Garcia de Orta

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Garcia de Orta
Born 1501 or 1502
Castelo de Vide, Kingdom of Portugal
Died 1568
Goa, Portuguese India
Occupation Physician and naturalist
Title page of Garcia de Orta's Colóquios. Goa, 1563.

Garcia de Orta (1501 or 1502–1568) was a Portuguese Renaissance Sephardi Jewish physician and naturalist. He was a pioneer of tropical medicine.


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Garcia de Orta was born in Castelo de Vide, probably in 1501, the son of Fernão (Isaac) da Orta, a merchant, and Leonor Gomes. He had three sisters, Violante, Catarina and Isabel. Their parents were Spanish Jews from Valencia de Alcántara who had taken refuge, as many others did, in Portugal at the time of the great expulsion of the Spanish Jews by the Reyes Catolicos Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. Forcibly converted to Christianity in 1497, they were henceforth classed under the despised names of Cristãos Novos (New Christians) and marranos. Some of these refugees maintained their Jewish faith secretly.

He studied medicine, arts and philosophy at the Universities of Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca in Spain. He graduated and returned to Portugal in 1523, two years after his father's death. He practiced medicine first in his home town and from 1526 onwards in Lisbon, where he gained a professorship at the university in 1530.

Perhaps fearing the increasing power of the Portuguese Inquisition, and fortunately evading the ban on emigration of New Christians, he sailed for Portuguese India in 1534 as Chief Physician aboard the fleet of Martim Afonso de Sousa, later to be named Governor. He travelled with Sousa on various campaigns, then, in 1538, settled at Goa, where he soon had a prominent medical practice. He was physician to Burhan Nizam Shah I of the Nizam Shahi dynasty of Ahmadnagar, and concurrently to several successive Portuguese Viceroys and governors of Goa: one of these granted him a lease of the island of Bombay, though he never lived there.

Garcia de Orta married a rich New Christian relative, Brianda de Solis, in 1543; the marriage was unhappy, but the couple had two daughters. In 1549 his mother and two of his sisters, who had been imprisoned as Jews in Lisbon, managed to join him in Goa. According to a confession by his brother-in-law after his death, Garcia de Orta privately continued to assert that "the Law of Moses was the true law";[1] in other words, he, probably in common with others in his family, remained a Jewish believer. In 1565 the Inquisition was introduced to the Indian Viceroyalty and an inquisitorial court was opened in Goa. Active persecution against Jews, secret Jews, Hindus and New Christians began. Garcia himself died in 1568, apparently without having suffered seriously from this persecution, but his sister Catarina was arrested as a Jew in the same year and was burned at the stake for Judaism in Goa in 1569. Garcia himself was posthumously convicted of Judaism. His remains were exhumed and burned in an auto da fé in 1580.[2] The fate of his daughters is not known. During his lifetime, Orta had been protected from the Goa Inquisition by his friend and patron, Martim Afonso de Sousa, Governor-General of Portuguese India from 1542 to 1545.[3]

His Work[edit]

Orta's libri dell' Historia dei Semplici aromati

Garcia de Orta's busy practice evidently prevented him travelling beyond the west coast of India, but in the busy market and trading hub of Goa he met spice merchants, traders and physicians from many parts of southern Asia and the Indian Ocean coasts. He was confident in Portuguese, Spanish, Hebrew, Latin, Greek and Arabic; his work shows that he also had some knowledge of Persian, Marathi, Konkani, Sanskrit and Kannada. Correspondents and agents sent him seeds and plants; he also traded in spices, drugs and precious stones. He evidently kept a laboratory and botanical garden.

His remarkable knowledge of Eastern spices and drugs is revealed in his only known work, Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia ("Conversations on the simples, drugs and medicinal substances of India"), published at Goa in 1563. This deals with a series of substances, many of them unknown or the subject of confusion and misinformation in Europe at this period. He was the first European to describe Asiatic tropical diseases, notably cholera; he performed an autopsy on a cholera victim, the first recorded autopsy in India. Garcia de Orta reveals in his writings an unusual independence in face of the usually revered texts of ancient authorities, Greek, Latin and Arabic.

The book happens to include the first published verses by his friend the poet Luís de Camões, now counted as Portugal's national poet.

Garcia de Orta's work was soon recognized across Europe when translations appeared in Latin (then the scientific lingua franca) and other languages. Large parts of it were included in a similar work published in Spanish in 1578 by Cristóbal Acosta, Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias orientales ("Treatise of the drugs and medicines of the East Indies").


  • Histoire des drogues, espiceries, et de certains medicamens simples, qui naissent és Indes et en l'Amerique : divisé en deux parties: La première comprise en 4 livres: Les deux premiers de Garcie Du Jardin, le troisième de Christophle de La Coste, et le quatrième de l'histoire du baulme, adjousteée de nouveau en ceste 2. éd.: où il est prouvé, que nous avons le vray baulme d'Arabie, contre l'opinion des anciens et modernes ; la seconde composée de deux livres de maistre Nicolas Monard traictant de ce qui nous est apporté de l'Amerique.... Lyon : Pillehotte, 1619. Digital edition of the University and State Library Düsseldorf.
  • Coloquios dos Simples e Drogas da India. Band 1 . Imprensa nacional, Lisboa 1891 Digital edition by the University and State Library Düsseldorf
  • Coloquios dos Simples e Drogas da India. Band 2 . Imprensa nacional, Lisboa 1892 Digital edition by the University and State Library Düsseldorf


Today, Garcia de Orta is widely remembered for his contributions. The "Jardim Garcia de Orta", a public garden in Lisbon, is named in his memory.[5] In the Indian State of Goa, a former Portuguese colony, the Municipal garden in the capital city of Panaji is known as "Garcia de Orta" Garden, and is named in honour of Orta who visited Goa in the year 1534 as a private physician to Dom Martin Afonso de Souza, Admiral of the Fleet.[6][7] It was built in the year 1855 during the Portuguese rule in Goa.[8]


  1. ^ See fuller quotation (Boxer, 1963, p. 10) citing Inquisition records initially quoted by Silva, 1934, pp. 74 and 159.
  2. ^ Silva, 1934, pp. 72-84; Révah, 1960.
  3. ^ S.K. Pandya, Medicine in Goa – a former Portuguese territory, J. Postgrad Med. [serial online] 1982 [cited 18 September 2009];28:123. Online here
  4. ^ "Author Query for 'Garcia de Orta'". International Plant Names Index. 
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^


  • Boxer, C. R. (1963), Two pioneers of tropical medicine: Garcia d'Orta and Nicolás Monardes, London: Wellcome Historical Medical Library 
  • Carvalho, Augusto da S., Garcia de Orta. Lisboa, 1934.
  • Ficalho, Francisco M. de, Garcia de Orta e o seu tempo. Lisboa, 1886. (Reprinted, Lisboa: Casa de Moeda, 1983.)
  • Roddis, Louis (1931), "Garcia da Orta, the first European writer on tropical medicine and a pioneer in pharmacognosy", Annals of medical history, 1 (n. s.) (2): 198–207 
  • Révah, I. S. (1960), "A família de Garcia de Orta", Revista da Universidade de Coimbra, Vol. 19.

External links[edit]