Historical essay
The Rejected Ones: Indian Foundlings in Colonial Portuguese Goa

The Rejected Ones: Indian Foundlings in Colonial Portuguese Goa

Anna Weerasinghe

In September of 1747, Rosa de Menezes went into labor in her home in the poorest quarter of Goa, the capital of Portuguese India.[1] Menezes, an Indian Christian widow, had fallen pregnant, in her own words, “due to the weakness of the human condition” (pela fragilidade de humana) – a euphemism for sex outside of marriage. Determined to hide the shameful illegitimate pregnancy, Menezes gave birth alone with no one in attendance except a Chinese woman named Aurelia, who lived nearby. Menezes was too weak to leave the house after the delivery, so Aurelia carried the baby girl to the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos, a Catholic charitable hospital, which had been founded two centuries earlier to treat poor Indian converts to Christianity.[2] Once there, Aurelia intended to leave the newborn in the hospital’s foundling wheel (roda dos enjeitados).

A small window-like opening in a stone structure with a wooden door.
A baby wheel in Rabat, Malta. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

If all had gone well, we would likely never have heard of Rosa de Menezes or her daughter. Like most European-style charitable hospitals of the period, the foundling wheel of the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos was designed for secrecy: a woman would leave her infant in the outward-facing box of the wheel before turning it like a wall-mounted lazy Susan. The baby was rotated inside the building with none the wiser as to the identity of the mother or her reasons for giving up her child. Children left in foundling wheels became the responsibility of the local municipality or, in this case, the Misericórdia, a charitable lay confraternity that administered the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos. Menezes would have expected the Misericórdia of Goa to keep the secret of her baby’s illegitimate birth, to name and baptize her, and then to pay a wetnurse to raise her. If the child survived infancy – which most foundlings did not – the Misericórdia would continue to support her until the age of seven, at which point children were considered old enough to enter a trade.[3]

All did not go well, however. Perhaps the wheel was broken and the baby had to be brought to the hospital door; perhaps someone at the hospital saw Aurelia attempting to leave the infant behind. However it happened, the priest-administrator of the hospital, Father João Vaz, realized that Aurelia was not the newborn’s mother, and he ordered Aurelia to bring Rosa de Menezes to the hospital porter.[4] When Menezes arrived still weak from the birth, Vaz publicly castigated her for her “many sins and infamies” and then ordered the infirmarian to beat her with a paddle. Still unsatisfied with the severity of the punishment, Vaz locked Menezes and her infant daughter in an infirmary ward, leaving them there until the baby died.

The shocking nature of the baby’s death (exacerbated by the fact that the child had not yet received baptism) prompted an inquiry into Vaz, and it is from witness testimony gathered during the investigation that Rosa de Menezes’s story survives.[5] What her story reveals is not an isolated tragedy but an unspoken racial hierarchy that governed the treatment of Indian foundlings and their mothers in early modern Goa.

The English term for an abandoned child – “foundling” – emphasizes the moment of discovery, the “finding” of the child by a person or charitable institution. The equivalent terms in Portuguese – enjeitado and exposto – mean “rejected one” or “exposed one.” In Portugal and its colonies, enjeitados were first and foremost children rejected by their families: according to Portuguese law, a child abandoned in a foundling wheel was legally without parentage (even if the mother’s identity was something of an open secret, as was often the case in smaller communities).[6] Alienating foundlings from their parents allowed women to preserve their honor by removing the evidence of sex outside marriage without resorting to abortion or infanticide.

In Goa, the alienation of Indian foundlings was complicated by race.[7] While the witnesses offer no visual description of Menezes’s baby, there was clearly something about the child’s appearance that made Vaz doubt Aurelia – a Chinese woman – could be the mother. While any combination of the baby’s physical features, such as eyes or hair, could have led Vaz to question her parentage, it was skin color that attracted the most attention in the investigation. Menezes was described by multiple witnesses (including herself) as a “native Indian” (natural da terra) and “black” (negra).[8] Skin color not only revealed the abandoned infant’s true mother, but also marked her as unworthy of Christian charity in the eyes of Portuguese clerics like Vaz.

