Sunday, February 28, 2010

Tree & Leaf

(1870-1937) ~ installment # 3

Chapter III


The first quarter of the twentieth century saw Bombay’s emergence as rival to Calcutta to be commercial, industrial and financial capital of India. Amongst many factors contributory to this development were the enterprise, business acumen and access to sources of capital of great merchant houses like Tata, Mafatlal and Khatau who even today are names to conjure with. These great houses were Bombay-based but their operations were nationwide.

Circumstances were consequently propitious for Manoel Agostinho to avail of acquaintances and friendships that had been made through his medical practice, in order to venture into the business world. But mere inspiration to become an entrepreneur was not, and never has been, enough; the aspirant must have a grasp of business principles and practices, and an understanding of the complex linkages between owners and users of funds; above all, he must possess credit-worthiness. That Manoel Agostinho was able to win all these pre-requisites within a decade of residence in Bombay is the note-worthy feature of his career as entrepreneur.

He was quick to realise that the accelerating tempo of business activity must inevitably spur demands for all types of insurance; that an. insurer could expect to prosper only if the risks insured were correctly assessed , and that his professional expertise and, yes, integrity, could be his contribution to the capital needed for promoting a life insurance company. Amongst his circle of acquaintances he identified two who were suitable and willing to be his partners in such an enterprise.

This was the genesis of the Asian Assurance Company Limited, whose Managing Agents were S.H. Mehta & Company. The first initial stood for Dhirajlal P. Shroff, a merchant banker of Surat, related to leading Gujarati business houses, like that of Sir Purshottamdas Thakurdas; the ‘Mehta’ was Jamnadas M. Mehta, Bar-at-Law, a brilliant lawyer and political activist who later became a Minister, and the middle initial was, of course, Dr Heredia.

Many Goan relatives and friends subscribed to the share capital of the ‘Asian’. Names of well known businessmen also figured in the Shareholders’ Register; amongst them, that of Abdul Tayeb E. Maskati after whose merchant-prince father the great Maskati Market in Surat had been named. Later, Maskati’s father-in-law, Dr. Taherali M. Kajiji, LL.D, joined the "Asian’s" management with the designation of Managing Director, his responsibility being the signing of insurance policies. Dr. Kajiji’s impressive presence, his high social standing and his reputation for probity were a shield against the spread of any damaging rumours by rival insurers.

Of cardinal importance to the stability and prosperity of an insurance company was and continues to be the wise and provident investment of funds that accrue from premium income. This function was initially assigned to the Managing Agents, that is, the triumvirate of Shroff, Heredia and Mehta. It was not long before Shroff and Mehta delegated this power to Manoel Agostinho, having been satisfied that he could be trusted. Thus, he became the de facto Chief of Investment, as well as Chief Medical Referee of the Company.

At the time of his death, the ‘Asian’ had attained the top bracket of Indian insurers, and under the stewardship of his son James Nathaniel retained that position until life insurance business was nationalised in 1956.

Pressed by compatriots to give some attention to Goa’s development, Manoel Agostinho promoted, along with an able engineer, Mr. R.D. Char, (who went on to establish a battery manufacturing company that has been a leader in this field till recently), the Bardez Electric Supply Co. Ltd., at Mapusa, and the Daman Electric Supply Co. Ltd., at Daman. Both plants took firm root in their native soil.

There never has been a successful entrepreneur whose track record is totally free from failure. Manoel Agostinho’s one failure was a steam navigation company. It was styled the "Maji Agbott Co.," because it was meant to provide Goans (and other Konkan coast dwellers) an economic alternative to the steamers that Killick Nixon & Co.( a Managing Agency firm that managed a score of trading, mining and manufacturing companies) plied between Bombay and Goa, under the flag of the Bombay Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. (One of my earliest childhood memories is standing on the deck of the S.S. Britomar before it set out on the Maji Agbott Company’s inaugural voyage).

This venture challenged an established shipping monopoly, backed by massive resources and, tacitly, by British power. It would have been a miracle if it had succeeded. However, it afforded Manoel Agostinho one more valuable acquaintance - that of the redoubtable Narottamdas Morarji, founder (along with that pioneer industrialist Walchand Hirachand) of the first Indian shipping company - The Scindia Steam Navigation Co. Ltd. Many years later, when occasion arose for his son James Nathaniel to set up an organising office of "the Asian" to do insurance business in Sri Lanka, Seth Morarji arranged the necessary introductions to the Sri Lankan officials and to Sri Lankan businessmen, through Scindia Steam’s Colombo agents, Narottam Pereira & Co.

