‘There is no phenomenon more permanent in the history of mankind than the migration of men from place to place in quest of easier labour and more abundant means of subsistence.’ An editor at The Times of London wrote that in 1864, when Europeans were heading en masse to North America. The reason why human beings migrate almost invariably boils down to simple economics. Yet more fascinating are the forces that enable and, indeed, empower certain societies to be particularly migratory, and create a mindset that lends itself to migration.
Goa is a unique laboratory in which to study migration. The Christian community of Goa is almost entirely migration-driven, a phenomenon expressed through its folkloric songs and literature. The Hindu community, on the other hand, until recently migrated only to nearby states to strengthen trade links – and, in earlier times, to escape religious persecution by the Portuguese, who conquered Goa in 1510 and embarked on an evangelising mission. Goa today is said to have one of the most dispersed diasporas in the world, predominantly settled in Canada, UK and the Gulf countries, though clusters can be found in regions as remote as the west coast of Africa, Iceland and Fiji. Interestingly, emigration is still skewed in favour of Catholic Goans, mostly from the south of Goa. Catholicism and a Western lifestyle facilitates an almost seamless assimilation into European and North American societies. The diaspora is now into its third and fourth generation in the UK and already into its second generation in Canada.
By the dawn of the 20th century, Goa had become a bon vivant, living on borrowed money. According to British records from 1908, Goa had imports of 6.1 million rupees, as against exports of less than 2.2 million. For a tiny colony that could boast of no more substantive exports than dried fish, betel nut, salt, manure, mango and small amounts of manganese, it nonetheless imported large quantities of wine, butter, silk, sugar, coffee, perfume and tobacco. But while a few Goans sat in the grandeur of chandeliered reception halls nursing an intellectual ennui, for vast sections of this agrarian society it was a very modest life. The lack of infrastructure and industry meant there were few employment opportunities besides basic trades such as tailoring, carpentry, masonry and baking.
By god and sea
What forces shape a society’s collective psyche? Among Goan Catholics, the most powerful agent is their religion. By the 1800s, the clergy in Goa was almost entirely made up of native Goans dominated by, curiously enough, the upper tiers of a hierarchical system inherited from the former Hindu caste-based structures of power. Although this might appear paradoxical, it was not particularly different from what prevailed in Europe, where the upper echelons of the Catholic Church were filled with sons of the nobility.
But however conservative the machinery of the Church was in upholding an inequitable social order, the central tenet of this religion was equity in the eyes of a monotheistic god. A relationship with a personal god meant the self was of the utmost importance, and a profound understanding of free will became part of the collective psyche. Christianity broke the stranglehold of the communal. Community would continue to be important; but at a very critical level the Goan understood the elevation of the individual above that of the collective, and this understanding placed him in a favourable position. The freedom led him to barter his services as he saw fit and enhanced his market value. The genesis of the wider Goan diaspora – the one that eventually sailed to Africa, the arid deserts of the Gulf and the bitter cold of England – belongs to that much caricatured Goan, the seaman, known in Goa as tarvotti (from the Sanskrit-Konkani word tarun, meaning boat). It gradually became apparent to the hitherto land-bound agrarian Goan that it was possible to travel long distances and return enriched by the experience. Men were no longer manacled to the existence into which they were born; rather, the sense of fatalism that accompanies agrarian societies subject to nature’s temperaments was dissipating, infused by the confidence of the seaman.
In 1916, a memorandum prepared by the British Ministry of Munitions states its intent to import Indian labour into Britain to help with the World War I effort. The only problem was, ‘When India is under consideration, [we have] always to reckon with the caste question but the following races which supply men to the engineering trades are likely to be available without serious religious and social difficulties.’ These ‘races’ included Parsees, Muslims and Goans, the last of which were deemed to be good ‘fitters and turners’, and of which there were at the time about 5000 to 6000 employed in railway workshops and dockyards in British India.
It is the expansion of the British Empire and its ascendancy as a sea power that mirrors the trajectory of Goan migration. Young, able-bodied men who came of age around the late 1800s found lucrative employment on board British India ships plying from Calcutta and Bombay round the Cape of Good Hope to Europe, and then setting sail again from Southampton to the Americas.
Ship manifests show that a Goan sailor by the name of C D Castelino, working on board the S S Croydon as a cook, landed in San Francisco in 1911. By the 1920s, Goans had become veteran seamen, having docked in far-flung ports and experienced the dangers and uncertainties of life at sea. Two of them, Domingos de Souza and Pedro Goenxende, arrived in Havana, Cuba, in June 1927, having set sail from Calcutta on board the S S Matoppo. (Domingo was perhaps the senior seafarer, for while his wage was GBP 5.12 per month, Pedro’s was just GBP 2.12, wages being tied to type of service and, more importantly, length of service.) Both men were jailed in Havana for some debatable infraction and discharged from their employment, abandoned by their shipmaster in Havana with nothing but a sea chest and a tin box between them. Eventually, the tarvottis were repatriated to Goa, after deducting their ‘expenses’ from wages due.
