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The Collation

Unsung Travelers: a history of global mobility from below

In March 2017, not long after President Trump stormed into office on a platform decrying “globalists,” the historian Jeremy Adelman published an essay asking whether “the short ride” of global history had come to a bumpy end.1 Lynn Hunt’s 2014 prognostication that global historians would help remake the world in their cosmopolitan image of the past, much as national historians had molded nations, seemed suddenly premature.

Global history was certainly not the first sub-field of the discipline to look beyond the borders of the nation. Still, this new global turn in the discipline was the intellectual handmaiden of a particular set of economic arrangements branded as “globalization” that emerged in the 1980s and which effectively historicized these arrangements, showing “the latticework of exchanges and encounters—from the Silk Road of 1300 to turbo-charged supply chains of 2000.” Beginning with Arjun Appadurai’s call to attend to the social life of things—i.e. their networks and diversions of exchange—global historians have followed the pathways of things instead of attending to the often deeply local class implications of commodity production.2 As Adelman notes, at the same moment Lynn Hunt prophesied a new age made by global history, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014) hit No. 1 on Amazon’s bestseller ranks under the “Fashion and Textile” category.

In this historiography, the traveller became a central figure of concern.3 Yet, as Hari Vasudevan remarked, after the cultural turn, travellers were “of interest for reflecting the ambience from which they derive their assumptions.”4 Historians privileged stories of connection and cosmopolitanism, in which “the distinction between the ‘traveller,’ the ‘explorer,’ the ‘migrant’ and diasporas [faded] in a broader concern with societies in movement and how they take their cultural baggage with them.” As travellers became bearers of cultures in movement, other mediating factors in their experience, including class, receded from analytical view.

Reading this historiography in our present moment, it is hard to deny Adelman’s critique that global history has been an elitist form of world-making that reflects the “cosmopolitan self-yearnings,” not to mention the class position, of historians themselves. The pandemic has only underscored the dangers and inequalities inherent in a globally-connected world. Discontent with the inequality that has attended “globalization” and a turn towards populist nationalism has marked global politics even before COVID-19 upended our world. Yet, Adelman’s call to abandon the “hubristic” desire to turn all histories into global or transnational histories and to attend to “the left behind, the ones who cannot move, and those who become immobilized” recreates a false binary between the privileged and the immobile. As the Mediterranean’s ghostly graves, the polyglot immigrant detention centers of the west, and the roadside graves of India’s internal migrants from the first lockdown attest, it is not only the elite who must travel.

What might a history of travel look like from this vantage point? For one, it must involve expanding our definition of travel narratives—very few travellers, particularly in the pre-modern world, had the socio-literary resources to fashion their experiences into written form. Secondly, it involves understanding the terrain they traversed and the obstacles to and opportunities for mobility that it afforded.

Here’s a different kind of travel account. On October 2, 1689, Francisco Fernandez of the fishermen caste, born and resident in Bardez, appeared before the Inquisition in Goa. He claimed that about five years prior an African [cafre] who belonged to him, baptised Paulo, had fled to “the land of the infidels.” He had recently seen this same Paulo, who was living in the house of the Mughal ambassador, dressed in a Muslim headdress and robe [toca e cabaya]. This sighting was corroborated by Fernandez’s neighbors in the parish. Paulo had also revealed to them that he was married to a Muslim woman living in Surat.

fol. 2v. Image courtesy of Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo

Two months later, Pero Fernandes confirmed Fernandez’s story, adding that Paulo had fled during the upheaval of “the wars of Sambhaji.” (Sambhaji’s forces overran Salcete and Bardez in December 1683.5)  He added that the same “cafre” had revealed that he had come on the boat of the Mughal ambassador. Andre de Mesquita claimed that Paulo had revealed that he had a son with his Muslim wife. Lastly, Bernardo de Souza, confirming these details, added that he had seen Paulo dressed in Muslim clothes and without a rosary around his neck [sem contas ao pescoço].

