Map of Asia (1627). Authors Bertius; Danckerts; Tavernier. No Copyright
Map of Asia (1627). Authors Bertius; Danckerts; Tavernier

Portuguese language heritage in Asia

Written by Marco Ramerini. English text revision by Dietrich Köster.

The Portuguese language has been in relation to the trade and colonial expansion of Portugal the trade language of the Indian Ocean shores in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Portuguese was used, at that time, not only in the eastern cities conquered by the Portuguese but was also used by many local rulers in their relations with the other European powers (Dutch, English, Danes etc. ).

In Ceylon, for example, Portuguese was used for all contacts between the Europeans and the local peoples. Several Kings of Ceylon spoke it fluently. Portuguese names were common among the nobility. When the Dutch occupied coastal Ceylon they, particularly under van Goens, took measures to stop the use of Portuguese. However, it had become so well established among the Ceylonese that even the families of the Dutch Burghers started to speak it. In 1704, the Governor Cornelius Jan Simonsz said that “if one spoke Portuguese in Ceylon, one could be understood everywhere”.

Also in the Dutch eastern capital city of Batavia (today’s Jakarta) Portuguese was the spoken language in the 17th and 18th centuries. The religious missions contributed to the great spreading of the Portuguese language. Indeed, as many communities converted to Christianity, they adopted the Portuguese mother tongue. Also the Protestant missions (Dutch, Danish, English…) that worked in India were forced to use Portuguese as their evangelisation language.

The Portuguese language has also influenced many an oriental language. Many Portuguese words were permanently lent to various kinds of Eastern languages such as Indian languages (Bengali included), Swahili, Malay, Indonesian, Japanese, Ceylonese languages, Tetum of Timor and also Afrikaans in South Africa.

Besides, where the Portuguese presence was stronger or lasted longer, flourishing communities of “Casados” and “Mestiços” were developed that adopted a variety of the mother tongue: a kind of Creole Portuguese.

What remains today is very little. However it is interesting to notice that, to this day, there are small communities of peoples spread throughout Asia that continue to use Creole Portuguese, although for many years (for centuries, in some cases) they had no contact with Portugal. Another interesting aspect to contemplate is that, during the best period of Portuguese presence in Asia, the number of Portuguese there was never more than 12.000 to 14.000 souls, including the clergy.

Portuguese-speaking communities in Asia (Blue Present-day places, where Portuguese is spoken. Red Places, where communities used to speak Portuguese). Author Marco Ramerini

Portuguese-speaking communities in Asia (Blue Present-day places, where Portuguese is spoken. Red Places, where communities used to speak Portuguese). Author Marco Ramerini


Malacca: (Portuguese Settlement, Praya Lane, Bandara Hilir). About 1000 people speak this Creole Portuguese (Papia Kristang). About 80 % of the older residents of the Portuguese settlement in Malacca regularly speak Kristang. There are also some speakers in today’s Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Kristang is very close to local Malay in its grammatical structure, but its vocabulary is for 95% derived from Portuguese. Not many years ago, Portuguese was also spoken in Pulau Tikus (Penang) but now it is considered extinct. The Eurasian community has 12.000 members on the Malay Peninsula. Active are MPEA (Malacca Portuguese Eurasian Association) and SPEMA (Secretariat of the Portuguese/Eurasian Malaysian Associations) with seven separate member associations in Alor Star, Penang, Perak, Malacca (MPEA), Kuala Lumpur, Seremban and Johor Baru. There is also a Eurasian Association in Singapore. Portugal lost Malacca in 1641.

Korlai: (near Chaul, India). About 900 monolingual people speak this Creole Portuguese, this community has his Portuguese church called: “Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Monte Carmelo”. Originated around 1520 on the west coast of India. Initially isolated from its Hindu and Muslim neighbors by social and religious barriers, the small Korlai community lost virtually all Portuguese contact as well after 1740. Portugal lost Chaul in 1740.

