Wednesday, December 5, 2007
The Portuguese Connection
History is a most amazing and unlikely thing. Who would have believed, for instance, that Portugal - a tiny nation of fishermen and grape-growers - would have the gumption and the gall to send a flotilla of galleons halfway across the world to capture Malacca? And not only erect a famous fort there but hold the damned thing for 130 years with just a few hundred men until the Dutch finally blasted them out of their stronghold in 1641. After which you'd imagine that would be the end of the Portuguese in these parts. But no... those hardy seadogs somehow managed to sow their wild Latin oats so vigorously that today - five centuries later - they've generated a closely-knit community of Eurasians with a nation-wide network nieces and nephews. And most of them are good-looking and musical to boot. Apparently, inbreeding hasn't quite got to them yet - but, still, they'd better be careful. I was passing through Salak village recently and had occasion to observe how a Hakka clan had been marrying among themselves since the time of Yap Ah Loy with disastrous results.
Just ask a Pereira or Moreira or a D'Cruz or de Silva or a Martinez or Fernandez how they got their family names - and hear all about some great-grandma who came here from Goa to marry their great-grandpa in 1842. Sooner or later you'll also be introduced to some great-aunt Esmeralda who raised 15 kids singlehanded; and even found time in the process to perfect her recipe for salt-fish pickle.
In Malacca there's an entire Portuguese village where the elders still converse in Cristao (pronounced 'Cristang') which, as it turns out, is really a species of 16th Century Portuguese spoken nowhere else in the modern world (except perhaps in parts of Goa). Today, they're still excellent fishermen and sailors - but it doesn't look as if they're ready to invade and colonise anyone (though, with the number of Eurasians who have moved to Perth, I wouldn't be too sure).
Of course, Malaysia's Eurasian community doesn't consist exclusively of the Portuguese Connection. The Dutch and the English left a few traces; and, more recently, our own royal families have contributed significantly to God's gene-mixing programme. These days, however, you don't have to be royal or part Portuguese: you only have to study abroad for a few years and, chances are, you'll be back with a bundle of potential foreign genes in tow. I, for one, am all for miscegenation. Especially after hearing a story about this impressive Turkish lady who migrated here to marry a local - and who wound up with a series of husbands, each contributing to a genealogy from which has emerged the Father of Malayan Nationalism, Dato Onn Jaafar; his son Tun Hussein Onn (our third prime minister); and a venerable pantheon of distinguished scholars (among them two former Vice-Chancellors of Universiti Malaya). But, then again, this story might also serve as a powerful argument for polyandry.