On December 8th, Paulo was arrested and in his first interrogation he revealed that his Muslim name, prior to his baptism, had been “Sidiassem Vacanadi,” suggesting that he was a Gujarati man of African origin. The inquisitors took pains to reconstruct the youth’s genealogy, uncovering that he was born to one Tagi Bibi and an unknown father, now deceased. He had one sister, twelve years old and already married, and an older brother, “Sidi Salami,” married and settled in Surat. He himself was married to “Lacamy” (Lakṣmī, her name suggesting her status as a convert, which was also hinted by the inquisitorial classification of her as a “mourisco”). Their son “Humarea” was eighteen months old.

fol. 3r. “Sidiassem Vacanadi” Image courtesy of Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo

Paulo was enslaved when he had gone as a merchant to Pate, one of the most powerful polities of the Swahili coast and a crucial nexus for trade between Africa and India, which also included trade in enslaved people. He was captured by the Portuguese and brought to Goa, where he was sold to Fernandez, in whose house he learnt the catechism. He was baptised around the age of fifteen or sixteen in the church of Penha França. Though not yet confirmed, he kept Christian observances correctly, attending mass and avoiding communion, until the occasion when he saw the Mughal ambassador in January of 1683, accompanied by his brother, who was serving as the muqaddam (headman) of a boat. Even though he had doubts since he was already a Christian, he eventually resolved to return to Surat to assuage his longing [para matar a sua saudade] for his mother and relatives. After a month in Surat, persuaded by his mother, he returned to the Islamic faith in which he had been raised by reciting the šahādah (transcribed as “ila ilalálá mamede rezulalá”). He then married Lakṣmī, to whom he had been engaged before his fateful voyage to Pate, in accordance with Muslim custom. Perhaps lulled into a false sense of safety due to his employment in the household of the Mughal ambassador, he had returned to Goa where he was arrested.

On January 15 1689, he revealed the exact circumstances of his capture. In 1678, he had sailed from Surat to Pate and from there he passed to Mombasa, where he was living in the house of some Muslims native to that land. While in Mombasa, a gang of native Christians and Muslims was assembled, who were to accompany the Portuguese Vice-Roy’s armada on an expedition to Pate. (The Portuguese reprisal of 1678 against the Sultanate of Pate for supporting the Omanis ended in failure and the Portuguese were forced to withdraw. It also led to the execution of many subjects of the Sultan who were implicated in the plot.6) However, because the Muslims in whose house he had sheltered fled, they captured Paulo and “four other cafres, on whose account he understood he was captured.” He then passed into the hands of a Frenchman, who was engaged as a pilot for the return voyage to Goa, where he resided. During the five or six months he remained in Mombasa before returning to India, Sidi Asim had been baptized. From Africa, he was taken to “Nelur”7 (Nellore, an important trading entrepot for the surrounding European factories, then in the territory of the Golkonda Qutb Shahis). There, he remained for a few months in the house of a Portuguese man named Sebastião Gonzalez. Following that, he was sold to the fisherman Fernandez, whose denunciation had brought him before the Inquisition. Asked why he had said he had been baptized in Bardez, when it appeared he had already been baptized in Mombasa, Sidi Asim responded with fear that he did not remember [atinar] well what he said. His entreaties for mercy were to no avail: he was transported to Lisbon where he was sentenced to appear in the auto-da-fé of October 20, 1689. Whether he ever returned to his beloved family in Surat, or saw his infant son again, remains unknown.

Like other inquisitorial documents, the record of Sidi Asim’s trial is elliptical. (The dubious circumstances of his capture, for example, which he blames upon the Africans in whose company he found himself, begs the question as to his own involvement in the activities of his Mombasan hosts who fled before the Portuguese captured him. Since in his first deposition he had claimed to have been in Pate to trade, he presumably had little incentive to join a punitive Portuguese expedition against the polity upon which his business depended.) Despite these caveats, this much seems certain: a Muslim Gujarati man of African descent and a relatively well-connected subject of the Mughal empire was eventually enslaved further south along the same coast of which he was a native by a Goan Christian, a fisherman by caste and occupation, and a subject of the Portuguese empire. Moreover, his life was marked by constant mobility: as an Indian Ocean merchant, as an enslaved man shuttled between European factory towns on India’s coast, as a maroon who made his way back to his native Gujarat, as a member of a diplomatic entourage deputed to Portuguese Goa, and then as a prisoner banished to Lisbon, Sidi Asim/Paulo travelled the world.

