Luso-Indians: A Mandarin Class

By Selma Carvalho

Shirley L. Gonsalves’s book The Luso-Indian Stethoscope (Goa 1556, 2019), is an extraordinarily incisive look at the mandarin class the empires of Britain and Portugal created in the Indian subcontinent, and how these early transnationals heralded a golden age of intellectualism and public philanthropy.

To uphold Empire required armies of people adept at administration, policing, civil engineering, medicine and allied sciences. The realisation that such a transfer of scientific and technological knowledge from Europe would be near-impossible, meant that much of this talent had to be recruited locally. Europe also took very seriously its civilising mission, the white man’s burden of bringing religion, culture and education to the colonies. Nor did Europe underestimate the value of creating a mandarin class whose enculturation into European culture would instil in them a sense of nationhood, ensuring their loyalty to the Crown.

The British, particularly, engaged in a large-scale project of racial profiling. They identified or rather through casual observation assigned characteristics to particular ethnicities. To recruit for the army, for instance, they preferred the ‘martial races’ such as the Sikhs. For their retinue of clerks, they preferred the more docile Brahmin Bengalis and Eurasians, a term which classed together disparate groups including biracial Anglo-Indians, East Indians, and Goans. Gonsalves has employed the term ‘Luso-Indian’ to refer to descendants of those converted to Christianity by the Portuguese and who, in the main, identified with European culture.

Quite apart from their mimetic likeness, Luso-Indians possessed other advantages which made them employable. They carried fewer taboos, they could cross oceans without fear of the kala pani, they could cook, touch and heal, overcoming gender or caste inhibitions. At the apex of their identity was the Catholic Church, who in itself, was a great reformer, firmly committed to bringing about moral and social change through education.

Gonsalves also identifies other entities, who greatly supported social reform and the advances of scientific temper. Among them, the Freemasons of Bombay, particularly for their support of Grant Medical College, and the Clapham Sect. Sir Robert Grant, Governor of Bombay from 1834 to 1838, and generally understood to be the founder of Grant Medical college, was the son of Charles Grant, an influential member of the Clapham Sect. Grant Medical College, whose main aim it was to educate ‘native men so they may hold employment in public service,’ emerged as a bastion of ‘intellectual, liberal and benevolent intervention.’ Much of this was encouraged by the spirit of the college, which had set up a medical association to foster ‘enquiry’ and ‘collectively cooperate in philanthropic ventures.’

Goa, of course, had a head start when it came to medicine. The Portuguese had established the Escola Médico-Cirúrgica de Nova Goa in 1842. When Grant opened its doors, more opportunities presented themselves to Goan aspirants. The first annual report of Grant Medical college, noted that of the ten successful candidates, six were Luso-Indian, five from Bombay and one from Goa. Goan doctors graduating either in Goa or Bombay, found ready employment in public dispensaries, civil hospitals, but mostly in empires’ military hospitals at home and in their colonies. They became the much valued soldier-doctors, willing to travel to precarious and far-flung frontiers.

What merits comment is how devoutly they undertook their overarching social responsibilities, and how involved this mandarin class of doctors, pharmacists, newspaper men, and clergymen were, in creating a society which valued intellect, scientific enquiry, creative endeavour and theological debate. They understood the role of the intellectual to be the driver of moral advancement in society. To this end, they were visibly involved in public life. They set up reading rooms and debate societies, associations and clubs; they were deeply committed to creating educational institutions of merit, civic engineering works, welfare and health. The Goan doctor Acacio Gabriel Viegas who graduated from Grant, was later elected to the Bombay Municipal Council (1906-1907, and again in 1919). What is lesser known perhaps is the role he played in establishing the Associação Goana de Mútuo Auxílio, to assist disadvantaged Goans in Bombay. He was an inspiration, and for some time, his philanthropic gestures were emulated by high-profile personalities in the satellite Goan communities across British East Africa.

Indeed, even though Gonsalves’s book does not cover the presence of Goan doctors in East Africa, it is here that we see the full extent of their influence in public life, and their determination to create ‘high culture.’ Beginning with Dr Bras Souza, who, in 1892, became the first Goan consul-general in Zanzibar to represent Portugal, Dr M. F Albuquerque who played a similar role in Zanzibar, Dr Luis Lobo appointed Portugal’s consular agent in Mombasa in 1905, Dr L. A. Gama-Rose instrumental in founding the Mombasa Public Library, the stalwart Dr Rosendo Ribeiro who was deeply engaged with civic matters in the pioneer town of Nairobi, right from its inception in 1899, to Dr A. C. L de Souza who galvanised the Goan community, representing them politically, and was primarily responsible for founding the Dr Ribeiro School in Nairobi.

All of these men had passed through the corridors of either the Escola Médico-Cirúrgica de Nova Goa or Grant Medical college in Bombay, and then set sail for British East Africa. There, they championed the elite Goan social clubs which sprung up in major townships, and education and welfare of the community. They assumed these responsibilities, perhaps as part of their noblesse oblige (they were undoubtedly from high-standing families) but more likely the Catholic idea of social reform through philanthropy and education had taken root.

Doubtless, in many ways, these men of letters also created an environment which excluded large sections of society from their elite circles. We can look back and examine how such exclusion colluded in perpetuating privilege amongst a few chosen families. But that should not take away from them, the zeal to bring about transformative change in society, whose legacy lives on today. This absence of the professional class in public life, in Goa, has left Goa bereft of leadership, vision and conviction.


Shirley L. Gonsalves is a postgraduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. ‘Community and Identity: A case-study of Luso-Indian participation in the medical profession in 19th century Bombay,’ was her Mphil thesis. 

You can order the book here.