Goan migration: untold tales

Community, Memory, and migration in a globalizing world — The Goan Experience, c.1890-1980: Margret Frenz; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 995.   | Photo Credit: Margret FRENZ

Migration is as old as humanity. Vast masses of people have moved from country to country in search of food, livelihood or driven by famine, pestilence or occupying enemy forces. New civilisations were established in remote destinations. The emergence of the Westaphalian notion of states with fixed boundaries altered the scope for and magnitude of migrations.

However, the rise of the modern economy which required cheap labour to work in plantations and mines, the growing international trade and the emerging clashes among colonial powers — Portugal, Spain, Germany and the U.K. — added a new dimension. Migration ceased to be voluntary and turned into slave trade which exported millions of Africans, Indians and other races to work in the Caribbean, the U.S. or other countries. This dreaded mode, known as “indentured labour”, contributed to the rise of pre-modern colonial powers.

In later years there were other forms of migration though somewhat limited in scope. The so-called globalisation has added its share. In fact, the term diaspora has been much abused. There are efforts to romanticise and relate migrants to their home countries. Indeed, among the expatriates, there is nostalgia for the home country which is reflected in several ways, especially in their literary works. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the reputed neurosurgeon and writer, records the account of a patient in a New York hospital who recalls his childhood days in a remote village in Bihar. Not all in the diaspora are equally happy; but, the unhappy ones have different stories to tell. It fits ideally the Goan trail.

The experience of Goan migrants has been unique in many ways. Despite the long record of their migration to East Africa well before the modern era, it was observed that there were hardly any accounts of their dispersal. Selma Carvallo wrote her book ( Into The Diaspora of Wilderness: Goa’s untold migration stories from the British Empire to the New World, 2010) based on video and tape recordings of those who had spent their lives in the countries in East Africa. It opened the door to further research. It is into this uncharted territory that Margret Frenz steps in.

The author draws on rarely consulted archives and mixes them with the records of her interviews with nearly 300 people of Goan origin now settled in the U.K., Canada or back home in Goa. She provides a scholarly account of the political developments in East Africa, especially Kenya. She weaves the historical memory of migrants over the political developments, which were violent and turbulent marked by the rise of “black nationalism” which took a toll on migrants whether from Goa or other parts of Asia.

In the introductory part she describes how migration of Goans was different from others such as indentured labourers. As she says, “Goan migration can be subsumed neither under the category of established trading networks nor as the migration of indentured labourers, but it denotes a separate phenomenon, arguably best characterised as ‘subaltern elite migration.’

The earliest attraction of Goans was to Bombay. By the late 19th century and particularly, the 20th century, their attention shifted to East Africa. A large number of them moved to East Africa in the wake of railway construction there. They went as engineers, accountants and clerks and were relatively better educated than migrant labourers. They were driven by lack of opportunities within Goa. Soon, from Kenya they moved to neighbouring states like Uganda, Tanganyika, and Zanzibar down to South Africa. Unlike indentured labourers and other Asians, they had the advantage that they held Portuguese passports and were treated as citizens of that country. For some years, this special status was a shield which gave them a separate identity. (With the decline of Portuguese influence and rise of the British, they began to lose that status.)

Goans formed clubs and assumed positions in civic bodies, worked as Vice Consuls and began to live in their newly created El Dorado. They were Catholics, dressed like westerners and were more trusted than the natives or other Asians. Truly, as Frenz relates from the memories of exiles, they were integrated into the East African colonial society. “Through my research I understood soon that Goans played an important role which so far has not been studied and recorded adequately”, as the author says. Unfortunately, their success was their undoing in the years to come. Their integration was limited by the formalisation of social segregation which came about at the beginning of the 20th century.

With the liberation of East African countries from the colonial rule, the future of Goans became uncertain. The author describes the stridency of African nationalism which took the form of ‘black racism’ working against Goans and Indians. Efforts towards Africanisation and nationalisation led to mass exodus from civil service as seizure of trading companies owned by them. Finally, they were subject to the ultimate threat of expulsion. All East African countries were subject to the same frenzy and Uganda under Idi Amin was perhaps the worst. As Frenz narrates, “Goans and Indians have been written out of much of the historiography of nationalist movements in the mid-20th century and depicted as at best bystanders, at worst colonial lackeys. The Goan community itself had to carry out a balancing act between different sets of actors-Europeans, Indians and Africans.” When the East African exodus commenced in the mid-1960s, what queered the pitch was the racial duplicity of the U.K. authorities. With the passing of the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 the doors of entry into a new heaven were closed. Macmillan’s assurances of citizenship were disregarded by successive governments. While the U.K. government offered huge compensation to blue blood British citizens to dispose of their assets which enabled them to buy apartments in central London, others were left penniless. Some Goans went to the U.K. under the limited quota for emigrants and others looked for pastures in Canada. Many returned to their home state in India, to wit, Goa!

Frenz narrates the new lives of Goans in the U.K., and Canada and how they have come to terms with the new environment. She admires how Goans are able to negotiate different identities whether in East Africa in the early part of this century and or in other countries after their expulsion from East Africa. In her words, “Goans have long been a mobile community, and helped to shape the contours of empires and the modern world. But the story of their migration and the significance of their contributions to several empires have not been told until now.” The book fills this void admirably. What Dr. Frenz fails to admit is that they were creatures of the empire and found a niche for their survival. There was neither justice nor fairness in what they secured. She fails to take note of this historical injustice.

Community, Memory, and migration in a globalizing world — The Goan Experience, c.1890-1980: Margret Frenz; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, 1 Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 995.

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Printable version | Jun 20, 2021 7:27:17 AM |

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