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Be intellectually humble and honest, and dare to think, says Infosys prize awardee Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier

Read time: 14 mins
3 Feb 2022
Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier, winner of the Infosys Prize in Humanities for 2021. Photo Credit: Infosys Science Foundation.

In an exclusive interview with Research Matters, Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier, winner of the Infosys Prize in Humanities for 2021, talked about her work on colonial and imperial history in Goa, India. Dr Ângela Barreto Xavier is a Senior Researcher at the Institute of Social Sciences, University of Lisbon, Portugal. She was awarded the Infosys Prize 2021 in Humanities for her deeply researched and sophisticated analysis of conversion and violence in the Portuguese empire in India, especially Goa.

The Infosys Science Foundation gives the Infosys Prize every year to honour outstanding achievements of contemporary researchers and scientists in six categories (Technology and Engineering, Humanities, Mathematics, Life Sciences, Physics and Social Sciences). The winners receive a gold medal, a citation and a purse of US $ 100,000 (equivalent to about ₹ 75 lakhs today). The money is tax-free for winners in India.

Interacting with Research Matters, she graciously answered some of the questions related to her work. 

You have worked on Portuguese colonial and imperial history extensively. How did it all begin? What drew you to study it?

Well, on the one hand, I was born in Goa, which was one of the reasons that led me to study the imperial history of India and Goa in particular. But that was not the only reason; I had initially started working on the history of political ideas and not on imperial history. So, I was working on other topics before. But with time, I realised that I wanted to know more about the imperial processes also due to the fact that I was always interested in the processes that lead to social inequality, understanding the functioning of the government and their different attitudes towards different groups.

As a historian and thinking about this, history is one of the best places to understand human practice because you have these big theatres of the human attitudes playing out there. And to understand these deeper problems of social inequality and attitudes towards different groups, Goa is one of the best places to study. Because of all these interactions between different societies, the realities and the violence involved in the processes, make of Goa a good place to study this topic. And so all these combinations, either of my own biography and on the other hand, my political interest as a citizen, led me to work mainly on imperial history.

You have managed to look through archives and your own knowledge of the state to understand what happened. How was it to go through the archives? Was it only in Goa or back in Portuguese as well?

Yes, I've been to many archives. Not only in Portugal and Goa but also in Rome, Britain, Paris, Madrid and in many different places as well. On the one hand, many of those documents produced during this period are dispersed in different places. On the other hand, I wanted to understand the different viewpoints of the people involved in these processes. I didn't want to be working only with one school of thought, one type of people, or one type of archive.

One of the most difficult archives to work with was the Goan historical archives, which I consider a gold mine for historians. Because of the precocity of the Portuguese presence in Goa right from 1510, it has a lot of material. For example, there is considerable material from the 16th century, which is not only about Goan history. Since Goa was part of India, there is ample material to understand the Indian history of this period. And I feel it is very unfortunate that the Goan archives in particular, are in such bad shape. There are many documents that, when I open a book and turn the pages, crumble into dust in my hands. These archives are a patrimony of India, so they need to be protected. The current situation is, I suppose, due to lack of state funding, and I hope that one day, some foundation can sponsor the restoration and digitisation of many of these fantastic documents. 

Your most popular work has been on the conversion and violence in Portuguese rule in Goa, India. Can you please elaborate more on what aspects of Portuguese rule drove this and how it transpired over the centuries? 

Yes, I have this argument that the initial presence of the Portuguese in Goa, in particular, was more open until the 1540s, more or less. Dates are always not so precise, but let's put it at that time. And that happened because in my view, and this is due to my background in the history of political ideas, it was related to the political culture of the Portuguese elites in that period, at the beginning of the 16th century, and then with the changes that happened in this political culture, very much related with the European context. In particular, the division between Catholics and Protestants that happened from 1521 CE onwards. This led, in my perspective, to a growing interest in religion outside the Portuguese borders and outside Europe. Essentially, the expansion of the Christian faith was not so intense until then. Well, there was no such emergency before.

So in my view, the focus on religion is slighter in the beginning. It was only after those changes in Europe… It was not one of the first reasons the Portuguese went and tried to conquer places in India. We know that spices were the first reason, but usually, we think that it was spices plus religion. And in my understanding, it was not religion so much in the beginning, and I try to make a point about it.

