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The value of language

Analysis of place names helps tell the story of the Royal Road



086-089_Memory_202-1The naturalists who began visiting Brazil in the 16th century were drawn by both the land’s exotic nature and their own scientific curiosity. After the opening of the ports in 1808, the influx of travelers picked up pace. Back in their homelands, they wrote and published accounts that are read and analyzed by today’s historians in an endeavor to fill in information gaps about Brazil’s past. Descriptive and impressionistic, these texts help researchers from other fields as well. When linguists set about studying the names of the cities lying along the route of the Royal Road (Estrada Real) – the network of trails that led to the gold and diamond mines of Minas Gerais and that were vital to the establishment of the province – they found that the observations of these naturalist travelers afforded a rich source of data that helps in recovering the memory of these places (see examples on these pages).

The Royal Road actually comprises four trails: Old Trail (Caminho Velho), New Trail (Caminho Novo), Sabarabuçu Trail (Caminho de Sabarabuçu), and Diamond Trail (Caminho dos Diamantes). All were opened between the 17th and 18th centuries with the purpose of penetrating the hinterlands, at a time when almost nothing but the Brazilian coast had been occupied. Earlier, in the 16th century, Fernão Dias Paes, Manuel Borba Gato, Antônio Rodrigues de Arzão, and others were the first to clear their way into the interior in search of riches believed to lie in the hinterlands, beginning from the settlement then called São Paulo de Piratininga.

Until the mid-17th century there was no overland route linking Rio de Janeiro to the territories of São Paulo and Minas Gerais.  Travelers had to journey to the coastal city of Santos by sea and from there head up the mountains to São Paulo. In the latter half of the 17th century, people started using a different path: they would go by boat to Parati, a town near Rio de Janeiro’s southwestern border, from there continuing to the town of São Paulo by land. This route became known as the Old Trail, first described by Father André João Antonil in his book Cultura e opulência do Brasil (The culture and opulence of Brazil), published in 1711 in Lisbon and later censored there.

086-089_Memory_202-2Because of the pirate attacks that occurred on the open sea, Dom João V ordered a new stretch of road to be opened in 1728, departing from the Fazenda de Santa Cruz, skirting the Bay of Angra dos Reis, and finally reaching the town of Nossa Senhora da Piedade and then Guaratinguetá. Known as the New Trail, this route became Brazil’s first official road; it reduced the time it took to reach the mining region from roughly 60 days to 25. The other two routes are extensions. Sabarabuçu Trail is a continuation of the Old Trail, while the Diamond Trail, which runs from Ouro Preto to Diamantina, was opened after precious stones were discovered in what was then the settlement of Tijuco.

Towns and cities began springing up along each of these paths. Those not lying on the banks of the streams where ore was panned stretched up the slopes of the mountains where the mines were dug. The heavy exploitation of gold and diamonds throughout the 18th century shifted the hub of movement within the Brazilian colony from the coast to the interior.

In October 2012, Francisco de Assis Carvalho, linguistics researcher at the University of São Paulo’s School of Philosophy, Language and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH/USP), completed a comprehensive doctoral dissertation on the toponymic memory of the municipalities, districts, and towns within the circuit of the Royal Road’s four trails. Toponymy is the study of the names that people give the places where they live. “The naming of a place is not something random. All you have to do is investigate in order to discover information about the language in use and about customs and values, which helps to understand the region’s culture better.” Although toponymy is almost always associated with geography and history, it is also used in linguistics because a place name constitutes a linguistic sign.

Carvalho studied 242 toponyms (200 municipalities, 37 districts, and five hamlets) in the three states where the Royal Road passes (Minas Gerais, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro). He counted 20 foreign traveling naturalists or artists who left accounts of these places. “In this study, these men re-emerge as veritable memoirists. Their records are evidential sources that offer political and economic data and valuable linguistic information,” he says. However, it was not possible to locate some of the places they described; others have disappeared. The town of São João Marcos was mentioned by a number of naturalists, but Carvalho could not identify it – “until discovering in a historical work that the village is under the waters of Ribeirão das Lages reservoir.”

Prophet Ezekiel, sculpture by Aleijadinho, in Congonhas, a city on the Royal Road

According to Carvalho’s research, the most common nationality among these 20 travelers was British (seven). The man who traveled the Royal Road the most was Auguste de Saint-Hilaire, a Frenchman who recorded 58 toponyms along the four trails. Manuel Aires de Casal, Spix and Martius, Georg Langsdorff, John Mawe, La Porte (Count of Castelnau), and Charles Bunbury are other naturalists who likewise journeyed all four paths, compiling copious records of what they observed.

“What I did was integrate linguistic and historical factors,” says Carvalho, who is a priest as well as a researcher, and a native of Aiuruoca, a city lying near the main area of the Royal Road. His advisor at USP was the linguist Maria Vicentina Dick, who created and edited the Atlas toponímico do estado de São Paulo (Toponymic atlas of the state of São Paulo) – an analysis of the geographic nomenclature of São Paulo – and the Atlas Toponímico do Brasil (Toponymic atlas of Brazil).  “I call the research work that Francisco did ‘toponymic historiography,’” she states. “Without precisely doing history, we end up doing history,” she concludes.

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