The Colloquies On The Simples and Drugs of India (1563) were conceived and published at a sensitive moment, both in terms of the history of print culture and of European geographical expansion. They represented the culmination of a life-time project for their author Garcia de Orta who had lived for almost thirty years in Portuguese Goa. The importance of the work in sixteenth-century natural history and medicine has been generally acknowledged in Portuguese and international historiography.
Having lived in Goa for many years, and having observed the medicinal uses of many plants, and of the healing techniques employed by the Indians and Arabs, and those practiced in distant lands such as China and Java, Orta felt the need to share this knowledge with the Western world. Written as an imaginary conversation between two persons, this work sets forth the names, occurences, and uses of many of the medicinal plants used in that part of the world.
Orta’s work was re-published in 1891 in two volumes, and annotated by Conde de Ficalho, who did a commendable job in identifying the plants with their modern scientific names, and in clarifying vague passages. Clements Markham translated the work into English and published it in London in 1913, probably more to make it available for its historical value as an early scientific text, than for its intrinsic value as a source of new medicines.
The full name of the book in its Portuguese original is Colóquios dos simples e drogas he cousas medicinais da Índia e assi dalgũas frutas achadas nella onde se tratam algũas cousas tocantes a medicina, pratica, e outras cousas boas pera saber (“Conversations on the simples, drugs and materia medica of India and also on some fruits found there, in which some matters relevant to medicine, practice, and other matters good to know are discussed”)
This book, a facsimile edition of Clements Markham’s translated edition, contains all of the 57 imagined conversations through which Orta explores Indian medicine and on occasion digresses to include Indian politics, the significance of China, the rivalries between Portugal and Spain in the Spice Islands.