Changing Religious and City Images of Goa under the Habsburgs (1580-1640)

— Pius Malekandathil

Goa and other Portuguese enclaves in the East fell into the hands of the Habsburg rulers of Spain with the merging of the crowns of Portugal and Spain in 1580, consequent to which a new orientation and meaning started appearing in the city -branding process in South Asia. A new urban branding process with increasing use of religious imagery, metaphors, and visually impressive mechanisms was initiated by the Habsburgs both in India and Portugal to enhance the urban appeal of Goa and to cover up the fissures the city was experiencing from within. During this period visually impressive and magnificent church structures and buildings were encouraged to be built on a large scale with the pumping of crown funds and private wealth so as to give a religiously appealing appearance and meaning to the city of Goa. The erection of magnificent churches, elegant buildings and religious houses like the Cathedral Church (1562-1619) , the Francis Assisi church (1602), Bom Jesus Basilica (1594-1605), the monastery of the Dominicans, the Augustinian monastery and church (1597-1602) and the Santa Monica Convent (1606-8), St. Paul’s college, edifices of the Hospital, Misericordia etc., followed by their subsequent elevation as the focal points for the distribution and re-distribution of human and material resources in the city illustrate the religious dimension of Goa’s spatial evolution. Moreover, various churches and religious-cum-cultural  institutions of these religious Orders, which had their origin in different socio-economic and cultural contexts in Europe, were set up in Goa not only to Christianize the East but also to inscribe a different set of logic and meaning to the city of Goa and to brand it afresh suiting the priorities of the Habsburg crown and its notions of domination. These changes in the physical space and concomitant spatial articulations in the urban enclave were done intentionally to visually articulate their wealth and to convey architecturally the meanings and weight of their power.

The location of Goa on the Indian subcontinent. Image: TUBS, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The new urban branding for Goa which commenced with this new form of spatial process in the city concomitantly included the recurring usage of pride-evoking epithets and metaphors, giving a magnified perception of the city and inflated manifestation of its physicality and urban imagery often disproportionate to its actual socio-economic content and inner dynamics. In this process, the most appealing metaphors and imageries like Goa Dourada (Golden Goa- evidently referring to its affluence and fabulous wealth with its majestic and beautiful churches decorated in glittering golden colours), ‘Rome of the East’ (referring obviously to its church-centric urban process with provincial houses of the four major religious Orders and various other ecclesiastical institutions) etc., were fabricated and circulated in the process of giving an elevated and enhanced appeal to the city of Goa. Proverbs like ‘whoever hath seen Goa need not see Lisbon (Quem viu Goa não precisa de ver Lisboa)’ were formulated and transmitted through oral and written channels to make the city appear almost on par with the very metropolis in beauty, magnificence, and grandeur.

Architectural splendour: The church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Panaji (Goa, India). Image: I, Ondřej Žváček, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, recent research shows that this entire process of branding a new identity and name for Goa was in fact to mask the actual harsh historical reality of a financial crisis and fissures the Habsburgs were then facing in Goa and their trade in the Indian Ocean. Any city has two major components: on the one side the physicality or the exterior appearance of the town and on the other, the inner dynamics or the socio-economic process cuasing a certain type of physicality to appear in a space. However in the case of the city of Goa during this period, the physicality of the city, which was intentionally made to be an awe-evoking and domination-denoting visual power device and the imagery, representations as well as metaphors that the Portuguese formulated about the city as mechanisms to create a sense of pride and attachment to the city-dwellers, were calculated moves of the Habsburgs to camouflage and conceal the deplorable socio-economic and political developments happenings within the city. This helped them to give and perpetuate an urban representation and image of Goa entirely disconnected from the deplorable inner dynamics of the then city, which we now are capable of exploring thanks to recent research happening in the area.

