Garcia da Orta: Mumbai’s First European Resident

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    Deep within the Naval Dockyard in South Mumbai are the remains of the first colonial structure in the city. Dating back to the 16th century, this is where the first ‘European resident’ of Bombay lived – Portuguese physician Garcia da Orta, who leased the island of Bombay from the Portuguese and built a manor house there.

    While the story of how the islands passed into British hands, as dowry when Portuguese Princess Catherine of Braganza married England’s Charles II in 1662 is well known, few remember da Orta.

    The city of Mumbai was originally a group of seven islands with mainland ‘Salsette’ to the north, across what is now known as the ‘Mahim Creek’. These islands – Colaba, Old Woman’s Island or Little Colaba, Bombay, Mazagaon, Parel, Worli and Mahim – were separated from each other by shallow water and marshes and not considered particularly important by any of the powers during the medieval period. Of these islands, Mahim was the most important.

    From the mid-14th century till 1534, the islands were ruled by the Gujarat Sultanate. The year 1534 was a watershed as the islands were ceded by Sultan Bahadur Shah of Gujarat to the Portuguese.

    This was a time when the Portuguese, who had first landed in India at Calicut in 1498 with Vasco da Gama, were establishing their presence along the west coast of India. They quickly made their way up the coast, from Kerala to Goa and the Konkan, and had also established a factory or trading post in Bassein (present-day Vasai), 70 km north of the islands.

    Thus, the 16th century saw the Portuguese take control of a large swathe of India’s west coast. In 1528-29, they seized Mahim Fort from the Gujarat Sultanate, and in 1534, signed the Treaty of Bassein, according to which Sultan Bahadur Shah handed over Bassein to the Portuguese, in return for their support against the Mughals. The Portuguese went on to build a powerful military base at Bassein.

    With Bassein came the seven islands of Bombay but the islands weren’t important for the Portuguese, except the island of Mahim. In fact, the only significance of the island of Bombay was the shrine of Mumbadevi, which stood there.

    The Portuguese called island of Bombay ‘Ilha da Boa Vida’ or ‘The Island of the Good Life’, a moniker attributed to Heitor da Silveira, a Portuguese commander who had raided the island many a time in 1529.

    Twenty years after the islands were handed over to the Portuguese, Garcia da Orta became the first European resident of Bombay, in 1554. He was leased Bombay by Viceroy Pedro Mascarenhas and intended to live out his retirement here.

    There are differing views on how da Orta came to control these islands and just how much of them he had. According to some sources, he was leased all seven islands; others say he had only the island of Bombay; while still others say he was given only a part of Bombay Island. The only condition of the lease was that he had to improve the island.

    Da Orta was a fascinating individual. He was born in Portugal in 1501 and studied and practiced medicine there. He went on to become a physician, naturalist, botanist, herbalist and even a humanist. Gerson Da Cunha in his book, The Origin of Bombay, equated him to a modern-day anthropologist and antiquarian, a true renaissance man.

    Da Orta arrived in India in 1534 with the fleet of Martim Alfonso de Sousa, a Portuguese explorer and colonial administrator who would go on to become the first Royal Governor of Brazil. His first port of call in India was Goa, where he spent much of his time on the subcontinent.

    Being a Jew of Spanish origin, da Orta probably sailed to India to avoid persecution. A century earlier, his family had escaped to Portugal from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition and had nominally converted to Christianity but is believed to have practiced Judaism in private. Now fearing the Portuguese Inquisition, da Orta headed for India. During his time in Goa, he acquired quite a reputation and was physician to viceroys and governors there.

    Da Orta constructed a manor house on the island of Bombay, which is now within the precincts of the Naval Dockyard behind the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. His manor house would later be expanded by the British, to become Bombay Castle, which in turn would go on to become the nucleus of the British Fort of Bombay in the early 18th century. His manor house is arguably the first colonial structure in Bombay. On the premises is also a sundial of Portuguese origin that probably dates back to his time.

    Da Orta was also a keen observer of the world around him. As a man of science, he was fascinated by the plants of the region and their medicinal qualities. He also wrote extensively about the people he encountered. From his records, we know that during his time, the local fishing community, present even today in pockets of Mumbai, the Kolis, were the predominant community on the island. Also present were other communities like the Kunbi, Agri, Bhandari and Prabhu, who were primarily engaged in agriculture and administrative work.

    Apart from a small library that he created at his manor house, da Orta developed a large garden, where he grew a range of plants, trees and herbs including medicinal plants and other botanical treasures. These plants were critical in his research as a physician.

    He wrote ‘Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia’ or Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India, one of the earliest books on the subject. This work was important in more ways than one. Not only did it contain valuable information on Asian herbs, spices and drugs, this was only the third book published in India on the country’s first printing press. Da Orta’s garden played a significant role in expanding his knowledge and allowed him to study and experiment on valuable medicinal plants.

    He also had a tenant, Simao Toscano. We also know that he had a native maid by the name of Antonia, who managed his house and garden. Da Orta was well-known in Goa and now Bombay, and his manor house was visited by many Portuguese dignitaries of his time.

    The island of Bombay is believed to have remained with him till his death in 1568. Although he had friendly relations with the Portuguese rulers and commanders during his life, things changed drastically after his death. As Jews, the persecution that da Orta’s family and then he himself had escaped caught up with him during the Goa Inquisition, which sought to punish anyone who had converted to Christianity but continued to practice their original faith secret.

    During the Goa Inquisition, his sister Catarina was arrested as a Jew and burned at the stake in 1569. Da Orta’s body was exhumed from his grave in Goa and burned along with an effigy in 1580. It is believed that his books were also burned.

    Da Orta was married and had two daughters but the fate of his wife and daughters remains unknown.

    Almost a hundred years later, the islands of Bombay were given to the British, at which point the manor house was occupied by Dona Ignez de Miranda, widow of Dom Rodrigo de Monsanto, a Portuguese military captain. She was called ‘Senhora da Itlaa’ (Lady of the Island), and the treaty transferring the islands to the British was signed in her house, between Humphrey Cooke, the first English Governor of Bombay Presidency, and the Portuguese.

    It was on the site of da Orta’s manor house that Bombay Castle was constructed by the British, using blue Kurla stone and red laterite from the Konkan. This would be the home of successive British Governors for the next century. Da Orta may be a distant memory, remembered only in books and memorials, but he played an important role in the history of Mumbai.

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