||Local knowledge in Portuguese words: Oral and manuscript sources of the Colloquies on the simples by Garcia de Orta
Teresa Nobre de Carvalho
Published in Goa in 1563, the work of Garcia de Orta (ca. 1500–1568), Colóquios dos Simples e Drogas he Cousas Mediçinais da Índia [Colloquies on the simples & drugs of India], revealed the impressive scholarship of its author. His academic training in Castilian universities and an important library gave him a solid medical and botanical knowledge supported by a vast specialised literature. Nevertheless, in his search for novelties about nature in Asia, Orta did not dispense with the contribution of local informants and royal officials, who by travelling through the innermost recesses of the East collected news and novelties of Asia's natural resources. The participation of these agents from very different social and cultural strata in the reconfiguration of knowledge about the Asian natural world was one of the most original contributions of Orta to European science. This paper focuses on Orta's Portuguese sources with emphasis on some of the oral testimonies and manuscript reports that travellers and royal officials collected during their journeys in Asia. These, having being tested and validated by Orta became the foundation of a new truth about the natural world of the East described in his Colloquies on the simples.
Keywords: Garcia de Orta, Colóquios dos Simples, Orta's Portuguese sources, knowledge circulation
The diffusion of novelties
Until 1515, that is, during the first decade of the Portuguese presence in the East, the collection of information about the Asian natural world was fragmentary and revealed a poorly organised exploration. The testimonies of travellers, soldiers and adventurers who landed in Lisbon coming from the East and the letters sent to the Crown by royal officials posted in Asia were the main source of news about Indian nature, in the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Tome Pires (ca 1465–ca 1540) and Duarte Barbosa (ca 1480–1521) marked a turning point in the observation of the Asian natural world. The former sailed to the East in 1511 with a mission to identify and select drugs that should be sent back to the Portuguese kingdom. Druggist by profession, in 1515, Pires completed the Suma Oriental, considered the first modern geography of the East, where he collected information on Asian nature provided by local informants.  Due to the relevance of this work, he was appointed to head the first Portuguese diplomatic mission to Beijing.
Also at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Duarte Barbosa went to Asia where he lived most of his life. He was for a long period a scrivener in the Cannanore factory. Living in that area, he was able to learn Malayalam, the language spoken in this region of India by every merchant, and proved to be a skilled tradesman. He wrote an extensive and detailed report, O Livro de Duarte Barbosa (1516), which had a wide distribution as shown by the different manuscript versions known today. In this report, which resulted from his observations and contacts with local traditions and manuscript sources, Barbosa provided a detailed description of Eastern kingdoms, cities, ports, people, wealth and natural resources.
Therefore, during their stay in the East, both men wrote detailed accounts of nature based on their observations and on testimonies provided by reliable local informants. Through the work of these two authors, the Portuguese kingdom was informed of the regional outline of the East, its ports and markets, its people, the eating habits of its societies and its wealth of natural resources. The work of the two Portuguese men shed light on a part of the world hitherto unknown in the West.
In addition to frequent geographical, political and economic reports, they made reference to a huge variety of tropical fruits and peculiar exotic plants, and included the necessary descriptions of spices and drugs. Palm trees, pepper, cinnamon, lacquer, benzoin, nutmeg, cloves or camphor were some of the products that gained Barbosa's attention. The pragmatic clerk attached to his book an appendix recording data about the origin and price of the main spices —pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger—and noted the prices of the most important drugs in the Calicut market—tincal, camphor, agarwood, linaloes, musk, benzoin, tamarinds, calamus, myrrh, incense, amber, cassia, sandalwood, nutmeg, spikenard, mace, indigo, zedoary, zerumbet, cardamom, rhubarb, tutty, cubeb, mirabolanos or opium.
Tome Pires, in turn, filled the folios of his Suma Oriental with information on the origin, quality and value of many Asian products. In his report he collected information on: pearls, musk, aloes, amber, indigo, areca, sulphur, benzoin, betel nut, camphor, cinnamon, coconut, copra, cloves, folio indo, ginger, sesame, jackfruit, jangomas, lac, aloewood, mace, mangoes, mirabolanos, nutmeg, opium, alum, pepper, rhubarb, sandalwood, dragon's blood, tutty, tamarind, and cinnabar..
