A recently discovered letter by Galileo offers a clue to the tragic fate that befell the 16th century botanist Garcia d’Orta in Goa and reminds us of the value of freedom
A FORTNIGHT AGO, I was catching up with the news over breakfast when a headline punched me with a vindictiveness almost personal. Coffee abandoned, I plummeted into a gloom that I’ve battled since. It was irrational. The article had nothing to do with me. It was about a man who has been dead for nearly four centuries. Yet the anguish it provoked was unbearable. I told myself this was because it echoed the story of another life I’ve been exploring for 15 years. It was only natural the article should disturb me, but surely, not to this degree?
The insult was immediate, close to the bone. It had hurt me. Worse, it might harm others too—7.2 billion others.
How could a tale of two dead men possibly do this? How could their lives be relevant to ours?
The article was in the science journal Nature: ‘Discovery of Galileo’s long-lost letter shows he edited his heretical ideas to fool the Inquisition. Document shows that the astronomer toned down the claims that triggered science history’s most infamous battle —then lied about his edits.’
Every schoolchild knows the Galileo who famously said, ‘It turns.’ That’s a factoid. First, it omits the two preceding words that place the statement in context. The Galileo quote is, ‘And yet it turns.’ Eppur si muove. Second, there exists no proof that Galileo actually said it. Apocryphal, but neat.
The context is what the Nature article is all about. Galileo was tried by the Roman Inquisition, and may or may not have pronounced the aphorism after a perjury that saved his life.
The other man, the one I’ve spent long years researching, is not as famous as Galileo. Few have heard of Garcia d’Orta. He was a Portuguese physician who lived in India for 30 years. In 1563, the year before Galileo was born, Garcia d’Orta published a book in Goa. It was the third book to be published in India, and it was printed in Portuguese. Galileo was nearing 70 when he was arrested for publishing Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1632. In 1616, he had been warned by the Inquisition against propagating his dangerous ideas.
What was all this about? What was the horrific thought that Galileo was forbidden to express? The judicial sentencing of June 22nd, 1633, states it most clearly: ‘The proposition that the Sun is the centre of the world and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture. The proposition that the Earth is not the centre of the world and immovable but that it moves, and also with a diurnal motion, is equally absurd and false philosophically and theologically considered at least erroneous in faith.’
Garcia d’Orta was 63 when he published Coloquios. It is widely read even today, unlike Galileo’s thrilling Starry Messenger and Dialogue, which are both overshadowed by the man himself.
All we know about Garcia derives from his book. All we know about Galileo’s books comes from the narrative of a brilliant life and its tragic end.
We know less than nothing about Garcia’s life and nothing at all about his end. But there is a postscript. Garcia d’Orta too was condemned by the Inquisition. Unlike Galileo’s historic trial, Garcia’s is seldom discussed.
And the Inquisition? What was that about?
The historic Inquisition was a religious court maintained by the Roman Catholic Church to investigate and punish acts of heresy. But that is purely nominal. The idea of the Inquisition is universal: it is an agency of belief. Such agencies exist within all traditions: religious, social, domestic. Their purpose is to enforce conformity. The only truth they recognise is belief. Throughout history this has resulted in alternate courts that deal out judgments that may be temperate and wise according to their own values, but are abhorrent to those outside this value system.
Those within the system who dare to oppose belief are punished with different degrees of hatred: social rejection and public shaming, eviction and bankruptcy, imprisonment and death. The opposition to belief has a special term: heresy.
Both Galileo and Garcia d’Orta were men of science. Science is about enquiry. Like all forms of thought, it escapes belief. Science is heresy. So it isn’t surprising that these men were punished. Their stories could well be dismissed as historical curiosities. But the discovery of Galileo’s letter reveals something very relevant to our lives, here and now.
In Galileo’s time, the fountainhead of knowledge was Aristotle (384-322 BCE). In Aristotle’s reckoning, the earth was the centre of the universe. Five hundred years later, the Alexandrian mathematician Claudius Ptolemy’s Cosmographia echoed Aristotle’s cosmogony with the earth as the immoveable centre with the wheeling sun and stars above. This agreed well with the Christian scriptural view wherein the earth is the focus of God’s Creation.
Nonetheless, over the next millennium, the geocentric universe didn’t go down so well with Christian astronomers. Indian and Arabian astronomers had developed their own observations. The Syrian Mu’ayyad al-Din Al Urdi’s treatise on astronomy, Kitab al-Hay’a (1259) criticised Ptolemy’s models, while adhering still to geocentricity. By the 15th century, Nilakantha Somayaji of the Kerala School of Astronomy proposed a heliocentric universe similar to the one Johannes Kepler would posit a century later.