Manoel Agostinho’s earnings as a physician would not have sufficed for him to rear and educate his eleven children, to get enviably good matches for all his daughters who reached marriageable age before his death, and to settle the two sons who had acquired professional qualifications by that time - James Nathaniel, a commerce graduate specialised in actuarial science, having joined "the Asian" management as Secretary in 1932, and Albert Francis, a graduate in Medicine and Surgery, having relieved his father in the Kalbadevi dispensary two years later. It was Manoel Agostinho’s business earnings and profits that made up the difference.

His medical practice and his business ventures were each by themselves full time occupations. One marvels that he should have been able to give each occupation full attention without prejudice to his management of the other, over a span of twenty-five years. That he did this, and also led an active social life, participating in every significant event, in the Goan community in particular, seems incredible.

Manoel Agostinho as a ‘Sociable Man’ is as much a phenomenon as he appeared as ‘Physician’ and as ‘Entrepreneur’.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Tree & Leaf

~ installment # two

Chapter II


A dictionary defines ‘physician’ as ‘a doctor of medicine other than a surgeon’. Nowadays, the category of ‘doctors of medicine’ itself is subdivided into specialists in the branches of medicine - paediatrics, gynaecology, psychiatry, and the like. Numerous and ever-proliferating aids to diagnosis are also available, offering the apparent certainty of objective, quantified tests of every part of the human organism, by high technology processes and apparatus. These aids naturally outweigh the unaided judgement of an individual medical practitioner, in the eyes of even those who can ill afford their expense. And so medical treatment today is, worldwide, impersonal and unfeeling for all its efficiency.

Dr Heredia was one of that near-extinct class of physicians known as ‘general practitioners’ (‘GP’s for short) who were able to diagnose and prescribe treatment for most diseases and ailments, referring to specialists only such cases as needed major surgery or specialised medical advice. With few technical aids to assist him in diagnosis, a GP had to have a considerable (and constantly expanded) body of knowledge and experience in order to be a successful diagnostician of a wide range of diseases and ailments. From successful diagnosis to the achieving of his patient’s cure, the GP needed, besides knowledge and experience, ability to inspire a patient with faith in his own recovery, a potent if little understood factor in curative medicine.

That Dr. Heredia commanded all the requisite qualities of a GP is apparent not only from his large practice, but also from his successes in treating cases that other doctors and even recognised specialists had deemed to be hopeless.

In the first few years after qualifying to practise medicine, Dr Heredia served as Medico de Partido (Panel Doctor) to the village communities of his native island Divar and of the neighbouring island of Chorão. That the people of Chorão contributed materials and labour to build him a dwelling on their island is evidence of their desire for his professional services. But he felt drawn to Bombay by his recollections of an earlier visit there, undertaken at the invitation of his co-brother-in-law, Major Caetano Fernandez (‘Tio Caetaninho’, who had married Ángela Mericia’s elder sister Analia) to be locum tenens for the duration of the latter’s travels in Europe. *[This history, as related by Julio da Costa in his memoir, is more full than the one here set down. Tio Julio’s account follows, in a different coloured type to differentiate it.]


[interventions by EMRH in italics between square brackets]

Agostinho's friends and well-wishers were many, and from all strata of Goan society. Among his highly-placed friends was Frederico Salvador Ferreira, lord ('Senhor') of an entire island, fertile and extensive in area, called Corjuem. Frederico Ferreira and all his family had great regard for Agostinho's skill as a physician; and personal esteem for him as a friend. This 'Grande Senhor' had three sons Carlito, Octaviano and Heliodoro, and a daughter [Herminia] who was married to a lawyer of Margão [José Felipe Alvares]. In the house of Frederico Ferreira, no party, however intimate, ever took place without an invitation to Agostinho, and invariably the Ferreira's own steam launch or pinnace was sent to fetch him to Corjuem and take him back to Chorão. But Agostinho was not merely invited to dinners and galas; he was also consulted as a medical practitioner, and his advice was sought in financial matters. He was adviser as well as friend of the entire Ferreira family. This friendship came to his rescue in the year 1895, when an incident took place that became a turning point in Agostinho's life.

In that year the President (i.e. Mayor) of the Municipal Chamber of Ilhas was a Portuguese official named Gomes da Costa, - an ambitious man, hungry for power. This official wanted his salary to be increased~ The Municipal Councillors were disinclined to support him, and several, amongst them Agostinho, voted against the proposal. Gomes da Costa was infuriated, and sought an occasion for revenge.