Later confirmed and validated by Orta's inquires, observations and medical experience, much of the information collected by these royal officials was included in Garcia de Orta's work.
Figure 1 - The Suma Oriental of Tome Pires (BNP – National Public Library).
In a letter Tome Pires sent in January 1516 to King Manuel (reigned 1495–1521), he identified the regions of origin, the local customs and the main markets where oriental products were traded. Pires did not overlook drugs used in the Portuguese pharmacopoeia such as: rhubarb, incense, opium, tamarinds, galangal, mirabolanos, aloes, spikenard, asafoetida, bdellium, myrrh, betel nut, zedoary, rubies or pearls, among others.
Through the reports and letters of royal officials, the Portuguese elites were becoming aware of the geographical origin, the distribution routes and the therapeutic qualities of the natural resources of the East. Curious travellers, sailors and merchants thus became the vehicle of an innovative speech about the world as they saw it. Confirmed by eyewitnesses, these reports spread in Europe a new kind of description of nature that dispensed with texts and was based on first-hand experience.
Regulation of the drug trade in the East
In order to maintain the Portuguese presence in the East, forts were built and trading posts (factories) were established at strategic points. With a view to ensuring the health of soldiers and royal officials, the Portuguese Crown invested in building a network of hospitals. All these entities were served by apothecaries who provided drugs and products essential to preserving the health of the seconded officials. Note that, at the time, the term "apothecary" had a much broader sense than it has today. In addition to medicines and drugs, they provided soap and opium, as well as supplies for the city, as shown in the documents of Goa's Customs.
Aware of the huge amount of drugs in circulation and of the serious inconvenience caused by setting up apothecaries without royal control, King Manuel imposed the regulation and inspection of their activities. This evaluation was not limited to the technical staff. Products for sale also underwent careful analysis. If the quality of the medicines examined did not meet the inspectors' criteria, regulations provided for heavy fines for the owner and the public burning of the products in question.
The sovereign also required apothecaries in the cities, towns and villages under his rule to abide scrupulously by the prices set for medicines and drugs. The "Regimento de Preços de 1497" [Price Regulation of 1497] was in force throughout his reign and it was only officially amended by order of Martim Afonso de Sousa (1500–1572). De Sousa travelled to the East where he held several government posts, namely captain-major of the fleet (1534–1538) and governor (1542–1545). As governor, he played an important role in the development and organisation of the Royal Hospital in Goa. Apparently concerned about the trade in drugs and medicines, he ordered the then overseer, Fernão Rodrigues de Castelo Branco, to establish a "Pauta das Mezinhas" [Tariff of Medicines], where the price of drugs was set to be abided by in the whole kingdom and in most of the "Estado da Índia". The 1542 Tariff, which redesigned former rules, remained in force until 1573.
This list of spices, medicines and therapeutic formulas, and their purchase and sale prices, prevailed in the eastern hospitals and apothecaries for thirty years. During the rule of D. Constantino de Bragança (Viceroy 1558–1561), the prices of some drugs were reviewed and updated, while the rest of the list remained unchanged. According to the introductory note to the 1573 "Pauta das Mezinhas", some officials had brought to the attention of Dom Constantino the disparity between regulated prices and actual prices, leading the governor to update some of them. They remained valid until 1573, when the team of physicians and apothecaries led by surgeon-general Duarte Lopes updated it again.
Thus, price regulation for drugs and medicines depended on technical advice from apothecaries, physicians and officials who together calculated the new price. Only in 1572, did apothecary Baltazar Rodrigues asked D. Antão de Noronha (Viceroy 1571-1573) to allow the complete review of the "Pauta" then effective, with the corresponding price update. Having immediately complied with this suggestion, the governor instructed Luis Freire de Andrade to appoint a committee that would carry out the task quickly and effectively. The new "Pauta das Mezinhas" was approved in April 1573 and the price list for the purchase and sale of medicines in all hospitals, fleets and fortresses in Portuguese India immediately entered into force. This "Pauta" lasted until the late sixteenth century, when the health policy imposed by King Philip II of Spain, who also ruled Portugal as Philip I from 1581 to 1598, led to new approaches that are beyond the scope of this paper.
