Orfaas del Rei

Posted by Maddy Labels:

I have always wondered if the Portuguese themselves had a hand at cementing the dowry system and color consciousness into the Malabari cultural fabric!! And then I remembered the fine movie ‘Vasthavam’ starring Prithviraj where the dowry for the suitor is a Government (clerical) job at the Secretariat in Trivandrum. All this sounded suspiciously similar to some customs the Portuguese followed…Here is the story.

The acute shortage of women amongst the ranks kept the Portuguese of the 16th century a dissatisfied lot, but they were not allowed to marry locally at first. Goa was even worse, they had some 2000 unmarried ‘Soldado’ soldier Europeans, mainly Portuguese, during 1580-1600. The Portuguese tried to bring women in from Lisbon, but were not successful with the virgin recruitment (Orfaes del Rei - orphans of the king) and the ladies sent in 1636 were of ‘questionable reputation’. Now the intention was to find them decent husbands, at the same time preventing Portuguese liaisons with Indian women. Such women were sometimes provided dowries by the Lisbon authorities in the form of government jobs for the husbands; after they returned (one example is the governor of Cranganore). The funny thing was that it became too popular in 1627 and so the order for such appointments was limited to a 3 year job stint!! (The Portuguese in India By Frederick Charles Danvers)

The Orphas had to be white & Roman Catholic and children of people who had died fighting the ‘Muslim’, between the ages 15-30 and good looking (Women in Iberian Expansion Overseas, 1415-1815 By Charles Ralph Boxer). They were typically from the orphanages in Lisbon and Oporto (even Coimbra). Jewish girls were not admitted. Since 1686, mixed blood girls were admitted, though a decree banning it had originally been issued. While the quantities appear large, the numbers of girls dispatched from Lisbon did not cross a 100 and were at 30 on the lower count. When the mixture started to become more of a non virgin nature, the Archbishop Menses of Goa intervened and established a ‘retirement house’ in Goa where those dubious types, who agreed to repent were boarded.

Nevertheless, the Orphas had a tough time. Many did not survive child birth in the tropics and many of the lot were too ugly though virtuous and were unable to find husbands (Boxer). Some could not find husbands as suitors complained that the dowry (government position) was too low. Denis Kincaid in his book British Social life even states that some of the Virgin ships were pirated by Muslim pirates of the Arabian sea and the girls chained and sent off to slave markets in Surat! Some were picked up by local Dutch or English officials; some went into Mughal Harems or local King’s Harems. The famous beauty of Surat, Donna Lucia was one such orphan bride.

It was much later that single virgin Dutch girls were dispatched to Cochin by the VOC since European women continued to be at a premium. Such ships bringing in Dutch virgins were called maiden ships. Eligible virgins were recruited from orphanages in Netherlands. They were then made available to higher ranked officials though the lower ranked were forced to marry locally. In Ceylon, servants were enticed to marry their Dutch masters, but such relations were not enduring (The Arabian Seas - By R. J. Barendse). VOC called them company daughters.

Anyway there were too few white women of virtue and beauty so; both the Portuguese and the Dutch resorted to the local populace. However the English who came last were decidedly lucky. They bought the ‘Women of the Raj’ or shall I say the dreadful weather of England ensured that the women went out to warmer climes? It is a long story best explained in the book ‘Women of the Raj’ by Margaret McMillan. They were also distinctly lucky to create the community called Anglo Indians or Eurasians by their might as rulers.

Tarling (Cambridge history of SE Asia) says that Albuquerque finally encouraged his staff in 1510 to find and marry ‘beautiful Aryan type’ women (The fairer kind is what he meant – this has been confirmed by Thomas Brady) who could be converted and thus form a corps loyal to the Portuguese. Siexo states that these fair women were usually from the defeated Moslem households since Brahmins and Kshatriyas refused to allow this to happen in their households. While this was frowned on by Lisbon, the Portuguese commoner went ahead with the idea. Thus they became ‘Casados’ or married men and their children Mesticos (Reinols were the purebred ones). These Portuguese or their offspring who remained behind became the interpreters and help for the Dutch who came in later.

The Dutch decided after seeing the Portuguese experiments and the failure with respect to virgin recruitments that their men could marry locally, but after getting an agreement that the women and offspring accepted Christianity.

Some funny things came out of these unions – The clergy found that some of these casados had picked up strange habits like holding their tumblers and pouring liquid into their mouths without the rim touching the lip. This was a far distance from the first voyages when Vasco de Gama publicly whipped three Portuguese women who were stowaways in the 1524 voyage to India, whereas Cabral brought his wife with him.

I also assume that this insistence of keeping the fair damsel in high stead by Albuquerque resulted in strengthening the complex in South India with respect to color. The gainers from this vanity, of course, were the entrepreneurs who make creams that make your skin a few shades lighter, to this day…

Why did the Portuguese fail in Malabar? And why did they become so hated a community? It was mainly their refusal to integrate, their disdain for local culture and practice, their apparently cruel ways, their insistence on people converting and their pathological refusal to learn any local tongue. They even planned to eliminate the local languages and substitute it with Portuguese, such was their gall!! The saving grace was when the papacy in Rome made it very clear that any priest had to know the local language, rightfully so (A History of Christianity in India - By Stephen Neill). Can you believe that in Portuguese Cochin and Goa, women had to wear veils at one time, were zealously guarded by men folk or even black eunuchs?

About the Anglo Indians, in another post



  1. Calicut Heritage Forum

    Great post! What a fascinating summary of the deliberate miscegenation policy of the Portuguese! It has been suggested that apart from physical needs, ecclesiastical demands may also have contributed to the encouragement of mixed marriages.
    Incidentally, the Portuguese practised a rigid caste system (the word 'caste' is Portuguese !): the highest caste among them was those who came from Europe 'Portuguese from Portugal'; next are those born in India of a Portuguese father and mother and they were called 'Castiri'; and the lowest caste was the child of a Portuguese and an Indian parent, called 'Mestice'.
    The Portuguese interpretors and the mischief they played in the relations between the local rulers and the English is itself the topic of research.
    Look forward to your post on Anglo-Indians. There was this old colonial joke: 'necessity is the mother of invention and the father of the Eurasian!!'

  1. Unknown

    Great blog!! Impressed with this blog of yours...

  1. Maddy

    that was very interesting indeed CKR, that the word caste came from the parangi..the end quote was a classic!!

    thanks neelakantan..

  1. Sunil Deepak

    "Why did the Portuguese fail in Malabar? And why did they become so hated a community? It was mainly their refusal to integrate, their disdain for local culture and practice, their apparently cruel ways, their insistence on people converting and their pathological refusal to learn any local tongue." - This reminded me of some Indian communities in East Africa. No they don't try to convert anyone and they do know local language, but do remain segregated and close-knit!

    Thanks for a very interesting post.

  1. harimohan


    happnd to step into your historical alleys
    will not miss anymore posts

  1. Nikhil Narayanan

    Thanks for this post.
    Just discovered http://calicutheritage.blogspot.com/

    Waiting for your post on Anglo Indians.


  1. Maddy

    Thanks Sunil - you are quite right and the Indians in Africa remained tightly knit due to specific reasons of the apartheid regimes!

    Thanks Hari and Nikhil & thanks JK@Varnam for listing this on History Carnival.