However precarious was life with the sea as an unpredictable mistress, it was an existence rife with excitement and possibility. The Goan had inadvertently become an intrepid explorer in his own right. His expeditions, unlike those of European explorers, were not funded by the government but rather by necessity and his own gumption. The English explorers Richard F Burton and Captain Hanning Speke had with them two Goans, Valentine and Caetano, when they set out on their second expedition into the interior of Central Africa in 1856. Although Burton typically describes the Goans as receiving exorbitant wages for doing a bit of everything and nothing well, he does commend Valentino for learning the Kiswahili language quickly, and for being able to read the chronometer and thermometer. Caetano, who suffered terrible fevers and near insanity from epileptic fits, was nonetheless a courageous man, who thought nothing of diving into crocodile-infested waters or throwing himself into the middle of a rowdy crowd.
A whole class of Goans previously struggling on the lower economic and social rungs of society found the means to improve their lot in life. Meanwhile, British captains and officers refused to sail without their favourite Goan butlers. These seafarers returned home with larger-than-life stories of strange sightings at sea, smooth sails and storms, of jungles and cities, some embellished beyond recognition. This generated in humble Goans an even deeper desire to travel beyond the confines of their villages, and engage in a beckoning world that seemed endlessly wide and open.
Clifford Pereira, a scholar of historical geography has established that Goan sailors settled around London’s dockland areas. There is every possibility, he says, that some of those who plied the busy route between Bombay and Zanzibar (and onwards) settled around Zanzibar port, operating liquor shops and ice factories. Indeed, wherever a port of call gained prominence, fledging Goan communities could be found, be it in Mozambique and Mombasa on the east coast of Africa or Cabo Verde on the west coast. These pioneering souls laid the foundation for what would become the worldwide diaspora. A 1937 report compiled by the British Royal Navy offers insight into just how valuable Goans had become as seamen. ‘It has long been recognised that the Goans as a race are particularly well adapted to these trades [stewards and cooks],’ it states, ‘and are generally accepted as being more efficient than other Indian races. A further advantage is that, being Christians, no religious difficulties arise in regard to handling food and wine.’
In service of empire
There is a common perception that it was Goa’s educated middle class that was prone to migration. But anecdotal evidence suggests that it was initially tailors, cooks and carpenters that travelled on to East Africa – as evidenced by the Saint Francis Xavier Goan Tailors Society, formed in Mombasa as early as 1905. The second phase of out-migration to Africa was from the literate class, not necessarily college-educated but with enough schooling to be adept at clerical and administrative jobs. They applied for jobs as clerks in the administration of the railways being built from the interiors of Uganda to the port of Mombasa on the east coast of Kenya. At least initially, the railway proved to be a bad investment, and the colonisation of Kenya by the British was in part to make the railway financially viable. As Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) came under British control, Goans thronged the British Civil Services. A 1921 census puts the number of Goans in Kenya at 2000; a 1931 census puts the count in Tanganyika at 1722.
By 1900, a Goan cook could hope to earn between GBP 2 and 3 per month, commanding twice the rate of his African counterpart. By 1920, Goan clerks were earning between GBP 17 and 30 per month in East Africa. Indeed, such clerks were so numerous in the administration of the British Empire in East Africa that public opinion back in England eventually enquired as to why so many ‘Portuguese nationals’ were needed in the services of the empire. But such was their fondness for Goans that district officers in remote outposts relied almost entirely on them, often leaving the running of the offices in their hands when they were out on tour. This gave rise to the saying, ‘The keys of all the safes in East Africa are in the hands of the Goans.’
The British relationship with Goans was ambivalent; subjecting them to all the prejudice they felt towards non-white populations. They never absolved Goans from the indignity of residential segregation, segregated public washrooms and the tacit prohibition against miscegenation and a ceiling on upward mobility on the work-front. Yet the British valued Goans tremendously, forming relationships based on genuine mutual respect and trust. They were unfailingly described by British colonial officers as the backbone of the Civil Services, people of ‘high quality’, meticulous in their work and devotedly loyal to the Empire.
The Goan became a prominent member of colonial Africa, not through a process of legislative power but rather through a partnership based on work and social contacts. As the relationship grew, Goans inevitably became intermediaries between the British and the indigenous populations in many African colonies, in a world where upholding racial hegemony required unequal partners. Goans were considered Portuguese nationals, and as such distinct from Indians. For purposes of census records, tax and revenue collection and government correspondence, they were diligently accorded a separate notation.
The Catholic Goan often comes in for criticism for being so intensely emigration driven that it creates a vacuum back in Goa. But though we might judge the motives of those who move away from the motherland, at another level we all understand that primal need in human beings to migrate for survival and sustenance.
~ Selma Carvalho is a writer based in London.