From our school days, it is drilled into us Indians that Bombay was gifted by the Portuguese to the British as a wedding present when Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza. There was, however, much more to the royal union than the one-line summary suggests.

It was 360 years ago, on June 23, 1661, that the Luso-English treaty was endorsed during the regency of Dona Luisa de Gusmão. The treaty, which sealed the union of Charles II (1630-1685) and Catarina de Bragança (1638-1705), included several articles and clauses that had more to do with diplomacy than marital bliss.

Under article 11, the Portuguese gave up the “seven islands” of Bombay in exchange for English military help to defend the pepper port of Cochin and recover the island of Ceylon. Also under the treaty, England secured Tangier in North Africa, trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies, religious and commercial freedom in Portugal, and two million Portuguese crowns (about £300,000). In return, Portugal obtained British military and naval support (which would prove to be decisive) in her fight against Spain and liberty of worship for Catherine.

Under article 14, Portugal agreed to share Ceylon and its cinnamon trade with the English Company. In exchange, England agreed to mediate between Portugal and Holland, leading to a Luso-Dutch peace treaty in August 1661.

The peace did not last. The Dutch took advantage of the expected delay between the signing of the treaty with Portugal and its ratification on the ground to lay siege to Cochin with a massive flotilla. Lisbon was caught unawares by the treachery and, to worsen the crisis, the promised English military help never arrived. Cochin fell in January 1663 and Cranganore (modern-day Kodungallue in Kerala) a month later. By the time news of the Luso-Dutch treaty actually arrived, it was too late.

Frantic efforts by the Estado da Índia (State of India) to halt the handover of Bombay to the perfidious English were overruled by Lisbon. In protest, no Goa official went to Bombay to sign the handover agreement on February 18, 1665.

Davies' sketch of Bombay harbour, 1626. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This incongruity between politics of imperial powers in Europe and in their overseas colonies is well elucidated by Ernestine Carreira in her book Globalising Goa (1660-1820): Change and exchange in a former capital of Empire. In contrast, British historical novelists, with their decidedly Eurocentric gaze, overlook look this reality. Many of them, in my experience, are either unaware of, or gloss over, nuances further afield, deeming them irrelevant to the larger narrative. I found this to be true in three historical fiction novels about Catherine of Braganza: two by Jean Plaidy (The Merry Monarch’s Wife and The Loves of Charles II) and one by Margaret Campbell Barnes (With All my Heart).

Compelling Story

Catherine’s story is quite compelling. She was born on November 25, St Catherine’s Day (hence her name), to João, Duke of Braganza, and the formidable Dona Luisa de Gusmão. When Catherine was two, João restored the Portuguese crown from Spanish rule, becoming João IV of Portugal. Incidentally, Catherine’s birthdate was also the 128th anniversary of the Portuguese conquest of Goa.

Catherine had a sheltered upbringing, moulding her into the archetypal devout Roman Catholic “convent-educated” maiden, unwise to the ways of the world. Although you wouldn’t guess it from her royal portraits, she was petite, plain and buck-toothed. In contrast, Charles was tall, dashing and a cad. Marriage vows meant little to him. Catherine’s shock when confronted with his philandering soon after arriving in England in 1662 can only be imagined. She was far from home, in a cold unwelcoming clime where no-one understood her native tongue and she knew no English. She had no family of her own in a land that was Protestant, a faith she considered heretical.

A young Catherine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]

Her life could have been very different. She had received proposals from Louis XIV of France and others. She could have been a Catholic queen in France, but her mother had chosen this match above others for political gain. England shared Portugal’s enmity with Spain, and a powerful enemy of an enemy is a formidable friend. The English rout of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588 less than a century before was considered a strong deterrent, should Spain wished to recapture Portugal. Catherine had to make the best of her lot.

It is said that she fainted when Charles first flaunted his chief mistress Barbara Palmer. She had to endure Charles sadistically making Palmer Lady of Catherine’s Bedchamber. When Catherine refused and threatened to return to Portugal, Charles dismissed nearly all the members of her Portuguese retinue, forcing her to acquiesce.

The fact that she suffered three miscarriages and produced no heirs for the king was held against her. Nevertheless, the marriage seemingly gravitated to an equilibrium: she forgave him his infidelities and instead worried about his soul, while he grew to admire her.

Catherine’s fervent, unabashed Catholicism made her the target of anti-Catholic sentiment. She was maliciously implicated in a conspiracy, the so-called ‘Popish plot’ (1678), at which her husband rose to her defence.

Catherine mellowed, and began to enjoy playing cards, dancing, organising courtly entertainments (masques), picnics, fishing and archery, and took to wearing men’s clothing and shorter dresses that “showed off her pretty, neat legs, ankles and feet”. Much is made of the typically shy queen going incognito into a country fair, only to be caught out and having to beat a hasty retreat.

Although some sources claim that Catherine introduced tea-drinking to England, it is more likely that she made the habit more popular. She also “promulgated the use of cane, lacquer, cottons and porcelain”.

In 1670, Charles commissioned a Royal pleasure yacht, HMY Saudadoes (a corruption of the Portuguese Saudades), for Catherine to sail on the Thames. The yacht also made two trips to Portugal.

Although Catherine wouldn’t come to Charles’s deathbed, she instead asked “to beg his pardon if she had offended him all his life”, to which Charles gasped, “Alas poor woman! She asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.”

It is thought, though not proved, that the Queens borough in New York City is named after Catherine, as she was the queen in 1683 when Queens County was established. Plans for a 35-foot statue of her on the city’s East River at the tri-centennial in 1983 (endorsed, among others, by a certain Donald Trump) were scrapped. But a quarter-size model looks out across the Atlantic at the site of the Expo ’98 Lisbon.

Catherine’s story poses many what ifs. What if the Portuguese succeeded in retaining Bombay after the English reneged on the 1661 treaty? What if Bombay hadn’t been included in the treaty at all? What if Catherine hadn’t married Charles and wed another monarch instead? How would the “seven islands” have fared under Portuguese rule, extending into the 20th century? Would Bombay be the City of Dreams, or a constellation of towns and villages of siestas? Something to think about over your next cup of tea.

This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa. It has been reproduced with the permission of the writer.