Senhora de Panjim

Brazil, Goa and Oh! What a lady!!

It is carnival time; many people have Samba, Soccer and Goa in their minds, and of course imagination of the places where it all happens, namely in Brazil. Samba is considered today to be the most popular Brazilian expression and I will agree that the dancers and dance that accompany it are very much watchable and candy for the eyes. But I am going to take you to a time much earlier, before Samba came about, some 300 + years back in time, and tell you the story of a fascinating lady who fled Brazil and lived a few decades in India, some 10,000 miles away. She lived a life you would find hard to believe, a period not counted in days, but for 13 years. So brace yourself, not for a samba, but to live through the adventures of this young Brazilian lady in Goa and an amazing love story at that.

The girl, for she was a chit of a girl when she took this tempestuous decision, was born to a wealthy Brazilian family in 1682. She had a reasonably complicated name and was the only daughter of Joao de Abreu de Oleveria. The girl was named Dona Maria Ursula de Abreu de Lancastro. They lived in Rio, the other side of the world.

Rio De Janeiro or Rio in those days was more than just the River of January, it was by then a biggish city, under Portuguese control, through the French were nibbling at its sides. Rio, for those who are a wee bit hazy about history and geography is of course in Brazil. Brazil as you may have read was ‘supposedly’ discovered on 1st January 1502 (various other theories exist) after being “accidentally” found by a captain named Gaspar de Lemos who captained a ship in Pedro Alvares Cabral’s fleet on its way to Calicut & Cochin. Well, he lost his way, so to say, and stumbled into Rio. Since that fateful day when Gaspar de Lemos strayed & reached Brazil instead of Malabar, the fortunes of Rio of the medieval times were tied to the Portuguese and their fate in Malabar. The surrounding land, allotted to Portuguese settlers by the Portuguese king in enormous plots called ‘sesmarias’, was planted with sugarcane, which provided the colony with good income. In the second half of the 17th century, they say that the Rio population grew to 8,000 inhabitants, two-thirds of whom were probably African slaves and Indians. (Whatever happened to the Indian slaves in Rio? That I will leave for now to recount another day). In the late 17th century, still during the Sugar Era, the colonial scouts found gold and diamonds in the neighboring captaincy of Minas Gerais, and thus Rio de Janeiro became a much more practical port for exporting wealth (gold, precious stones and of course sugar). As a result, the colonial capital was moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro. The city remained a capital until 1808, when the Portuguese royal family and most of the associated Lisbon nobles, fleeing from Napoleon's invasion of Portugal, moved to Rio de Janeiro.

Now that I have introduced you rapidly to the early history of the Rio, I will hasten to take you to the story of our petite lady Maria Ursula. Oh, dear readers, as you can imagine, her story makes me chuckle at the vagaries and uncertain propensities of youth, and makes me wish time and again, of how glorious it would be - to be young, once again…

So, as I said, Maria was born to a wealthy family, most obviously in the sugar business or the government, while Rio was abuzz with the ships coming from Malabar, disgorging spices and slaves (Indian & African) and ships going out with Brazilians and sugar to India and Europe. You can imagine how it was, a very interesting period and the young lady, like most other girls of her age (which by the way was the ripe age of 18), fell in love. What happened next is something I am not so sure about, but either the love affair failed, or she was being forced by her parents to marry another whom she did not like. Unlike novels and movie plots, she did not kill herself or cry or sulk, or marry another. She decided to do something else, she ran away. But to know exactly what she did and how, you have to travel back in time, first to Lisbon, then to Goa to be precise, to a time when the fortunes of the Portuguese in India were clinging to a very thin thread.

Did she become the wife of a soldier or perhaps a wealthy trader? Did she become a nun? Did she marry a king or nobleman? Or better still, did she become a trader?

It was the year 1700. 200 years had passed after Vasco Da Gama found his way to Calicut and the Portuguese had since then struggled hard to establish a colony in the Southern ports of Malabar. While they were successful to a certain extent in Cochin, the Zamorin’s land and sea forces had been constantly fighting battles with them with support from the Moplah’s, the neighboring kings of Bijapur, the Kolathiri’s of Cannanore and even far flung lands such as Egypt and the Ottoman Turks. It was turning out to be a lost cause for the murderous Franks, as very large amounts of money had been spent with little returns and the only real holding they could call their own by then was Goa.