St Francis Church at Goa Velha / Old Goa (Goa, India) Image: Mikhail Esteves from Bangalore, India, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cracks and fissures in the inner dynamics of the city are visible from the time when the Habsburgs felt the intensity of a severe financial crisis, which made them hand over their prestigious Indo-European trade entirely into the hands of the merchant magnates like Konrad Rott, and, later, the Fuggers as well as the Welsers from South Germany, and Giovanni Rovallesca from Milan, Italy (from 1580owards). Konrad Rott even entered into contracts with the “Thüringische Gesellschaft” for a regular supply of pepper and other spices from India and take grains, wheat and rye from the Thuringian company to Lisbon. On the failure of this experiment, the Habsburgs handed over their Indo-European trade in 1592 to their trusted bankers and financiers from the New Christian group of Lisbon including Thomas Ximenes, Pero Rodrigues, Fernão Ximenes, João Monteiro, Henrique Dias, Andre Ximenes, Heitor Mendes de Brito, Luis Gomes Furtado, Jorge Rodrigues Solis, etc , while the Fuggers and the Welsers limited themselves to the distribution of spices within Europe, particularly in the Hanseatic cities of Danzig, Lübeck, and Hamburg as well as to Middleburg and Amsterdam.

Se Cathedral, Goa. Abhiomkar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many New Christians and Jews from Portugal flowed in as collaborators and partners of these big merchants and financiers from the New Christian families to Goa, where they got involved in a variety of trade, particularly after the establishment of Portuguese India Company(1628-33) in Goa with a sizeable chunk of capital from the New Christian merchants of Lisbon. Concomitantly the local merchants from Gowda Saraswat Brahmins and the banias like Mangoji Sinay, Vitula Naique, Krishna Sinay, Nana Chati, Nana Sinay, and Gema Bhai Vena controlled banking, trade in high-valued commodities and revenue farming of the city of Goa, peripheralizing and marginalizing the very Portuguese economic actors and their Luso-Indian partners. These developments brought into the city a new category of merchants and economic players, which radically changed the social composition of urban elites and the moneyed group within the city.

The intensity of the economic crisis was further increased by the recurring outbreak of pestilences and epidemics in the city from 1600 onwards, which made many people in the city of Goa view it as an uninhabitable place. During the period between 1604 and 1634 about 25,000 Portuguese soldiers died in the Royal Hospital of Goa. The plague that broke out in the city in 1625 was extremely severe and the Goans found it extremely difficult to recover from it. The increasing problems of water pollution, because of the porous nature of the laterite soil of the city, intensified the outbreak-frequency of pestilences. The epidemic of 1639 severely struck Goa, laying low Viceroy Pedro da Silva himself. Against the background of recurring epidemics, the city dwellers began to leave the city en masse for safer ad profitable trading centers like Bengal, Diu, Bassein, Daman and the diverse enclaves within the Northern Province of the Portuguese. Consequently, the population of Goa got shrunk from 60, 000 in 1580s to 45,000 by 1620 and by 1680s a great part of the city was abandoned. The situation became worse with the frequent attacks on the city and its neighbourhood by the Dutch and with their increasing annual blockades during the period between 1637 and 1644, the urban-dwellers of Goa began to increasingly desert the city, making the Portuguese shift their power base from the city of Goa to Mormugão, where a fort was already built in 1624 to counter the attacks of the Dutch.

The city of Daman. Image: “Damão”, Índia. Desenho, a cores. RESENDE, Pedro Barreto de. In: BOCARRO, António. “Livro das Plantas de todas as fortalezas, cidades e povoaçoens do Estado da Índia Oriental”. Goa, 1635. Manuscrito na Biblioteca Pública de Évora, Portugal.

The cumulative effect of all these deplorable developments was the increasing outflow of the Portuguese population and Luso-Indians to other safer destinations in the Indian Ocean world, and the consequent inflow of non-Portuguese into their power base, which the Portuguese authorities had to accommodate because of the exigency of the times. The increasing presence of non-Portuguese population at the power base of Goa was followed by the loosening of the clench of cultural homogenization that the Portuguese had earlier maintained in the city with the help of mechanisms of control using religion and ethnicity as convenient tools. The augmented efforts to showcase and represent the magnified physical appearance of the city by erecting elegant and awe-evoking structures of religious and civil life , followed by the coining of appealing epithets and metaphors were intended to cover up the internal contradictions and fissures that the city was then experiencing from within and to make the city appealing and attractive to the city-dwellers, who were then increasingly fleeing away from the city because of the augmented oddities they used to then face.  

