George Fernandes is a prominent Indian trade unionist, politician and onetime defense minister. Oscar Fernandes is another notable Indian politician, currently serving as transport minister. Tony Fernandes is the chief executive of Air Asia Group.
“Fernandes” may not sound like a familiar Indian surname (like the ubiquitous Gupta, Shah, Patel, Singh, etc.), but hundreds of thousands of people on the subcontinent carry this unusual surname – and it is traced to the colonial adventures of Europe's first modern empire-builders, the Portuguese.
Long before the British voyaged 6,000 miles to India and made it the jewel in the crown of their global empire, Portuguese sailors established a colony in India. As long ago as 1498 (just six years after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World thinking he had arrived in “India”), a Portuguese explorer named Vasco de Gama reached Calicut, a town on the Malabar coast in southwestern India. By 1505, Portugal founded the 'Portuguese State of India' as a viceroyalty of the Kingdom of Portugal. Francisco de Almeida, Portuguese India's first viceroy, ruled from Cochin, now Kochi, in Kerala on India's southwestern coast.
The Portuguese capital of India subsequently moved to Goa, hundreds of miles up the coast from Cochin. Over the next four centuries, Portugal controlled parts of India's southwestern coast, a small segment of its vast global reach. Well into the twentieth century, after India gained independence from Britain, Portugal still controlled a number of settlements on India’s west coast, most prominently Goa. It was not until 1975 that Portugal fully relinquished its claims on any Indian territory (and only after the Indian government flexed its military muscles against Lisbon in 1961 when it seized Goa).
Portugal’s long presence in India led to the emergence of “Luso-Indians,” that is, people of mixed Indian and Portuguese descent, primarily the progeny of Portuguese men and local Indian women. In addition, Portugal sent many thousands of “Orfas del Rei” (young female orphans) to India, in order to marry them off to Portuguese men or to Indians of high social rank. But not all Indians with Portuguese surnames have European blood flowing in their veins. Many Indians, like the ancestors of Indian film starlet Freida Pinto, acquired European names only after converting to Catholicism.
Meanwhile, the remnants of Portugal’s old empire in India may be disappearing (even in Goa, where very few people speak Portuguese anymore), but the ramifications of their long voyage cannot be ignored. For example, a Portuguese lawyer named Miguel Reis has said that some 3 million Indians are entitled to Portuguese citizenship, based primarily on the right of people born in Goa prior to the annexation of that territory by India in 1961 (and their descendants) to Portuguese nationality -- although few have claimed that right. Not surprisingly, Portuguese authorities are typically suspicious of citizenship claims filed by Indians due to worries over fraud.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.