The Dutch had already taken away all their possessions in Cochin and Quilon and the English EIC was making early inroads. The Portuguese had fled Malabar after the relentless attacks by the Marakkars in their small Paros ‘Praus’ and they had not recovered from the sea based attacks by one of their own, who turned out to be the nephew of the Kunjali (see my previous articles on these matters). The Portuguese were virtually holed up around Goa, which they had originally taken in 1510, when they defeated the ruling Bijapur kings with the help of the crafty local Timoja, leading to the establishment of a permanent settlement in Velha Goa (or Old Goa).

According to a Scottish Sea captain, the city at that time was a 'place of small trade and most of its riches lay in the hands of indolent Country Gentlemen, who loiter away their days in East, Luxury, and Pride. Bombay had also been lost to the English by 1665. It is to this Goa of the period 1700-1750 that we are traveling to.

Goa was way North of Malabar as we know from the Malabar of today, and was as you can imagine looking more and more of a decadent port, the great times long gone. The Fidalgo’s, Soldado’s, Cassado’s, the Orpha’s (You may want to check out my earlier blog on Orfas)and the various other types, local, half breeds and imports were milling around in squalid conditions, rife with all kinds of problems. Money and women were in short supply, wars and churches were aplenty and the Portuguese East India Company, the Estado Da India already in dire straits was extremely bureaucratic and horribly corrupt indeed for anybody’s comfort.

The problems for the Portuguese with Chatrapati Shivaji had started sometime around 1670. The new Maratha foe Shivaji Maharaj who trained, armed and allied himself with a number of other Hindu kings of the area fought resilient battles with the Portuguese. The fights were largely victorious for Shivaji, but he died in 1680 to be succeeded by his son Sumbhaji who first allied with Aurangzeb, but later aligned himself with his father’s cause against the Moguls and Franks. The Portuguese were supported by Aurangzeb for a while and Sumbhaji was killed in 1689. A small window of peace now prevailed in Goa though Arabs from the other side of the Indian Ocean continued to harass the Portuguese ships in the interim. The Bijapur Bhonsle’s led by Khem Sawant also made occasional forays into Portuguese territory both from the land & sea.

In 1700, Portuguese historians started to take first notice of a young Soldado or soldier who was well versed in western martial arts (sword and the gun). Brave and smart, this young man went by the name Balthazar da Couto. He had recently arrived in Goa, and seemed to have the right connections, or let us at least assume so. Unfortunately the life of a soldier is never easy, especially that of a Soldado in Goa of the medieval times as you will read and you will then agree that high level connections were paramount.

Life of a soldado (referring to Silveira and Diogo Do Couto’s old writing) As the yearly fleet comes in and disgorges the quota of mercenaries from Europe, the chances of employment were dim. Unless he has friends or connections, the soldado would sleep on a doorway or the boat, die of malnutrition or disease or fade into the wretched population as Silveira Do Couto wrote, or flee Goa and take up service with another Indian ruler. The only soldiers who prosper are unscrupulous riffraff in the services of the Viceroy, other officers or Fidalgo, working mostly in their private armies when not in campaign. Only when they were in a campaign for the viceroy were they paid any salary, and only part even if they did, the viceroy pocketing the balance. Many a soldier thus failed to report on duty and was brought in frequently by ‘goon’ squads. If caught, they had to serve a campaign without pay. On top of that they were expected to provide their own weaponry. They lived about 9-10 per house, leading bachelor lives, lolling around in their white cotton drawers and shirts, singing and playing the guitar (Pyrard of Laval) sharing 2 -3 formal dresses, murdering & robbing lonely people by night. Many consequently left Goa for Bengal. Due to this situation, morale was low and many fought half heartedly if they had to. Many of the documented fights and tales of valor on the Portuguese side were in reality, flights of fancy of the writer.

It was in Oct 1703 that Caetano de Mello de Castro arrived as the new Viceroy. He decided to consolidate Portuguese hold over the areas surrounding Goa. The first order given was to capture and raze down the Maratha fort at Amona on the banks of the Mandvi River. Khem Sawant Bhonsle was the enemy during the 1704-06 periods and he had to be muzzled.