In Europe, Nicolaus Copernicus, surely aware of these rumblings, wrote De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). It was published just before his death in 1543 with a prefatory apologia by a Lutheran preacher Andreas Osiander which said the idea of heliocentricity was just concept, not fact. Copernicus probably died without having read this: ‘For these hypotheses need not be true nor even probable. On the contrary, if they provide a calculus consistent with the observations, that alone is enough … For this art, it is quite clear, is completely and absolutely ignorant of the causes of the apparent [movement of the heavens]. And if any causes are devised by the imagination, as indeed very many are, they are not put forward to convince anyone that they are true, but merely to provide a reliable basis for computation.’
This was anodyne enough for the Church, until the inconvenient matter of Giordano Bruno. This savant pushed the Copernican cosmos even further, when he said the universe was infinite and the fixed stars were distant suns, each with its own satellite planets. The Inquisition responded by torturing Bruno and then burning him at the stake on February 17th, 1600.
Bruno’s fate must have been fresh in Galileo’s memory when he wrote Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) about the observations he made with a telescope of his own invention.
Galileo observed three moons around Jupiter and named them for his patron Cosimo de Medici. Such overt chamchagiri helped him get away with a more dangerous observation: ‘I feel sure that the surface of the Moon is not perfectly smooth, free from inequalities and exactly spherical, as a large school of philosophers considers with regard to the Moon and the other heavenly bodies, but that, on the contrary, it is full of inequalities, uneven, full of hollows and protuberances, just like the surface of the Earth itself.’
This rocked the Scriptural tenet of the perfection of the sun and the moon. Worse was to follow.
Jupiter was also illuminated by the sun. A hypothetical observer stationed on Jupiter would see the sun in the heavens much as we do. Wouldn’t that make Jupiter the centre of his universe?
Aristotle & Ptolemy were beginning to look distinctly passé.
On December 21st, 1613, Galileo wrote to his friend Benedetto Castelli: ‘… nature is inexorable and immutable, and she does not care at all whether or not her recondite reasons and modes of operations are revealed to human understanding, and so she never transgresses the terms of the laws imposed on her; therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of the Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.’
Galileo is sentenced to imprisonment in perpetuity, later commuted to house arrest. He is watched, refused books and visitors. His tryst with science is at an end
It was an indignant and forthright protest against ‘belief.’ This letter was copied and circulated widely in Rome. As a temporising measure, the last paragraph of the letter proposed a way in which the Copernican heliocentric universe might still explain the miracle of the sun stopping for Joshua.
It is the original draft of this letter that has been discovered in the archives of the Royal Society, London. The hand has been attested as Galileo’s, by experts. The letter has been amended—words have been crossed out and reconsidered. The edited letter reads less forthright, but only slightly. The story goes that Galileo urged this amended version on a friend and asked him to pass it on to the Inquisition, the circulated version being a malicious fabrication by his enemies. And the Inquisition, surely, was reading that.
This damage control worked, in part.
The Inquisition summoned him, but he was let off with a warning. He could well have shared Giordano Bruno’s fate.
Galileo did not publish again until 1632 and then only after the Pope had assured him that as long as he maintained that the Copernican universe was pure idea, not fact, he was safe. One can imagine how fervently Galileo assuaged the Pope.
This time, it did not work.
Ill and exhausted, Galileo was forced to travel from Florence to Rome to face the Inquisition again.
His four depositions make for painful reading.
He pleads for an opportunity to add a chapter to his book so that he might ‘reconsider the arguments already presented in favor of the said false and condemned opinion and to confute them in the most effective way that the blessed God will enable me’.
He is threatened with torture. ‘I do not hold this opinion of Copernicus, and I have not held it after being ordered by injunction to abandon it. For the rest, here I am in your hands; do as you please.’
The Inquisition finds him guilty, and as is the practice, gives him the opportunity to recant. He does so, cravenly promising not only to forswear the idea that the sun is the centre of the universe, but also to report to the Inquisition other misguided souls who believe in Copernican heliocentricity.
He is sentenced to imprisonment in perpetuity, later commuted to house arrest. He is watched, refused books and visitors. His tryst with science is at an end.
Eventually, by the time the Inquisition permits him to move back to his home in Arcetri, Galileo is blind. The sun has set for him.
IN 1563, WHEN HE published Coloquios, Garcia had practiced medicine in India for nearly 30 years. His patients were among the rich and important personages who ran Estado d’Inde, as the Portuguese termed their Indian territories. Garcia also visited the Deccan and Gujarat Sultans as an honoured guest. These potentates vied with each other for the intellectual splendour of their courts and patronised scholars, among whom physicians were the most highly regarded. The two systems of Indian medicine, Ayurveda and Unani, were equally represented. It would have been royal courtesy to introduce Garcia to these savants for discussion and debate. In his travels in the South, Garcia would have met Siddha physicians as well. None of this is reflected in his book, which portrays Indian physicians as charlatans and humbugs.
