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The Portuguese Connection between Indonesia, Goa and Republic of Sao Tome and Principe

The three countries were ruled by the Portuguese rulers at almost the same time

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

SAO TOME: Although Indonesia, Goa and Republic of Sao Tome are separated by several thousand miles and water bodies, these countries still share a ‘Portuguese’ connection between them. Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of São Tome and Principe (island nation off the Gulf of Guinea, West Africa), and the Indian state of Goa were Portuguese colonies in the past.

The three countries were ruled by the Portuguese rulers at almost the same time. The rulers gained dominance in Sao Tome in 1470, Parts of Indonesia in 1511 and Goa in 1511. Interestingly, all these countries got independence around the same time. Sao Tome gained independence in 1975, East Timor in 1975, and Goa in 1961.

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The Portuguese were successful in Asia as they encountered little resistance from the Asian side. With their superior naval strength, they operated out of a network of fortified trading ports from Maluku to Malaka, Macau, Goa, the Persian Gulf, Mozambique, Angola, and Sao Tome.

While the Portuguese ruled Goa, their own country was ruled by Spain from the late 16th century for 60 years.

Portuguese invasion and its effects

The Portuguese entered Indonesia in 1511 thus becoming the first Europeans to do so. They arrived in Timor in around 1512 and 1522 and officially annexed the area as a Portuguese territory with the appointment of a Governor for Timor and Solor in 1702. 

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The Portuguese continued to rule the country till the 1800s after getting ousted by the Dutch. However, they held on to East Timor until the latter declared freedom from Portuguese rule in 1975, thereby giving the Portuguese a 450-year reign in Indonesia.

Indonesia suffered serious disruption of trading routes and dislocation of commercial activities during the Portuguese reign.

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On the other hand, Sao Tome became a hoarding place for the slave trade during the Portuguese reign. It suffered from social unrest leading to economic instability throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Despite the abolition of slavery in the Portuguese colonies in 1876, Sao Tome continued to be subjected to forced paid labor, which led to deep dissatisfaction with the working conditions. The social upheaval caused by the native Forres heralded the freedom struggle for Sao Tome in 1975.

Goa, also shared a painful past as it underwent a religious conversion program by the colonizers on the native Goan population. Goa was taken over in 1511. The Portuguese rule in Goa lasted 450 years until they were driven away by the Indian army in 1961. This led to widespread misery, exploitation, deaths, and destruction.

Why did the Portuguese colonize?

The main motives behind the Asian voyage of Portuguese rulers were the search for spices and to spread the ideas of Christianity that were the guiding factors for Portuguese invasions in Goa and the East Indies. 

In Indonesia, the Portuguese were enamored by the exotic spices of the Maluku Islands, also known as the “Spice Islands”. In these islands, spices like nutmeg and cloves can still be found in abundance.

Cloves and powdered nutmeg. Photo Credit: Pixabay

As the first Europeans to arrive in the East Indies, the Portuguese were keen to dominate the sources of spices by curtailing the network of Muslim traders. The Portuguese were initially not successful as they got entangled in hostilities among indigenous kingdoms on Java. But they soon learned to work with the local traders and became successful in Moluccas, Ternate, Ambon, and Solor.

Author Merle Severy has addressed this in National Geographic: “After the discoverers became conquerors, they learned it was more profitable to regulate Muslim trade and tax it. The Portuguese took their biggest profit from inter-Asian trade—selling Arabia’s stallions to warring Indian princes, carrying cotton textiles around the Bay of Bengal and Timor’s sandalwood to China, and bartering China’s silk for Japan’s silver.”

In the case of Goa, when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a direct sea route from Europe to Asia in 1497, it enabled the Portuguese to bypass the Middle East land and sea trade routes, which were controlled by Islamic states.

Goa was already the heart of the Portuguese Empire in the East with a huge spice trade. Within Asia, spices and other goods were exchanged for gold, silver, textiles, and rice. Portuguese ships plied their trade goods between Goa and Lisbon, Goa and Macao, and Goa and Nagasaki.

Basilica of Bom Jesus, a Portuguese architecture in Goa. Photo Credit: Pixabay

The Portuguese simply chanced upon the inhabited islands of Sao Tome and Principe in 1470. The Portuguese had already colonized Madeira (1420), the Azores (1439), and Cape Verde (1462) in the Atlantic off the coast of West Africa. These islands were very useful strategic points for Portuguese ships that crisscrossed their empire.

But they were keen for a base even closer to the lucrative trade markets in the southern part of West Africa. The two uninhabited islands of São Tomé and Principe became ideal candidates for such a base. After settlements, the Portuguese indulged in the slave trade and human exploitation for running the sugar and cacao plantations in Sao Tome and Principe.

The Portuguese were not just motivated by trade and the spread of Christian values. They were conscious of their strong military strength, highly skilled exploratory nature, and supreme maritime capabilities. These advantages enabled them to build many trading posts across the globe. This realization later led them to control trading routes, build new political structures and establish empires.

The Portuguese legacy

Though the number of years of Portuguese reign in all the three places has been more or less the same. But, its impact on each of them has been varied.

Portuguese influence has been most pronounced in the islands of Sao Tome and Principe even today. The entire population of Sao Tome speaks Portuguese and upto 95% of the population is Christian. The architecture found in the country is predominantly Portuguese.

One can find the city dotted with villas of colonial heritage hugging the city coastlines. The economy and society of SaoTome is even today closely intertwined with Portugal. People of  Sao Tome study and seek medical treatment in Portugal.

Sao Tome. Photo Credit: Raghu Gururaj

Goa has certainly been influenced by Portuguese culture –art, architecture, culture, food, ethnicity, music, literature, etc. Goa has diligently maintained the 17th-century Portuguese mansions, heritage houses, and churches. However, just 25% of the Goan population is Christian.

A house with a hint of Portuguese architecture in Goa. Photo Credit: Pixabay

It is important to note that Goa has been a multicultural society before and after Portuguese rule. Interestingly, till now, the older generation in Goa speaks Portuguese.

In the case of Indonesia, one might say that the height of Portuguese missionary activities occurred only in the latter half of the 16th century. By that time, the Portuguese had somewhat consolidated their position.

Consequently, their East Asian interest was shifting to their existing colonies in India, Sri Lanka, Japan, Macau, and China. Their sugar trade in Brazil and the Atlantic slave trade which extended up to Sao Tome, in turn further distracted their efforts in the East Indies. By 1575, the Portuguese presence in the East Indies was reduced to Solor, Flores, and Timor ( Portuguese Timor). 

Indonesian church. Photo Credit: Pixabay

Therefore, the Portuguese influence on Indonesian culture has been underwhelming, mostly limited to the romantic keroncong guitar ballads, some Indonesian words, and family names in Eastern Indonesia with Portuguese sounds. Christian influence too has been limited and restricted to communities in some Eastern islands.

Looking back at the exploratory voyages and subsequent conquests of the Portuguese, it would appear that globalization began with them. After 500 years of Portuguese rule, the Christian communities in all three places have continued to exist till today and contributed to a sense of shared interest with modern Portugal.

Also Read: The Enthralling Southern Trail of Sao Tome

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