Garcia de Orta

Alfredo de Mello


Garcia de Orta, one of the most famous doctors and researchers of Medicine, of the 16th century, was a Portuguese of Jewish origin. As the situation of the Jews in Portugal became more and more difficult, not to say perilous, the Portuguese Jews emigrated to the new colonies which were discovered by the Portuguese mariners He chose to emigrate to Goa, in India. And after some years , experimenting with the medicinal applications used in India, he wrote a book "Os Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas e Coisas Medicinais na India" ((Colloquies of the simple, and Drugs and medicinal applications in India).

When this book, printed in Goa,- the Printing Press was installed in Goa, in 1545, the first printing press in all Asia --appeared in Europe, it became overnight a best seller, and was avidly read by the doctors of all European countries.

In 1563, this illustrious doctor, old-time professor of the University of Lisbon, Garcia de Orta gave to print a notorious text, where the purpose of the drugs and medicinal applications of India confront two models of knowledge: the old established texts, and the experimental. A Dr. Ruano coming from Portugal to Goa maintains a discussion with Orta, and clearly they represent two types of mentality and of a vision of the world.

Says Dr. Orta:" Don’t instill fear into me with Discórides neither with Galen, because I shall not say anything but the truth, and what I know".

Ruano replies: "It seems to me that you destroy all the ancient and modern writers, and therefore you should be careful with what you are doing".

And Orta retorts " I say that one gets to know more in one day now with the Portuguese ( in India) than what knowledge was gathered in one hundred years by the Romans". 

It is the triumph of experience and of observation over the dogmatic tradition. The old science became obsolete. It is this what Garcia de Orta demonstrates in his audacious book. The work is introduced by an ode of the poet Luiz Vaz de Camôes, who had been sent to Goa ( as a punishment) some ten years earlier,. It is the first time that a poem of this author is printed, in spite of the great popularity that surrounds his name. Camôes is persecuted by the powerful, and one admires the moral courage of Garcia de Orta to publish his work.

The foregoing leads me to narrate some details of the life of Garcia de Orta, and his family.

He was the son of Spanish Jews, who had fled to Portugal . He was born in Castelo de Vide, and in 1525, was already a doctor, having studied in Salamanca. He became professor of the University of Coimbra, and in 1534, perhaps fearing the Inquisition, he sailed to India, on the vessel "Rainha".

Four hundred years later, it was discovered that Garcia de Orta had been married. This discovery was made by professor Augusto da Silva Carvalho, in his biography "Garcia de Orta" published in 1934. He had the bright idea to consult the process of the Inquisition of Catarina de Orta, sister of the celebrated sage, and burnt at the stake in Goa in 1569.

The wife of Garcia de Orta was called Brianda de Solis. Her parents were Henrique de Solis and Ana Alvares. The Solis were of Spanish origin. Curiously, Henrique. who was a rich merchant, had wangled the difficult license of riding a mule, and in 1533, was bestowed with the charter of "citizen of the city of Porto".

Brianda and some brothers were born in Alentejo, in Alter do Châo. She sailed to India in 1541. They must have sailed on the vessel "Santiago", since her father was the scrivener of this vessel.. It was in this vessel that St. Francis Xavier sailed to Goa, India. The Catholics venerate him as a saint, that’s a fact, but it was he who requested by writing to Ignatius de Loyola,-Chief of the Jesuits - and the Pope, as well as the king of Portugal to install the Inquisition in Goa., which would mete so much suffering to the Ortas and the Solis.

Brianda was a relative of Garcia and on account of this, they required a special license to get married, as was revealed by Catarina while she was being tortured by the Inquisitors. The wedding ceremony took place in Goa, perhaps in the year 1543. Garcia de Orta was already more than 40 years old. He was rich and important, a merchant of precious stones, owner of a vessel, and of the island of Bombay. They had two daughters before 1547. At this time, he wrote to his sister Catarina, inviting her to come over to India,, promising to marry his daughters with the sons of this sister.

It was quite unlucky for Catarina to accept this idea. She sailed in 1549, with her husband and sons, and sister Isabel and her family. Likewise, went along their mother, Leonor Gomes, who must have been around 70 years old, and sent to live with Garcia and Brianda, who had a big house in the "Rua dos Namorados" ( Street of the Beloved), in the city of the so-called "Golden" Goa.

The only source for investigating Brianda de Solis is the process of Inquisition of Catarina de Orta. It is a manuscript of about 140 pages, and curiously, two manuscript copies were made, and which are to be found in the Torre do Tombo in Lisbon under the numbers 1282 and 1283.