In that same year a mutiny had taken place in army units stationed in Goa, in which both Goan and Portuguese troops participated. In fact Gomes da Costa himself had been responsible for this mutiny. But he accused the Municipal Councillors who had voted against him of having been in league with the ring-leaders of the mutiny, and sought to have them arrested on this false charge. He approached the Governor of Goa for this purpose, and in Agostinho's case he cunningly reminded the Governor that Agostinho's priest brother Antonio José had made a representation to the Portuguese Minister for Colonies against the discriminatory treatment of Goan missionaries vis-a-vis European missionaries in the Patriarchal Mission of Aleppey. By playing on the Governor's feelings in this manner, Gomes da Costa succeeded in obtaining from him a warrant for Agostinho's arrest.

Before the warrant could be executed, Agostinho's well-wishers in Panjim had warned him what was afoot, and advised him to flee Goa. At this very juncture my sister, Ana Conceiçao, was to take her daughter Analia to Bombay, where Analia was to wed Dr. Caetano Fernandes, from Honavar, North Kanara, who had a well-established practice in Bombay. This circumstance decided Agostinho to seek refuge at Bombay until the storm over his head blew over. I determined to keep him company. It was known that henchmen of Gomes da Costa were lying in wait for Agostinho at Panjim, expecting to have him arrested at the ferry wharf itself, in case he attempted to flee Goa by the steamer plying between Panjim and Bombay. Agostinho therefore decided to escape overland by walking over the border to the port of Vengurla (in British India, Ratnagiri District), where he would be able to board the same steamer en route from Panjim to Bombay. As the authorities were presumably watching the road as well as sea and rail routes out of Goa, Agostinho chose to use jungle tracks through Pernem and Neibaga, over the border into Savantwadi.

For this plan, a guide familiar with the ways through the jungle was required. It was Frederico Ferreira who came to Agostinho's rescue; he provided a trustworthy guide, and provisions for the travellers (whose number had by this time swelled to four, by the addition of the guide and a friend, one Francisco Paulo Gomes). We set out from Corjuem and reached the border the same night. After an overnight rest, we resumed our journey and reached the ferry wharf at Vengurla late at night, just in time to board the steamer from Panjim. Among the passengers who had embarked at Panjim were my sister Ana Conceiçao and her daughter; also Frederico Ferreira's youngest son Heliodoro, who was to seek specialist medical treatment for his ailment at Bombay, under Agostinho's supervision.

We attended the wedding of my niece Analia which took place soon after we arrived in Bombay. Her newly-wed husband, Dr. Fernandes, was a shrewd judge of men: he had a flourishing practice, and discerned in Agostinho one with sound knowledge and much experience of medical science. He invited Agostinho to work as his assistant during his stay in Bombay, and Agostinho accepted. We remained at Bombay, in the house of my brother- in law Jujut Simoes at Mazagaon. After the Goa Government's suspicions regarding Agostinho were dispelled, Agostinho and I returned to Goa, where he resumed his duties at Chorão.


Dr. Caetano Fernandes had not forgotten how ably his co-brother-in-law Agostinho had performed as his assistant during his enforced stay at Bombay. Dr. Fernandes' practice had grown, and he planned to travel in Europe. He offered Agostinho attractive terms to look after his practice during his absence from Bombay, and thereafter to work as his assistant on a permanent basis. Agostinho accepted the offer, and moved to Bombay in the year 1900. After settling down in his new assignment, he secured accommodation for his family and brought his wife to Bombay, along with their two infant daughters. In order to raise funds for furnishing his new house-hold, he sold his Chorão dwelling and all its contents.

By the time Dr. Fernandes returned from foreign travel Agostinho's reputation as a skilful physician had spread, attracting more patients than before to Dr. Fernandes' consulting rooms. His co-brother-in-law was not entirely pleased with Agostinho's success as locum tenens. It was not long before Agostinho found it expedient to set up in practice on his own.
etc. [A romantic detail omitted by Tio Julio is that there were some small creeks and brackish streams requiring the use of a tona (a sort of canoe made from bark); and the crossings were made possible by the ready cooperation of fishermen and hamlet-dwellers.]

Tio Caetaninho readily agreed to transfer to Manoel Agostinho that sector of his huge practice that was based at a dispensary on Kalbadevi Road. According to a cousin, a sum of Rs.13,000 was the consideration paid, the equivalent of not less than five lakhs of rupees today [1987!]. Manoel Agostinho could not have raised even a fraction of this sum from his savings from a few years of community service, nor from his wife’s dowry, for he had foregone it. He could only have raised this amount by borrowings.

