The marvelous foreign land

Researcher compiles tales of Guanabara bay before D. João VI

Everything leads me to believe that these natives are the most barbarous people that exist on the face of the earth. On November 10, we reached Guanabara. Here, we found 500 or 600 savages, entirely naked and armed with bows and arrows. This nation is in a state of war with five or six others. When they take a prisoner, they offer him the most beautiful woman in the tribe as his wife. This relationship continues for a certain time. When it is over, the natives mix a great quantity of corn wine and they drink it to the point of exhaustion in the company of friends invited for the ceremony. Then, the prisoner is beaten to death with a wooden club and, then, cut into pieces, and roasted on the embers and eaten with great pleasure.”

This description is just one – and one of the more subtle ones – made by the French pilot Nicolas Barré in a letter sent to Paris, in 1555. He tells of the Atlantic crossing and the first impressions of the land and habits of Guanabara Bay. Barré was part of an entourage of 500 men accompanying the Knight of the Maltese Order Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, in charge of undertaking an ambitious French adventure in the New World: founding Antarctic France, based on which the French would conquer the route to the Indies.

Villegaignon’s undertaking failed – Henriville, the first European city established in the Rio de Janeiro region, which he had founded ten years before the Portuguese founded Rio de Janeiro, was razed to the ground by the Portuguese after only four years. But the gentleman’s adventures in the tropics yielded various tales about colonial Brazil, such as the one related by his companion Barré. It is part of the book Views of Colonial Rio de Janeiro – An Anthology of Texts 1531-1808 (José Olympio, 261 pages, R$ 25.00), by the historian Jean Marcel Carvalho França. The publication is the first volume of an anthology of 62 texts written by foreigners who were in Rio de Janeiro in colonial times. The second, from the same publisher, has been baptized More Views of Colonial Rio de Janeiro – An Anthology of Texts 1582-1808 (José Olympio, 364 pages, R$ 34.00).

Between 1995 and 2000 (the last two years of which were supported by a postdoctorate grant from FAPESP at the São Paulo State University/Assis), França went through Portuguese, English, Brazilian, and Australian archives to put together rare and diverse tales of travelers who spent time in Rio de Janeiro before 1808, the year when the Portuguese Court arrived in the city and turned it into the capital of the Empire.

His first intention was to examine everyday life in Rio de Janeiro, however, because of the shortage of documents – there are more post-1808 reports because of the encouragement given by the Royal Family -, França decided to compile whatever he could find. As a result, besides gathering subsides for a future examination of day-to-day life in the city, he did a useful job to other future historians. “The work was done thinking of specialists, but in the end it aroused the interest of the general public, as the success of the books shows”, observes the historian.

What it to be found in the tales he has assembled is a broad-ranging view of the impressions that these foreigners had of Rio de Janeiro. ‘The great surprise is the similarity of these views”, says the researcher. “Curiously, men of different times, nationalities, and social classes left similar descriptions”, says França. “There is a little bit of everything: pickpockets like George Barrington and James Hardy Vaux; great sailors like James Cook and Oliver van Noort; bold adventurers like Antony Knivet and Richard Flecknoe; and naval surgeons like John White and George Hamilton, as well as many professional sailors”.

Rio de Janeiro, as they describe it, was beautiful and blessed with everything God could provide for a town to have prosperous and happy citizens. “This real earthly paradise, however, has a blemish: the men that inhabit it, who are violent, corrupt, vain, indolent and, above all, licentious in their sexual conduct – men and women”, observes França.

Most of the narratives, he says, date from the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, when Rio de Janeiro became an almost obligatory stopover for European ships heading for the Cape of Good Hope and the Magellan Strait. “There are stories to meet the needs of all sorts of researchers, stories in which details of sailing, trade, and countless other subjects; the day-to-day life of its inhabitants, the city’s architecture, etc., can be found”, guarantees the researcher.

Among his favorite travelers are Barré, “because of the wealth of detail”, the Spaniard Aguirre (1783), “who describes the habits of the citizens of Rio de Janeiro at considerable length”, George Staunton (1793), “a cultivated Englishman, with a keen sense of observation”, and James Tuckey (1804), “who sets out a broad panorama of local life, permeated with observations that are important to the study of the life of society in Rio de Janeiro in the years before D. João VI and the Portuguese court set up in the city”.

The translations of the texts, most of which were originally in French or English (there were also some in Spanish, one in Italian, one in German, and one in Dutch) were done by the researcher. “Wherever possible I translated the first edition of the work or an edition organized by the author himself, or even a more recent edition that has established itself as more reliable”, explains França. The task of translating, in his opinion, was made easier by the existence of various dictionaries available on the Internet, giving terms that are no longer current in the languages concerned.

The Internet, incidentally, enabled a new paradigm for historical research to be established. “Around 50% of the material was located and obtained through the Net”, says the historian. He found reports in archives in various parts of the world, such as the Washington Library, the National Library of France and in the archive in Seville, without leaving Brazil. “I confess that I have become an ardent advocate of research over the Internet”, he observes.

Material not unearthed over the Net was found in Portugal (National Library, the Help Library and the Geographical Society of Lisbon) and in Brazil (the Library of the Institute of Brazilian Studies – IEB/ USP and José Mindlin’s private library). Now, he intends to research the cities of Salvador and Recife.

The project
Views of Colonial Rio de Janeiro; Type Postdoctoral Grant; Tutor Luiz Roberto Velloso Cairo – Unesp at Assis; Researcher Jean Marcel Carvalho França – Unesp at Assis