The Elvas Codex: a collection of individual reports
Perhaps due to a greater stability in the administration or to a more favourable political situation, it seems that it was under the rule of Martim Afonso de Sousa (Governor 1542–1545) or D. João de Castro (Viceroy 1545–1548) that overseers, factors and apothecaries living in the East were requested to systematically provide reliable information on Asia's main natural resources. Some of these officials promptly responded to this request and the data they provided was integrated into what is now known as the Elvas Codex. Identified by Domingos e Lavadinho as Livro que trata das cousas da Índia e do Japão (Book about things from India and Japan), the book had a critical edition in the twentieth century by Adelino Almeida Calado. As shown in the handwritten dedication, this collection was offered in 1901 to Antonio Thomaz Pires by Francisco de Paula Santa Clara and, since 1913, it has been part of the collection of manuscripts of the Elvas Public Library. Thomaz Pires died in 1913 and, according to Almeida Calado, his private library was then donated to the City Library.
The manuscript has the provisional book number 5/381 and consists of 101 sheets, about a dozen of which were left blank. It consists of two types of paper that Almeida Calado was able to date to the mid-sixteenth century. Bound with "a large sheet of parchment, undoubtedly torn out from a missal, of which are still left staves, musical notes and verses in brown with green capital letters," Although there are no notes about their sixteenth-century owners, there are in the Codex multiple direct evidence and indirect indications that allow it to be dated with certainty to 1546 –1548.
The volume collects twenty-five reports produced in the East by local prominent agents. Since some of the reporters signed their reports, the authorship of part of these texts is indisputable. Apparently, information was collected and recorded by informants selected for their professional integrity and obvious technical skills. Thus, in order to identify the region of origin of the drugs, they used the experience of the chief apothecary of D. João de Castro, Simão Alvares; to describe the supplies that arrived in Goa they asked for the knowledge of the overseer and treasurer, Rui Goncalves de Caminha; to talk about the Cochin rivers they asked the chief pilot of Cochim, Nicolau Goncalves; to gather information about Ceylon or Hormuz, they used the experience of their factors, namely Antonio Pessoa and Bastião Lopes Lobato; to disseminate information about Persia, they resorted to the knowledge of the secretary of the Governor, Khwaja Pir Quli (Coje Percolim).
Figure 2 - The Elvas Codex (BPME – Elvas Public Library)
Topics range from listings of goods and natural resources to the identification of routes and markets, and the description of the origin of certain drugs and spices, as well as ground-breaking news about China and Japan.
Each of the texts included in the collection seems to respond to pre-established questionnaires, thus revealing the targeted nature of the information collected. This method of gathering news about the Indies' natural resources would be years later repeated in the New World.
Besides contributing to provide a clearer geographical outline of the East, these summaries, reports and lists of drugs seem also to have been important for strategic decision-making. While the analysis of the impact of this information is still to be completed, these documents reveal the interest of Portuguese rulers in the East in making an inventory of the natural resources and commercial potential of each region.
Whereas Tome Pires and Duarte Barbosa directed their reports primarily to the government in Lisbon, Antonio Pessoa, Nicolau Goncalves, Simao Alvares, Joao de Magalhaes, Mestre Pedro, Rui Goncalves de Caminha, Francisco Pereira, Alvaro de Sousa, Coje Percolim, among others who signed the reports collected in the Elvas Codex, addressed a Portuguese authority in Goa, perhaps Martim Afonso de Sousa or Joao de Castro. As we will show below, Garcia de Orta had access to this classified information and used it in writing the Colloquies on the simples. The authors of these documents can thus be identified with some of the "Portugueses dignos de fé" [Portuguese of credit] to whom Garcia de Orta refers to in his text.
On the death of Governor Joao de Castro, Garcia de Sá, governor from 1548 to 1549, continued this project of gathering news. Almeida Calado gives credit to the Governor for the compilation of reports written by Portuguese officials.
At the time, the absence of printing in the East hindered the wide dissemination of duly authorised news. Besides manuscripts, only oral testimonies could fill the gap of information on natural resources. In addition, the expansion into the Far East, China and Japan, was occurring at an intense pace and it was crucial to standardise information and prices of local products throughout the area where the Portuguese then freely moved.