Prior to becoming the administrator of the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos, Vaz had served for over twenty years as the chaplain of the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Serra, a women’s asylum for poor and orphaned girls of good birth and reputation. “Good birth” in this case meant girls of (preferably noble) Portuguese descent who had fallen upon hard times; Indian women were not admitted to the asylum.[9] To Vaz, the foundling wheel existed to preserve the honor of Portuguese-descendant women like those at the Recolhimento, whose chaste reputation was their most valuable asset.

Poor Indian women like Menezes, on the other hand, were believed to have no honor to protect. Indian women were regularly depicted as promiscuous in European travel narratives; widows like Menezes, who had already sampled the delights of the marriage bed, were thought to be particularly sexually voracious.[10] While these narratives were highly biased and sensationalized, written to titillate (rather than educate) their European readers, they had a material impact on the lives of Indian women. Vaz had no difficulty buying into the stereotype to deny Indian women access to charitable services. Early in his tenure as administrator, he had petitioned to reduce the number of female patients admitted to the hospital because “Indian women [mulheres da terra] cause scandal” by going to visit the men’s ward and accepting letters and gifts from male visitors.[11] It was “useless” (não há uso) to extend charity to Indian women – they would only damage the hospital’s reputation through their scandalous actions.

A white colonial chapel.
Saint Catherine’s, a Portuguese colonial chapel in Goa, India. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

As an Indian woman with an illegitimate child, Menezes must have seemed like more of the same to Vaz. Had she been Portuguese or even a pale-skinned mestiça (of mixed Portuguese and Indian descent), her reception at the hospital might have been very different. As it was, he accused Menezes of prostituting herself and threatened to report her to the authorities for a previous pregnancy that he claimed had ended in infanticide, labelling her a criminal who deserved imprisonment, not charitable mercy.[12] It likely never occurred to Vaz that an Indian woman like Menezes might have a good reputation, let alone that it could be his duty to defend it. From his perspective, the ill-treatment Menezes and her child received was only their due.

Vaz was ultimately dismissed from the hospital, but the practice of rejecting Indian foundlings persisted. A few years later, the Misericórdia decided that the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos would no longer accept foundlings who were not white (brancos), because they did not have the “income nor funds for them.”[13] Caring for foundlings was extremely costly, and in a city where the vast majority of children were of Indian descent, the decision to accept only “white” foundlings probably did reduce the number of abandoned children left at the hospital by a significant margin.[14] At the same time, the decision institutionalized the belief that the bodies and souls of Indian foundlings – and the reputations of their mothers – were less valuable and thus less deserving of Christian charity.

There’s no satisfying ending to the story of Rosa de Menezes. She never appears again in the historical record following the investigation. Did she ever manage to remarry, despite the damage to her reputation? Did she ever abandon another rejected child? If she did, she would have found herself with even fewer options than before. The box of the foundling wheel had been closed to dark-skinned Indian women like her. It would not open again.


