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‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’: On the Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700

‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’: sobre o império asiático português, 1500-1700
‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’: à propos de l’empire portugais d’Asie, 1500-1700
Sanjay Subrahmanyam
p. 265-276


O ensaio examina o contexto da publicação e da receção de O Império asiático português, 1500-1700, livro publicado pela primeira vez em inglês em 1993 e traduzido para português, francês e chinês. A análise sugere que, embora alguns dos principais argumentos do livro tenham sido aceites, outros foram contestados. Em particular, o apelo do livro para inserir as atividades portuguesas nos seus contextos históricos e historiográficos na Ásia e na África Oriental só foi aceite, até agora, por uma minoria de historiadores.

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The author is grateful to Caroline Ford for her comments on a first draft.

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1The purpose of this short essay is to look back and revisit a book from three decades ago, but which is still in print in at least two languages (English and French). The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700 was first published by Longman in 1993, but written between 1988 and 1991. Roughly thirty years on from the time of its writing, it possibly requires some analysis but also some explanation, concerning the circumstances of and motivation for its birth as a book. The world was a rather different place, after all, in around 1990 than it is today. Many aspects of historiography that younger scholars may take for granted today were anything but obvious then. Access to books and archival materials was far more difficult; indeed, I can think of few people who in 1990 would have imagined that one could consult whole series from Lisbon’s Torre do Tombo or The Hague’s Nationaal Archief in a digitized version from the comfort of one’s home.

2Since the book was largely written in Delhi, these problems of access were even more acute; for Delhi’s main libraries for my purposes – those of the University of Delhi and the Jesuits’ Vidya Jyoti – did not possess copies of even many essential modern works. One had to depend on the goodwill of one’s colleagues in more privileged locations, who would periodically photocopy and mail key articles or chapters from books. Were it not for such help from the Italian historian Marco Spallanzani, one of my earliest published essays – on the Florentine merchant Piero di Andrea Strozzi in the Indian Ocean – would not have been written when it was (Subrahmanyam 1987). Such practical difficulties ensured that historians in India mostly wrote about India; and in a similar manner, historians in many parts of the world were confined (or ghettoized) to their own “provincial histories”, usually leaving the task of writing broader and more ambitious histories to scholars located in the West.

3The seeds of the book were properly sown, as is stated in its preface, in the summer of 1988, when I spent two successive months in Paris and Lisbon. I had used the greater part of the previous year revising my doctoral dissertation on the economic history of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century South India for publication and sent it for consideration to Cambridge University Press in spring 1988 and was thus at a loose end in terms of projects (Subrahmanyam 1990a). A conversation had just begun with my colleagues Velcheru Narayana Rao and David Shulman about the possibility of writing a book together on court culture in South India, but it was still rather tentative. The two stints in Paris and Lisbon were an important catalyst, albeit for different reasons. In Paris, I was invited by the eminent French historian and orientalist Jean Aubin to deliver a series of talks at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, relating to my research on early modern Indian Ocean trade. I did not know Aubin personally when I arrived in Paris in early May, and the fact that I could not speak French fluently made matters slightly more difficult. However, we quickly developed a personal bond, and he gifted me with a collection of over thirty of his offprints (with corrections and annotations), which are still a treasured possession. These dealt in part with aspects of Islamic and Iranian history (such as his famous essay on Timur and cities) (Aubin 1963), but also included all his essays from the four volumes of the short-lived but important journal Mare Luso-Indicum.

