Garcia da Orta : India's original Antiquarian

While we know Orta today for his medica materia, I would like to push for his recognition as an early antiquarian — probably the first European antiquarian in India.

By Ishaan H. Jajodia

Garcia da Orta’s Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India [Conversations on the simple remedies and drugs of India] has the rare distinction of being one of the first books to be printed, bound, and published — in its entirety — in India.

The Portuguese brought with them an early printing press in 1556, which stayed in Goa because of a stroke of luck. The third book to ever be published here, it was also, remarkably, the first non-religious book and the first book in a vernacular language [Portuguese] to be printed in India The first, a Catechism by St. Francis Xavier, was published the year after the arrival of the press, in 1557; the second was a compendia espirituel by the first Archbishop of Goa, published in 1561. Two years later, on April 10, 1563, Colóquios was published by Joahannes de Endem, three decades after Orta’s six-month-long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope and the Horn of Africa.

The Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner had, throughout the 1550s, published a series of books collectively known as Historia Animalium in Zurich. Written in Latin, it was the first modern zoological book, and possibly one of the most widely read books of the Renaissance. Gessner’s book was the start of a new genre in publishing. It is unknown whether Orta had seen Gessner’s work; no records point to the export of the limited quantity of books published by Gessner, and Orta left his job as a lecturer at Lisbon University in February of 1534 to travel to India with and as the physician to Martin Affonso de Souza.

Colóquios, was a seminal piece of work. In that, it was significantly different from Gessner’s work. The printing press in Goa at the time was at best, primitive, and did not allow for illustrations and etchings [The illustrated plates which appear in the Colóquios were first produced in the Trata delas drogas, y medicinas delas Indias Orientales (Spain, 1578) by Christoval Acosta. Acosta, as Markham notes in his introduction, was copied wholesale from Orta’s tomes]. Gessner, more importantly, had built upon The History of Animals by Aristotle and other similar texts from classical antiquity that described many of the things that he wrote about — today, his work would be caught up with allegations of plagiarism. Colóquios maintains the distinction of being the first truly original work of natural history and zoology.

This distinction is important because Orta did not have much to go by when he embarked upon his tome. The territory that he was treading upon was last mentioned by the likes of Pliny and Herodotus. The Middle Ages marked a deep regression in the knowledge of geography; it was only at the dawn of the 14th century that Ptolemy’s Geography was rediscovered in Constantinople and made its way to the hands of the Europeans at the end of the century through Palla Strozzi of the famous Italian banking family. The Age of Discovery was more the Age of Rediscovery — Ptolemy’s knowledge of geography and the cartographic representations were surprisingly accurate for the time and gave a good general idea of what one could expect once sea monsters and the like were struck from the roster.

But, for a moment we return back to the India of Orta. While the Portuguese had the first-mover advantage, they suffered significantly due to the fractured nature of the state. With the coming of the Portuguese came physicians like Orta and the poet Luís de Camões — in 1919, Agnes Arber argues in Isis [the History of Science Society’s flagship journal] that “Garcia da Orta’s Colóquios have been said to represent the supreme expression of the Portuguese genius in science and thus to occupy a corresponding position to that held, in literature, by the Lusiads of Camóes.” The connection between the two “Portuguese genius[es]” is cemented by the relationship between the two that prompted Camões to intercede with the Viceroy, D. Francisco Coutinho, during the height of the Inquisition in Goa, to gain for him an endorsement and protection of the state.

That Goa is central to the book is often obscured by the way he describes his knowledge; his location is taken as a given and he writes in Portuguese instead of Latin because, as he points out in his epistle, the book was written to benefit fellow Portuguese traders and physicians in Goa. The conversations with Dr. Ruano take place in Orta’s house at Rua dos Namorados in the middle of the city of Goa, where both dine and discuss over a series of meals. For the ancillary characters Orta draws on Khoja Perculim. In 1534, Perculim was the interpreter during the handover of Baçaim by Bahadur Shah to Nuna da Cunha. Orta was present during this handover. The wide variety of servants who constantly hand him things, are part of the performative nature of Orta’s household discourse and is significant, it presents a well-to-do house in the centre of the Portuguese presence in the Indian subcontinent. Goa is also the place where different, disparate, and oftentimes discrete slices of India converge to provide Orta the resources to enact the display of knowledge and specimens needed for the 59 colloquies.

In Bombay, Orta is best remembered for being the first leasee of the island city, called a ilha da bon vida [the island of good life]. However, the first tenant, Mestre Diego, predated Orta’s residency by 16 years; we know that Orta was at Pori Island, which houses the Elephanta rock-cut caves, sometime between September 1534 and before the end of the year, when the Portuguese were at war over Baçaim. He did not settle in the city and build his manor house until 1554, when he received the island for “an equivalent quit-rent of £85 upon condition that he improved the property.” In 1672–81, Sir John Fryer describes the remnants of the Manor House as:

“Where at first landing they found a pretty well Seated, but ill fortified House, four Brass Guns being the whole Defence of the Island; unless a few Chambers housed in small Towers in convenient Places to scowre the Malabars, who heretofore have been more insolent than of late; adventuring not only to seize their Cattle, but depopulate whole Villages by their Outrages; either destroying them by Fire and Sword, or compelling to a worse Fate, Eternal and intolerable Slavery.