Whilst the processes of the Inquisition contain many data, it must not be forgotten that many of them were obtained under torture. In the processes against women, it is frequent to read confessions of their having had sexual relations with the devil, and other absurdities.

Catarina, was imprisoned by the Inquisition in Goa, through some slanderous rumour, in October 1568, She denounced all her own people: her husband, her daughter, her sisters, her mother, the uncles, cousins, her son-in-law, the sisters of the son-in-law, the neighbours, other "new Christians" and even relatives living in Lisbon. It isn’t strange that this should come about, because the tortures and torments of the Inquisition were not mild, nor courteous.

In this process, she confesses and then recants. She denounced her daughters, and later recanted.. She delivered her mother to the Inquisitors, and later on she declares that she had lied. With Brianda it was the same old story. Catarina manifested that Brianda ate pork meat on the days forbidden by the Church, and that she did not have a shirt to bury her husband, but later denies twice over that she had lied. When she was taken to be burnt at the stake, she confesses that " the reason of her false denunciations was because it appeared to her that she might receive mercy and would save her life, and the devil would refrain from tempting her"

Even so, on basis of this process, there appear utterly false stories written about Brianda de Solis. Encyclopaedias, films, state that she was evil towards her husband, that she was a bitch, and that she did not even arrange clothes for burying her husband (Garcia de Orta). The detractors even invented lovers,becuse she had a venereal disease before marriage (there is a process of the Inquisition which suggests that she had borne a son, before coming to Goa, and perhaps was a widow)... But on perusing scores of pages of this process, one gets to learn that she buried her husband with the Jewish rites, which Catarina tried to hide.

The renowned poet Luiz de Camôes, in his "Os Lusiadas" dedicates two "cantos" (divisions of a long poem) to the Island of the Lovers. According to the poem, it was Vasco da Gama and his companions who had the recompense of their heroic voyage to India. Now, many investigators say that Camôes did not "invent" totally this island. Thus, many islands have been suggested in the last four centuries. It would seem to me that the hypothesis of this island being the erstwhile island of Bombay, is the most probable. Of course, this island was not visited by Vasco da Gama. But Camôes and Garcia de Orta were friends while in India, and of course visited the isle of Bombay which then belonged to Garcia de Orta.

Now there is an irrefutable proof that the island in question was Bombay. Camôes, in his "canto X verse 1" gives us a comparison of the height of the sun in the island, just "like

Termististâo in the most western lands". Termististâo is the Portuguese version of Tenochtitlan, capital of the Aztecs, today in the city of Mexico. If we consult an Atlas, we shall see that Mexico city and Bombay are exactly in the same latitude.

Brianda de Solis was the lady of Bombay, the only lady-owner of an island that Camôes ever came to know. After the death of Orta’s mother, in 1557, the couple left Goa, to go and live in Bombay, and it must be here that Brianda welcomed not "Gama", but Camôes himself. There are some who say that there was no such island inhabited only by women, but the fact is that when Garcia de Orta , and his male retinue, traveled to the court of the Nizam, the island was peopled only by women. Brianda had two daughters, Beatriz and a younger one, and had at least three Indian maids - Antónia, Brianda and Leonor, who maybe went around half-dressed, just as many Indian women are depicted – and she had moreover at least one negro slave, called Joana..

Quoting Camôes: " Uma delas, maior, a quem se humilha,

T odo o coro de Ninfas e obedece (...)

O Capitâo ilustre, que o merece, recebe ali

com pompa honesta e régia, mostrando-se

senhora grande e egrégia" (IX,85")

A humble translation would be: "One of them, the eldest, who humbles herself, and the entire choir of nymphs obey, the illustrious Captain, who deserves it, receives there, with honest pomp, and royally, showing herself off as a great and egregious lady".

This is the portrait of a Lady, surrounded by young maidens, and not of a goddess.

This "great and egregious" lady of Camôes, and the daughters, evaded the inquisitors of Goa, and were never caught Prof. Silva Carvalho believes that in the face of the long arm of the Inquisition, Brianda sailed for Holland.. Various Ortas and Solis were imprisoned, and the great Garcia de Orta, twelve years after his death, was disinterred by the inquisitors, who could not rest until his bones were rendered to ashes..

P.S. For those who are not acquainted, the Inquisition in Goa lasted 252 years, from 1560 until 1812, and were it not for the fact that Goa was occupied militarily by the British during the Napoleonic wars, I believe that the British had a lot to do, to banish this iniquitous organization, which sent to the stake, more than 39,000 people, not only "new Christians" (marranos), but also many Goans who had been Christianized, and were unjustly accused of venerating in secret their ancient gods

Alfredo de Mello
June 15, 1999


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