Publishing a book on India's drugs and medicines became an increasing priority as it could enable not only market regulation and stability of distribution routes, and the establishment of strategic resource exploitation priorities, but also the standardisation of health practices in the various hospitals of the cities and fortresses that the Portuguese were building in the East. In fact, the specificity of the diseases and the new drugs available made many physicians recently arrived from Portugal unable to effectively lead hospital teams effectively. Physicians who accompanied governors and viceroys remained in the East for little more than three years. This period was clearly insufficient to make them aware of the complexity of the therapeutic properties of Asian medicines. The inability of these "seasonal" physicians to cure tropical diseases was so harshly criticised that, in 1607, they were banned by royal charter from directing medical practice in Goa's Royal Hospital during the few years that their missions lasted. Despite the concern of druggists, overseers, physicians and merchants, the long-awaited text only emerged in 1563 with the Goan edition of the Colloquies on the simples.
Colloquies on the simples by Garcia de Orta
Born in Castelo de Vide, Garcia de Orta (ca. 1500–1568) did his medical studies in the Castilian universities of Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares. He taught for a short period in the Escolas Gerais in Lisbon, having sailed to India in 1534 as personal physician of Martim Afonso de Sousa, then captain-major of the fleet.
He would never return to Europe. Aware of his discreet place in contemporary Portuguese chronicles, Orta decided to reveal to his readers moments of his life in Asia and aspects of his personality. Therefore, the book often becomes autobiographical. To the eyes of his readers, Orta emerges as a man of sophisticated tastes, an experienced physician, a competent professional, an elegant conversationalist, a skilled manager of words. He describes himself, in short, as a wealthy physician living in Goa, the capital of the Portuguese 'Estado da India'. Textual references to a wide range of scientific works gave credit to his arguments. This description of his versatile and learned persona proved of the utmost importance since it would be the basis for his reliability as a witness of credit.
One of the novelties of this treatise devoted to the medical products of the East resulted from the valorisation of reports of numerous witnesses, which only his authority as a physician could accept or decline. Thus, the reader's trust in his judgment was crucial for the success of this editorial project.
Figure 3 - Front cover of Colloquies on the simples (Goa, 1563) (BNP)
The Colloquies on the simples, written in Portuguese and depicting the conversation between two Iberian physicians, provided the most updated knowledge on the main Oriental products, in alphabetical order. For each product, Garcia de Orta presented detailed data about its origin, use, prices, markets, distribution routes and therapeutic applications. Useful both in Eastern hospitals and apothecaries of forts, valuable in ports and local markets, the work acquired not only great scientific and practical relevance, in Portugal and in Europe, but also an enormous strategic and commercial importance.
Oral and manuscript sources in the Colloquies on the simples
In addition to the information contained in the above-mentioned texts of Duarte Barbosa or Tomé Pires, Orta used a wide range of informants whose participation the narrative he managed with great skill.
Physicians of Cairo and Damascus, of Nizamoxa and Sultan Bahadur; factors and druggists; employees and servants, or merchants and lapidaries, they all passed on to Orta their knowledge about drugs and their applications, prices and markets of origin.
Every reader of the Colloquies had thus access to a wide range of data, which under the scrutiny of Garcia de Orta combined bookish knowledge, personal experiences and local traditions. Throughout the book's fifty-nine chapters, people from many different backgrounds and traditions interrupted the quiet conversations between the two physicians, filling the text with their knowledge and testimonies.
The information brought to him by "a factor of Ormuz" on the bezoar stone or those "a factor from Maluco" told him about cloves reveal his interaction with royal officials.
Information about the root of China provided by "a very honourable and rich man was cured who, being in Diu, told my master Martim Afonso de Sousa,[...] how he had been cured by the root of China, which restored him to complete health, not requiring any special diet" reflects his straightforward relationship with Portuguese noblemen.
In the presence of a viceroy, his discussion on cardamoms with a druggist, who "was an old man who had been a long time in India" attests to his familiarity with the political power.
The secrets entrusted to his readers about the falsification of camphor, "the Banians of Cambay confirm this; for they say in secret that when the camphor of Borneo falls short, they mix a little of it with a quantity from China, and call it all falsely camphor of Borneo", show his ease with merchants and traders.
The descriptions of the peculiar plants sent by Franciscan Friars, "they have a strange property, showing that they do not like to be touched", demonstrate his close collaboration with clerics in exploring wonders.
