The Lisbon quay juts into water veined with silver cloud-light. Here, on the Ribeira das Naus, the river Tagus expands and churns, then disgorges itself into the Atlantic.

I stand outside a dried salt-cod warehouse from the 1940s. Now the Museu do Oriente, it marks Portugal’s presence, from the 1500s, in Goa, Japan, Macau, and Timor.

The bright shock of riverside sun gives way to dark galleries inside. In climate-controlled vitrines is a bronze Virgin Mary from Mughal India. A cedar wood sculpture from Goa of Saint Francis Xavier. A Nanban painting from Edo Japan of Portuguese merchants. They are mostly from the 1600s, before Portugal’s eclipse in Asia by the Dutch, French, and British.

A glancing mention catches my eye. Of a Goan goldsmith brought to Lisbon five centuries ago. In 1518, Raulu Chatim – referred to here as Rauluchantim in the museum – disembarked at the river Tagus.

Yet Raulu Chatim is an absent presence. He made jewellery for Portugal’s King Manuel. But nothing of him remains: no objects, no biography, and no story.

I browse the museum’s items. These do tell a story: one that is brittle, needing its own protective vitrine. On a gallery wall is a text panel that preempts political qualms. It tersely downplays the fact that “Europe exerted cultural hegemony over Asia”. It asserts, “There was, instead, a process of convergence and transculturality.”

The museum’s tortoiseshell and ivory objects thus narrate hybridity and heterogeneity. Raulu Chatim’s presence in Lisbon, and Asian creations made for imperial patrons, signal Europe’s openness to cultural fusion.

I wonder, though. Can we separate the product from the person, what we appreciate and what we annihilate? Is Raulu Chatim’s story not one of obliging mixture but of the politics of purity?

Vasco da Gama leaves for India in 1497. Credit: Roque Gameiro, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

On this June afternoon, the air is clotted with moisture. I walk along the Ribeira das Naus to Lisbon’s centre. It is here that Raulu Chatim arrives in 1518 with Portuguese armadas.

His fleet depends upon trade winds. Ships sail in galleons and carracks from Lisbon in spring and early summer. Pilots time their journey to bend around southern Africa’s Cape. All to catch the southwest winds going from East Africa to Asia, and arrive in India by the autumn.

Raulu Chatim catches the return journey. This begins in early winter, with the northwest monsoon winds. Leaving India in January, armadas return to Iberia in summer. This circuit is the carreira da Índia or the “India Run”.

Portuguese envoy Vasco da Gama, just 20 years earlier in 1498, has landed in Kerala. Da Gama marks Europe’s modern rise in the scramble for eastern products. Cutting out Venetian and Mamluk intermediaries for Asian goods, da Gama’s landing in India revolutionises Portugal.

By 1505, a Portuguese feitoria or factory, as trading posts were known, is in Cochin. Five years later, the Portuguese trounce Adil Shah and establish a colony in Goa. Pepper, the most lucrative commodity-spice, floods Lisbon.

As Raulu Chatim comes ashore in 1518, crown revenues from this traffic reach 97 million réis. That same decade, wealth from overseas extraction outstrips Portugal’s domestic revenues.

King Manuel knows how his bread is buttered; he moves his Lisbon court from hilltop castle to river. A royal residence, the Ribeira Palace, is flanked by the infrastructure of Estado da Índia: Portugal’s eastern empire.

Manuel has his royal apartments built atop the Casa da Índia: the centralised entity that siphons India’s wealth into his treasury. In this counting-house, crown personnel fix prices, log deliveries, weigh cargoes, audit merchants, manage convoys and collect duties.

Adjacent along the quay is the Armazém da Índia. There, ships from India moor, and have their arsenals replenished. Portugal’s empire, in this way, is Manuel’s strolling grounds along the Tagus.

Raulu Chatim arrives in Lisbon in boom times. Returning carracks disgorge camphor, cloves, nutmeg, saffron, pearls, incense, silk, and myrrh. Renaissance chronicler Damião de Góis observes the hectic activity at Casa da Índia.

Its treasurers, inspectors, and appraisers are inundated by the sheer volume of Asian goods. Waiting merchants are dismissed – “come back another day” – though laden with silver and gold. De Góis writes of how “they didn’t have time to count it all”.

Raulu Chatim arrives in an Iberia suffused by tarnished types and elevated nobility. In his fleet, the returning cargo include persons turned into products: 10% of Lisbon’s population in the 1500s are slaves.

Many come from West Africa, where Portugal establishes colonial stations through the 1400s. The Portuguese enslave Arabs and Blacks via Cape Verde, São Tomé, and Ghana. As Portugal’s global reach expands in the 1500s, women and children from China, Japan, and Korea are bought and sold in Portugal; some are coerced into sexual slavery.