Coloquios was considered a brilliant book in Europe. It introduced an exotic botany from a savage land. It was by no means challenging. The writer assured them here was no rival science, just a muddled pharmacopoeia of hit-or-miss therapies cobbled together. The intellect here was all the writer’s who used his own considerable erudition to extract science from dull habit.
Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with Indian systems of medicine today will find Coloquios full of indiscrepancies. Vaidyas and Hakims who were Garcia’s contemporaries would’ve found his text ridiculous in its ignorance, and offensive in its opinions.
Medicine is, above all, a practical science. Despite Garcia’s frequent boasts, and even supposing his practice was largely a ‘social’ one, Coloquios doesn’t read like the casebook of a competent doctor. And yet, before you’re a few pages into the book, Garcia’s intellectual curiosity has you hooked. He communicates wonder and delight repeatedly, but truncates each observation with a cutting disavowal that alienates the very landscape that fascinates him. The reader is left with the feeling that the writer is viewing India through the bars of a prison he is too afraid to quit.
Why would a smart person write such a mediocre book?
I’ll answer that with another question:
What was Garcia d’Orta doing in India, anyway?
He arrived in India in 1534 as personal physician to his patron and boyhood chum Martim Afonso de Sousa who would soon be Governor of Estado d’Inde. That’s the historical view. Garcia’s own view of that journey would have been very different. He was not travelling to India. He was fleeing Portugal. Why?
The most factual evidence of Garcia’s dilemma in 1534 comes from a recent discovery in Evora, Portugal.
Evora was a district Garcia knew intimately. It had an Inquisition Tribunal and a prison. The courtyard of that prison was excavated in 2015 and archaeologists discovered skeletons embedded in sediment composed of ‘domestic waste’ (a euphemism for garbage). The courtyard was the prison’s dump.
The skeletons were the remains of men and women who had died in prison. In a gesture of contempt, their bodies had been maliciously thrown into the yard and left to rot. They had been denied last rites, by the Inquisition that incarcerated them. By the logic of that Tribunal, this was not malice, but an act of retributive justice.
In 1534, Portugal was gearing up for the Inquisition. Garcia, then a brilliant young man, on the threshold of an ambitious career, would have been described very differently by the Inquisition. He would have been indistinguishable from those prisoners, considered so nefarious they were denied dignity even in death.
What was Garcia d’Orta’s crime? He hadn’t committed it yet, but he was a suspect. Every New Christian in Portugal in 1534 was suspected of heresy: of reverting to the original religion, of practicing Judaism in secret.
It was time to flee. Tomorrow could well be Inquisition Day.
It took nearly 30 years for the Inquisition to catch up with Garcia d’Orta. The Goa Inquisition began in 1560, but the well-connected Garcia would have been aware of the escalation. It was clear that nothing would work: not his wealth and connections, not his toadying up to the clergy, not his scholarship and reputation. As a New Christian, especially one seen encouraging native Indians and perhaps learning their black arts, he would be a person of interest.
So Garcia did what Galileo would plead for, 70 years later. He wrote a book that stated unequivocally his unswerving devotion to the Church, and his dismissive contempt for native Indians.
With publication of his book, Garcia d’Orta disappears from public gaze.
This silence was broken on the 400th anniversary of his embarkation from Lisbon.
We now know that on October 23rd, 1568, Garcia’s sister Caterina d’Orta was burnt to death by the Inquisition as an ‘impenitent’ heretic. In her trial she mentions Garcia as her ‘late brother.’ This is the first intimation of Garcia’s death. We know also that on December 4th, 1580, Garcia d’Orta’s body was exhumed and publicly humiliated. His effigy, clothed in the sanbenito, the Inquisition’s garment of shame, was burnt along with his remains.
Every time I open his book—and I do so every day—the print seems smeared with ash.
This tale of two dead men carries a sapient truth. The freedom to doubt or disbelieve is an evolutionary necessity. Robbed of it, the species will either stagnate in mediocrity, or else, broken in spirit, collapse in entropy.
The constraints of belief lobotomise the brain it has taken us 2 million years to achieve. When evidence and belief fall out, the difference is irreconcilable. Anomalies abound, some laughable, some tragic: Astrophysicists who cast horoscopes. Gynaecologists who observe menstrual taboos. Women who collude in self- destructive traditions of misogyny. The list is endless.
There are so many inquisitions now, one for each belief.
When every strange face is an enemy, what will the mirror reflect?
No matter what the past ordained, the physicality of the present is our only tangible evidence of existence. Despite belief, the earth still moves. Eppur si muove.