However, it was an investment that repaid itself many times over. Kalbadevi was then the hub of a greater business centre than the Fort. The great merchant houses – predominantly Gujarati-speaking Vaishnavas, Jains, Bohras, Khojas and Kutchi Memons - were clustered in the three or four city wards adjoining Kalbadevi. The Goan community, too, was settled within the same wards in the parishes of Cavel, Dhobitalao, Sonapur and Dabul. The Cathedral, founded when Bombay was Portuguese, was in Bhuleshwar, scarcely four furlongs from what had become Dr. Heredia’s dispensary.

His practice soon grew, encompassing at the high end, rich merchant families, who rewarded his services with business insights worth far more than his fees, and Goan seamen, waiters and domestic servants, at the other end poor patients whom h treated at nominal or no cost. From his wealthy patients he derived inspiration, ideas and collaboration for subsequent ventures into business. From his poor patients the returns were hardly less rewarding: enduring respect, regard and esteem for him, and for every descendant of his name.

It was not merely his professional skill and the high percentage of patients cured, that won him such rewards. His bedside manner, comprising the courtesy, consideration and sympathy that every patient received from him, not only hastened recovery, but won their grateful affection.

Many were the "hopeless cases" that recovered under his tender care. When the only son of his former tutor contracted tetanus, (for which there was no known cure) it was Dr. Heredia who undertook to treat him, and saved his life. His son-in-law, C.M. Correa’s first-born infant son, William Raymond, went down with pneumonia, and the leading physician of the time, Dr .Judah, had told the anxious parents that he had no hope of saving their child. Refusing to acquiesce in this expert’s opinion, Manoel Agostinho took charge of the case, and the boy recovered.

Manoel Agostinho’s professional integrity ensured timely referral to specialist consultants of cases in which a second opinion seemed to him expedient in the patient’s interest. Thereby, he came to know every one of Bombay’s many specialist consultants in every branch of medicine and surgery. With many of them, acquaintance ripened into enduring relationships of mutual esteem, even of friendship. Soon, his reputation attracted patients from Goa to Bombay in search of better facilities for treatment than those available in Goa or in the many Indian mofussil towns that had sizeable Goan communities.

Again, it was his reputation for integrity that led to his appointment as Medical Examiner to the Government of Iraq by Mr. E.W. Perry, an ICS officer, who acted in the capacity of Agent to the Government of Iraq (then under the aegis of the British Crown.) Once again, it was the reliability of his opinions on the medical examinations of life insurance prospects that inspired confidence in the quality of business underwritten by the Asian Assurance Company Limited, which he helped to found in the year 1910.

There is no doubt that Manoel Agostinho’s professional abilities were the foundation of the thriving practice that he built up within a decade of arriving in Bombay, and that relationships which grew out of his practice in turn provided the bases for his subsequent successes as an entrepreneur.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tree & Leaf

In response to the cache of old photographs received from a cousin, Monica Rebello Gonsalves, this memoir, illustrated by a precious photograph lost to the family in a fire that consumed Asian Building, Bombay, in 1947, and now most wonderfully made available by Monica.


By Frederic Joseph Heredia

[extracts from Prologue]

Happily, my grand-uncle Julio da Costa’s ‘Personal Memoir’, an English translation of which was published in April 1981 for circulation to Manoel Agostinho’ s descendants, records nearly all that could be said about Manoel Agostinho’s personality and traits, by one who was his boyhood companion and later his uncle-in-law.

To one who knew him in his lifetime, my cousin Peter D’Souza, I am indebted for many details of Manoel Agostinho’s life in Bombay, that only he could have known or confirmed. For the rest, the facts must speak for themselves: a Goan physician who migrated from rustic surroundings with no resources other than his talents and his character, carved a notable niche for himself and his family in the commercial life of a great industrial city, and in its exclusive social milieu, without compromising his faith or his ideals.

[all parentheses in italics between square brackets are by FJH’s daughter EMRH]


Chapter I


Early photographs of Manoel Agostinho show him with a beard, neither trimmed nor full, but following somewhat closely the lines of his face, and apparently curly. In my earliest memory he had no beard, but wore a moustache of the fashion called ‘toothbrush’. His hair was cropped close to the head, and was brushed, not combed. For his times, when men’s average height was appreciably less than it is now, he must have been considered tall. His height was not less than 5’ 9", and he always held himself straight, so that he seemed taller.

A high forehead, aquiline nose, and deep-set but brilliant dark eyes could have made his countenance intimidating, but for a mobile mouth, and an unexpectedly sweet smile.