Damão: (Damão Grande or Praça, Campo dos Remédios, Jumprim, Damão da Cima). About 2000 people speak this Creole Portuguese. Portugal lost Damão in December 1961.

Ceylon: [Portuguese Burghers in Batticaloa (Koolavaddy, Mamangam, Uppodai, Dutch Bar, Akkaraipattu); Trincomalee (Palayuttu); Kaffir communities of Mannar and Puttalam ]. It’s now used at home only. It was spoken by 250 families in Batticaloa as late as 1984. There are still 100 families in Batticaloa and Trincomalee and about 80 Afro-Sinhalese (Kaffir) families in Puttalam. Of about 5.000 Creole people (Batticaloa, Trincomalee), only 500 still speak Creole, the younger generations cannot speak the Creole. < Silva Jayasuriya, 2000 > Nearly extinct. In Batticaloa there is the Burgher Recreio Clube “Shamrock” or “Batticaloa Catholic Burgher Union”. There is a little community of Portuguese descendants in the village of WahaKotte (circa 7°42’N. – 80°36’E) (Central Sri Lanka, six kilometers from Galewala on the road between Galewala and Matale), they are Roman Catholic, but since about two generations Portuguese Creole is no longer spoken. Portugal lost Ceylon in 1658.

Macau: About 2.000 people speak Portuguese as their first language, and about 11.500 as their second language. Only a few elderly women speak Macanese a Macao Creole Portuguese. The “Instituto Cultural de Macau” and the “Fundação do Oriente” are still active. There is also a TV channel and several newspapers entirely in Portuguese. Macau was a Portuguese province. On 20 December 1999 it was reverted to China.

Hong Kong: Several hundred people speak Macanese. Essentially, these are people that emigrated from Macao. There is the “Club Lusitano”. Never under Portuguese rule.

Goa: Portuguese is rapidly disappearing from Goa. It is now spoken only by a small segment of the upper class families and about 3 to 5 % of the people still speak it (estimated at 30.000 to 50.000 people). Today 35% of Goa’s population are immigrants from other Indian states. In the Indian school it is taught as third language (not obligatory). There is a department of Portuguese at the Goa University. However, the “Fundação do Oriente” and the Indo – Portuguese Friendship Society (Sociedade de Amizade Indo-Portuguesa) are still active. The last Newspaper in Portuguese shifted over to the English language in 1983. At Panaji many signs in Portuguese are still visible over shops, administrative buildings etc. Portugal lost Goa in December 1961.

Diu: Here the Creole Portuguese is nearly extinct. According to the testimony of Maria Luiza de Carvalho Armando, its seems that the Creole Portuguese language is still used in Diu and according to her Diu it’s the place in India where the Portuguese legacy is the most durable. (Information obtained from Maria Luíza de Carvalho Armando with thanks.) Portugal lost Diu in December 1961.

Timor: Portuguese was spoken in 1950 by less than 10,000 people and in 1974 by only about 10%-20% of the population. In 1975: East Timor had 700,000 inhabitants from which: 35-70,000 knew how to read and write Portuguese and 100-140,000 could speak and understand it. Until 1981 Portuguese was the church language of Timor, when it was supplanted by Tetum. However, it is commonly used as the business language in the town of Dili. Portuguese remains the language of the anti-Indonesian resistance and that of external communications for the Catholic Church. The Creole Portuguese of Timor (Português de Bidau) is now extinct. It was spoken around Dili, Lifau and Bidau. Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. Now Timor is an independent nation. It has adopted Portuguese as an official language alongside Tetum.

Indonesia: Flores island: (Larantuka, Sikka) Here Portuguese survives in the religious traditions and the Topasses community (the descendants of Portuguese men and local women) uses it in the prayers. On Saturdays the women of Larantuka say the rosary in a corrupt form of Portuguese. In the Sikka area of eastern Flores, many of the people of Sikka are descendants from the Portuguese and still??? use that language. There is the Confraternity of “Reinja Rosari”. Larantuka was abandoned by Portugal in 1859.