What does this voyage reveal to us about the history of travel? For one, it alerts us to the history of elite attempts to curb mobility. If the Inquisition was troubled by the possibility of apostasy afforded by mobility, secular authorities were equally intent on curbing subaltern travel. In 1618, for example, the Senate of the city of Goa passed a series of ordinances which described slaves as roving menaces and ordered boatmen to post a bond to the municipal clerk because of the many slaves who had crossed over to non-Portuguese territory in the past with money, stolen objects, and even weapons.8

The Portuguese also sought and received the cooperation of indigenous authorities in curbing mobility. The diplomatic correspondence between Portuguese Goa and its neighbors is full of requests, by both parties, regarding the management of runaway and travelling subjects. For example, on December 17, 1747, Jñanlingaye Navaru, the Sarsubhedar or head administrator of Ponda under the Sunda kings, wrote in Marathi to the Portuguese Secretary of State regarding a demand to hand over two runaway African slaves [khāpri, derived from kāfir]. When they were found, they argued that they were owned by one Francis who, having boarded a ship, gave them a paper allowing them to find a job to fill their stomachs wherever they could. Ignoring their claims, the Sunda official handed them over to the Portuguese.9

Despite these efforts, the legacies of runaway slaves is apparent across the landscape of the southwestern coast of India. Shrines dedicated to deities called khaprideva attract worshippers along the coast of Maharashtra, Goa, and Karnataka, while kappiri mutappan in Kochi is a legacy of the city’s past as an emporium for African slaves. In these shrines, runaway slaves of African descent are commemorated obliquely, even when popular memory and mainstream historiography are largely blind to their presence in the past.

It is landscapes like this, defined by histories of subaltern mobility, that requires historicization. These voyages, often undertaken out of fear and predicated on violence, are a testament to the creative spatial practices of historical actors attempting to escape the strictures that confined them. Following the pathways of these travellers allows us to see the porosity and fragility of political boundaries asserted by elites and to free our geographical imaginations which are too often beholden to such fictions of power.

  1. Jeremy Adelman, “What is global history now?” Aeon, 2 March 2017. Available online: Accessed: October 15, 2018.
  2. Arjun Appadurai, “Introduction: commodities and the politics of value,” in Appadurai, ed., The Social Life of Things. Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 1986).
  3. In 1998, the Folger held an exhibition entitled “Mapping Early Modern World,” which mined in particular the Folger’s extensive collection of travel narratives.
  4. Hari Vasudevan, “The Solitude of Afanasii Nikitin in his ‘Voyage over the Three Seas,’” India International Quarterly, Vol. 30, No. ¾ (2003-2004): 74. The correctness of this description can be seen from such exemplary works as: Joan-Pau Rubiés, Travel and Ethnography in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250-1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Muzaffar Alam and Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Indo-Persian Travels in the Age of Discoveries: 1400-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  5. Mémoires de François Martin, Fondateur de Pondichéry (1665-1696), ed. A. Martineau (Paris: Société d’éditions géographiques, maritimes, et coloniales, 1932): p. 337-338.
  6. Randall Pauwels, “Reflections on Historiography and Pre-Nineteenth-Century History from the Pate ‘Chronicles,'” History in Africa, Vol. 20 (1993), pp. 263-296.
  7. My thanks to Bruno Miranda for his help in decoding this word. Any error in transcription is my own.
  8. Goa State Historical Archives, MS 7795 “Livro de Posturas (1808-1832)”: fls. 14-15v; fls. 16-17v; fls. 59-60.
  9. Goa Historical Archives, Goa Daftar 583. Reproduced in Purabhilekh-Puratatva: Journal of the Directorate of Archives, Archaeology and Museum, Goa, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Jan-June 1984): 78