Book Excerpt: Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India

Book by Garcia da Orta | Introduction by Sir Clements R. Markham

The great work of Garcia da Orta on the drugs and simples of India is well known, at least by name, to all who are interested in the botany and pharmacy of our Indian Empire. The work is interesting because it contains the first mention of many important plants, of their uses, and the first descriptions of the treatment of diseases — cholera, for instance — and of several customs and habits of the natives.

Garcia da Orta was born in about 1490 or perhaps a few years later, at Elvas,[1] so famous for its plums, near the Spanish frontier and on the way to Badajos. His father appears to have been an owner of houses and other property at Elvas, named Jorge da Orta, who, besides Garcia, had a son, Francisco of Portalegre, who married Caterina Lopes. Francisco had a son, Jorge, nephew of Garcia da Orta, who was a surgeon, and the heir to his uncle. The elder Jorge also had a daughter, Garcia’s sister, married to the Bachiller Gabriel Luis.[2]

An etched portrait of Garcia da Orta.

In the boyhood of Garcia da Orta there was residing on his estate of Labruja, near Elvas, Dom Fernao de Sousa, of a noble family descended from a natural son of King Affonso III. by a very beautiful Moor, daughter of the Cadi of Faro. The two families were on friendly terms, and under the auspices of the Sousa family young Garcia was sent to the Spanish Universities, studying both at Salamanca and at Alcala de Henares, from 1515 to 1525.[3] After his return to Portugal in 1526 he was for some years a village doctor at Castello de Vide, near his native town of Elvas. His patrons, in 1532, got him appointed lecturer in the Lisbon University, and he held that appointment from 1532 to 1534. In the latter year he undertook to go out to India as a physician with Martin Affonso de Sousa, second son of the Lord of Labruja — Orta calls him his “amo.” The fleet of five ships left the Tagus on March 12, 1534, reaching Goa in September.

At that time Nuno da Cunha was Governor of Portuguese India, 1529–1538. He was succeeded by Garcia da Noronha as Viceroy, 1538–1540. Then followed Estevan, nephew of Vasco da Gama, 1540–1542; and Martin Affonso de Sousa, the friend and patron of Garcia da Orta, was Governor from 1542 to 1545.

Garcia da Orta saw a great deal of active service as physician to his friend, and became personally well acquainted with the countries bordering on the west coast of India. He was at Diu when it was ceded to the Portuguese by Bahadur Shah, the King of Cambay, and he accompanied Sousa in a march across Kattiawar nearly to Ahmedabad, with the army of Bahadur Shah. He afterwards formed a great friendship with Bahrain Nizam Shah, whose capital was at Ahmednagar, visiting him, and acting as his physician. Garcia da Orta also accompanied Sousa in a campaign from Cochin against the Zamorin, and in Ceylon. This seems to be the extent of his personal knowledge. He does not appear to have been at Bijapur or Bijayanagar in the Deccan, though he often mentions those places, and he knew nothing of Bengal, Berar, or the kingdom of Delhi. The great physician had a house and garden with many medicinal herbs at Goa, and in about 1554 he was granted a long lease of the island of Bombay,[4] which he sublet. His tenant was Simao Toscano, who, with the rent, brought him presents of mangos and other fruits to Goa. He was in practice for many years, and after his friend Sousa left India he was physician to the Viceroy, Pedro Mascarenhas, 1554–1555. Garcia da Orta was always adding to the great amount of erudition he brought with him to India. He had a most extensive and accurate knowledge of the writings of all who had gone before him, and his sound common sense enabled him, with confidence, to separate facts from fables. He knew personally all the plants within his reach from which drugs were derived. For the rest he was indefatigable in his enquiries from native physicians, and in his examinations of Yogis from the kingdom of Delhi, and of traders and others from all parts — Deccanis, Guzeratis, Bengalis, Cingalese, Moors, Persians, Arabs, and Malays.

In 1558 Dom Constantino de Braganza, the brother of the Duke, came out as Viceroy, bringing with him the licentiate Dimas Bosque as his physician. This learned person[5] became a friend of Dr. Garcia da Orta, and it is more than probable that the old physician, who had then been practising in India for upwards of a quarter of a century, was induced by Dimas Bosque to undertake the production of a great work on the drugs and simples of his adopted country. All his friends must have felt that his vast knowledge ought not to die with him.