Ceylon: (Creole Portuguese was used amongst the Dutch Burgher community). Till the beginning of the 20th. century Creole Portuguese was spoken by the members of this community. Untill after the Second World War Sri Lankan Catholics in Colombo met for regular church services conducted in Portuguese (at the parish church of St. Anthony’s, Dematagoda). Up to the middle part of this century prayers were being conducted for diminishing groups in Portuguese at a number of Catholic churches in the city (Dematagoda, Hulftsdorp, Kotahena, Kotte, Nugegoda and Wellawatte). Although a verbal language, Portuguese was fast loosing its original purpose at religious devotions in Catholic churches (to be replaced by English and taken over more fashionably and pursued with greater vigour).

Jakarta-Batavia-Tugu: (a suburb of Jakarta). Here, till the beginning of the 20th. century, a kind of corrupted Portuguese was still spoken by the Christian population in Tugu. The last creol speaking died in 1978. Never under Portuguese rule.

Cochin: (Vypeen). It has disappeared in the last twenty years of the 20th century. The community of Portuguese/Indians (about 2,000 people) has its parish church in the old church of Nossa Senhora da Esperança. Portugal lost Cochin in 1663.

Bombaim or Província do Norte: (Baçaim, Salcete, Thana, Chevai, Mahim, Tecelaria, Dadar, Parel, Cavel, Bandora-Badra, Govai, Morol, Andheri, Versova, Malvan, Manori, Mazagão) In 1906, this Creole was, after that of Ceylon, the most important of Indo-Portuguese Creole. In 1906 there were still 5,000 people who spoke Creole Portuguese as mother tongue, of these 2,000 were in Bombaim and Mahim, 1,000 were in Bandora, 500 in Thana, 100 in Curla, 50 in Baçaim and 1,000 in other villages. There were at that time no Creole Portuguese schools and the well-to-do classes tended towards neglecting its use and preferred English. (Costa, 1892 & Dalgado, 1906)

Coromandel: Coromandel: (Meliapore, Madras, Tuticorin, Cuddalore, Karikal, Pondicherry, Tranquebar, Manapar, Negapatam) On the Coromandel coast the Portuguese descendants were generally known by the name of “Topasses”. They were Catholics and spoke Portuguese Creole. With the coming of the English rule in India, they began to speak English instead of Portuguese and also anglicized their names. They are now part of the Eurasian community. In Negapatam, in 1883, there were still 20 families that spoke Indo-Portuguese. (Schuchardt, 1883 & Dalgado, 1917)


Solor & Adonara: Solor, Adonara (Vure) islands on Lesser Sunda islands, Indonesia.

Batavia, Java island: (Dutch community of Batavia, Mardijkers) The Mardijkers are the descendants of the old slaves from Malacca, Bengal, Coromandel, Malabar, that were converted to Protestantism, for which they were set free. They spoke a Creole form of Portuguese and were the main group of the Portuguese community of Batavia. After the Dutch conquest of Malacca and Ceylon their number increased considerably. In 1673 a Protestant church was built in Batavia for the Portuguese community and later, at the end of the XVII century, a second church was built. In 1713 this community had about 4,000 members. (Lopes) Until 1750 Portuguese was the first language in Batavia, but after that date Malay started to dominate. In 1808 Reverend Engelbrecht celebrated the last mass in Portuguese. In 1816 the Portuguese community was incorporated into the Malay community. Also in the Dutch families of Batavia the Portuguese language was vividly used until 1750, in spite of the efforts of the Dutch Government against its use.

Mangalore: A port-city on Karnataka coast.

Cannanore: A port-city on Kerala coast.

Bengal: Bengal: (Balasore, Pipli, Chandernagore, Chittagong, Midnapore, Hugli……) The Portuguese language was in the 17th and 18th centuries the “lingua franca” in Bengal. Up to 1811 Portuguese was used in all Christian churches in Calcutta (Catholics and Protestants). At the beginning of the 20th century only in a few families a corrupted form of Portuguese was spoken, largely mixed with English words. (Campos, 1919)

Moluccas: (Ternate, Ambon, Banda, Makasar) TERNATENO, a Creole Portuguese was spoken on the islands of Ternate and West Halmahera, which is now extinct. AMBON, the Creole Portuguese is extinct, but some traces of Portuguese are in the language now spoken on Ambon, the Malay-Ambon, which has about 350 words of Portuguese origin.