4In the course of that month, Aubin organized a conference at the Gulbenkian Centre, in which Luís Filipe Thomaz presented a first draft of his major text “L’idée impériale manueline”, which then appeared in the conference volume in 1990 (Thomaz 1990). This was only appropriate, because Thomaz in fact drew on some of Aubin’s earlier work (such as his essay on Duarte Galvão) in order to construct his argument (Aubin 1975). Together with a set of meetings with the specialist of Southeast Asia, Denys Lombard (whom I had already encountered briefly in Portugal in 1985), this month of interactions gave me a far deeper understanding of the French historiography on the Portuguese role in the Indian Ocean than I had possessed earlier, since my earlier readings had been largely restricted to the work of Geneviève Bouchon (who also regularly worked together with Aubin and Thomaz). Indeed, a work that appeared in the same year, 1988, was the product of a collaboration between Bouchon and Thomaz and was an extended reflection on the rather strange Portuguese embassy to Bengal in 1521 and its anonymous narrative (Bouchon and Thomaz 1988).

5The following month, that is June and early July, was spent in Lisbon teaching at the Universidade Nova’s freshly inaugurated Master’s programme on overseas expansion. My seminars there were supposed to follow others by the senior scholars Lombard and Bouchon and represented a real challenge for me. For one, the Master’s students were barely a few years younger than me, if that. Further, some of them were openly sceptical of the possibility of learning anything new from an Indian scholar, especially regarding what they saw as “their” history. At least one student regularly brought a copy of Vitorino Magalhães Godinho’s multiple volumes on the “discoveries” to the class and tried to point out errors in my presentations on that basis (Godinho 1981-1983). However, my interactions with several of these students eventually proved very fecund, and indeed became long-term friendships and intellectual collaborations. This was equally an occasion for me to spend time in intensive discussions with two older friends, Luís Filipe Thomaz and Maria Augusta Lima Cruz, who offered contrasting perspectives on the history of the Portuguese empire. While Thomaz continued to provide me insights into how best to use the notoriously intractable archives in Lisbon, Lima Cruz was a remarkably intelligent guide to the chronicling tradition, based in particular on her unsurpassed knowledge of the writings of Diogo do Couto (Cruz 1993).

6Following these two exciting months, I spent the following half-year in Cambridge, as a postdoctoral fellow in Clare Hall. Though I had few interlocutors there who were well-informed regarding matters Iberian (with the partial exception of Richard Grove), the project of a book was beginning to take shape. I spent a long afternoon seeking advice from John Elliott, who was visiting briefly from Princeton, and he offered me an extensive bibliography on Hispano-Portuguese imperial interactions, only some of which I could avail of at the time. While visiting Charles Boxer on a couple of occasions at his home in Hertfordshire, I timidly put the idea to him that there might be room for a fresh work of synthesis on the Asian aspects of the Portuguese empire; and to my relief, he concurred immediately, pointing out that much of interest had been written since 1969, when he had published his own Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (Boxer 1969). He did not know the work of Thomaz well, but he had a great deal of respect for Aubin and had himself published in Mare Luso-Indicum. He also rather liked the idea that such a work would be written not by the “usual suspects” from Oxford, Cambridge, or London, but by an Asian historian. His view of Indian historians was particularly shaped, I believe, by his glowing evaluation of the work of Ashin Das Gupta, who had written on the Indian Ocean in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Das Gupta 2001).

7Reinforced by these positive responses, I began drafting a book proposal which set out a structure with an introduction and five chronological chapters, based on an unconventional periodization that was retained in the final version of the book: 1498-1540; 1540-1570; 1570-1610; 1610-1665; 1665-1700. The introduction was intended to survey the Asian and East African contexts into which the Portuguese thrust themselves, with an emphasis on political economy and state formation. The book proposal was also the basis of a chapter that I jointly authored at this time with Thomaz for a volume on “merchant empires” edited by James Tracy at Minneapolis (Subrahmanyam and Thomaz 1991). When I showed the proposal to Chris Bayly, with whom I was then on excellent terms, he responded by suggesting that I should add an early chapter on medieval Portugal (which became chapter 2); he also very kindly showed me a full draft of a book he was completing entitled Imperial Meridian. The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830, which served as a template for my evolving proposal (Bayly 1989). Not only that, he enthusiastically introduced me to his own publisher at Longman. The publisher in turn sent the proposal out for review, and the main reviewer Peter J. Marshall came back with several suggestions including that I add two thematic chapters after the chronological ones (which became chapters 8 and 9 on “Portuguese Asian Society”, drawing on my conversations with Maria Augusta Lima Cruz). By the end of these negotiations for a book contract, I still had a few months left in Cambridge, to begin feverishly taking notes and making photocopies in the library with the book in mind. My baggage was so heavy, that on my return to Delhi in January 1989, British Airways levied a hefty surcharge on me. Fortunately, they did not lose my suitcases, because the project would otherwise have been aborted there and then.

