Friday, August 7, 2015

Post-colonial upsets in the Palace

Not too long ago I was part of a group being offered a guided tour of the palace of Tristão da Cunha, a Portuguese nobleman and adventurer who was nominated the first Viceroy of Goa. Even though nominated, however, da Cunha was not able to take up his position owing to a case of temporary blindness.  Yet this did not stop Cunha from acquiring other important charges from the Portuguese crown. At some point in the course of this tour the guide paused and spoke of the fact that, in 1514, Tristão da Cunha was sent by Dom Manuel II as ambassador to Pope Leo X. Trying to impress on his audience the significance of the embassy, our tour guide indicated that the embassy proceeded to the court of the Pope in grand style, containing, in addition to the famous elephant Hannibal, “Indians, Africans and Amerindians.” The guide then went on to express his disappointment that the quincentennial anniversary of this event had passed by almost unmarked.

I instinctively stiffened when I heard this description of the embassy.  Given that the guide had been engaging in what is a common Portuguese habit of referring to the early modern Portuguese as “we Portuguese”, there was a certain suggestion of unequal power relations between the Portuguese and the aforementioned peoples that I found distasteful.  My presentiment was not misplaced. Hardly a couple of minutes after this description, an acquaintance who was also a member of the group came up to me and grinning broadly suggested “Why Jason, to commemorate the quincentennial we should send you to the Pope!”

Even though I laughed off the suggestion, I was furious and felt humiliated. Having met only once before, and belonging to an extended circle of friends, this man was clearly trying to be friendly, and yet he had got it so wrong!  He was blissfully aware of my resentment because he was firmly in the grip of two features of Portuguese life. The first is the tendency of segments of elite Portuguese to have a sense of ownership over Goa, and other former territories of the empire. The second, is the failure of contemporary Portuguese to make a distinction between themselves and the Portuguese of the early modern period.

Unknowningly or otherwise, this man, was violating a number of the norms that should structure post-colonial relations in the Portuguese world. First, by suggesting that I was an “Indian”, he was effectively placing me in a larger racial category that robbed me of the peculiarities of my history. Second, there was the failure to recognise that the persons sent to the Pope in the embassy of Dom Manuel II were probably not free, but enslaved persons.  Dom Manuel II used the exotica of these people in their strange, but rich, dresses, to impress upon Pope Leo X, that he was a ruler of imperial dimensions and deserved the privilege of the Padroado Real that would secure for him a pre-eminent place among the princes of Christendom. In making this facile suggestion that presenting an “Indian” to the Pope could amount to a meaningful commemoration of the event, this man failed to see that he was repeating earlier models of unjustly hierarchical relationships, rather than those of equality that should mark our democratic times.

There have been at least two kinds of traditional responses to these situations. The first is to use class to break up the racial humiliation involved, and thus suggest that one’s ancestors were elites and never enslaved persons, and thus not the kinds who were presented to the Pope.  The other response is that which has led to the more traditional Indian nationalist type responses that we suffer in Goa. This response crafts a distinct Indian identity for Goans that is opposed to the Portuguese, and crafts a Portuguese history in Goa that is filled with one atrocity after the other.

Both responses are obviously problematic. The first because while opposing racism it strengthens systems of class and caste oppression; the second on the other hand ignores the fact that so much of a Goan identity – or any identity born from the colonial encounter – is a mixed one. Being Goan we are as much Portuguese as we are Indian. Rather than rejecting racism, this second retort is actually framed within racist frames and consolidates racial identities. Not surprisingly, given how caste is also a racial formation, it also works to consolidate upper-caste identities, and their histories of displacement, even as lower caste memories of liberation through the intervention of the Europeans and the various Christian churches, despite the fact of slavery and other issues, are cast aside.

In light of this scenario, it appears that an ideal response to the situation I found myself in rests not necessarily in quick come back, but a commitment to a larger and longer dialogue committed to a broader agenda of democracy. The challenge is to attack both Indian nationalism, that denies complex histories, and Portuguese elitism that exercises a sense of ownership over the lower orders of the country as well as persons from former territories. 

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo on 7 Aug 2015)

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