While the Portuguese ships quickly destroyed the Sawant’s small navy blockading the Mandvi River head, the army led by Capt Teixeira Arrais de Mello was conducting a ferocious hand to hand combat with the Sawant’s men but losing badly. Balthazar Couto, our young soldier, seeing this, rushed to Capt De Mello’s rescue and attacked the Sawant’s men violently and head on with his troops, braving certain death. This was a major tuning point of that battle where Balthazar rescued his captain but was seriously injured in the bargain. The Sawant’s forces were routed and the fort was taken. De Mello ensured that his savior Balthazar Da Couto got the kudos.

The Portuguese thus defeated the Bhonsle’s and many historians admit that it was mainly due to clever tactics employed by young Balthazar Couto. The Amona fort was then razed to the ground so that the Bhosles did not use it again. The Portuguese government gifted two palm groves in Chaul to Bathazar Couto for his brave deeds. Balthazar was made a Captain of the bulwark of the Chaul fortress and his name figured in the banners of Portuguese bravery in the field of war for many more years.

Balthazar continued his brave battles when the viceroy launched campaigns between 1705-1706 to take Bicholim fort and later the islands of Corjuem and Ponelm.

I have been penning word after word, sentence after sentence, para after para, but where do these two people meet? Whatever happened to the heroine of the story? We talked at length about our hero Balthazar, but we also started with a heroine Marie Ursula. Where is she?

The last we heard of Maria Ursula was when she decided to take a ship to Lisbon from Rio in Brazil. Did these two get married? It is now close to 14 years after Marie Ursula left on the boat to Lisbon. Well, take the wildest of guesses; and I can assure you, you will not get any closer to the truth. So I have to tell you what happened.

You see, as it turned out, the hero and the heroine were both one and the same. Ursula had before leaving Rio decided to don a man’s dress, had changed her name to Balthazar Couto (to avoid being traced by her rich dad I suppose) and offered her services to the King or Portugal as a Soldado or soldier going to Goa, in one of those yearly ships. His services were accepted and Balthazar Couto landed on Goan shores. Marie Ursula was thus lost to the world for 14 years while the name of Balthazar blazed the Portuguese annals.

The history books are not entirely clear as to where she mastered the art of war and as to when exactly Balthazar divulged her true sex, but she did both. While one historian states that this happened when she was seriously injured in the attack at Amona, while trying to save De Mello’s life (and due to the nature of her injury her true sex had to be revealed to De Mello), who presumably kept quiet. She, I believe maintained touch with Captain De Mello who later became the captain of Fort S Jao Baptista.

Ok, I mentioned a love story in the beginning. What about that?

On 12th May 1714, she retired from military service and obtained permission from the King of Portugal to marry the man she had fallen in love with in the meantime, none other than the very man she rescued, Capt Affonso Teixeria Arraes de Mello. She was 32. They got married and lived a happy life, and had a child named Joao. It is said that even as a wife she continued proudly wearing her uniform.

Later on 8th March 1718, the King Dom Joao V granted this brave Soldado the free use of the palace of Panjim for 6 years and a pension of One seraphim per diem (300 reis per day) paid by the customs department of Goa with the condition that she could will it to anybody she chose or her descendants upon her death……….

Since then she was known in Goa as the Senhora de Panjim, well admired and respected in the various circles of Goa. Strangely her story can be found in very few books, and her deeds are not glorified in any official documents. She died in 1730.

The Portuguese continued to hang on to their powers in Goa until around 1736, but that part of the story is no longer of interest here.

I have held a dim view about the Portuguese in India, but I do have admiration for Marie Ursula since Goa in those days was not the Goa you see today, it was filthy, bureaucratic, corrupt, with Portuguese men desperately searching for women to cohabit with and this brave girl survived the filth and the lust, excelling in a man’s world, fighting side by side. They fittingly called her an adventuress.

She was one hell of an adventuress; that I can assure you, this ‘Senhora de Panjim’

Sawants of Wadi - SK Mhamai
Portuguese in India - FC Danvers
Brazilian Biographical annual 1876
Essays in Goan history - Teotonio R. De Souza
The black legend of Portuguese India - GD Winius
Appleton's cyclopedia of American biography - James Grant Wilson, John Fiske
Women in Iberian expansion overseas, 1415-1815 - Charles Ralph Boxer
Slavery & South Asian history - Indrani Chatterjee, Richard Maxwell Eaton


1. It is quite difficult for a lady to hide her sex for so long and that too for 13-14 years in a turbulent place so alien to her upbringing is even tougher. Imagine the plight of Soldados who had to sleep in open barracks and places like that. How she managed is a mystery.