8It then took the greater part of two and a half years to produce a full first draft of the book. This was for various reasons. First, I was diverted by other projects, such as a collection of my essays on the Portuguese in the Bay of Bengal, which appeared from Delhi in 1990 as Improvising Empire (Subrahmanyam 1990b). Further, the book project with Narayana Rao and Shulman emerged as a more pressing priority, as we passed the draft chapters between the three authors. Eventually, this book – titled Symbols of Substance – was written in parallel with some of the chapters of the Portuguese Empire in Asia (Narayana Rao, Shulman and Subrahmanyam 1992). A second problem was the turbulence in Delhi at the time caused by various violent student movements reacting to the affirmative action policies of the Indian state. Work in the university became very difficult for months on end. And finally, there was the problem of the unavailability of certain key books or articles at crucial moments in the writing. Nevertheless, by mid-1990, I had drafted the first four chapters and was able to show them to Luís Filipe Thomaz when we met at a conference in Goa. His written comments had a significant impact, especially on chapters 2 and 3. A first draft of the entire book was sent by airmail to Longman in the latter part of 1991, and a final version (after revisions) was made ready by May 1992. The book finally appeared in 1993, and by the next year its initial impact had made itself felt. I am informed that in the discussion of my candidacy at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, in 1994, it was referred to on several occasions.

9What did this book hope to accomplish in relation to the historiographical context in which it emerged? First, it was intended as a statement regarding the importance of the Asian and East African historical context for any understanding of the Portuguese empire, and to this extent placed itself in the tradition of critiquing Eurocentrism that went back at least to J. C. van Leur. This position had been reaffirmed by Jean Aubin in his many essays, where he creatively read the Portuguese sources together with those produced in the Islamic world. In the case of East Asia, scholars such as George Elison (Jurgis Elisonas) and John E. Wills had also made some notable contributions in this spirit (Elison 1973; Wills 1984). However, this view had not been taken on board by the majority of Portuguese scholars writing before 1980 and only with the emergence of Thomaz and his “school” in the 1980s had some clear steps been taken in this direction. Second, the book was intended as a critique of the neo-Weberian approach to the Portuguese empire that had emerged in the 1970s under the influence of the Danish historian Niels Steensgaard (1973) and the New Zealander Michael Pearson (1976). These historians, whose work had assumed the form of an orthodoxy in the English-speaking world by the 1980s, somewhat idealized the East India Companies, contrasting their Protestant “modernity” to the “medieval” Catholicism of the Portuguese.

10Pearson’s characterization of the contrast is nothing short of astonishing: “The model of the English and the Dutch in India in the seventeenth century is instructive here, and indeed one Portuguese viceroy in the 1630s envied them, for they had no forts at all. In India the Dutch and English East India companies traded peacefully, with armed force present only as a rarely used backup in exceptional cases” (Pearson 1987, 75). Steensgaard’s work had been strongly criticized by the Dutch archivist and historian Meilink-Roelofsz (1980), and he seems to have retreated somewhat from his views; but Pearson had continued to propagate his ideas in a more and more simplistic form in works such as his short book The Portuguese in India (Pearson 1987). A third, more general and methodological, point was one that I developed in a 1992 essay, devoted not to the Portuguese but to the Mughal empire. There I argued that the fatal flaw in the usual treatment of empires was the insistent search for an essential “structure” rather than an understanding of historical “process” (Subrahmanyam 1992). This structural view of empire persisted in many works of a general nature, which failed to understand the extent to which the Portuguese empire in Asia changed over the two centuries from 1500 to 1700.

