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NÓS VISTOS PELOS OUTROS: Um colonialismo corrupto e incompetente (2)


«In the copious free time left over from playing this elaborate game of I-can't-hear-you with their nominal sovereign, the viceroy and his senior officials were free to get on with the real business of the colony: extorting money from all and sundry and dressing up like idiots. Do Couto's descriptions of the pomp and ceremony of the colony are saturated with contempt. The viceroy ventured forth from his palace carried in a sedan chair, heralded by a fanfare of flutes, trumpets and drums and accompanied by a large retinue of flunkeys. As for the circle of hangers-on, do Couto says, their 'velvet capes, doublets and pantaloons of the same, silken hose, gold buckle hat, gilded sword and dagger, cleanshaven faces and high topknots, it seems to me, would have made the good king die of shame'. Meanwhile, the ordinary soldiers stationed in Goa slept in open boats and lived on rotten rice, salted fish and pol1uted water. Military discipline disintegrated: fencing schools became dance studios; impoverished soldiers of lower ranks were seen begging in the streets.

There was a variety of ways in which the rulers of the colony managed to enrich themselves. The most easily observed one was 'old debts' or dividas velhas. The viceroy could, nominally in an emergency, requisition anything he needed - grain, rice, timber from local subjects in return for receipts which could later be cashed in. Getting these certificates redeemed proved to be impossible, and the victims had to sel1 them to the viceroy's favourites at a quarter of their face value. The warships, at least those that were kept in a functional state of repair, spent much of their time sailing up and down the coast shaking down the captains of forts and territories for money. And they charged passing ships so much for berths and provisions that traders would do almost anything to avoid having to put in at a Portuguese-held port.

It was a hell of a way to run an empire. Do Couto's account of the goings-on in Portuguese Asia - which he only managed to distribute after many attempts to suppress publication or steal the manuscript - was told in the form of an imagined dialogue between a veteran soldier who had served in Portugal's Indian colony and a fidalgo who had been its governor-general. At one point the soldier says of the neighbouring Indian rulers: 'If [they] did not have their hands tied, Gentlemen, I am certain this business would have been over long ago - thank God they are kept in rein by the Great Mughal, who menaces their kingdoms. We ought to say masses for his health.

In the event, it was competition from the British and the Dutch that ensured Portugal would become an abbreviated chapter in the colonial history of Asia. What did for the empire was not just the actions of a few reprobates, but the perverse incentives of the entire system. A powerful nobility was spoiled and indulged and given a monopoly on the officerships of the military and the governorships of the colonies. Insulated from competition and accountability, it developed a collective culture of plunder

False Economy – A Surprising Economic History of the World, Alan Beattie, 2009

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