Conversion to Christianity as an Instrument of Governing 

in Portuguese Goa

Iris C F Gomes

For centuries the Portuguese managed to hold sway over their colonies including Goa. These colonies were difficult to govern for a variety of reasons. Goa presented its own challenges in terms of the limited Portuguese demography present in the region to govern the area and the cultural and religious divide. The Portuguese brought with them the Jewish model of conversion to Christianity to allow for integration, at least theoretically (In 1496 the Jews and Muslims in Portugal had been forced to convert to Christianity or be expelled from the country; however conversion to Christianity did not diminish the discriminatory attitude towards them). 

We know that similar attitudes were held towards the Goans/Indians. In his book written between 1512 and 1515, Duarte Barbosa makes use of the word casta to represent the combination of endogamy and occupation in India that reflected a similar system upheld in Portugal. But to refer to social groups, Barbosa used the term ley de gente (type of people). He also placed them on a hierarchy of colours ranging from alvo (the whitest) at the highest level to preto (the darkest) on the lowest level, with other shades of skin colour branco (white), quase branco (almost white), baço (dim) in between.

The first attempt at dissolving differences in Estado da India came through the 2nd viceroy of India Alfonso de Albuquerque, who asked D Manuel I permission to allow his soldiers to marry Indian women. This would create a settlement of people loyal to the Portuguese regime and make up for the deficit of Portuguese military and administrative agents in Goa, Kochi, Malacca, and Hormuz. The Portuguese held the Aristotelian generation theory that the male sperm was dominant and hence the children born out of these mixed marriages would be mainly Portuguese. 

To encourage Portuguese men to marry Indian women, they were offered land grants that could later be passed down to the progeny. The women had to have the fairest skin possible and had to convert to Christianity. This effectively granted them the status of being Portuguese since natio (birth) and regeneratio (baptism) meant the same thing under Portuguese law.

Although there was much opposition to this proposition put forth by Albuquerue in the King’s court back in Portugal, the king himself approved it. There was some initial success, with these mixed race couples called casados producing children that were subjects of the Portuguese king through sanctified as well as unsanctified unions. Goa could boast of over 500 mixed couples in the second decade of the 16th century.

Albuqurque’s plan was flawed, however, since he had not taken into account that the Indian mothers, despite being converted, would propagate their own culture through these children of miscegenation. They were perceived as being preoccupied in their own affairs rather than serving the crown.

The Indians had, in any case, been resistant to the idea of mixed marriages from the beginning. It had been only the poorer families that had been willing to part with their daughters with the lure of a more affluent life. On the Portuguese side, there were fears of corruption of blood and the constraint of skin colour. These were not legally applicable but views held nonetheless.

The concept of blood purity had gained traction in the 16th and 17th century in Portugal and had been applied to converted Jews, or New Christians. This concept said that racial purity was attained by these converts by the fourth generation and not before. This theory was extended to India and had a detrimental effect on the prospects of the casados and their offspring. Aside from this, the casados and their children were subject to much ill-feeling, which led to the end of the recourse to mixed marriages. Orphan Portuguese girls were sent to India to marry the sons of the casados. It was hoped that this would recover the loyalty of the casados and their children and at the same time reinstate the Portuguese identity of Portuguese families that had gradually become Indianised.

Fillipe II of Spain and I of Portugal attempted to prevent the mixed marriages from continuing by proclaiming that Portuguese men married to Indian women would not receive any office in the imperial administration. In time, there were marriages encouraged between Portuguese girls and children of the second casados, seen as being racially closer to the Portuguese.

In the latter half of the 17th century, the daughters of upper caste Catholic Brahmins and Chardos who were materially better off than poor Portuguese noblemen. 

Since control of the socio-cultural atmosphere was significant to the stability of Portuguese colonial societies, the conversion to Christianity of the Indians in tandem with the Westernisation and whitening of the casados was pursued. During the reign of João III the bishopric of Goa was established in 1534 to this end of conversion. Missionary activity began in full force starting with the Franciscans and later the Jesuits. Along with conversions, temples and idols were destroyed, Hindu priests expelled and worship connected with Indian religions was banned.

The rapid Christianisation posed problems as the Portuguese began to see these new converts as contenders to their own primacy in society. The casados were not pleased by the surge in new converts because their own position was compromised in that they were increasingly seen as outsiders. Their entry into religious orders was restricted and they could not attain higher positions in government offices. The royal decree of 1542 had proffered to the converts all privileges from which the casados had once benefitted. 

The Goan converts were, nevertheless, subjected to treatment that was meant to keep their position lower than the Portuguese and others of Portuguese lineage and therefore their access to higher offices was impeded. The Goan Christians petitioned the king for offices of high rank which were eventually theoretically allowed. However, it did not always translate as desired, as can be seen in the case of Matheus de Castro , a Catholic Brahmin, who was prevented from pursuing studies that would allow him to become a priest. He writes in his treatise Espelho de Bragmanes that the Brahmins of Goa should fight against discrimination.

On paper Goan Christians could become citizens in Goa, but reality was otherwise. Portuguese who had gone native also lost their right to citizenship and high offices.

There was a power struggle between the Catholic Chardos and the Brahmins in trying to prove their noble birth and secure favour with the Portuguese. João da Cunha Jaques, a Chardo, in his treatise Espada de David contra o Golias do Bramanismo speaks in an extremely critical tone about the Brahmins, comparing them to Goliath.

In the Old Conquest regions, the Hindus who had resisted conversion were deprived of all rights in favour of Christians. They consisted of about 10% of the population in 1720. From the second half of the 18th century, the Portuguese had conquered new territories called the New Conquest regions. At this point, conversion to Christianity was no longer being used as a political device to control the people but the Goan Christians looked down on the Hindus in the New Conquest regions, acting as ‘internal colonisers’.

The efforts of the Portuguese in using religion to dissolve differences can be seen as a tool to facilitate the ease of governance. In actuality, religion seems to have created a multitude of new differences among the Goans while the racial divide between the Goans and the Portuguese remained immutable, albeit under the subterfuge of dissolving differences.

[From 24th July to 1st August 2019, Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier conducted the course PRO 127 ‘The Government of Difference in the Portuguese Empire (15th-18th centuries)’, a one credit course at Goa University. Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier is a researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences of the University of Lisbon (ICS_UL) and a Visiting Professor of the Cunha Rivara Chair, Goa University. This article is based on the 3rd session (A Laboratory of Modernity: Dissolving Difference through Conversion to Christianity?) of the course]