Along the Indian Ocean shores there were about 44 communities where Portuguese was spoken.


– Abdurachman, Paramita Rahayu “Some Portuguese loanwords in the vocabulary of speakers of Ambonese Malay in Christian villages of the Central Moluccas”
17 pp. LIPI, 1972, Jakarta, Indonesia.

– Clancy, Clements “The genesis of a language: the formation and development of Korlai Portuguese”
XII, 281 pp. maps, Creole language library vol.16, Benjamins, 1996, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

– Dalgado, S. R. “Estudos sobre os Crioulos Indo-Portugueses” 187 pp. Comissão Nacional para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses 1998 Lisboa, Portugal.
Dialecto Indo-Português de Goa; Dialecto Indo-Português de Damão; Dialecto Indo-Português do Norte; Dialecto Indo-Português de Negapatão; Berço duma cantiga em Indo-Português. The latest edition of the interesting study of Sebastião Rodolfo Dalgado on the Creole languages of Goa, Damão, Negapatam and the Northern Province of India.

– Dalgado, Sebastião Rudolfo “Dialecto Indo-Português de Ceilão”
301p. (Cadernos Ásia) CNCDP, 1998, Lisboa, Portugal.

– Daus, Ronald “Portuguese Eurasian communities in Southeast Asia”
83 pp. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1989, Singapore.
The Portuguese Eurasian communities in Malacca, Tugu, Larantuka and Singapore.

– Goonatilleka, M.H. “A Portuguese Creole on Sri Lanka: A Brief Socio-Linguistic Survey”
In: SOUZA, Teotónio R. de (ed.) “Indo-Portuguese History. Old Issues, New Questions (3 th ISIPH )”
pp. 147-180 Concept, 1985, New Delhi, India.

– Hettiarachchi, A. S. “Influence of Portuguese on the Singhalese Language”
JCBRAS Vol. IX, 1965, pp. 229-238

– Jackson, Kenneth David “Sing without a shame:oral traditions in Indo-Portuguese creole verse: with transcription and analysis of a nineteenth-century manuscript of Ceylon Portuguese Creole”
XXVII, 257 pp. Creole Language Library, Benjamins, 1990, Amsterdam and Philadelphia.

– Lopes, David “A Expansão da Língua Portuguesa no Oriente durante os Séculos XVI, XVII e XVIII”
265 pp. Portucalense Editora, 1969, Porto, Portugal.

– Matos, Luís de “O português, língua franca no Oriente”
In: “Colóquios sobre as províncias do Oriente” Vol. 2 Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, 1968, Lisboa. – pp. 11-23
(Estudos de Ciências Políticas e Sociais ; 81)

– Silva Jayasuriya, Shihan de “Indo-Portuguese of Ceylon: a contact language”
188 pp. Athena Publications, 2001, London, UK.

– Silva Rego, Padre António do “Dialecto português de Malaca e outros escritos”
304 pp. (Cadernos Ásia) CNCDP, 1998, Lisboa, Portugal.
Dialecto Português de Malaca; A Comunidade Luso-Malaia de Malaca e Singapura; A cultura Portuguesa na Malaia e em Singapura.

– Teixeira, Pe. Manuel “The Influence of Portuguese on the Malay Language”
In: “Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society”, 1962, vol. XXXV (Pt. 1).

– Theban, Laurentiu “Situação e perspectivas do português e dos crioulos de origem portuguesa na Índia e no Sri-Lanka” In: “Actas do Congresso sobre a situação da língua portuguesa no Mundo” vol. 1 pp. 269-285 Imprensa Nacional, 1985, Lisboa, Portugal.

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