11The fourth point, by no means the least significant, was in regard to concrete historical practice. Over the recent decades, distinct strands of treatment had grown up with regard to the Portuguese empire in Asia, which often ignored one another. Historians in British and American universities barely stayed up to date with what was published in Lisbon or Coimbra or maintained serious contacts with their Lusophone or Francophone colleagues. The claim in the Portuguese Empire in Asia was that it drew together these varying strands, reconciling them where possible, and was attempting to produce a synthesis of the best work in the Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone traditions. All these factors made it very different, in terms of design, argument and content, from John Russell-Wood’s popular history of the Portuguese empire that appeared in the same year (Russell-Wood 1993).

12I regret to say that I did not keep a careful account of the reviews of the book that appeared. By a rough estimate, there would have been about a dozen reviews in English and French, in addition to a review roundtable in the International Journal of Maritime History, with five participants and a response by me (McPherson et al. 1993). Some of these reviews were written by specialists such as Anthony Disney and Geneviève Bouchon, others by generalists with an interest in empires or the Indian Ocean. As might have been expected, these attempted to evaluate both the strengths and weaknesses of the work. It would be tedious to deal with these reviews in detail, so I shall limit myself to a few remarks. Disney, whose review is one of the most intelligent, acknowledges that “Subrahmanyam’s book is certainly the best informed and most accomplished general overview since Boxer’s classic work. It incorporates a large body of new research material dating right up to the early 1990s; and it also provides a substantial reinterpretation of the internal logic of the Portuguese presence in Asia, over two centuries”. He further adds that “Subrahmanyam has developed a more detailed, more sophisticated and more balanced periodisation for the history of Portugal in Asia than has previously been available. Within this framework he portrays the Portuguese presence as an intricate pattern of relationships and interests, constantly adjusting to a range of currents and counter currents, both internal and external” (Disney 1994). But Disney also has several criticisms to make. He remains unconvinced by the argument regarding the “Castilianisation of Portuguese imperialism” between 1570 and 1610; he sees the book as too focused on the eastern rather than the western part of the Indian Ocean; and he also finds a disconcerting lack of emphasis on Catholic missions, which he views as crucial to the Portuguese empire. Other reviewers also pointed to aspects that might have been developed further, notably the role of the East India Companies after 1600; and some Hispanophone scholars pointed to the somewhat uneven coverage of literature on the Spanish empire.

13Two somewhat more assertive criticisms also appeared by historians who had been closely associated in their own work on Goa and western India more generally. One was not unexpectedly from Michael Pearson, who complained that the book was “tilting at windmills”, instead of addressing “recent major comparative and theoretical works [that] have provided extended and novel discussions of the Portuguese in Asia […] especially of Philip Curtin, Immanuel Wallerstein, and K. N. Chaudhuri” (in McPherson et al. 1993, 220). He did not furnish details of where these “extended and novel discussions” were to be found or what they consisted of, and they still remain a mystery to me. Pearson also made several extraordinary assertions such as that in the book “there are long passages where the Portuguese seem to be operating in a vacuum, unconstrained by Asian forces or influences”, when in fact the book attempts precisely to position itself against such a viewpoint. He also tilted at a few windmills of his own, falsely claiming that “from the account presented here [in the book], one would almost think the Portuguese used only peaceful, commercial methods to achieve their quasi-monopoly, but in fact it was a very bloody affair indeed”.

