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Wednesday, October 5, 2022

The Influence of Portuguese Culture on Goa And Sao Tome

The famous ‘Capela de Sao Tome’ (or St. Thomas Chapel) is situated on a street called the Rua de Sao Tome in Goa

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Raghu Gururaj
Raghu Gururaj
Ambassador of India to the Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

SAO TOME: Though separated by several thousand miles and many oceans, the Democratic Republic of São Tome and Principe (island nation off the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa) and the Indian State of Goa, have many things in common. It may seem illogical to compare a country with a province, but having visited or stayed at both these places, I could not let this opportunity pass. Both are located on the Western coasts of their respective regions. The countries were Portuguese colonies at almost the same point in history (Saotome:1470 & Goa:1511). Both broke free from their colonial bondages around the same time (Sao Tome in 1975 & Goa in 1961)

Both endured a cruel and painful past under colonial rule. In the case of Sao Tome, it was plagued by the evils of the slave trade, waves of social unrest, and economic instability throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Although slavery in Portuguese colonies was officially abolished in 1876, plantation workers in Sao Tome continued to be subjected to forced paid labor. Dissatisfaction with working conditions led to unrest by the native Forros, which heralded the beginning of the freedom struggle for Sao Tome.

Goa too was subject to aggressive religious conversion programs by the colonizers on the native Goan population comprising Hindus, Muslims, and others, leading to large-scale violence, deaths, and displacements. 

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Portuguese is spoken in both places and both have a sizeable Christian population. In Sao Tome, 95 percent of the population is Christian. More than 80 percent of São Toméans are Roman Catholics, 15 percents are protestants, and the rest are other faiths. Portuguese is the lingua franca of Sao Tome. But in the case of Goa, only 25 percent of the population are Catholics and Portuguese speakers are limited to the older generation.

São Tomé and Goa are connected to Saint Thomas but in different ways. Sao Tome is named after Saint Thomas because Portuguese explorers discovered the then-uninhabited island on 21 December around 1470, which is St Feast Day or St. Thomas day. But actually, Sao Tome celebrates Feast Day on 3 July so that St Thomas Day does not coincide with Advent. In Goa, the feast is celebrated on the 2nd Saturday after Easter

Celebration of Feast Day in Sao Tome. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj
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The Portuguese conquest of Goa happened when Afonso de Albuquerque captured it in 1510. But Goa was influenced by St. Thomas several centuries before its colonization by the Portuguese. St. Thomas Apostle landed on the Kerala coast in AD 52 and died in Madras, South India, in AD 72

Incidentally, the San Thome Cathedral built by the Portuguese in 1523 on top of St. Thomas Mount in Chennai, India, is named after Saint Thomas. He is said to have baptized several people, which lead to the creation of Saint Thomas Christians. He is often regarded as the Patron Saint of India, and the name Thoma remains quite popular among Saint Thomas Christians of India, including Goa.

However, the closest affinity between Sao Tome and Goa is Portuguese architecture. Goa is probably the only state in India that has better maintained the 17th-century Portuguese mansions, heritage houses, and churches, than any other part of India. 

Sao Tome is littered with Portuguese-style villas, which have been largely well maintained. Some of them have been converted into cafés, commercial houses, coffee or cocoa outlets, with the rest occupied by elite Sao Tome families.

Both boast of some of the oldest and sacred Catholic churches and Chapels built by the Portuguese. Goa proudly houses the ‘Fontainhas and Sao Tome’, which is a beautiful Latin Quarter located in Panaji. Developed on a piece of real estate by a Goan in the 18th century, this designated heritage site is renowned for its lingering presence of typical Portuguese-style houses.  

In Sao Tome, the iconic Nossa Senhora da Graça (Our Lady of Grace) Chapel stands majestically in the center of the city. Built and rebuilt over the course of 400 years between 1576 and 1958, this impressive cathedral effectively demarcates the business part of the city from its administrative areas.

Sao Tome. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

The Our Lady of Conception Church, (Church of the Conception), with a bright red façade, is another important Catholic church in the center of Sao Tome. And so too is the Church of Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in Panaji, which is perhaps the most photographed church in Goa.

Goa Chapel. Photo Credit: Google Images

It may interest readers in Sao Tome that the famous ‘Capela de Sao Tome’ (or St. Thomas Chapel) is situated on a street called the Rua de Sao Tome in Goa. Another point of interest for people in Sao Tome is that the St. Thomas the Apostle Aldone Church built-in 1596 in Goa is also known as ‘Sao Tome Igreja em Aldona, Goa’. Both these Portuguese-style cathedrals in Goa still stand in all their past glory.

I am not sure if Sao Tome and Goa are bitten by a Portuguese fetish to splash hues of bright red, blue, yellow, purple, or green across their houses or buildings, but they are everywhere in both places.

Goan building. Photo Credit: Google Images
Sao Tome building. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Another common denominator is the beautiful beaches that hog the coastlines of these two places. Sao Tome beaches are blue, pristine, raw and so ubiquitous that the locals take them for granted. Goanese beaches are balmy, sun-kissed, and polished.

Raw Sao Tome. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Such similarities notwithstanding, Goa though has a richer colonial history than Sao Tome. For centuries, it was considered the Rome of the Orient and was the headquarters of the Catholic Church in the Orient. The tomb of Francis Xavier, who died in 1552, lies in the old City of Goa (Velha Goa). Vasco da Gama died in Goa on Christmas night. 

Also Read: Colonial Splendour of Sao Tome

Goa was among a select set of colonies permitted to send representatives to the Portuguese parliament, the Cortes, which Sao Tome was not.

But what distinguishes the two places is the fact that Sao Tome is unheard, untouched, and remote, while Goa is already a star destination point on the global tourism map, drawing millions each year.


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