2. Historians state that it is very hard to come by information about Balthazar in official documents, in spite of his/her valor. However they all attest that the story is true.

3. How Balthazar found her way up is curious considering the sad state of Soldados. Like how she got her weapons or training in Lisbon, unless she had training as a child in Rio. However it is a fact that she found success early and that soon lifted her out of the rut and got her a key position as captain of the Chaul fortress and hopefully, with it, privacy. With that her fortunes looked up.

4. Cassado means married man. Soldado means soldier. Orpha or Orfa is orphan and Fidalgo is a noble man.

5. While Marie Ursula’s case is somewhat unique, i.e. a woman doing a manly soldiers job, it was not uncommon in the case of Rajputs or Marathas of India, for there were quite a few women fighters who are documented in history. One such person is Tarabai, Shivaji’s daughter in law, who fought the Moghuls & the Portuguese, at the same time as Balthazar was fighting for the Portuguese.

6. According to eminent historian CR Boxer, Marie Ursula sailed out in 1699 and revealed her sex as I have described, after rescuing De Mello in the battle and being gravely injured. She married him after recovering according to him, but this does not fit very well with the time line as the Amona attack happened in 1702-05 time frame, as I understood, but her marriage took place in 1712.

7. Readers might wonder about the paradox where soldados were without work, but at the same time new recruits came from Lisbon & Brazil. It appears that the people in Goa were less inclined to go to war for various reasons, relaxing in pride, and so the newer ones, accepting lesser pay went into campaigns, especially African & Brazilian recruits. The older Soldados in Goa who had enough by then were lolling around, doing little. They normally held the rear of the forces while the newer ones were up in front, like our Balthazar Couto.

twc, and others on the net thanks.


A wonderful love story of a disguised girl.
Kamini said…
Great story. I found it particularly interesting since I have visited both Goa and Brazil!
Sarah Stephen said…
Very interesting blog and an exceptionally interesting post! I have added this to my bookmarks and am looking forward to more!
Macaco verde said…
Fascinating story, thank you.
Maddy said…
Thanks PNS...In retrospect I should have made this a bit lighter. Something tells me that it turned off a lot of readers, nevertheless, I wanted to cover the medieval history of Goa around this story..Nota good idea I suppose..
Maddy said…
Thanks Kamimi - I would love to go to Brazil and I HAVE not yet visited it was all in my mind!!!
Maddy said…
Hi Sarah - Welcome and thanks..Please do visit often..plenty for you all to read..
Maddy said…
Hello Maccao Verde..Welcome from wherever you are & thanks..Maybe you will like my blog about the Mango..
What a story! and beautifully recounted. It is stories of unknown persons like the Senora which really sustain the interest of the non-academic historians. The academics are too busy with historiography and ideological framework. Meanwhile, let us enjoy digging up gems like the one above! Congratulations.
Happy Kitten said…
Read this wonderful post the same day on my reader and as usual am late in commenting!

Oh what a lady!

nd even I wonder how she managed to hide her gender for so long..
December chills said…
It was an interesting story....Thanks for nice post.
Bernard said…
Really interesting post. Thank you for the effort. Happy belated Vishu! Ever wondered about tradition of giving money on Vishu? - "Vishu kaineettam". The same tradition is among Chinese also. 'Was wondering from where the tradition originated. Was it from India or the otherside?!
Maddy said…
Thanks CHF - I agree with you, of the many history books I have perused, I have found but a few that will hold the interest of an ordinary reader, let alone one with a penchant for history. Let us try & address that issue & bring those days to the others...
Maddy said…
Thanks HK & December chills...It caught me by the throat the instant i got an inkling...
Maddy said…
thanks Bernard..
the answer to your question follows partly in the next post, which will address china in part 2.
Arjun Malhotra said…
This is an old post, but the story itself has then been adapted for the big screen by Gauri Shinde in Dear Zindagi. Fascinating story, and fascinating movie!