Along with the coining of pride-evoking images and metaphors for the city with the intention of preventing the city dwellers with centrifugal tendencies from fleeing away from the power base to the safer and lucrative parts of the peripheries of the Portuguese/Habsburg empire, there was also the attempt to reduce the anti-Castilian feelings that got fomented in the city of Goa because of Spanish occupation of Portugal and Portuguese colonies. With the increasing resistance of the Jesuits against ‘the Castilians’ following the Spanish occupation of Portugal in 1580 across the globe, and the increasing spread of belief fanned by the Jesuits in Sebastianism that the millenarian king Sebastian (the Portuguese king who was killed in Alcaçer Quibir in Morocco I 1578), the “rei encoberto” and the ‘redeemer-king’, would soon return to Portugal to restore monarchy, there was the great expectation among the city-dwellers as in any other Portuguese colonies about the possibility of restoration of Portuguese monarchy, which in turn accelerated the resistance moves against ‘the Castilians’. However, these anti-Spanish feelings of the city-dweller were diluted by the Habsburgs by taking up the cause of the long-awaited beatification and canonization processes of the Spanish-born Jesuit Francis Xavier, who, despite being Spaniard was now projected as the very “patron saint of Goa” and “the protector of the Portuguese in the East.”

A Japanese depiction of Francis Xavier, dated to the 17th century. Image: Kobe City Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘incorruptible’ body of Francis Xavier, which was transferred to the church of Bom Jesus in 1610, was by time believed to be the symbol of God’s approval for Jesuit spiritual endeavours in the city. The beatification (1619) and the canonization (1622) ceremonies of Francis Xavier as well as the festal celebrations and commemorative programmes in connection with Francis Xavier were made to emerge as bridging mechanisms providing a great amount of acceptability and receptivity in the city of Goa for the ‘Castilian’ ruler unlike in Brazil, where Sebastianism and millenarianism had greater and longer impact. Most of these recurring spectacular festal processions and celebrational programmes passed through the major hubs of political and ecclesiastical power in the city, starting from the Arch of the Viceroys, representing the space of political power, and moving to Se Cathedral, the seat of ecclesiastical power, from where it moved to the pivotal Jesuit institutions of the city, viz. the Church of Bom Jesus , the old college of St.Paul and the new college of St.Paul, obviously covering up the internal contradictions within the city and making every ugly part of it to get submerged under the “augmented aura of triumphalism.” There were cases when about 6000 people visited the “Incorruptible” body of Francis Xavier in three days, which soon evolved as ‘the greatest spiritual trophy’ of the Jesuits in the East. Concomitantly, there began the construction process of an elegant and magnificent structure that could house the ‘spiritual trophy’ of the ‘incorruptible’ body of Francis Xavier in a way that would visibly show-case their greatest spiritual “asset” and eventually the religious and cultural process in the city started increasingly shifting towards St.Paul’s college, the Professed House of the Jesuits and the Bom Jesus Basilica , which in subsequent periods evolved as the core institutions in the city for the mobilization of both social and material resources, in particular through the mechanism of cyclic pilgrimages.  The other religious Orders also tried to compete with the Jesuit-centric resource-mobilization-cum spatial projects in the city by projecting narratives about their own saints like the mestiço Gonsalo Garcia of the Franciscans ( who died as a martyr in Japan in 1597 and was declared a venerable in 1627) and the Georgian martyr saint queen Ketevan, whose right arm was brought to their monastery in the city of Goa by the Augustinians as a relic, creating alternative and parallel spaces for the “ relic veneration” in the city.

Body of Saint Francis Xavier in a silver casket of Basilica of Bom Jésus in Goa. Image: User Gaius Cornelius on en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Habsburgs resorted to different mechanisms during this period to mask the internal contradictions within the city and to fill up the “hollowness” of the urban enclave of Goa and to prevent the Portuguese and Luso-Indians from moving away from the power centre of Goa to other enclaves  The fabrication and circulation of pride-evoking epithets like “Goa Dourada“ (Golden Goa) and religious metaphorical usages like “Rome of the East”, and the creation of ‘relic-loving’ devotees within the city were some of the mechanisms sought by the Habsburgs not only to camouflage the harsh urban reality of Goa, but also to give a positive, if inflated, imagery of the city to create a supportive social base for the fast-changing power centre of Goa within the Habsburg political project. By assigning the epithet “Defender of the East” to Francis Xavier, the urban dwellers were given a “promise and message” that the city of Goa would always remain invincible and undefeatable as long as the relics of the saint would remain within the city, which made the city-dwellers close their eyes from seeing the deplorable conditions of the city of Goa and to divert their attention from themes and issues concerning the fragility of the city’s economic structure and vulnerability of its conditions. These religious exercises, imageries and metaphors, besides the highly amplified religious and spatial processes, whose information the written Portuguese sources are replete with,  helped the Habsburg authorities to hide and mask the internal contradictions that the city was then grappling with. The disparities and social frictions within the city escaped the immediate attention of not only the urban dwellers of Goa, but also of the policymakers in Europe with the increasing representation of Goa as a homogenized , but golden terrain implied by the epithets of “Goa Dourada” or as a unique space of “holiness”, “sacredness” and “veneration.”

