How Indian medicine was introduced to Europe

The short answer is: Garcia d’Orta, a brilliant Jewish Portuguese physician, who was a pioneer in so many ways. What was so special about Garcia d’Orta that made the Portuguese inquisition, twelve years after his death, dig up his remains, count the bones to make sure that they got them all, and then burn them and throw them to the Arabian Sea?

Garcia d’Orta was the first European to catalogue Indian medicinal herbs in their native habitat. He spoke Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Latin, Greek and and Arabic, and some knowledge of Persian, Marathi, Konkani, Sanskrit and Kannada. He had a remarkable knowledge of Eastern spices and drugs. He is credited with being the most important figure in pharmacology from the first century to his own time.He was the first European to study snakebites. He was the first to describe the difference between European cholera and Asian cholera.

His most famous for the book he published in Goa on 10 April 1563: Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and materia medica of India and also on some fruits found there, in which some matters relevant to medicine, practice, and other matters good to know are discussed”).  

The book deals with a series of substances, many of them unknown or the subject of confusion and misinformation in Europe at this period. He was the first European to describe Asiatic tropical diseases. He performed an autopsy on a cholera victim, the first recorded autopsy in India. Garcia d’Orta reveals in his writings an unusual independence in face of the usually revered texts of ancient authorities, Greek, Latin and Arabic. The book also includes the first published verses by his friend the poet Luís de Camões, which is considered to be Portugal’s national poet.

Garcia de Orta’s work was recognized across Europe. Translations appeared in Latin and other languages. Large parts of it were included in a similar work published in Spanish in 1578 by Cristóbal Acosta, Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias orientales (“Treatise of the drugs and medicines of the East Indies”).

The book is written as a dialogue between Garcia de Orta and an imaginary colleague, Ruano, who is visiting India and wishes to know more about its drugs, spices and other natural products. It consists of a series of 57 conversations on a similar number of drugs and simples, mostly of vegetable origin but also including items like ivory, diamonds, and the bezoar-stone.

The book is a landmark in the history of materia medica, and it is still quoted as an authority on some of the subjects of which it treats. It is written by a layman. It contains many typographical errors.

The life of Garcia d’Orta

In 1492, Spain expelled its Jewish population as part of the Spanish Inquisition. Tens of thousands of Spanish Jews subsequently fled to Portugal, where King John II granted them asylum in return for payment. In 1493, King John deported several hundred Jewish children to the newly discovered colony of São Tomé, where many of them perished. In 1494, the new king Manuel I of Portugal restored the freedom of the Jews. However, in 1497, under the pressure of from Spain, through the clause Marriage of Isabella, Princess of Asturias, King Manuel I of Portugal decreed that all Jews had to convert to Christianity or leave the country without their children. 2000 Jews were murdered in Lisbon in 1506.

The Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536. It targeted those who had converted from Judaism to Catholicism, the Conversos, also known as New Christians or Marranos, who were suspected of secretly practising Judaism. Between 1536 and 1560, when the Portuguese Inquisition arrived in the Portuguese colony Goa in India, many New Christians found shelter in Goa .    

Garcia (Avraham) d’Orta (1501, or 1502 – 1568) was born in Castelo de Vide to Fernão (Isaac) d’Orta, a merchant, and Leonor Gomes. He had three sisters, Violante, Catarina and Isabel. Their parents were Spanish Jews from Valencia de Alcántara who fled to Portugal during the Spanish expulsion of 1492. They were forced to convert to Christianity in 1497.

The family was sufficiently well-to-do for Garcia d’Orta to study Arts, Philosophy, and Medicine at the Spanish Universities of Salamanca and Alcala de Henares. He returned to Portugal in 1523. He practiced medicine in his hometown until 1526, and in Lisbon, where he became a professor at the university in 1530.  In 1533, d’Orta was elected a member of the University Council. He spent most of his time  on administrative work and in his medical practice in the city. 

It was probably due to the influence of Martim AfFonso de Sousa that d’Orta was able to sail as his personal physician in the fleet of 1534, despite the law which had been enacted two years earlier (14 June 1532) prohibiting any New-Christian from leaving Portugal.On 12 March 1534, d’Orta sailed for Goa in the fleet commanded by his life-long friend and patron, Martim AflFonso de Sousa, Captain-Major of the Indian Ocean in 1534-38, and Governor-General of Portuguese Asia in 1542-45. d’Orta traveled to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Cochin, and other places. In 1538, when Sousa returned to Portugal, Garcia d’Orta settled at Goa, where he soon had a prominent medical practice.

He built a substantial medical practice where he treated Portuguese and Indian patients, including prominent leaders in both communities. He was physician to Portuguese Viceroys and governors of Goa: one of these granted him a lease of the island of Bombay. He was also a close friend and personal physician of Burhan Nizam Shah, Sultan of the Deccan kingdom of Ahmadnagar, and his family. In addition to the money he made from his extensive medical practice, he also owned a ship and traded in materia medica, jewels and precious stones. He made a point of being on friendly terms with learned Muslims and Hindus.

In 1542 he married his cousin, also Jewish by birth who was forced to convert to Christianity. They had two daughters. In 1548 he brought from Portugal to India his mother, and two of his sisters and their husbands, who had been imprisoned as Jews by the Holy Office for a relatively short periods. The relative minor sentence is attributed to a protection by powerful protectors in court circles, such as Martim Affbnso de Sousa, and Dr. Tomaz d’Orta, a distant relative of Garcia, who was personal physician to three successive kings of Portugal.

In 1560 the Inquisition was introduced to the Indian Viceroyalty and an inquisitorial court was opened in Goa. Active persecution against Jews, secret Jews, Hindus and New Christians began. D’Orta and his family preserved an appearance of strict Roman Catholic orthodoxy. He was on good terms with the Jesuits. Garcia died in 1568.

In a confession made by his brother-in-law after Garcia’s death, he stated that Garcia said “that the Law of Moses was the true Law; that they should live therein and keep the feast of Yom Kippur . . . and they should keep the Sabbath on Saturdays, and change into clean shirts and linen on that day, and should light more tapers in the candlesticks than usual, and cleaner, and with more oil. That the prophecies were not yet fulfilled. That Christ was not the son of God; that the Jews had not killed him, but he had died of old age, and he was the son of Miriam and  Joseph.”

His sister Catarina was arrested as a Jew and was burned at the stake for Judaism in Goa in 1569. Garcia himself was posthumously convicted of Judaism. His remains were exhumed and burned in an auto da fé in 1580. The fate of his daughters is not known.

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