The Origin of Poor History

April 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

Bombay OriginThe Origin of Bombay (da Cunha, Jose Gerson)

Jose Gerson da Cunha was a renowned Goan doctor, numismatist, linguist and “orientalist” in the late 19th century. Curiously, he was an “oriental” himself, tracing his lineage to a 16th century Saraswat Brahmin called Balkrishna Shenoy who converted to Christianity and adopted the surname Cunha.

I got this biographical detail, not from the book under review, but from da Cunha’s Wikipedia page. If you read the book without this knowledge, you would assume that da Cunha was European born and bred, and you would find several parts tremendously condescending to Indians.

port bomb

Portuguese Bombay (courtesy Wikipedia)


You would have been mildly annoyed right at the beginning, where da Cunha, after a brief and sweeping survey of Indian history, declares

The true history of India, however, begins with the arrival of the Portuguese in India. Castanheda, Gaspar Correa, Jose de Barros, Diogo do Couto, Antonio Bocarro and a few others… are the best historians India ever had up to the end of the 16th century. From that time history has emerged from the stage of mere personal narratives and anecdotal tales. In showing their sympathy with virtue and abhorrence with vice, unlike their irreconcilable enemies the Moors, they for the first time in India set an example worthy of being imitated by those to whom Sir H Elliot applies the Ciceronian remark of ‘non exornatores rerum, sed tantum – modo narrators fuerent’ (but embellish their facts they did not – they only narrated them, MY TRANSLATION)

Of course, da Cunha then proceeds to tell us about how the inimitable historian Gaspar Correa describes in two chapters the “great expeditionary force” that Nuno da Cunha collected in Goa to fight Bahadur Shah, referring to it as “the largest army ever seen in India”.

No embellishment there! No sir, just the facts, Cicero style!

Remember this was an army collected in Goa by a Portuguese pirate to fight a provincial warlord (who was later swatted like an errant fly by a weak Mughal army en route to getting its own backside kicked by Sher Shah Suri).

You can make allowances for a Portuguese scribe exalting it as the largest army ever in the heat of the moment, but for da Cunha to say, some 370 years later, that unbiased Indian history began with that scribbler, tells you more about da Cunha’s own biases than anything historical. The claim, made in all seriousness, that Oriental historians could neither be objective nor take the side of virtue against vice, reminds me of Sir Alfred Lyall’s odious comment, quoted by Edward Said, “Accuracy is abhorrent to the Oriental mind… want of accuracy which easily degenerates into untruthfulness, is in fact the main characteristic of the Oriental mind.

A little later, while raving about the efforts of Vasco da Gama, Affonso de Albuquerque and St Francis Xavier to propagate ‘the Faith, the Empire’, da Cunha writes,

Since Alexander’s invasion and the memorable reign of Eukratides, who extended the Bactrian sway from the remote regions of the Bactrian Transoxiana  to the coast of Kambay, this was the first attempt ever made to realize on Indian soil the scheme of Empire and religion

If Eukratides was the most memorable attempt at empire in India since 326 BC, it is memory that is at fault, and da Cunha’s must have been a sieve. There is, on the other hand, absolutely nothing that is memorable about da Cunha’s book, except a gripping account of how the British took over Bombay from the Portuguese, and I will devote a post to that story alone.

Lamenting the decline of the Portuguese power in India, and the poor health of European children born there, da Cunha reflects:

It was said that the Indian climate was fatal to worthy forms of life; that while lower animals flourished in this inhospitable region, man appeared under a degraded type, and that it was chimerical to suppose that the more advanced stock from a favorable region could be transplanted to this country without undergoing a physical and moral decay.

Whether this was someone else’s opinion or his own is not clear; but I searched in vain for a rebuttal in the paragraphs that followed.

Da Cunha’s ancestor may have adopted Christianity (nothing wrong with that), but somewhere along the line, the family had steeped itself so comprehensively in Portuguese culture that the famed “Orientalist” now viewed his native country as a somewhat barbarous land that had been civilized by the invading Europeans. His ‘Origin of Bombay’ invests barely a fifth of its space in a discussion of the history of the region, and the people who lived there before the Europeans arrived. It then devotes the remaining 80% to the years from 1534 to 1720, detailing with much love the Portuguese period and the first few decades of British and East India Company rule. He mentions no more than a dozen Indian names in the entire book – and even these are mostly of rich Parsi and Gujarati merchants who lived in European style luxury in Bombay (paying, for this pleasure, twice as much in estate taxes as the Europeans who lived there). The common people of Bombay, who presumably vastly outnumbered the Europeans and paid the taxes on which the Europeans lived, are dismissed airily as primitive fishermen, farmers and suchlike, and no mention is made of their lives, their dreams and struggles; detailed character sketches are drawn, in the meanwhile, of biologists, administrators, generals, missionaries and land-owners who happen to be European in origin.

After the reign of Lord Wellesley at the turn of the 18th century, as William Dalrymple says in a book I reviewed a few years ago, European attitudes towards India hardened into virulently white supremacist positions. Edward Said mentions somewhere that the greatest triumph of the Orientalism of those times was not just that it managed to imprint in the minds of contemporary Europeans a sense of racial and cultural superiority over the “Orientals”, but that it managed to make the objects of their contempt view themselves in the same light. Da Cunha is a shining example of this phenomenon. This caused poor history to be written, by Indians like da Cunha, and equally poor history to be written, as a backlash, by the ultra-nationalists of our own age. Historical truth, whatever that means, is the victim of both tendencies.


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