14The former Jesuit and Goan nationalist historian Teotónio de Souza wrote not one but two reviews (one in English, the other in Portuguese), whose main thrust was to express his dismay that an Indian historian could actually draw on the work of Portuguese scholars such as Thomaz, which he saw as automatically producing a biased and “Portuguese-friendly evaluation” of the empire. De Souza instead commended the tiers-mondisme of the post-independence Indian politician and ideologue K. M. Panikkar and his construction of the “Vasco da Gama Epoch” as an antidote to the “West’s politically and economically-sponsored assessments of the ‘discoveries’ and their aftermath” (in McPherson et al. 1993, 234). Though De Souza’s style of polemics found a fertile political constituency among ultra-nationalists in Goa and India more generally, it cannot be said to have had a real influence on intellectual production in the last three decades. It is difficult for me to evaluate the critical reception in Portugal, in the absence of book reviews from the time. Further complicating matters is the politically motivated polemic that arose after the publication in 1997 of my subsequent book on Vasco da Gama (Sieber 2001), and which may have had a delayed effect on the reception of this earlier work, whose Portuguese translation had appeared from the publisher Difel (Subrahmanyam 1995). At any rate, it is my impression that for whatever reason the Portuguese translation has no longer been on the market for some years.

15In the course of the 1990s, The Portuguese Empire in Asia became something of a standard work of reference in both the Anglophone and the Lusophone worlds, in the latter case largely through the influence of those trained in the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in that period. Eventually, it also achieved the same status in the Francophone world, thanks to its publication in a paperback format in the affordable Seuil-Points edition, which made it accessible even to a student audience (Subrahmanyam 2013). In Anglophone academe, its place was not even usurped by the subsequent publication of general works on the Portuguese empire by authorities such as Malyn Newitt (2005) and Anthony Disney (2009), precisely because these historians wrote descriptive rather than argumentative works, and also chose to treat the whole Portuguese empire rather than focus on the Indian Ocean world. A second English edition appeared from Wiley-Blackwell in 2012, with the correction of a certain number of factual errors and an updating of the bibliography but retaining the same overall architecture and contents.

16It may thus seem that the book has some pretensions to longevity and robustness. But is it at all clear what its intellectual impact really has been? An imperfect measure like Google Scholar suggests that it is quite widely cited (about 850 citations). It is always difficult as an author to answer this question credibly. Besides, some of the obvious avenues are closed, since I have had very few direct students who have worked on the history of the Portuguese empire, with most of them preferring other subjects. For better or for worse, most debates that have taken up my work since the 1990s have tended to focus on the idea of “connected histories”. Is this idea – first set out explicitly in Subrahmanyam 1997 – already present in an embryonic form in the book in 1993? Arguably not. Rather, what was really at issue was how to contextualize the history of an empire, in other words the realization that in order to deal with the Portuguese in Asia, one needed to know about far more than just the Portuguese in Asia. In this sense, it could credibly be argued that a series of works written from the 1990s onwards about the Europeans in Asia – whether they were Portuguese, English, French, or Dutch – have accepted the fundamental premise of the book and provided them with a far richer Asian or East African context. Patronizing stereotypes about “indigenous assistance” in the context of empire, popularized by British historians like Geoffrey Scammell (1980), have at last been given a decent burial.

17At the risk of speculating, I will mention four works in which I see some impact of the book, three by Portuguese historians and one by an Italian scholar. José Alberto Tavim’s monograph on Jews and New Christians in Portuguese Cochin looks closely at the life of a particular community of actors, but places them in a much larger history, both of the Portuguese empire in Asia and of other political entities of the time (Tavim 2003). In so doing, he questions the conventional understandings of this history, tracks a number of interesting individual trajectories, but also tries to understand how the articulation of political space in Cochin worked in this period. Ângela Barreto Xavier’s history of conversion and cultural conflict in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Goa is a detailed analysis of the urban and rural space of the Estado India’s capital (Xavier 2008). Though it draws on missionary archives and materials, it also is careful to frame these in a context provided by political economy. While Xavier contests some aspects of my book, notably on the question of periodization, this is nonetheless a fruitful conversation. The work of the Italian historian Giuseppe Marcocci (2012) is focused on ideological and religious aspects of the Portuguese empire, and thus complements many aspects of my book. Nevertheless, it appears to me that Marcocci – while trained as a European intellectual and religious historian – shows a considerable sensitivity to non-European contexts, be they in relation to Ethiopia or India.

