel I proclaimed a twenty year “moratorium” on examining the fidelity of the “former Jews” to the Church, less out of real tolerance than simple opportunism. Portuguese records show that the approximately 120,000 Jews legally crossing the frontier in 1492 before the expiration of the official eight-months deadline and had to pay a fee of eight cruzeiros each. He also granted preferential permanent legal residence to 630 of the wealthiest and most talented Spanish-Jewish families. The exploitation of this elite was clearly a cynical move by the Portuguese king to take maximum advantage of the expulsion

Garcia studied medicine, arts and philosophy at the Universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca – the two greatest institutions of learning in Spain. Following his father’s death, he graduated and returned to Portugal in 1523. He practiced medicine initially in his home town and then in 1526 in Lisbon, where he gained a professorship at the university in 1530.
By 1534, he sought to emigrate (normally forbidden to all the “New Christians”) to Goa, fearing the increasing power of the Portuguese Inquisition. He sailed for Portuguese India in 1534 as Chief Physician aboard the fleet of Martim Afonso de Sousa, later to be named Governor and who became a close friend and his protector. He accompanied Sousa on various campaigns and soon had a flourishing medical practice, becoming chief physician concurrently to Burhan Nizam Shah I of the Nizam Shahi dynasty of Ahmadnagar, and to several successive Portuguese Viceroys and governors of Goa.

Garcia de Orta married a rich New Christian relative, Brianda de Solis, in 1543 (another likely indication of his loyalty to his ancestral faith). The marriage however was unhappy, but the couple had two daughters. In 1549, his mother and two of his sisters, who had been imprisoned as Jews in Lisbon, managed to join him in Goa (probably due to his connections with Governor Sousa). According to a confession by his brother-in-law after his death, Garcia de Orta privately continued to assert that “the Law of Moses was the true law”.

In 1565, the Inquisition was introduced to the Indian Viceroyalty and an inquisitorial court was opened in Goa. Active persecution against Jews, secret Jews, Hindus and New Christians began although Garcia managed to escape its clutches and died in 1568. Nevertheless, his sister Catarina was arrested as a Jew in the same year and burned at the stake for Judaism in Goa in 1569. Garcia himself was “posthumously convicted of Judaism.” His remains were exhumed and burned in an auto da fé in 1580. The fate of his daughters is not known.

His work in Goa
Garcia de Orta’s learned all he could about Goa, its tropical environment, the neighboring regions and their culture. He met other physicians, and spice merchants from many parts of southern Asia and the Indian Ocean coasts. His fantastic ability in languages enabled him to work and do research in Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic and had some knowledge of Persian, and the local languages – Marathi, Konkani, Sanskrit and Kannada. Correspondents and agents sent him seeds and plants; he also traded in spices, drugs and precious stones. He kept a laboratory and botanical garden and produced the greatest source of knowledge about Eastern spices and drugs, Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India”), published at Goa in 1563.

He was the first European to describe cholera and other Asiatic tropical diseases. He often challenged the traditional dependence on the texts of ancient authorities, Greek, Latin and Arabic. The book includes the first published verses by his friend the poet Luís de Camões, regarded as Portugal’s national poet.

Garcia de Orta’s work became recognized across Europe when translations appeared in Latin and other languages. Large parts of it were included in a similar work published in Spanish in 1578 by Cristóbal Acosta, Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias orientales (“Treatise of the drugs and medicines of the East Indies”). Public gardens in both Lisbon and Goa bear his name today.

It was the Portuguese who first achieved independence and national unity and then established a far flung colonial empire only to lose out later in large part to Spain resulting in a prolonged feeling towards its neighbor as an upstart and arrogant Big Brother (see PortVitoria 2012, “Six centuries of Iberian Rivalry” and comments on Marenhas Barreto’s book The Portuguese Columbus: Secret Agent of King John II Hardcover – June 1, 1992; Reginald A. Brown,Translator. Palgrave MacMillan. ISBN-13: 978-0312079482). The Portuguese kings of the early fourteenth century had the strongest relations with the Jewish community, who enjoyed the most far-reaching royal privileges in Europe.

Columbus established friendly relations with the nobility, wealthy men, high church and court officials immediately upon taking up permanent residence in Spain, which was unthinkable for an immigrant Genoese sailor. Strong Portuguese-Jewish links are hinted at by Columbus setting sail with conversos such as the interpreter Luis de Torres (with a knowledge of both Hebrew and Arabic) and the doctors on the Santa Maria, and several Portuguese seamen, including the pilot of the Niña, Sancho Roiz da Gama, who was related to the Portuguese Admiral Vasco de Gama.

The Jews as pawns in modern opportunistic Portuguese and Spanish schemes
Due to the defeat of Spain in the 1898 War with the United States and the loss of its last vestiges of empire – Cuba and Puerto Rico, and the Philippines, a number of intellectuals, writers and philosophers began to argue and agitate that the reactionary policies and heritage of the intolerant Inquisition had crippled Spain and expelled many of its most productive citizens. Foremost among them was a physician, Dr. Angel Pulido. In the summer of 1903 he made a trip along the Danube and was impressed and delighted by the conversational 15th century Spanish (variously known as Judeo-Español, Ladino or Hequetia in North Africa) he heard a group of Sephardim (the descendants of the 1492 expulsion) speaking.