The work was finished in the time of Dom Francisco Coutinho, Count of Redondo, who was Viceroy from 1561 to 1564,[6] to whom it was dedicated. Luis Camoens, the immortal poet, was an intimate friend of Garcia da Orta at this time. Camoens had been banished to Macao, but he returned to Goa in 1561, and was engaged in writing Os Lusiados. Wilhelm Stork, in his Life of Camoens, says that the poet passed many agreeable and instructive hours in the house of the learned old man, admiring his collections and examining his extensive library, finding in both materials for the last two cantos of Os Lusiados. This is quite likely, for the poet composed an ode to the Viceroy in which, after an eloquent address to the Count of Redondo, he exclaims:

Favorecei a antigua
Sciencia que ja Achilles estimou

Olhai que vos obrigua
Verdes que em vosso tempo se mostrou

O fruto d’aquella orta onde florecem
Prantas novas que os doutos nao conhecem

Olhai que em vossos annos
Produze huma orta insigne varias ervas

Nos campos Lusitanos
As quaes aquellas doutas e protervas

Medea e Circe nunca conheceram
Posta que as leis da Magica excederam

E vede carreguado
Deannos, letras, e longua experiencia

Hum velho que insinado
Das gangeticas Musas na sciencia

Podaliria subtil e arte syluestre
Vence o velho Chiron de Achilles mestre
.[7]

Orta means a garden in Portuguese, and the poet plays upon the old physician’s name.

The title page of the first edition of Colloquies, printed in Goa on April 10, 1563 by Johannes de Endem.

The work was completed and published at Goa by “Johannes de Endem” on April 10, 1563. The title was Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India compostos pello Doutor Garcia da Orta. This first edition is excessively rare. It is full of typographical errors, being the third book ever printed in India.[8] There was a second edition published at Goa.

The title page of Clusius’s version.

Clusius (Charles de l’Escluze) made a sort of resume or epitome in Latin in 1567 (Plantin, Antwerp). It is very different from the original.[9] The same may be said of the Italian translation by Annibal Briganti (Venice, 1582), and of the French translation by Antoine Colin (Lyons, 1619). Orta is here called “Du Jardin.” Their translations are from the Latin of Clusius, not from the Coloquios of Orta, which they never saw.

F. A. de Varnhagen printed an edition of the Coloquios at Lisbon in 1872. It contains many lacunae and imperfections, is without notes, and only attempted the identification of one plant, in which it is quite wrong.

The standard edition of Garcia da Orta is by Count Ficalho, in two volumes, the first published in 1891, the second in 1895. The text has been preserved with great care. Count Ficalho was a very accomplished botanist, and in his full and admirable notes to each Colloquy he displays a surprising amount of erudition, having evidently consulted every work that has been written since on the subject, whether in the form of separate books, or of papers in the Transactions of Societies. It is quite a model for faithful and thorough editing. Count Ficalho also wrote the Life and Times of Garcia da Orta, now very scarce.[10]

Following after the frontispiece, the work of Garcia da Orta contains the approval of the Count Viceroy dated November 5, 1562. Then there is a dedication to the authors old friend and master, Martin Affonso da Sousa, and a sonnet to the same. The prologue or preface is by Dimas Bosque, and finally comes the celebrated ode by Camoens.

The work itself contains chapters on fifty-seven drugs and simples. These chapters are written in colloquies between Garcia da Orta and a Spanish doctor named Dr. Ruano, who is supposed to be an old college friend of Orta, but is clearly an imaginary person.[11] In the Fifty-sixth Colloquy Dimas Bosque, certainly a real person, joins the party. It was not uncommon at that time for authors to put their works into dialogue form.

Count Ficalho, in his Life of Orta, admirably explains the spirit and intention of the dialogues, in the following passage:
“The two interlocutors are the two characters united in Garcia da Orta, the two sides of his spirit placed in front one of the other. Dr. Ruano, the man of the schools, the former student of Salamanca, erudite, ready with quotations, with Dioscorides and Pliny at his finger ends. Dr. Orta, the traveller and observer, who, in the face of all the quotations, says tranquilly, ‘ I have seen it.’ It is enough for us to note to which of these two entities Orta attaches his own name for evidence as to which of the two he prefers. From this situation, admirably conceived and maintained with much talent, the most interesting controversies result, which bring out, in the clearest light, the spirit of the work.”

