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Gonçalves Dias, ethnographer

The leading poet of Brazilian Romanticism wrote about and collected material on Brazil's indigenous people

Lithograph by Fleiuss Irmãos & Linde / Biblioteca Nacional library / Reproduced by Jaime AcioliOrnaments with toucan beaks and mirrors collected by the poetLithograph by Fleiuss Irmãos & Linde / Biblioteca Nacional library / Reproduced by Jaime Acioli

The search for Brazilian roots was one of the reasons behind Indianism, a mid-nineteenth century literary and artistic movement led by poet Antonio Gonçalves Dias, a native of the state of Maranhão, and by novelist José de Alencar, a native of the State of Ceará. Gonçalves Dias, however, took this search beyond the realm of literature. The poet wrote essays, collected material and produced notes and diaries, all of which were lost in the shipwreck on the coast of the state of Maranhão, which led to his death. The poet, who wrote Canção do Exílio, one of the best-known poems in the Portuguese language, was also an ethnographer. Dias was a member of the Comissão Científica do Império [Imperial Scientific Committee] the first scientific committee to be comprised only of Brazilian specialists.

Gonçalves Dias (1823-1864) was born in the town of Caxias, state of Maranhão. In 1838, he went to Portugal to finish his secondary education and study law at the University of Coimbra. In Europe, he met and was influenced by the romantic writers and poets. He came back to Brazil in 1845 and settled in the city of Rio de Janeiro. He taught history and Latin at the Colégio Pedro II school. In 1849, Gonçalves Dias, Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre and Joaquim Manuel de Macedo started publishing Guanabara, a magazine dedicated to the dissemination of Romanticism.

A member of the Brazilian Geographical and Historical Institute, in 1850 he began to show interest in exploring the history of Brazil from the point of view of its first inhabitants.

“He travelled to Portugal, on a mission of the IHGB, to look for documents that would help him write a Brazilian history”, says science historian Kaori Kodama, from the Casa de Oswaldo Cruz of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. In that year, Emperor Dom Pedro II commissioned him to produce a study comparing Brazil’s indigenous people with those of Oceania. The poet dedicated time and effort to this task and produced Brasil e Oceania, which was based on the reports of the travelers. “He admired naturalists like Von Martius, but he was also concerned about denying the ‘libel’ and ‘exaggerations’ published about Brazil in other countries”, says Kaori. The writer also had a different view from the one that predominated in those times, and considered that civilization had perverted the “pure natives.”

Biblioteca Nacional, National Library / Reproduced by Jaime AcioliObjects from the Amazon Region collected by Gonçalves Dias for the exhibition held in 1861Biblioteca Nacional, National Library / Reproduced by Jaime Acioli

From 1859 to 1860, Gonçalves Dias was a member of the Imperial Scientific Commission. The objective of this scientific expedition was to take Brazilian specialists (geographers, zoologists, botanists, geologists and astronomers) to learn about Brazilian nature in an objective way. The expedition was analyzed in the book Comissão Científica do Império [Imperial Scientific Committee], organized by science historian Lorelai Kury (Andrea Jakobsson Estúdio Editorial, 2009). The state of Ceará had been chosen as the focus of the expedition by the members, as it was virtually unexplored territory. When Gonçalves Dias realized that there were no “pure ethnic types” in the region, he decided to travel to the Amazon Region, where he made notes on the languages spoken by the indigenous peoples and sent ethnographic objects to Rio de Janeiro. Later on, these objects became part of the collection of the Museu Nacional, National Museum.

Most of his work during the time he was a member of the commission was never published. It is presumed that the material was on board the ship that sank on its journey back from Europe in 1864. Gonçalves Dias was a passenger on that ship. In 2002, the Brazilian Academy of Letters published Gonçalves Dias no Amazonas: relatórios e diário da viagem ao Rio Negro [Gonçalves Dias in the Amazon Region: narratives and diary of the trip to the Negro River], with preface by Josue Montello, a native of the state of Maranhão and a member of the Academy. The book contains information on that period.

“The ethnography produced by Gonçalves Dias was very different to the ethnography produced nowadays”, says anthropologist João Pacheco de Oliveira, a professor at the Museu Nacional. In the twentieth century, this branch of anthropology became a systematic field research that includes direct contact with the cultures that anthropologists want to study. The poet’s scientific work was conducted based on the books he had read and on comparisons of the reports of the naturalists and travelers, which stated hypotheses on the development and spreading of cultures. “He was attuned to his time in terms of science and literature, and the impact of his work is equivalent to the impact on slave traffic produced by poet Castro Alves.”