Orta, Garcia D’(or Da Orta)

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(b. Castelo de Vide, Portugal, ca. 1500; d. Goa, India, ca. 1568)

botany, pharmacology, tropical medicine, anthropology.

Among the Portuguese voyagers and travelers in Asia, d’Orta was the first to use his position to add to the knowledge in Europe of South Asian flora. He thus showed how inadequate were the inherited Greek and Arabic sources on Indian botany and pharmacology. His work provided Western scholars with their introduction to tropical medicine and with their basic data on almost all of the major cultivated plants of the region.

His parents, Fernão and Leonor d’Orta, were Spanish Jews who had taken refuge at Castelo de Vide, in the Portuguese province of Alentejo, when the Jews were banished from Spain in 1492. Faced again in 1497 with the choice between conversion or exile, they became Christians. Probably their eldest son, Garcia, was born soon afterward. The family presumably retained cultural links with Spain, for d’Orta was sent to study at the universities of Salamanca and Alcalá de Henares; he returned to his native town in 1523. He was officially examined and became qualified to practice medicine in 1526 and then moved to Lisbon. In 1530, after two unsuccessful applications, he was appointed to lecture on natural philosophy at the University of Lisbon, where he was elected to the council in 1533. Despite this apparently rapid progress in his career, he sailed for Goa on 12 March 1534, as personal physician to M. A. de Sousa, who had been appointed “captain general by sea” of the Portuguese in India and was later viceroy. From 1534 to 1538 d’Orta traveled extensively along the western coast of India and Ceylon attending de Sousa on his campaigns. He thus met and treated some of the leading Indian princes of the Deccan, notably Burhān Nizām Shah, the sultan of Ahmadnagar, who became a personal friend.

In 1538 he settled permanently in Goa and acquired a country estate on the island of Bombay. Once established, he began to bring over his sisters, who had already been in the hands of the Inquisition and might have hoped that they would be safe from persecution in Goa. In 1541 he married a distant relative, Brianda de Solis; the couple had several daughters. After de Sousa’s return to Portugal, d’Orta remained in India as vice-regal physician. It has been assumed that, as the most eminent doctor of Goa, he must also have been a physician at the Goa hospital and prison, but documentary evidence is lacking.

D’Orta participated in a public disputation on philosophy and medicine in 1559, when he was described as very old—indeed “already decrepit”—and learned. Feeling that old age was pressing in on him, he decided to make known the information he had collected during his thirty years in India. This work, Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India (Goa, 1563), is in the form of dialogues between d’Orta and a colleague, newly arrived in Goa and anxious to know about the materia medica of India. Most of the simples discussed were of vegetable origin, but amber, ivory, and pearls were also among his topics. For each specimen he provided the names in the local languages as well as the names in Greek and Arabic. He then described the size and form of the plant, its leaves, flowers, and fruit; what parts were used; the methods of cultivation and preparation; and the exact location where each plant was grown.

Although d’Orta’s central concern was medicinal substances, he often digressed to include other edible plants unknown in Europe. Besides verbal inquiry he used his mercantile contacts to procure specimens, which he attempted to cultivate in his garden (for example, Eugenia malaccensis from Malaya). Although he made his own mistakes, he corrected many more, and first reported on several important local food plants, notably mangoes, mangosteens, durians, and jakfruit, which shares a chapter with three other fruit trees then new to European botany. He also described accurately other plants formerly known only as processed commodities or from garbled texts. He was a pioneer in the study of Indian diseases then new to European medicine. His description of the symptoms of Asian cholera became a standard reference, and he carefully observed the effects of chronic dysentery, cobra bite, and datura poisoning.

Besides the plants, drugs, and diseases he found in India, d’Orta was greatly interested in Indian sociology. He described the caste system, the Parsee religion, and the social role of such practices as betel chewing and the consumption of bangue (cannabis). D’Orta established friendships with both Muslims and Hindus, and he learned much from their medicine. Although he wrote of Portuguese achievements patriotically, he could appreciate other cultures. He had after all assumed Portuguese Catholicism as a mask. He also reported his discussions with Arab and Jewish merchants from the Middle East. One of these last, who styled himself Isaac of Cairo, and so a Turkish subject, was really a kinsman from Castelo de Vide.

D’Orta was one of the first European scholars to express admiration for the civilization of China, and believed that Western medicine would benefit from closer contact. He realized, too, that the medieval Arabic authors on materia medica knew more about India than the Greeks, and he did not hesitate to challenge the authority of classical texts. This cultural relativism and skepticism toward Western tradition may be attributed in part to his origins.

These origins at last caught up with him. Investigations by the Holy Office brought up his name, and perhaps only his influential position protected his family, for soon after his death his sister Catarina was arrested. From her interrogations it appears that d’Orta had secretly encouraged his family to honor the sabbath and the fasts of Judaism as faithfully as possible. Catarina was martyred in 1569, and the rest of the family was deported to Portugal. In 1580 d’Orta’s remains were exhumed and burned.

D’Orta’s book may then have been suppressed in Goa. The Flemish botanist L’Écluse came across a copy in Lisbon. He extracted the essential information on the characteristics and properties of the economic and medicinal plants of India, and published an epitome in Latin as Aromatum et simplicium … historia (Antwerp. 1567); Italian and French translations were also published. Much of d’Orta’s material later reappeared in a Spanish work. Although his entertaining dialogue and thoughtful comments were lost, his contributions to botany and tropical medicine were thus saved and absorbed into the mainstream of European natural history.


D’Orta’s work was entitled Coloquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da India e assi dalgũas frutas achadas… (Goa, 1563). Two nineteenth-century eds. appeared; the standard one was edited and annotated by de Ficalho, 2 vols. (Lisbon, 1891–1895). This ed. was translated into English by C. Markham as Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India (London, 1913), but without the introductory material or notes.

L’Écluse’s epitome appeared as Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum apud Indos nascentium historia ante biennium quidem Lusitanica lingua … conscripta, D. Garcia ah Horto auctore (Antwerp, 1567); five eds. appeared between 1567 and 1605, and a facs. ed. was produced in 1963. An Italian trans, was made in 1576 (later eds. appeared between 1582 and 1616), and a French trans, was made in 1602 (2nd ed., 1619). C. Acosta, Tractado de las drogas y medicinas de las Indias orientales (Burgos, 1588), corrects, epitomizes, and illustrates d’Orta’s work.

There are two biographies of d’Orta: A. de Silva Carvalho, “Garcia d’Orta,” in Revista da Universidade de Coimbra,12 (1934), 61–246; and Count de Ficalho, Garcia da Orta e o seu tempo (Lisbon, 1886).

The journal Garcia de Orta. Revista da Junta das missões geográficas e de investigacões do ultramar has been named in his honor; 10 , no. 4 (1963), is a special issue commemorating the publication of Coloquios dos simples; an extensive bibliography by J. Walter is included.

A. G. Keller