Aug 2, 2007

Book Review: The New Cambridge History of India - The Portuguese in India

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Pearson, Michael Naylor
New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 179 pages


This text is part of the Cambridge History series, the books of which cover virtually every time period and region. It is also a component of the sub-series History of India. Pearson begins his narrative with da Gama’s arrival near Calicut in May 1498, and concludes with the fall of the Salazar regime in the Carnation Revolution of 1974; the text, however, is heavily skewed toward the sixteenth century. The text follows a chronological approach, with several thematic chapters addressing such topics as “Catholics and Hindus” and “Indo-Portuguese Society.” There are, in addition to the narrative, a number of historical bonuses in this book, including detailed maps, lists of Portuguese rulers and viceroys, and a glossary with Portuguese, Hindi, and Tamil terms. The near-complete lack of footnotes is partially redeemed by a very extensive bibliographic essay at the end of the book. The index, however, suffers from annoying brevity; surely a publishing house as prestigious and well staffed as Cambridge could afford to develop more than 1-3/4 pages of textual reference.

Pearson attempts to present the material as Indocentric rather than Eurocentric, although his acknowledged shortage of Indian sources hurts this effort. The author thus attempts to reinterpret European sources from a Hindi perspective, admittedly not an easy task. Pearson claims to avoid generalizations, but any book that attempts to squeeze nearly five centuries of global history into 162 pages will find it difficult to shun the universal in favor of the specific.

The traditional and revisionist explanations of Portuguese motivations for exploration receive significant attention in this text. Pearson argues that the past few decades of European expansion historiography have devolved into mere economic determinism, and he pushes for a return to a more balanced blend of geopolitical, economic, and religious factors leading to the Portuguese role in exploration. He also brings in recent research that suggests the Portuguese, with their history of being net food importers, looked to expansion as a means to feed its population; Pearson points to the establishment of agricultural enterprises on the Madeira, Canary, and Cape Verde Island chains as proof. Strangely, though, no mention is made in this book of the Portuguese (and European) fascination with the mythical Prester John, despite the frequent appearance of the legendary priest-king in contemporary accounts.

Infante Henrique, Duke of Viseu, Henry the Navigator, Dom HenriqueLeft: Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator

Pearson downplays the role of the Portuguese as the initiators of European expansion, and instead places them in the context of a long European tradition of exploration and expansion dating back to the Greeks, Romans, and Norse. He argues that, if not the Portuguese, some other European power (most likely the Spanish, in Pearson’s view) would have inevitably commenced exploration around Africa. Such reasoning, in the opinion of this reviewer, is merely a counterfactual parlor game, as the Portuguese did perform the exploration that Pearson seems unwilling with which to give them due credit. However, Pearson does a commendable job of debunking the historical myths surrounding the Portuguese expansion; for example, he describes as “quite far-fetched” the notion of a Dom Henrique-inspired seafaring school, and calls mistaken the traditional views of a static and isolated pre-Portuguese Goa. On the contrary, Goa was a thriving trade port with contacts from throughout the Indian Ocean basin.

Pearson calls into question the terms “impact” and “reaction” as used to describe the Portuguese presence in India and indigenous response. Upon arrival, the Portuguese were viewed as just another trading concern; later, the cartaz system simply meant another cost of doing business for coastal traders (at least, those who did not resist; active resistance was generally met with military action). However, for most of the subcontinent’s population, the Portuguese had little effect on daily life at any point in their centuries of Asian trade. Thus, “impact” implies a sense that Portugal, a nation of a little over one million souls at the beginning of the sixteenth century, could have profound influence on the 140 million or so “reactive” indigenous peoples. Pearson argues that the social and political effects of the Portuguese were limited to the small coastal trading areas that they protected with fortifications.

Left: Sixteenth-century illustration of Vasco da Gama

The author downplays the significance of the Portuguese language as an important feature of the emerging world market, claiming that it was the lingua franca in "several parts of littoral Asia." He does not provide evidence for this claim, and it is generally accepted that Portuguese was the de facto language of world commerce in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and into the eighteenth centuries. Yet Pearson, in the same paragraph, described how the chief Indian representative of the British East India Company spoke Portuguese and this was the common language by which people of different nationalities could understand each other.

Pearson brought into question the traditional historiographical notion of Portuguese “decline” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He pointed out that a decline in the intercontinental trade, cited by traditional historians, does not take into account the flourishing inter-Asian trade. In addition, declining revenues from customs duties and cartaz passes were also offset by the expanding Brazilian commerce, as Pearson noted. Pearson also decried the lack of research in later periods, bluntly declaring that “the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries have been neglected by historians” and “younger scholars are beginning to do new and important work on this dark age.”

Due to the aforementioned lack of footnoted material, this text cannot serve a graduate level - or higher - scholar in any capacity other than as background information. It does, however, serve as a knowledgeable and balanced introduction to the field, providing a solid foundation for future study. The text also mentions hitherto ignored areas of study – such as the Konkan horse trade through the ports of Dhabul, Chaul, and Goa – that further illuminate understanding of the Portuguese seaborne empire.

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