By Selma Carvalho
In August 2015, I sat in a grand house in Anjuna, a replica of the Sultan of Zanzibar’s palace, feeling a wave of history wash over me. This was the house of Manuel Francisco de Albuquerque, a man, whose legacy we have yet to fully investigate.
As head of the Oral Histories of British-Goans Project (2011-2014), I had devoted some energy and time to documenting Albuquerque’s life, drawn from colonial newspapers. Albuquerque was born in 1869, and trained as a medical doctor, passing his final exam of L.R.C.P in Edinburgh, and furthered his education in Brussels and Paris. In 1898, Albuquerque arrived in Zanzibar. His father, A. M. Albuquerque, was already working there for the shipping agents Smith Mackenzie & Co.
Albuquerque quickly became a central figure in the social and political life of Zanzibar. He was appointed palace physician, and he ran a successful medical practice at Surgical Hall on Main Road. In an early act of private philanthropy, Albuquerque made a substantial donation to the Famine Relief Fund of 1899. His main concern though, was the welfare of the Goan community in Zanzibar. He was the ‘principal promoter’ of the Goan Institute and the charity association, the Goan Union. He funded a night school for disadvantaged Goans and paid for its initial expenses and teachers’ salaries.
Albuquerque’s most impressive achievement lay in diplomatic relations. He was closely associated with the Portuguese consul in Zanzibar, and by 1914, firmly established in the higher echelons of the consulate. Arrangements for official receptions were left in his capable hands and by 1915 he had assumed the office of vice-consul. From 1916, except for a brief lapse, until 1933, he acted as Portuguese consul. He was awarded the Order of the Brilliant Star of Zanzibar for his service during the bubonic plague, and the Portuguese decorated him with the Ordem de Cristo.
The problem with drawing up personalities from newspapers is that we, researchers, tend to lionise people. I can hardly be blamed for writing a hagiography of the man, because I had only ever read of his bravest and best deeds. Ruth his daughter-in-law, could not shed light on the man. Albuquerque died in 1956, and likewise his contemporaries too had passed on. But now, for the first time, we get a glimpse of Albuquerque’s life from someone who does remember him.
Earlier this month, the Goan-Kenyan nationalist, Fitz Remedios de Souza released his memoir titled, ‘Forward to Independence,’ (2019). Fitz is a figure of grave authority and his testimony is not to be dismissed lightly; he played a central role in Kenya’s independence movement as lawyer and confidante to President Kenyatta, legal advisor during the Lancaster House Conference, and later after Independence, he was appointed Deputy Speaker of the Kenyan Lower House of parliament.
Fitz’s father, Valente de Souza from Ucassaim, was a medical doctor who, sometime during World War 1 or shortly after, along with ‘nine of his fellow medical school graduates, all Goan Christians, accepted an invitation to join the British army,’ as part of the Indian Medical Service. Following a protracted posting in Kabul, and then a private practice in Peshawar, he was convinced by the ‘very personable older physician’ Albuquerque to partner with him, in his thriving practice in Zanzibar.
April 1930, did not bring good tidings. Valente’s practice in Peshawar was burnt down amidst riots and by 1932, Valente de Souza had decided to accept Albuquerque’s offer of a fresh start in Zanzibar. His family followed shortly. Fitz was just four at the time, but he does recall the sea journey with clarity. The family settled in gracefully; they took up residence within walking distance of Surgical Hall, where Valente joined Albuquerque in his medical practice, wife Ezilda taught at the Aga Khan School, and the children were enrolled at St. Joseph’s Convent School. This placidity was disrupted, when allegedly, Valente began to suspect that Albuquerque was not quite the pillar of society, he’d been made out to be. I quote here from Fitz’s book: ‘The first warning bell sounded when my father happened one day to enter the storeroom where Albuquerque kept some of his medicines. He found the place full of cobwebs, the bottles and jars covered in thick layers of dust. On inspecting some of the contents he strongly suspected they were bogus and more likely to harm than cure anyone.’ Albuquerque ‘seemed to deny any notion that his medicines were either ineffective or unsafe.’ But far more ‘questionable aspects’ were to present themselves, the most troubling of which was (once again, I have to preface this with allegedly) ‘Albuquerque’s tendency to overcharge his patients’ and engage in usurious lending. If a patient could not pay him, he’d offer them a loan, not only charging excessively high interest rates, but unscrupulously securing it against their property. When they were unable to pay, he’d foreclose on their assets. In this way, he had acquired ‘a considerable number of properties in Zanzibar.’ The fraught relationship ended bitterly with a row. Fitz’s own abiding memory of the man was that of a ‘grandiose figure,’ smiling and waving to everyone, as his servant pedalled him in a rickshaw.
Fitz must have deliberated long and hard on whether to make public these charges. As a researcher I have no way of verifying them. They might indeed be taken out of context. I too, have wrestled with my conscience whether to draw further attention to them. Nonetheless, the allegations are now part of our public discourse. If anything, they represent to us, the times that Albuquerque and Valente lived in, the sort of moral dilemmas that confronted them, and how they might have resolved them. The lives of our public figures cannot become glorified epitaphs. We have to learn to accept frailty for what it is, an essential part of being human, and from this point of acceptance arrive at a deeper understanding of our historical past.
Banner image is of Fitz de Souza’s ancestral house. Image cannot be reproduced without permission.
Selma Carvalho is the founding editor of the Joao Roque Literary Journal and the author of Baker Butcher Doctor Diplomat: Goan Pioneers of East Africa (2016).
Forward to Independence can be purchased here.