Upon his return, he launched a campaign to restore Spain’s dignity, prosperity and conscience by readmitting the Jews and apologizing for their mistreatment in the past. He published numerous articles and several books – Los israelitas españoles y el idioma castellano, and Los españoles sin patria y la raza sefardí, and argued for close relations with the Sephardim to benefit Spain’s economy and trade throughout the Mediterranean. He even exercised considerable influence in getting King Alfonso XIII to influence Germany to intervene with the Turkish authorities on behalf of the Jewish community in Tel Aviv to rescind an order of their expulsion. Pulido’s work was also recognized in Portugal, where a republican revolution ended the monarchy as well as its close links with the Catholic Church in 1910 and also reconsidered the possible utility of encouraging relations with the Sephardi communities around the world.

The Portuguese Republic and an Opportunistic Scheme to Settle Jews in Angola
The Portuguese broke with the past overnight, introducing a new flag and a national anthem, separating church and state, and adopting a new constitution as well as ending the monarchy – all anathema to the ruling circles in Spain. Portugal’s republican leaders also toyed with the idea of offering parts of their African colonies, particularly in Angola open for Jewish colonization as both a practical solution to dramatically increasing the white population and to win support from liberal Jewish circles. By June, 1912 the Portuguese chamber of deputies passed the final version of a bill to authorize concessions to Jewish settlers. Its articles clearly indicate the republic’s desire to use Jewish immigration to consolidate its hold over Angola. Colonists wishing to settle the Benguela Plateau would immediately become naturalized Portuguese citizens at their port of entry upon payment of a nominal fee. The Jewish settlements would be required not to have any ‘religious character’ and Portuguese was to be the exclusive language of instruction in any schools the Jewish colonists might build. No practical financial support was enlisted and by the end of 1913, many officials of the Jewish Territorial Organization in London that had entertained the proposal had begun to turn against it in response to the steady progress being made in Palestine under the direction of the Zionist movement.

Restoration of Garcia de Orta’s reputation and promotion of “Lusotropicalism”!
By 1932, Portugal was no longer a liberal republic but an authoritarian state under the rule of conservative economist Antonio Salazar and those around him committed to traditional values and a reconciliation with the Catholic Church. Nevertheless, Salazar eventually found it both a cheap and convenient policy to resuscitate the memory of Portugal’s great Jewish philosophers, cartographers, astronomers and physicians such as Garcia de Orta. In addition to appealing more to American opinion and winning support for retention of Goa, Portugal’s leaders had a card to play in choosing to focus on rehabilitating Garcia de Orta,- the man whose very bones had been an affront to Portugal’s proclaimed Catholic identity in the 16th century. His humanitarian work in Goa was proclaimed to be the very essence of Portugal’s role as a tolerant civilization that embraced diverse peoples and geographic regions, all united by the Portuguese language and culture.

In order to support his colonial policies, Salazar adopted Gilberto Freyre’s notion of “Lusotropicalism”, maintaining that since Portugal had been a multicultural, multiracial nation since the 15th century, country would be dismembered by losing any of its overseas territories which would spell the end for Portuguese independence. Salazar had originally opposed Freyre’s ideas throughout the 1930s, partly because of his fear of miscegenation, and only adopted Lusotropicalism as a means of arguing Portugal’s case abroad. In this regard, Garcia de Orta, like the Angolan Scheme were small pawns in a larger political game. Portugal desperately tried to prevent the Indian seizure of Goa by proclaiming how it violated the noble idea of Lusotropicalism.
On August 15, 1955, 3000–5000 unarmed Indian activists attempted to enter Goa at six locations and were violently repulsed by Portuguese police officers, resulting in approximately 25 deaths. Public opinion in India against the presence of the Portuguese in Goa was mobilized and India shut its consul office in Goa. In 1956, Prime Minister Salazar argued in favor of a referendum in Goa to determine its future. India’s foreign Minister Nehru stated to the press that “Continuance of Goa under Portuguese rule is an impossibility” provoking an American response warning India that if and when India’s armed action in Goa was brought to the UN security council, it could expect no support from the US delegation. Nevertheless, the Portuguese military was resigned that to try and defend Goa was a suicide mission and surrendered quickly followed a full scale Indian invasion in December 1961.
Approval of the 20 escudo note with its portrait of Garcia de Orta and a picture of a market in Goa was given and introduced into circulation in 1968, the same year Salazar suffered a brain hemorrhage forcing his retirement. He died two years later. History had the last laugh – all of the remaining Portuguese colonial possessions won their independence in quick succession after Goa like a collapsing house of cards. The banknote celebrating the life of Garcia de Orta is an ironic reminder that the honor accorded him came four hundred years too late.

Norman Berdichevsky is an American specialist in human geography with a strong interest in Hispanic and Portuguese cultures. He is the author of several books and numerous articles and essays. He is on the Board of Editors of PortVitoria.

Berdichevsky, N. The rise, fall and Rehabilitation of Garcia de Orta. PortVitoria, UK, v.10, Jan-Jun, 2015. ISSN 2044-8236,