His broad, arched chest evidenced the vigorous physiology of a man given to walking fast over long distances. In the first few years of his stay in Bombay, he used to walk a great deal - three miles from home to dispensary, and thence on visits to patients (and they were many) who could not send a private carriage or a hack victoria to fetch him.

Weekdays, he left home after an early breakfast, to return at nightfall. During epidemic seasons of enteric fever, cholera, smallpox, plague, he would return even later, and then change into clean clothing before greeting his children. These would flock around him seeking his blessing - the bênção customarily sought in Goan homes, from parents and elders, usually after the evening ‘Angelus’ or after recital of the family rosary at nightfall.

Those of us children who were at school and college rarely saw him on weekdays. And on holidays other than Sundays and great feast days, the uncertainty of his return for a mid-day meal entailed our eating lunch separately. It was only in his declining years that he took an afternoon siesta on weekdays. Family gatherings were consequently possible only at dinner times.

It was at the dining table that he indulged his abiding interest in his children. Etiquette required children to keep silent and to speak only when addressed by a parent or an elder. So he would speak to each child, listen to their responses, and would draw upon his wide ranging knowledge of science, history and literature to foster their intellectual curiosity.

I never saw him moody or abstracted when dining en famille. He was ever lively in his conversation, sometimes gently teasing, and fond of humorous anecdotes over which he would laugh till tears came to his eyes.

Being prevented by the exigencies of his profession from joining his family in daily prayers, he would be all the more absorbed in his devotions at Mass on days of obligation and especially during Holy Week observances, which in those days were more taxing than they are now. He always carried a missal to church and followed the liturgy with unobtrusive devotion.

While it was Ángela Mericia [his wife] who taught the children to pray, to shun misbehaviour, and to know their catechism, it was from Manoel Agostinho’s deep faith that his descendants have gained some intimation of the treasures laid up in heaven for the believing Christian.

He dressed well, and without being dandified, cut a fine figure, especially in evening dress: only ‘tails and white tie’ in his time were worn for a ball at Government House, or for a night at the opera, usually one staged by an Italian company at what was then the ‘Royal’ Opera House. In summer, he wore cream tussar silk suits, with waistcoat, and in winter cashmere woollen suits. To daytime receptions such as a wedding or a garden party at Government House, he would wear morning dress - black cut-away tailcoat, ‘pepper and salt’ striped trousers, spats, and the regulation white sola topi.

On such occasions Ángela Mericia dressed in the height of fashion, sometimes in gowns ordered from Europe - from Au Bon Marché, and Oxendales. Nor were the daughters left out in the acquisition of finery; arrival of a parcel from France or England was greeted with cries of joy, and distribution of its contents with shrieks of delight. Doubtless, the sons also shared in the ‘goodies’, but not in my time!

Manoel Agostinho had a pleasant baritone voice, which was never raised in excitement or in anger. His English was fluent and grammatical, and spoken with a barely noticeable Continental accent. He spoke and wrote Portuguese better than most Portuguese, and was much at home in French, having absorbed most of his scientific, historical and literary education through French authors.

He had no hesitation in taking to the dance floor at balls and weddings. But he did not possess what is called ‘an ear for music’, and was probably an indifferent dancer. What he lacked in both respects was more than compensated by Ángela Mericia.

Manoel Agostinho the man was physically vigorous, mentally active, of equable temperament, ever inclined to the optimistic view, and open-hearted with all. Altogether a vital and attractive person. No wonder he had a very large circle of friends, besides being respected and adored by his children.

Monday, February 08, 2010

scribendi cacoethes


for CS and TS

The pup he strained upon his leash,
Whiskers stiff, eyes fixed, ready to leap.
Sunflowers dropped petals, stirred by the breeze
That ruffled cypress, bent corn, lofted crows,
Rising, rising, to set some stars a-spinning.

She watched them, pain receding,
As the breeze dropped, stars paused,
Corn, crows, cypresses and sunflowers stopped
Pretending to be real;
While the pup -
Went back to being stuffed.

~ E.M.R.H. 8 February 2010

Saturday, February 06, 2010

scribendi cacoethes


How needful to hope that I will be read
Long after this feeble body is dead.
To dream that the words which danced in my mind
Another, a stranger, will pleasing find;
One whom I never can speak to or meet
Will be my friend - that thought is sweet!

The truth, alack, is a tale oft told:
My books will never be bought or sold,
But remain unfinished, incomplete, unread,
For I'm remaindered before I'm well dead!

~ E.M.R.H. 6 February 2010