The work is of great value, owing to its giving the first descriptions of plants and drugs. In addition it contains a great deal of interesting matter. There is some account of the politics of Guzerat and the Deccan at that time, of the greatness of China and of its sea-borne trade, of the controversy about the Spice Islands between the Spaniards and Portuguese, of an expedition to Ilha de Vacas and Jafnapatam, and of other events of the time. There is also an account of Indian names of chessmen. There is the fable of Parizataco, and of the camphor tree. The effects of bhang are described, the method of using betel and the etiquette connected with it, the various uses of the cocoa-nut, an interesting account of Diu and Bassein, some stories about elephants, and about fights between cobras and mongoose. There is an amusing story of a theft from a lady when under the influence of stramonium, and the first account of the treatment of a case of cholera; with other episodes of the same kind. There is also the second description of the cave of Elephanta. I believe the first was written by Dom Joao de Castro, Viceroy 1545–48. We also get a glimpse of the old bachelor’s establishment and habits, and of his intelligent servant girl Antonia. So that the work is by no means confined to a description of drugs and their uses.

A plate for the Curato. facsimile edition of Garcia da Orta.

Garcia da Orta is believed to have died in about 1570 at Goa, at a good old age, having been thirty-six years practising as a physician in India.

His work still lives. In the Pharmographia of Hanbury and Fluckiger, one of the latest and best works on materia medica, Garcia da Orta is referred to seven times as an authority.[12] Dr. Ullerspergen of Munich has published an appreciative work on the Colloquys. Gerson da Cunha, in his Origin of Bombay, writes of Orta with unbounded praise, and gives some translated passages from his work. In Sir Henry Yule’s Glossary, Garcia da Orta is frequently quoted. Sir Henry says of his work: “A most valuable book, full of curious matter and good sense.”

The Spanish work of Christoval Acosta followed almost immediately on that of Orta, and is copied wholesale from it. In a preface by the Licentiate Juan Costa, Professor of Rhetoric at Salamanca, this is denied in the following words: “Acosta did not compose the work at his ease, but in durance of sad captivity which he suffered in Africa, Asia, and China. Although his work owes much to the diligence of Garcia da Orta, yet I have compared the two works, and I can say that Orta only sketches the first lines, and that Acosta gave the living colours, and made perfect what Orta had commenced.” This may be rhetoric. It is not truth.

Acosta was a native of Burgos and brother of the better-known Jesuit, Josef Acosta, author of the History of the East and West Indies. The title of the botanist’s work is Trata de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias Orientates con sus plantas por Christoval Acosta (Burgos, 1578), dedicated to the Illustre Senado de Burgos, his native town. It is a fat little quarto, describing sixty-nine plants and other sources of drugs and medicines. The great merit of the work is that there are full-page illustrations to forty-six plants with the roots, very well drawn. There are 448 pages of text. It is not all copied from Orta, but the greater part certainly is. Acosta occasionally makes independent remarks, and there are a few plants not in Orta. Mr. Hanbury noticed that the Semen Tiglii was first described by Acosta. He was certainly a great traveller, and he gave himself the surname of “Africanus,” his more famous brother, the learned Jesuit and writer on Peru and Mexico, being “Americanus.” Acosta’s portrait faces some odes in his honour, as a frontispiece.

At the end of this Introduction there is a list of the plants in the Colloquies of Garcia da Orta, with the modern scientific names and the names in Acosta, denoting those that are illustrated in Acosta’s work. These lists are followed by one of the money, weights, and measures mentioned by Garcia da Orta.

At the end of the book there is an Index of the authorities with biographical notices of the more important mentioned, of Indian Princes and others; an Index of the names of plants and minerals mentioned in the work; also an Index of place-names.

The drawings of plants by Acosta have been used to illustrate the Colloquies of Garcia da Orta.

Garcia da Orta frequently refers to plants and drugs being hot and dry, cold and moist, in the first, second, or third degrees.

