Apart from the first four years of my life in Germany, a few months in Bombay and a decade in the UK, I’ve lived most of my life in the house I call home today.
But although growing up hearing stories about the family history, and being vaguely aware of the fact it once was the Mint (Casa da Moeda), my curiosity about the actual building did not extend much further. I do not recall wondering when it was built, and by whom, and to what purpose, how it would have looked then, and how well or badly the ravages of Time have treated it.
My first conscious thoughts about the history of the house must have begun in 2009, after my wife Chryselle thought up the idea of celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Casa da Moeda; little did I then know it would turn out to be an annual ritual for some years, and something that with renewed support we would gladly want to revive.
We had just returned from England the year before, so I was new to the whole area of research on Goan history. I turned first to Padre M. J. Gabriel de Saldanha’s História de Goa, Política e Arqueológica (second edition, 1925). He mentions (but doesn’t date or give further details) the original owner of the building as João Batista Goethalis. He then cites its successive owners: the Fazenda Pública; one António Inácio da Silva of Santa Cruz; the Royal Mint (Casa da Moeda) from 1834 to 1841; and without offering any explanation for the hiatus, he says it was leased (by da Silva’s family?) to the telegraph offices of the English, from 1865 to 1902. And in 1904, Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias (my great-grandfather) bought the house for his private residence.
But I was still no wiser about the actual age of the house, although it must have been around for some decades before 1834.
Also, the surname Goethalis caught my attention for two reasons: One, it is an unusual surname for Goa at least today; a little research into its genealogy suggested it to be of Flemish origin. Second, the road passing by the house and curving around today’s Corina Bar and Restaurant before leaving the city was once called Rua or Travessa de Goethalis in the old maps. So whoever he was, he was a man of some prominence to have left such a mark. But what was his claim to fame? Where could I find more information on him? I looked up the literature and spoke to a few people, but nothing definitive turned up.
The trail grew cold, as I got caught up in the research of Casa da Moeda de Goa in general and numismatics, so Goethalis and the building became secondary issues not relevant to the main narrative.
Then I happened upon two references to the man in Celsa Pinto’s 2012 book ‘Economics of the Tobacco Monopolies in Goa, 1674-1856’. He is mentioned among others as having “played an unduly prominent part in the [tobacco] trade”. This made his choice of location for his residence an excellent one; the building was right in the heart of the Largo do Estanco, almost forming the third corner of an equilateral triangle between the buildings of the Estanco Real dos Tabacos (today’s General Post Office and the Office of the Postmaster General). It was then pretty much a riverside building, close to several quays and docks vital to the tobacco trade that flourished between Goa and Brazil well into the early decades of the 1800s, slumping into decline after Brazil declared independence in 1822. And it is a short walk away from the residence of the Mhamai Kamats who handled a large part of the trade.
In its heyday, before neighbouring buildings mushroomed around it, it had its land entrance on its south side (rather than the present-day entrance on its west side), and presumably a riverine entrance as well on its north side. The stone plaque “CASA DA MOEDA 1834” was situated above its former southward land entrance, before my father had it transferred to its present location in the verandah in 1970 as it had become obscured from view. And the structure of the house, with metal pillars on its river-facing side rather than the masonry arches on its west side, probably attest to its having access by river as well as by land. The river Mandovi was much broader, and its south bank extended a lot closer to the house than it does at present, after several reclamations.
Then Ernestine Carreira’s 2014 book ‘Globalising Goa (1660-1820): Change and exchange in a former capital of empire’ shed even further light on this elusive historical figure. He makes several cameo appearances in the book.
We first learn that João Batista Goethalis (also spelt variously as Jean-Baptiste Goethals and other forms) was Flemish (confirming my hunch), from a family settled in Calcutta (nephew of its bishop, in fact), and married a “noblewoman of Portuguese descent”. He fitted ships for Mozambique, Gujarat and Macau. He founded his own trading company in Goa “in or around 1790”, during which time he lived in the building described as “one of the opulent houses in Panjim.” At last, a date! The house had to be at least as old as 1790, if not some years older.
He surfaces in Surat, being appointed director of the Portuguese feitoria in that Mughal territory in 1806 (on account of his “perfect English”, a prerequisite from then on in Surat) by the Governador da Estada da Índia, Francisco António da Veiga Cabral, but a position Goethalis held for a mere few months before being replaced by a new consul from Portugal. But in those months he obtained permission to build a chapel there so that residents could observe mass said by priests from the Padroade rather than the Propaganda Fide.
But Carreira delivers the kicker about him in her last reference to Goethalis, under the subheading ‘Mozambique and Goa in the rise of a globalised slave trade (1770-1820): The dynamics of a favourable trade.’
You guessed it: Goethalis was also heavily invested in the slave and ivory trade. He (and one Joaquim Mourão Garcez Palha) made efforts to revive the slave trade after the British put an end to it (at least in their territories) in 1815. The last documented shipment of 119 slaves to Goa, along with a large cargo of ivory, was made on the grotesquely ill-named ‘Nossa Senhora do Socorro’, in 1819. It is a sombre aspect to the history of the house I had really not expected to find.
What became of Goethalis? Did he die in Goa? Is he buried here? Who knows?
(An edited version of this article was published on 7 May 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)