18And finally, the work of Jorge Flores (2015) on relations between the Estado da Índia and the Mughal empire builds on many of the insights in my 1993 book, while at the same time nuancing (and also correcting) them, through his analysis of a large body of material in Portuguese, Spanish and Italian. These works, and other comparable ones, can be fruitfully contrasted to two other bodies of writing that continue to be produced on the early modern Portuguese empire. The first of these are relatively traditional works describing Portuguese imperial actors in a more or less “heroic” mode, which receive sustenance from the continued demand for nationalist histories in Portugal. The other set of work is far more serious and consists essentially of a marriage of history and historical sociology, using approaches such as “world-systems theory”, “quantitative prosopography”, “network theory”, and the like. Despite their current popularity in both Portugal and Brazil, there is some danger in this latter case of remaining entrenched in the sort of profound Eurocentrism that characterized the work of Immanuel Wallerstein and his school.

19Since The Portuguese Empire in Asia was written quite close to the beginning of my publishing career, I have obviously had many occasions to return to its themes and materials, in the form of books as well as essays. For example, the theme of the relationship between the Portuguese and Spanish empires, which was a subject of some contention when the book appeared in 1993, has been dealt with in greater depth in an essay I published as late as 2007 (Subrahmanyam 2007); and I returned to an examination of the Tamil merchants of Melaka and their dealings with the Portuguese in an essay in 2011 (Subrahmanyam 2011). Again, a chance encounter with a handful of documents led me to write an essay about a family of Corsican galley-builders who worked for the Portuguese on the west coast of India in the early sixteenth century (Subrahmanyam 2018). Together with my colleague Muzaffar Alam, I have returned to themes close to Jean Aubin’s heart, and analysed bodies of letters in Arabic from the Portuguese archives, written in Kannur in Kerala, as well as on the Swahili coast (Alam and Subrahmanyam 2019). For me, Portuguese texts and archives from the early modern period are a gift that keeps giving, and since I have the good fortune to have been trained to read them, there is no reason for me to cease using them as a resource. At the same time, while it has occasionally been suggested that I could thoroughly rewrite The Portuguese Empire in Asia, incorporating sizeable elements of social and cultural (especially religious and missionary) history into it, this is not a project that appeals to me at this time. To an extent, books are like children, and we must let them lead their own lives once they have left home.

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Alam, Muzaffar; Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2019). “A Handful of Swahili Coast Letters, 1500-1520”. International Journal of African Historical Studies, 52 (2), pp. 255-281.

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Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2007). “Holding the World in Balance. The Connected Histories of the Iberian Overseas Empires, 1500-1640”. American Historical Review, 112 (5), pp. 1359-1385.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2011). “What the Tamils Said. A Letter from the Kelings of Melaka (1527)”. Archipel, 82, pp. 137-158.

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Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (2018). Empires between Islam and Christianity, 1500-1800. Albany: SUNY Press.

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Xavier, Ângela Barreto (2008). A invenção de Goa. Poder imperial e conversões culturais nos séculos XVI e XVII. Lisbon: Imprensa de Ciências Sociais.

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Sanjay Subrahmanyam, «‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’: On the Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700»Ler História, 79 | 2021, 265-276.

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Sanjay Subrahmanyam, «‘Should auld acquaintance be forgot’: On the Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500-1700»Ler História [Online], 79 | 2021, posto online no dia 20 dezembro 2021, consultado no dia 02 dezembro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Sanjay Subrahmanyam

University of California at Los Angeles, USA

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