As Raulu Chatim’s ship docks on the Tagus, Moorish arraíses or boatswains work the river ferries. Black female regateiras, street vendors, stroll the waterfront with pots of rice pudding, couscous and chickpeas.

To get fresh water from Lisbon’s fountains, Raulu Chatim needs the services of Black women, negras do pote, who carry water pots. To dispose of excrement and refuse, he will rely upon African women – negras de canastra – who lug wicker baskets through Lisbon. When he requires precious metals or stones from the Casa da Índia, slaves will shift the bales.

Raulu Chatim isn’t a vendor, concubine or cook. A skilled craftsman, he is the H1B visa-holder of his day. He joins other Asians in Lisbon, such as Indian cabinet makers, now in demand.

Before 1518, Raulu Chatim worked for Afonso de Albuquerque. This is the Portuguese admiral who strengthens da Gama’s foothold, and is Goa’s first viceroy. Then the goldsmith from Goa catches King Manuel’s attention.

By the early 1500s, overseas wealth is inflating social status in Manuel’s court. Ornaments bolster fictions of power. Decoration helps the aspiring to advance. New titles are created, and the class of fidalgos, or nobility, enlarged.

Raulu Chatim works away, making products that enhance the person. He cannot be unaware that visible symbols are social armour. Manuel’s cortège through Lisbon, for instance, entails a whole animal menagerie.

Trumpets and drums prod a procession of elephants in gold brocade, a rhinoceros, an Arabian horse, and jaguar. Manuel is not content to walk behind with his court. He broadcasts the fortunes of Estado da Índia across Europe, dispatching in 1514 a white Indian elephant to the pope.

How does Raulu Chatim experience this Europe 500 years ago? What does it feel like to find your talent endorsed as your world is usurped?

We cannot know. His experience is lost, his impressions an enigma. All we know is that Raulu Chatim is in Lisbon to make for others; his talent transmutes into objects of European desire.

The Cantino planisphere, completed by an unknown Portuguese cartographer in 1502. Credit: anonymous Portuguese (1502), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Exactly when Raulu Chatim works in Lisbon, Hernán Cortes heads a Spanish expedition to Mexico. He will kidnap Montezuma and besiege the Aztec capital. Yet this is not just a story of plunder.

In Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, he dwells on Cortes’ appreciation of Aztec products. True, the conquistadors will systematically destroy that civilisation. Yet, Cortes does not disparage the Aztecs as primitive or simple-minded; he sees, rather, that they are sophisticated, capable of intelligent design.

Cortes writes to the Spanish court. On Aztec architecture: “their city was indeed the most beautiful thing in the world”. Fabrics and jewellery are of “high quality”, of “such varied and natural colours”, “so well constructed”, “so realistic in gold and silver that no smith in the world could have made better”.

How can you appreciate the other, then destroy them? For Todorov, the key is when objects are abstracted from humans. Colonialism severs the link between person and product. Detach creator from creation, and everything is permitted. Todorov writes of the Spaniard “understanding-that-kills”: they reduce Aztecs to the “status of object”.

The Portuguese battle the Spaniards for territorial supremacy. They seem to be in perpetual disagreement. Yet their vision is identical.

Vasco da Gama’s journal of his 1498 arrival in Kerala echoes Cortes. His counterparts in India, da Gama notes, wear “fine linen or cotton”, dress with “rich and elaborate workmanship”, are surrounded by “precious stones, pearls, and spices”.

Da Gama is more proprietary on his second visit to Kerala in 1502. Jewish scribe Gaspar Corrêa, travelling alongside, describes da Gama’s actions. The Portuguese have entered an aquatic emporium in the Indian Ocean where Arab Muslims are key brokers. They impede King Manuel’s demand for a trade monopoly to Europe.

Already, the Portuguese loathe Muslims, after decades invading North Africa, and centuries of Moorish rule in Iberia. Off of Kerala, they become da Gama’s enemy and obsession. Da Gama bombards Calicut, intercepts merchants and executes hostages.

Then the Portuguese kidnap a fleet of many Muslims. Corrêa hears da Gama’s orders: “cut off the hands and ears and noses of all the crews”, break “their teeth with staves”, set their ships “on fire”. The charred, bloody hostages drift to shore. A crowd douses the flames, extracting survivors, Corrêa observes, with “great lamentations”.