Sir George Birdwood has furnished me with the following very interesting explanatory note on this point: — 
“Da Orta’s repeated qualification of drugs refers to the theory of the constitution of the human body and of its diseases and their treatment held in Europe from the earliest Greek and Roman period down to the 17th and 18th centuries, and to the present day throughout native Asia. The constituents of all things were fire, air, water, and earth; fire was hot and dry, air hot and moist, water cold and moist, and earth cold and dry; and of the bodily humours “composed” thereof, blood was regarded as hot and moist, phlegm as cold and moist, red bile as hot and dry, and black bile as cold and dry. The excess of these humours, as the cause of diseases, had to be treated by drugs of their opposite qualities. In India, at least, this in practice means that a drug is either hot or cold, and that it is given either to promote or repress aphrodisia. Chaucer, in The Canterbury Tales, writes of the Doctor of Physic:— 
‘He knew the cause of everich maladye,
Were it of hoot, or cold, or moiste, or drye,
And where engendred, and of what humours.
He was a verrey parfait practisour!”

I have to thank Sir George Birdwood for seeing to the scientific names of plants in the footnotes, and Dr. Dalgado of Estoril for much valuable advice and assistance; and for obtaining for me the very scarce work on the Life and Times of Garcia da Orta, by Count Ficalho, and the Origin of Bombay, by Gerson da Cunha.

— CLEMENTS R. MARKHAM, July 20, 1913


The Curato. edition of Garcia da Orta’s Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India includes this introduction by Sir Clements R. Markham, who translated and indexed this volume. Markham drew his version from an annotated copy by the Count Ficalho. This English language edition was limited to 250 copies; the Curato. edition draws from the 221nd copy now at the Brandeis University Library. It is available for sale on Amazon here and at the Curato. Bookstore here.

[1] Barbosa Machado, quoted by Ficalho. Machado wrote Bibliotheca Lusitana.

[2] Estudos e Notas Elvenses por a Thomaz Pires (Elvas). (Editor, Antonio Jose Torres Carvalho, 1905.)

[3] Information from Orta himself (see pp. 1–5). The oldest entries of matriculations at Salamanca only go back to 1540, of degrees to 1525. The Alcala books, now at the University of Madrid, only go back to 1548.

[4] See page 193. What is now the island of Bombay included several islets separated by channels in Orta’s time. Bombay Island was only one of them. Gerson da Cunha, who had studied the early documents, came to the conclusion that the Bombaim of Orta was scarcely a tenth part of the present island. See his” Origin of Bombay” in an extra number (1900) of the Journal of the Bombay Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

[5] See account of him in the Annotated Index. Dimas Bosque wrote the preface to Orta’s work.

[6] He died at Goa on February 19, 1564.

[7] This sonnet by Camoens only appears in the work of Garcia da Orta. It has not been included in any of the collections of the sonnets of Camoens, and was probably written at Goa on the spur of the moment. Throughout there is a play on the words Orta the physician’s name, and Orta a garden, so that a literal translation cannot convey the sense. The general meaning may be rendered as follows: —

“The lore which Achilles once valued I studied with thee, you opened my eyes to its charm. In your garden of herbs each flower, each tree, were seen in your time by your friend. The fruits of that garden collected from far, were unknown to the learned of old. See how, in thine age thy wisdom and care brought many new simples to light. Unknown to the ancients, but revealed to our sage are the plants in thy garden of herbs. You have opened to us an inspiring page. To thy neighbours like magic it seems. Taught of yore by the muses of Ganges and Ind[us], full of learning, as of years, in all that is known of the true healing art, old Chiron must bow before thee.”

[8] The first was a Catechism by St. Francis Xavier (1557). The second was a Compendia espirituel by Dr. Pereira, the first Archbishop of Goa (1561).

[9] 8vo, pp. 250. There were editions in 1574, 1579, 1593, 1605.

[10] Garcia da Orta e o sen tempo (Lisbon, 188G), por o Conde de Ficalho. This ianother very excellent piece of literary work (8vo, pp. 392).

[11] In Spanish and Portuguese the word Fulano is used for any one whose name is unknown, Fulano tal, same as So-and-so, or Thingamy. In Portuguese Sicrano and Beltraxo are also used, and apparently, in former times, Ruano — “the man in the street.”

[12] 1. Name and description of the brindones of Orta, Garcinia indica.
2. Orta’s mamelos de Benguala or Bengal quince, or beli Fructus Beloe.
3. Orta’s account of Cortex Margosae.
4. The story about the lady who was robbed when under the influence of Datura alba, told by Orta.
5. Orta’s account of the use of bhang.
6. Fructus Cardamomi. Orta on the trade.
7. Camphor, with reference to Orta’s account of Chinese trade.