But from the 1530s onwards and especially from 1540 onwards, there is a new understanding, which is also related to with what happened in Europe:  that the Prince should rule only people of the same faith. Because there was this idea that political loyalty was only guaranteed if people shared the same faith and the same culture of the Prince. This idea was embodied by the Portuguese crown and travelled to India and elsewhere. Thus, the idea of converting the local populations was very much related to the political culture of the period. And it is true that from that moment onwards conversion became a political issue besides being a religious issue. It is about these transitions and the policies followed by the Portuguese rule in that period that I dealt with in my most important book, which is now being published in English.

From your writings, it is indeed revealed that you have attempted to give an alternative narrative from the bottom-up perspective on the issue of conversion. The view from the lenses of those who got converted as to why they chose to get converted. Can you elaborate on that?

Yes. Sure. Well, I always had - I don’t know if it was because I was born in Goa and was brought up mainly in Portugal - intuitively understood that one has to see all sides of the processes with respect to time. And sometimes, historiography, especially in Portugal, was seeing it from one side; while in Goa, for example, it was seen from the other side. So, I wanted to see it in process and see how these processes mingle and what happened during it. For that reason, obviously, I wanted to understand as much as possible the perspectives of the locals. Further, it is important to note that the locals were not homogeneous, but heterogeneous. Because that was another type of mistake done by historians: to think of colonisers as one thing and those who got colonised as another thing.

We know that in real life it is not like that that there are many specificities. And that happened in Goa as well. Goa was a micro place, but even in this small territory, you can see geographical differences besides caste differences, varying levels of economic welfare and poverty. That was what I tried to look at first: how the local society was organised, the conflicts happening there, and the differences.  To break the common belief that it was paradise, and then it became worse after, what was not always the case. I am completely against colonialism, and let’s be clear about it. But obviously, Goa was not the prettiest paradise, but there was misery and there were some people who were continuously excluded from everything. The same happened with the Portuguese as well. Many of the Portuguese who went to Goa at that period were well off, but not all. That meant some people had nothing when they came there, somehow, they were migrants in a way. It is these connections between different interests, and obviously with the Portuguese with the power, that was interesting.

Well, my thesis is that thinking about the durability of the Portuguese presence in Goa, which is over 450 years old, we just can't understand it if there wasn’t a kind of cooperation from part of the Goan people. There is no other way. The Goans were the demographic majority, and the Portuguese were very few. Practically there were 1 million people in the 16th century Portugal, and Goa had 10% of the Portuguese population or about 100,000 people or so, this is an estimate, it is not possible to do otherwise. However, there were very few Portuguese people, with the power, of course, and with firearms.

Further, the imperial relationship could be interesting for some people, and we saw that in the beginning, the poorest were more amenable to convert to Christianity in exchange for rights, for food, for the promise of equality that Christianity entailed in theory. Thus, for these people, the Portuguese presence could be beneficial. It could be, for example, for women that were forbidden to have many rights like hereditary rights, which they did not have locally. And Portuguese law allowed inheritance for women. These are a few examples of how things could be favouring certain people.

There was growing pressure for the elites because they were not the first to convert but the last. In the beginning, many elites fled away. We know that huge groups of people just left the Goan territory and then settled in Kerala, for example. Those that remained didn’t have any more the services they could avail of before. Because the people who were offering such services to them were converting, and the missionaries were telling them that they didn’t have to play the same role anymore.  

Hence, it became a big dilemma for these elites who chose to remain – to decide what to do. Eventually, they were forced to convert, but they were pragmatic about it, in the sense that they decided to stay and convert instead of fleeing and losing everything.

I know that this is not very welcome. Someone was reading my thesis in Portugal and said, ‘Oh, this is a thesis against the Portuguese’. And someone else while I was explaining my thesis in Goa, ‘Oh, this is going to be against the Indians’. It is true that the reception of my work in Goa led to some criticism because people coming from the elite didn’t like this narrative so much. Basically, because I was arguing that if not for these elites, probably the Portuguese would not have remained so long in Goa.