On the same journey, da Gama has a Hindu emissary of Calicut’s Zamorin ruler burnt with embers. His lips are cut off. The Brahmin’s appendages are “strung around his neck”; he is dumped on a boat for shore. Da Gama lades his package with sarcasm for the Zamorin: with the body parts “have a curry made to eat”.

A shared mentality dismembers others and extols their creations. It is as if da Gama replays Cortes’ sequence. Admiration, then eradication.

A reliquary chest at the Museum of Christian Art in Goa. Fredericknoronha, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Purification is intrinsic to the goldsmith’s material craft. Raulu Chatim will know that base alloys dilute gold’s sheen, and how to use fire to extrude impurities.

Purification also drives colonialism; refining and distilling are central to the political craft of loyalty and reward. Purity is thus where Raulu Chatim’s art and origins entwine.

Raulu Chatim is said to return to Goa in 1520. He has done what he must: make products that amplify patrons.

On his return journey, on the armadas to India, are a decreed class of degredado – degraded or impure ones. Subhuman exiles are needed to man Portugal’s maritime machine. Degredados, who include criminals and religious others, conduct dangerous labour on ships, and interface with hostiles.

When Vasco da Gama first arrives in India in 1498, he is rattled after acrimony with Arabs and Africans along the way. He holes up in his ship, leaving a degredado to explain Portuguese intentions in Kozhikode.

In Goa, if Raulu Chatim lives long enough, he will see Portugal, at its global apex, self-destruct in suspicion. Over the 1500s, the confluence of difference has become too much. The Portuguese Inquisition gathers steam: a theatre of purity and power that seeds fear through the empire.

The Inquisition has the auto-da-fé: a ritual of penance. Public performances in Portugal root out Muslim and Jewish converts to Catholicism. Crypto-Jews and crypto-Muslims are said to covertly practice outlawed faiths. After forced confession, torture, and show trials, the accused burn at the stake.

Muslim and Jewish converts are considered New Christians in Portugal. After da Gama’s landing in India, some flee to Goa. But they cannot escape the Inquisition, and are ensnared, after 1560, by the auto-da-fé on India’s western coast.

Locals are also targeted. Amidst coconut palms and banana fields, the Portuguese burn Sanskrit books. Ban the speaking of Konkani. Outlaw offerings to local gods. During Goa’s Inquisition, 16,000 trials are conducted.

The Inquisition is both performance art and political machine. Portuguese soldiers and Jesuit priests enact auto-da-fé processions in Old Goa. In this, they mime King Manuel’s mannered cortège in Lisbon. The auxiliaries of Estado da Índia dress in finery to incinerate the traitorous.

In Old Goa, the Sé Cathedral’s bells toll to mark the spectacle’s start. The accused are dragged up from dungeons in the Palace of the Inquisition opposite. The ash of Indian heretics litters public squares: impure residues burned off the body politic.

People shorn of their affiliations and ambiguities become only product. Not of what they make but what they think. The degredado is no longer an isolate: anyone – Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Christian – can be degraded.

An engraving of the procession of the Goan Inquisition, 1783. Credit: Wellcome Collection, Public Domain.

Walking along the Tagus, I am close to where Manuel’s palace stood. Along with the Casa da Índia, it was flattened in Lisbon’s 1755 earthquake. I envisage the city Raulu Chatim was in, as plural and divided as today.

But my mind drifts back to Goa, where Raulu Chatim likely ended his days. Years ago, I visited Old Goa, where gilt reliquaries – decorative containers for the remains of Catholic saints – abound.

The most famous is Saint Francis Xavier’s tomb in Old Goa’s Basilica of Bom Jesus. It was completed in 1637 by Goan craftsmen, in silver filigree with crystal panels.

A century earlier, Xavier had been an energetic exponent of the Inquisition. He exhorted the Portuguese crown to enforce Catholic dominion on India’s western coast.

Raulu Chatim enters the historical record and vanishes. He leaves no trace. Xavier enters history’s archive and remains. His traces are exalted, publicly venerated in a procession and feast every decade. In an ironic reversal, Xavier’s body is now a fetish object, his life turned into souvenirs: the person has become the product.

A silver tomb competed in 1637 by Goan silversmiths for Saint Francis Xavier, at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. Credit: Mahesh Telkar, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Craftsmen like Raulu Chatim made the reliquaries from Estado da Índia. These items, for Lisbon’s Museu do Oriente, underline its story of convivial co-mingling. Scholars will interpret such reliquaries for melding Asian and European styles, for their pastiche of motifs.

But each ornamented relief also speaks to colonial cleansing. In their erasure of earlier histories, in their expelling of contaminants, they tell us a modern counter-story: of the pain inflicted in the service of purity.

Ajay Gandhi teaches at Leiden University.