On January 26, 1859, a commission formed by some of the most renowned naturalists and intellectuals of the time boarded the steamer Tocantins bound for Ceará, on an expedition to explore the natural wealth of some of the lesser known provinces of Brazil. Lasting almost three years, the expedition identified and prospected for natural resources, and collected information on climatology, topography, river courses, minerals, fauna and flora, customs, languages, and traditions. The goal of the expedition was to provide the government with a better understanding of the needs and potential of the region. Despite having been partly for the benefit of the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro and having helped to further strengthen the natural sciences in Brazil, the expedition was all but forgotten by historians of science in Brazil until it was once again recalled to memory in studies beginning in the 1990s. “Although we don’t know for sure, much of the material collected in the expedition is believed to have been lost to the fire that consumed the museum in September this year,” says historian Karoline Viana Teixeira of the Center for the Humanities at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC).
The Scientific Exploration Commission is believed to be the first expedition consisting only of Brazilians. It was proposed in mid-1854 by naturalist Manuel Ferreira Lagos (1816–1871), of the comparative anatomy and zoology department at the National Museum, and finally approved in May 1856 in a meeting at the Brazilian Geographical and Historical Institute (IHGB), of which he was secretary. In his speech proposing the expedition, Ferreira Lagos was critical of the results of expeditions undertaken by foreigners such as English naturalist Francis de la Porte (1810–1880), who traveled Brazil on an expedition for France between 1837 and 1841. He believed the country had no want of talent and skills for scientific research.
The expedition, as proposed to the Imperial Government, would survey the material resources available for commercial and industrial use, but also reflected Ferreira Lagos’s ambition to expand collections at the National Museum. Part of the purpose of the commission, he said, would be to assemble for the institution “a collection of organic and inorganic products and other evidence of the nature of the civilization, industry, and customs of our natives.” The province of Ceará was selected for the expedition in the hope of discovering precious metals. Although the land was long thought to hold mythical treasures, the Portuguese had showed little interest in exploring it due, perhaps, to its appearance, which seemed to them as no more than a large expanse of sand interspersed with dunes, bounded by an endless shoreline covered with mangroves.
Much of the material collected in the expedition is believed to have been lost to the fire that consumed the museum in September this year
Following its approval, the commission was organized into five sections, led by naturalists from institutions and scientific museums across Brazil. The botany section was led by Francisco Freire Alemão (1797–1874), a preeminent Brazilian botanist, and the geology and mineralogy section by engineer Guilherme Schüch de Capanema (1824–1908), of the National Museum. Ferreira Lagos was appointed to head the zoological section, while mathematician Giacomo Raja Gabaglia (1826–1872), of the Naval Academy, led the astronomical and geographical section. The Maranhão-born poet Antônio Gonçalves Dias (1823–1864), of Colégio Pedro II, in Rio, led the ethnographic section and kept a diary of the expedition. José dos Reis Carvalho (1798–1892), of the School of the Navy, was tasked with documenting through illustrations the plants, animals, people, and landscapes encountered in the expedition.
Reis Carvalho was a student in the first class of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, which dom João VI had founded in 1826, in Rio de Janeiro, to introduce art education in Brazil after the manner of European art academies. A disciple of French painter and illustrator Jean-Baptiste Debret (1768–1848), Reis Carvalho was recognized as one of the most talented botanical artists of his time.
The expedition was initially supported by Pedro II and Rio’s intellectual elite, and news of it came to the knowledge of European naturalists, among them botanist Carl Friedrich von Martius (1794–1868), with whom Freire Alemão kept correspondence. Over a period of almost three years, the expedition explored the province of Ceará and parts of Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte, Paraíba, and Pernambuco.
During the course of this period, however, political and financial troubles threatened to place the venture in jeopardy. “The problems the commission faced were not only financial or related to the harsh weather and conditions in the sertão [badlands], but also involved personal disputes among members, misunderstandings with local authorities, and the loss of the geological section’s work materials during the sinking of the Palpite in Barra do Acaraú when in transit to Fortaleza,” wrote historian Maria Margaret Lopes of the Inter-University Graduate Program in Museology at the University of São Paulo’s Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (MAE-USP), in an article published in the journal História, Ciência, Saúde—Manguinhos.
The expedition was widely supported by Pedro II and Rio’s intellectual elite, and news of it reached European naturalists, including Carl Friedrich von Martius
Other episodes involving alleged libertine behavior on the part of Capanema and Gonçalves Dias, and the improper acclimatization of 14 camels that had been brought from Algeria to transport the commission members across the sertão—which later had to be traded for donkeys—led to the expedition being seen in Rio as an ill-fated, expensive, and altogether useless initiative. “Amid all this, those critical of the expedition began to call it, deprecatingly, the ‘Butterfly Commission,’” wrote Karoline Teixeira of UFC in a 2013 article in Cadernos de História da Ciência.
Teixeira discusses the scientific commission’s experience through the lens of an interpretation according to which the expedition was an attempt by the Empire to do science in support of its development, in a country seeking to come to terms with its colonial heritage while, at the same time, establishing itself as a modern nation capable of itself acquiring knowledge about its own territory. While many judged the expedition unsuccessful because it failed to discover the treasures it sought, Teixeira notes that the commission succeeded in assembling a diverse collection of birds, insects, and reptiles, which were later incorporated into the collections at the National Museum.
A total of 46 crates were also shipped to the institution from Ceará with materials collected by the geological and botanical sections. The herbarium at the National Museum was furnished with approximately 14,000 plant specimens stored in welded tinplate boxes lined with wood. “It was then the largest botanical addition that had been made to the museum’s collection,” says Margaret Lopes. “The museum, which had previously struggled to raise funding to enlarge its collections, profited greatly from the commission’s work.”
The expedition left a rich artistic and documentary legacy of illustrations, watercolors, and gouaches portraying mid-nineteenth century Ceará
Some of the items collected in the expedition went to the IHGB. Many utensils, handicrafts, weapons, and other artifacts were lithographed at the Brazilian Art Institute and hand-colored by German-born Henrique Fleiuss (1824–1882). In September 1861, the museum was the first to organize a trade show, in Rio, after the fashion of European exhibitions, featuring natural products and articles representing the traditions of the province of Ceará.
The success of the initiative provided an impetus for the organization of a National Exhibition in preparation for the Great London Exposition in 1862, the first in which Brazil was to officially participate as an exhibitor. The expedition also left a rich artistic and documentary legacy of illustrations, watercolors, and gouaches by Reis Carvalho, forming a large collection portraying mid-nineteenth century Ceará, including its flora, rural and urban landscapes, architecture, artifacts, customs, and people. Part of the collection was compiled into the book Aquarelas & desenhos do ceará oitocentista: O trabalho de José dos Reis Carvalho na Comissão Científica de Exploração (1859–1861) (Watercolors & illustrations of eighteenth-century Ceará: The work of José dos Reis Carvalho on the Scientific Exploration Commission [1859–1861]), launched in January 2017 by the National Institute for Historical and Artistic Heritage (IPHAN).Republish