Pius Malekandathil is professor emeritus of History at JNU New Delhi.

Further Reading

  1. Pius Malekandathil, “City in Space and Metaphor: A Study on the Port-city of Goa, 1510-1700”, in Pius Malekandathil, The Mughals, the Portuguese and the Indian Ocean: Changing Imageries of Maritime India, Primus Books, New Delhi, 2012, pp.58-84
  2. Teotonio R. de Souza, Goa Medieval, A Cidade e o Interior no  Seculo XVII, Lisboa, 1993
  3. Francisco Bethencourt, “Low Cost Empire:Interaction between the Portuguese and Local Societies in Asia”, in Rivalry and Conflict: European Traders and Asian Trading Networks, edited by Ernst van Veen and L.Blusse(ed.), Leiden University, Leiden(The Netherlands), 2006.
  4. M.N.Pearson, Coastal Western India: Studies from the Portuguese Records, Concept Publishers, New Delhi, 1981
  5.  Pius Malekandathil, “Spatialization and Social Engineering: Role of the Cities of Cochin and Goa in Shaping the Estado da India, 1500-1663’ in  João Paulo Oliveira e Costa and Vitor Luis Gaspar Rodrigues(ed.), O Estado da India e os Desafios Europeus: Actas do XII Seminario Internacional de Historia Indo-Portuguesa, Lisboa, 2010, pp.301-328
  6. Pius Malekandathil , The Germans, the Portuguese and India. LIT Verlag: Münster (Germany), 1999.
  7. Pius Malekandathil, The Indian Ocean in the Making of Early Modern India, Routledge, London, 2016.
  8. Pius Malekandathil,”Traders , Religious Orders and ‘Rome of the East’ ; Changing Meanings of the Religious Processes in the City of Goa, 1510-1650, ” in Pius Malekandathil, Lotika Varadarajan and Amar Farooqui(ed.), India, the Portuguese and Maritime Interactions: Vol.I Science, Economy and Urbanity, Primus, New Delhi, 2019, pp. 513-547
  9. Pius Malekandathil, ” Jews of Goa and the Trading world of the Indian Ocean, 1000–1650:, in Shalva Weil (ed.), Jews of Goa, Primus, New Delhi, 2020, pp.6-39
  10. Konrad Haebler, “Konrad Rott und die Thüringische Gesellschaft “, in Hubert Ermisch(ed.), Neues Archiv für Sächsische Geshichte und Altertumskunde, 16, 1895, pp.177-218
  11. Reinhardt Hildebrandt, Die “Georg Fuggerischen Erben” : Kaufmännische Tätigkeit und sozialer Status, 1555-1600, Berlin , 1966
  12. Hermann Kellenbenz, “Gewerbe und Handel 1500-1648,”  in Hermann Aubin/Wolfgang Zorn, Handbuch der Deutschen Wirtschafts- und sozialgeschichte, vol.I, Stuttgart, 1971, pp. 424-84
  13. Hermann Kellenbenz, “Autor de 1600:le commerce du poivre des Fugger et le marche international du poivre”, in Annales, economies, societies, civilisations , XI, 1956, pp.1-28 Hamburger
  14. A.R. Disney, Twilight of the Pepper Empire: Portuguese Trade in Southwest India in the Early Seventeenth Century,Cambridge,1978
  15. Friederich Dobel, “Über einen Pfefferhandel der Fugger und Welser 1586-91”, in  Zeitschrift des Historischen Vereins für Schwaben und Neuburg, 13, 1886, pp.125-138
  16.  Pius Malekandathil and Yogesh Sharma(ed.), Cities of Medieval India, Primus Books, New Delhi, 2015.

Malekandathil, Pius. “Changing Religious and City Images of Goa under the Hapsburgs (1580-1640)”. Religion and Urbanity Blog. KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” (FOR 2779). 12/09/2023.

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2023, September 12). Changing Religious and City Images of Goa under the Habsburgs (1580-1640). Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from

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