The Library holds a rare copy of one of the earliest books printed in India. The Colóquios dos simples is remarkable both as an example of the emergence of printing in India, and for its descriptions of over eighty Indian plants and other medicinal substances, many of which were unknown in 16th-century Europe. Its author Garcia de Orta was also an interesting figure of his time.
The Colóquios dos simples, e drogas he cousas mediçinais da India was first printed in Goa by João de Endem on 10 April 1563. Written in Portuguese, the work quickly appeared in Latin and Italian forms, and influenced subsequent medical writers such as Cristóbal Acosta (c.1515-c.1592). Less than 30 copies of the original printing in Portuguese now survive.
Its author Garcia de Orta (1501/1502–1568) was born in Portugal to converted Jewish parents, and became a professor of medicine at the University of Lisbon. Converted Jews, known as New Christians, were prominent among medical practitioners in 16th-century Portugal; throughout the Middle Ages, Jews had made a vital contribution to medicine in many parts of Europe.
In 1534, as hostility towards New Christians became stronger, de Orta left Portugal and travelled to the Portuguese colony at Goa on the west coast of India, where he established a successful medical practice. He also had a herb garden, traded in medicinal substances and precious stones, and owned ships.
The Colóquios is written in the form of a dialogue between de Orta and the fictional Dr Ruano, a newcomer to Goa. Their conversations reflect de Orta’s willingness to correct the ancient medical authorities (Galen, Hippocrates, Dioscorides) upon whose writings much of conventional European medicine was still based. While clearly respecting tradition, de Orta emphasized the importance of practical experience and observation in treating patients, and his work includes case histories of individuals whom he had treated himself.
It also contains the first European account of Asiatic cholera, and the first published work by the great Portuguese poet Luís de Camões:
As well as transmitting new pharmaceutical knowledge to the West, the Colóquios dos simples reflects the very early stages of printing in India, where the first printing press was established in Goa only a few years earlier, in 1556. The book contains numerous typographical mistakes, and there are many variations between the handful of copies that survive.
This suggests that European standards of typesetting were not yet in place in Goa, and that adjustments were made to the type during the print run. Each surviving copy is thus unique, and some copies reveal how manuscript interacted with print during this era: in the Wellcome copy we can see missing printed text supplied by hand.
The sophisticated knowledge of Indian medicine accumulated by Garcia de Orta was one of the first subjects for the nascent printing technology of mid-16th-century India. While the printing of 1563 was far from perfect, the very existence of a press in Goa testifies to the vibrancy and dynamism of the cultural encounter between Europe and Asia that had brought de Orta to India and lay behind his work.
A recent exhibition at the National Library of Portugal in Lisbon paid special attention to the Colóquios, and the curators visited the Library to view our copy. The book now housed in the Library is remarkable in terms not only of the information it contains, but also the circumstances of its creation.
Author: Dr Elma Brenner is Specialist, Medieval and Early Modern Medicine at the Wellcome Library.