  1. “Assento plo ql foi escluido o R.o Adm.or dos Hosp.es dos pobres P.e João Vas” and “Registo dos documentos que accuza do assento atraz da menza,” Historical Archives of Goa (HAG) 10415 Misericórdia de Goa, Livros dos Assentos dos Adjuntos (1736–1762), fols. 80v and 81r–84v.
  2. The Hospital de Todos-os-Santos (“Hospital of All Saints”) was a charitable hospital administered by the Misericórdia of Goa. By this time, the full name of the hospital was actually the “Hospital de Todos-os-Santos e Nossa Senhora da Piedade” (“Hospital of All Saints and Our Lady of Piety”) following the unification of the original Hospital de Todos-os-Santos and the Hospital de Nossa Senhora da Piedade (another charitable hospital run by the city) in 1706. Despite the name change, the Hospital was more commonly known as the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos or the Hospital dos Pobres (“Hospital of the Poor”). On the origins of the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos and its merger with the Hospital de Nossa Senhora da Piedade, see Cristiana Bastos, “Hospitais e sociedade colonial: esplendor, ruína, memória e mudança em Goa,” Ler História 58 (2010): 61–79.
  3. Isabel dos Guimarães Sá, “Abandono de crianças, infanticídio e aborto na sociedade portuguesa tradicional através das fontes jurídicas,” Penélope 8 (1992): 75–89. Rates of mortality among foundlings in early modern Portuguese and Brazilian municipalities were extremely high, with well over half dying before the age of three. See, for example, Laurinda Abreu, “The Évora Foundlings Between the 16th and the 19th century: The Portuguese Public Welfare System Under Analysis,” Dynamis 23 (2003): 37-60; and A.J.R Russell-Wood, “The Foundling Wheel,” in Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Bahia, 1550–1755 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1968), 295-319.
  4. Another witness claimed that it was the sacristan of the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Serra, a charitable women’s asylum, who had tipped Vaz off about the child’s parentage (rather than Aurelia). How the sacristan himself knew this is never made clear. “Registo dos documentos,” fol. 82v.
  5. The investigation later revealed that Vaz was also guilty of accepting bribes, misappropriating hospital funds, and fraternizing with women. “Registo dos documentos,” fol. 81r–82v.
  6. Guimarães Sá, “Abandono de crianças,” 78–82.
  7. Skin color, race, and legal status also affected the alienation of and subsequent charitable care for foundlings in Brazil. See Renato Franco, “Discrimination and Abandonment of Mixed-Race Newborns in Portuguese America: The Examples of Mariana, Vila Rica and Recife,” Varia Historia, Belo Horizonte 32, no, 59 (2016): 437–469.
  8. “Registo dos documentos,” fol. 82r-v. The term negra was typically used in Portuguese India to describe dark-skinned Indians, not people of African descent.
  9. “Registo da Carta passado ao Rdo Pe João Vaz,” HAG 10409 Misericórdia de Goa, Registo das Cartas, etc. (1710-1747), fols. 184v–185r. For a discussion of discrimination based on race or ancestry in the Recolhimento de Nossa Senhora da Serra, see Isabel dos Guimarães Sá, “Charity and Discrimination: The Misericórdia of Goa,” Itinerário 31, no. 2 (2007): 51–70.
  10. For a discussion of Portuguese perceptions of Indian women, see Rosa Maria Perez, “The Rhetoric of Empire: Gender Representations in Portuguese India,” Portuguese Studies 21 (2005): 126–141, and Nandini Chaturvedula, “Preserving Purity: Cultural Exchange and Contamination in Late Seventeenth-Century Portuguese India,” Ler História 58 (2010): 99–112.
  11. “Assento sobre as enfermas do Hosp.es dos pobres,” HAG 10415 Misericórdia de Goa, Livros dos Assentos dos Adjuntos (1736–1762), fol. 68v. This decision (assento) contains a partial transcript of Vaz’s petition. Ultimately, the number of female patients admitted to the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos was not reduced.
  12. “Registo dos documentos,” fol. 82v.
  13. “It [the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos] will not accept any more foundlings if they are not white, because there is no income nor funds for them, and the House [of the Misericórdia] is no longer supporting them.” (“Não aceitará mais engeitados se não os que forrem brancos por não haver rendimentos, nem legados para elles, e a Caza não estar já de os sustentar.”) This 1755 decision of the Misericórdia is published in José F. Ferreira Martins, História da Misericórdia de Goa, vol. II (Imprensa Nacional, 1912), 355.
  14. Estimates based on data from eighteenth-century Portuguese municipal councils suggest that foundling care cost between 15 and 20 percent of municipal budgets. See Laurinda Abreu, The Political and Social Dynamics of Poverty, Poor Relief and Health Care in Early Modern Portugal (Routledge, 2016), 117–120. The Misericórdia of Goa had in fact been struggling to find and pay wet nurses willing to take in foundlings since the turn of the century; in 1717, it was decided that foundlings would be raised inside the Hospital de Todos-os-Santos rather than being fostered out in order to save money. The Misericórdia would pay a wet-nurse to visit the hospital only as needed to care for the children. Martins, História da Misericórdia, vol. II, 325–36, 349.

Featured image caption: “Hindoo Woman and Child” from Wesleyan Juvenile Offering, March 1852. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Anna Weerasinghe earned her PhD from Johns Hopkins University in 2022. Her dissertation, "Stuck Knowledge: Medicine and Immobility in Portuguese Goa, 1500–1750," investigates how the patterns through which colonial medical knowledge traveled – or did not travel – were structured by gender, ethnicity, social status, and religion. She currently works in healthcare communications in Washington, DC.