By Selma Carvalho
Sitting across me in a café in Goa is a young, Portuguese man, Ze Muller e Sousa. One of the joys of writing A Railway Runs Through and following it up with Baker, Butcher, Doctor, Diplomat: Goan Pioneers of East Africa (1865-1920) has been meeting the descendants of the Goan pioneers featured in these books. It fills me with a sense that history is not words on worn pages, but rather it lives on, it creates legacies, it nurtures a future. Ze Muller is of particular interest because for a long time, I tried to trace the descendants of Dr Augusto Bras de Sousa, the first Goan appointed as Portuguese Consul-General in Zanzibar circa 1892. Part of the reason for my lack of success had been because the family supplanted itself in Portugal, leaving little trace of themselves back in Goa.
Ze Muller is determined to change all that. He is the great-great-grandson of Bras Sousa, descended through Bras’s son Dante, and is currently researching his family history with a view to documenting it in a book. Much of what we know about Bras’s life taken from colonial papers at the time is detailed in my two books, but Ze Muller has already expanded on that. He has, for instance, firmly established that the commonly held date of his birth as 1852 is in fact 1851.
Like many aspiring young men born to privilege and having the means to acquire a higher education, Bras de Sousa studied medicine. The establishment of the Escola Médico-Cirúrgica de (Nova) Goa in 1842, the first of its kind in Asia proved to be a turning point in colonial history. It opened up a new career path for Goan men and produced the archetypal ‘soldier-doctor’. The training at the college itself was questionable and held in contempt by the Portuguese but indigenous doctors had an instinctive understanding of tropical disease and first-hand knowledge of local pathology, which made them extremely well suited to tackling ailments wreaking havoc in Portugal’s African colonies. When Grant Medical College opened in Bombay three years later, men such as Bras de Souza who graduated there, were enthusiastically absorbed into the British-India army.
On the cusp of his thirtieth birthday, urged by Casmiro de Sousa his brother, Bras arrived in Zanzibar. The training, Bras had as assistant physician at the European military hospital in Colaba, Bombay, would stand him in good stead. By 1891, the Sultan had decorated him with the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar, and a year later, he was appointed Portuguese consul, after having served as vice-consul from 1885. Even before Portugal declared itself a republic in 1910, and its colonial subjects equal citizens, Portugal engaged in a curious politics of racial equality by allowing Goans to fill mostly quasi-political roles, thus feeding in to the myth of a racially tolerant and inclusive coloniser.
Ze Muller has unearthed documents which shed light on Bras’s life as a practising physician in Bombay. There is, for instance, an auctioneer’s catalogue detailing household items for sale as he prepares to leave India. The sale takes place on 12 July, 1879, and the auction house informs us that Bras is ‘proceeding to Europe.’ It’s curious that his intended destination is mentioned as Europe, when in fact, he landed in Zanzibar. But there is a gap between the date of the auction and his arrival in Zanzibar circa 1881. It was not unusual for Goans, particularly the affluent, to holiday in Portugal or elsewhere in Europe. We also know of doctors of that era, after having completed their graduation in Goa or Bombay, who spent some time training in Europe.
By every definition, elite Goans were what the Portuguese called assimilado. Except for their skin colour, they were bourgeois, metropolitan Portuguese who profoundly believed in the glory of Portugal. A closer look at the household items mentioned in Bras’s auction catalogue gives us an idea of just how deep this European enculturation ran. Among the listings, is an entire section dedicated to stables. Not only did he own two fine carriages, one of which was an ‘English-built, front-double seated, family brougham,’ but he was also the owner of four Arab and Persian horses, stabled at Taylor’s Hotel in Colaba.
A look at his drawing room contents gives us a further glimpse into the sort of lifestyle Bras cultivated while in Bombay. The items listed had among them, a French blackwood drawing room table, Dutch soft furnishings and a Brussels carpet. His love of things European was profound and encompassed besides the artistic and aesthetic, the literary. Amongst the books he possessed, mostly medical, were poetry works by Longfellow and Milton, a History of England, and a book on British Drama. This opulent lifestyle of the Goan elite, carried on in East Africa, where they grew even more prosperous. They lavished on each other expensive wedding gifts, entertained frequently and overwhelmed visiting dignitaries with exquisite treasures.
Whilst in Zanzibar, Bras led a distinguished life, as a doctor, as a community elder, and as the political representative of Portugal. Towards the end, he was frequently in debt, which eventually forced him to mortgage his dispensary and home as surety. He died aged fifty-one, in 1902, leaving his widow Guilheimina Quitera Viegas to administer his estate.
It is indeed with avid interest that we look forward to a book from Ze Muller e Sousa and wish him God speed.
The banner picture is of the Figueiredo House in Loutolim, Goa, which provides a glimpse into the opulent lifestyles of elite Goans during the colonial era. The house is open to the public and guided tours are available.
The lives of Goan pioneers in East Africa (1865-1920) have been richly detailed in the book, 'Baker, Butcher, Doctor, Diplomat'. Only 50 copies of the book which carries 52 rare images and photographs are left in stock. This book will not be reprinted. It makes an ideal Christmas gift and can be purchased online here or at Dogears Bookstore, Margao.