Recently (in 2019), you offered a course at Goa University on ‘The Government of Difference in the Portuguese Empire’. Can you please tell us more about it? What did it deal with?

I was kindly invited by Goan university to give a course there. Initially, the course was on Goa on the making of the Portuguese Empire, which was precisely to invert the perspective to understand the role of the Goan people, Goa in general in the making of it.

But in 2019, I did this on the Government of Difference, which was one of my main interests – to understand how government, power, authorities, managed differences, which is a very contemporary topic. I did this course thinking precisely about sharing with people my knowledge about how the Portuguese managed differences not only in Goa; but to have a broader view of how the Portuguese did not manage differences in similar ways in different places and different times.    

I don’t know if it was clear, but I see all these as processes and not static situations. Different processes were happening as the Portuguese were in different parts of the world. They had territories in Brazil, in Africa, in East Timor, in Goa, in Melaka, etc. They were dispersed in so many different places, and they were handling so many different societies with different religions, that they had to find different solutions to deal with differences. When we see all these differences, it appears that there was not a base, as a common base. But, there was a common base for sure, and the course precisely starts with a session about this common base.

It starts with how in the 15th century, was the imagination of difference that the Portuguese had. How did they think about alterity? Because it was in the 15th century that the Portuguese started to have daily interactions outside their borders, in Morocco and all that. This was the starting moment when these interactions had begun outside, which were also taking place inside. There were already Jewish and Muslim communities living in Portugal during this period. I was like making an overview of these initial moments, which, like 1499 and 1500, because of the feat of Vasco da Gama and Álvares Cabral are changing moments. But we can only understand that if we understand first from where they started. And which was this imagination – relationship with Jews, relationship with Muslims, and then the practical experience of engaging with the difference in Moroccan places.

And then, I go on until the 18th century, trying to realise which were the main criteria to identify differences. Hence, clearly, there were two main criteria. Religion was the main criterion in the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. At the same time, people mingled from the 15th century already, and with that emerged the criteria of colour, in relation to whiteness. So, we can see that these were two key criteria.

There were other criteria like blood and lineage, also very important, and there were other smaller criteria. But I was also trying to explore this, which was described previously, and how these operated in different places, depending on the different conditions. Because the Portuguese were very few. Then, how could they deal with difference, being so few? And so, we can see that mixed marriages in Brazil were more often than, for example, they were in Goa. In Goa, we see mixed marriages in the beginning, only in the early period, as I was telling you, but later on mixed marriages were not considered a good thing. Indeed, this was the same power working differently in different places, operating at the same time, and this is really interesting too.

And then to understand that the Portuguese power in the 18th century was very different from the Portuguese power in the 16th century. There was also an accumulation of knowledge concerning differences because the Portuguese who started these engagements met different societies from 1415. You can see in the three centuries, and by the 19th century, there was a kind of encyclopaedia of alterity. And this was also creating new forms of political culture related to this topic. Thus, the course was on these processes and also parts of processes of the different attitudes towards Portuguese rule during this period. 

That is really fascinating. I hope you’ll get a chance to offer this course again, maybe some of us will be interested in taking it. One final question, what message would you like to give to those pursuing such studies?

Well, the first thing I would say is to be intellectually honest. For me, the biggest aspect in academia is to be intellectually honest. Do not pretend to know what you don’t know. I know that today, it's very appealing to have a kind of show off, to sell yourself because that's how society works. But finally, that doesn’t lead anywhere. And so, being intellectually honest is really important, to show people the ideas of others and not pretend that you are original, when maybe you are not.

The second thing is to be intellectually humble. What I’ve learned is that the more I learn, the less I know. I think that knowledge shows us how ignorant we are. I think that it is really important to be intellectually humble because only then we really can strive to know more. It’s really, really important.

The other thing I would really like to say is, ‘dare to think’. I think sometimes, and I see that with my students, we are afraid to think out of the box. If you do not think out of the box or think beyond what your teachers think (and it is obvious that I respect my masters for sure) … I think it’s so important to follow your own ideas and try to understand them! They are really valuable. Dare to think, and don’t be afraid to think. That is the only way to make new things. 

Editor's Note: The above interview was edited for correcting certain phrases. The error is regretted.