“CHRISTIANS AND SPICES”: The Portuguese in India, 1497 - 1961 - eBook by Roderick Matthews

“CHRISTIANS AND SPICES”: The Portuguese in India, 1497 - 1961 - eBook by Roderick Matthews - IdeaIndia.Com




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To reach India by sea the first Portuguese navigators had to spend periods out of sight of land for up to ninety consecutive days. This feat is remarkable in itself. Having done this, their relative success over the next hundred years in controlling the trade of three continents and the commerce of an enormous area of the world’s oceans is astonishing. No less remarkable, however, is how little was eventually built on this courage and ambition, and ultimately how little was left behind when the Portuguese were finally forced out of their last Indian possessions in 1961.

There is a story that, on arrival in Calicut in 1498, one of da Gama’s men was asked why the Portuguese had come so far. “We seek Christians and spices,” he replied. They found both in India but it proved difficult to get a grip on either, even though in one respect the two were closely connected. A large proportion of Malabar pepper was grown by St Thomas Christians, the Nasrani people, who had been converted by the apostle Thomas in the first century CE and therefore had been Christians longer than the Portuguese themselves. Much to Portuguese frustration it also turned out that these suspiciously heretical believers were already under the authority of the Pope via the Syriac bishop of Chaldea and so were outside Portuguese religious jurisdiction, which only extended to new lands outside Papal authority. It wasn’t until 1599 and the Synod of Diamper that Church politics allowed the extension of the Portuguese padroado, giving them full authority over St Thomas’s flock. A great deal of dissent and repression followed over succeeding centuries as the Portuguese attempted to Latinise the Nasranis.

The headings Christians and Spices serve neatly to structure an understanding of what the Portuguese thought they were doing in the East. If these twin objectives are reinterpreted as Authority and Profit then the ‘Calicut Manifesto’ above seems true enough. Spreading the Catholic faith and making money were no more incompatible then than self-confidence and greed are now. There things seemed quite simple to the fifteenth century Portuguese noblemen who set out to win glory, tame the infidel and come home with treasure to enjoy the gratitude of a generous King. The Europeans who followed them later were not so concerned to reconcile these wider aims and harboured much simpler ambitions.



Roderick Matthews, Historian, Obtained a First from Balliol College, Oxford in Modern History. Studied Medieval History under Maurice Keen. Studied Tudor and Stuart History under Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol College. Studied European History under Colin Lucas, later Master of Balliol College and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University. Studied Imperial History under Professor Paul Longford, Rector of Lincoln College.

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