His judgment about East and West medical practices reveals a remarkable open-mindedness. By stating "when we find that our patients do not appreciate our gentle medicines, we deliver them over to Malabars", Orta proved a rather unusual ability to recognise the limits of his knowledge while revealing a remarkable capacity for dialogue with local physicians.
Finally, the new Asian fruits and herbs he described illustrate the thirst for knowledge of the simple people who worked in his house. Slaves, servants, boys, gardeners and his cook were invited to participate in the discourse bringing their knowledge into the Colloquies. When he questions his maidservant about the 'negundo', "which is the tree you have been praising so much?" Orta allows for local traditions to enter his treatise.
Garcia de Orta did not identify many of his sources of information, but it seems clear today that among them were the authors of the testimonies gathered in the Elvas Codex. Indeed, the coincidence between the reports of those officials and the information described in the Colloquies on the Simple leads us to assume that Orta knew the collection. Therefore, it may not be too risky to assume that some of this information had circulated in the East, albeit in a somewhat restricted way, among representatives of the local elites.
We have selected two illustrative examples. When in this collection of data we pick information about the 'lacre of Pegu' provided by Alvaro de Sousa, we realise that Orta used his text.He wrote:
"I was deceived for a long time. [...] Afterwards I conversed with a respectable man with an enquiring mind, who told me that it was a large tree with leaves like those of a plum tree, and that the large ants deposit the lacre on the small branches. [...] They deposit the gum on the tree, as a material thing, washing the branch as the bee makes honey; and that is the truth."
Also when referring to pepper, Orta reported a discussion he had with an apothecary he does not identify. The disagreement between the physician and the anonymous pharmacist resulted from the fact that the latter, wintering in Mozambique, challenged tradition when he realised that white pepper and black pepper came from the same plant, varying only in the degree of maturation. Orta, oddly enough, rejected the true evidence, by introducing some ambiguity in his text. He wrote: "I will tell you a story about what happened to a druggist in the time of a Governor who was very curious about medicines, to whom I spoke of the three kinds of pepper [black, white and long pepper]." On this he related to the Governor that "when he [the apothecary] was wintering in Mozambique [...] he examined the pepper and found amongst it some white from having cast off the outer rind".
Therefore, apparently the information collected by these men trusted by the Portuguese elite living in Goa was passed on to Orta so he could test it. In the Colloquies on the Simples, the physician refuted or validated the set of knowledge locally collected and tested by seconded royal officials. This multiple authorship was characteristic of the networks for collection and dissemination of information required to make novelties move from the region where they were collected to the central point where they were treated, validated and later disseminated.
In addition to this informative role, the Colloquies were also important in standardising sanitary practices. The "hybrid" nature of overseas medicine and pharmacopeia, of which Garcia de Orta was a pioneer, resulted from an appropriate dialogue between knowledge acquired in European universities and the medical traditions of hakims and local physicians. This ability to criticise his own tradition, while demonstrating a remarkable open-mindedness, revealed one of the most innovative aspects of Orta's work, which, although studied by many, still awaits a more in-depth and detailed analysis.
The reconfiguration of knowledge on botanical–medical matters as proposed by Garcia de Orta was far more complex than it might at first seem. Although observation and experience were crucial allies of textual commentary, they were not sufficient for establishing a novelty.
It seems clear that it was not enough to be a keen, well-meaning observer for instantly becoming a reliable disseminator of novelties. Apparently, only someone aware of the subtle tactics of the Portuguese presence in the East would be able to propose a reconfiguration of knowledge on Asia's natural resources and elucidate readers on new truths. The absence in India, during the first decades of the century, of such a versatile and qualified person who could fulfil this daunting task seems to have justified the prudent silence of the Portuguese about the natural world they were exploiting. Garcia de Orta ultimately filled this gap, which in Europe troubled scholars and in the Portuguese kingdom worried sovereigns.
Recognition of the value of his work was, as we know, immediate. The rapid appropriation of the book by Carolus Clusius, Juan Fragoso and Cristovao da Costa disseminated throughout Europe and the Iberian empires not only the novelty of its contents but also a new method of collection, validation, transmission and dissemination of knowledge about the natural world.
I express my warm thanks to Professors Ana Simões , Ana Carneiro and Henrique Leitão for their support and to Rui Manuel Loureiro for his suggestions for improving this essay.