About the House was a delicate Garden, voiced to be the pleasantest in India, intended rather for wanton Dalliance, Love’s Artillery than to make resistance against an invading Foe: For the Portugal’s generally forgetting their pristine Virtue, Lust, Riot and Rapine, the ensuing Consequences of a long undisturbed Peace where Wealth abounds, are the only Remarkable Reliques of their Ancient worth; their Courages being so much effeminated, that it is a wonder to most how they keep any thing; if it were not that they have lived among mean spirited Neighbours. But to return to this Garden of Eden, or Place of Terrestrial! Happiness, it would put the Searchers upon as hard an Inquest, as the other has done its Posterity: The Walks which before were covered with Nature’s verdant awning, and lightly pressed by soft Delights, are now open to the Sun, and loaded with the hardy Cannon; The Bowers dedicated to Rest and Ease, are turned into bold Rampires for the watchful Sentinel to look out on; every Tree that the Airy Choristers made their Charming Choir, trembles, and is extirpated at the rebounding Echo of the alarming Drum; and those slender Fences only designed to oppose the Sylvian Herd, are thrown down to erect others of a more War-like Force. But all this not in one day.”

— John Fryer, A New Account of East-India and Persia, London 1698 [emphasis and formatting as per the original].

The Manor House today is within the restricted Dockyards area. As part of his quit-rent lease, Orta was responsible for much more than simply the upkeep of his own house. He was tasked with the defence of the Island, and as Fryer further adds, maintained an arsenal of four Brass guns to ward off Malabar pirates that constantly attacked the nascent city. The House survived until the advent of the British in the hands of a certain Dona Inez de Miranda, who later received “compensation with the Portuguese Crown for the inevitable expropriation” by the British Governor Humphrey Cooke.

While we know Orta today as a man for his medica materia, I would like to push for his recognition as an early antiquarian — probably the first European antiquarian in India. As Markham points out in his critical edition, it is almost certain that Orta was the earliest European visitor to Elephanta Islands. Throughout Colóquios, Orta goes on various escapades, his digressions encompass Indian politics, the Luso–Spanish rivalry in the Spice Islands, and the significance of China, apart from anecdotes on elephants, cobras, and mongoose. Orta’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the world around him extended far beyond the world of medicine; as a Renaissance man, the first proof of his credentials lie within the dialogue format of Colóquios which assumes the classical style of philosophy — dialogues between pupil and teacher, where Dr. Ruano is the student, and Orta the teacher.

In the 34th Colloquy, Orta’s tenant, Simam Toscano, runs to da Orta with a basket of mangoes to present to the governor; from Orta’s reply, we know that he had “a mango-tree in that island of mine [Bombay] which has two gatherings.” However, it is only in the 54th Colloquy which focuses on castes that Orta ventures into the histories of the Northern Provinces; as the doctor to his friend and patron Martin Affonso de Sousa, Orta recounts that “we defended [Diu] against the Grand Turk…in 1539.” He then moves onto Baçaim (modern day Vasai), which was granted to Francis Barreto, and is described as a “very great city, and under its jurisdiction there are many lands and cities…they include, in one part, an island called Salsette [modern day Bombay Suburban district].” He further describes the Elephanta caves as:

“Another pagoda, the best of all, is on an island called Pori, which we call the Isle of the Elephant. On it there is a hill and in the upper part of it is a subterranean house worked out of the living rock, and the house is as large as a monastery. Within there are courts and cisterns of good water. On the walls, all around, there are sculptured images of elephants, lions, tigers, and many human images, some like the Amazons, and in many other shapes well sculptured. Certainly it is a sight well worth seeing, and it would appear that the Devil had used all his powers and knowledge to deceive the gentiles into his worship.”

Garcia da Orta was a Portuguese Sephardic Jew who, despite his noble patrons, was partially pushed into exile because of the concerns of the Inquisition; as a convert to Christianity, he was baptised but still harassed as someone suspected of maintaining Jewish traditions behind closed doors. His zeal to cast himself as a pious Christian that worked well with the Church and had good contacts within institutions run by both the Jesuits and the Franciscans was part of this complicated identity that he had to build forth. It is to this end that he terms the Elephanta Caves as the work of the devil and pagodas as “things made for worshipping the devil” and “houses of idolatry” that have the effect of making visitors’ “flesh creep.” The forced religiosity signal Orta’s realistic reading of the world around him and his deep-seated and well-found fear of persecution at the hands of the State. His patrons in India saved him from the Inquisition during his lifetime, but on December 4, 1580, 12 years after his death, his bones were exhumed in an act of damnatio memoriae and burned. He was sentenced as follows:

“Doctor Garcia da Orta, Christao Novo, deceased, who dwelt in this city living as a Jew, to be surrendered to the secular justice — Relaxado (i.e. to be burnt).” [Quoted in Friedenwald 1941] 

The legacy that da Orta left behind is multifaceted. It is unfortunate that da Orta has been all but forgotten today, especially in Goa and Bombay. A historian, ethnographer, botanist, physician, and antiquarian at the very least, his role in early modern Indian history is foundational for he was truly the founder of the city of Bombay in any meaningful way. In Goa, he was not just a physician but also a taxman, merchant, and trader. From the Pangim [Panjim of today], which was just a “small fort at the mouth of the [Mandovi] river,” to the city of Juner, where people ate peacocks because they were “free from putrefaction,” Orta roamed the breadth of the known country and provides an essential account of the country and its peoples and medicines.

Ishaan H. Jajodia reads art history at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. He is now the publisher and founder of Curato, a hub for all creative expression. Find out more about Curato Publishing here.