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Portuguese on the Coromandel

S. MUTHIAH

IT WAS Maria Aurora Couto all the way, during the first week of May in Madras, as she and others, including college-mates from Dharwar, like Girish Karnad and Louis Menezes - the latter a son of the college's principal and a retired member of the IAS - spoke of her book Goa - A Daughter's Story. With all this promotion and the host of favourable reviews, Madras soon ran out of initial stocks - reflecting the trend in the other metropolises.

Maria Couto, herself, stuck to her script, which was the Portuguese influence in Goa, particularly after the French Revolution. The Portuguese experience elsewhere she chose not to get involved with. But I can't help wondering how the Portuguese influence remained so strong in Goa whereas in its other settlements, despite two hundred years of deep-rooted presence and a legacy of straitjacketed Roman Catholicism, no such influence remains.

The first Portuguese toehold on the Coromandel was Pulicat, where they established a presence in 1518. By 1545, the Portuguese had settled 600-700 casados, Portuguese army reservists who were married - many to Indians - and had families.

The next Portuguese settlement was in Sao Thome, what is San Thome in today's Madras. First visited at the same time as prosperous Pulicat, the Portuguese began establishing a settlement here only in 1523 and re-located 50 casados by 1537. By 1580, there were so many Portuguese administrators, casados, soldiers and converts living inside Fort Sao Thome and in Meliapor (Mylapore) that lay beyond its walls that there were four churches in the Fort and four outside. Of the churches in the Fort, Sao Thome, Sao Francisco, Sao Joao Baptista and Misericordia, only the first-named survives as the St. Thomas Basilica. All the churches in Mylapore - Madre de Deus, Sao Lazaro, Nossa Senhora da Luz and Nossa Senhora de Monte (Little Mount) - all survive, though the Church of Madre de Deus was pulled down a few years ago and rebuilt.

There were also similar Portuguese settlements in Nagapattinam, Porto Novo, Machilipatnam and Ugolim near Calcutta. Yet in none of them do there appear to be any traces of Portuguese families, Portuguese influence or Portuguese relics except in the churches. Whatever happened to families like the Madeiros family, called the Madra family by the Indians of Mylapore? Perhaps the richest family on the Coromandel Coast, one school of thought has Madras being named after the Madra-s. A family name that survives in the city is de Monte, but do the de Montes of today trace their ancestry to Portuguese times like the de Monte who helped found Arbuthnot & Co and left all his vast property to the Archdiocese of San Thome-Mylapore? Indeed, the vanished Portuguese influence on the Coromandel and Fisheries Coast is a mystery worth digging into.

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