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Memory

Ingenuity and art

Theodoro Sampaio's contributions to Brazil, from Salvador to São Paulo

Sampaio (right)  works with a theodolite during a trip to Aratu, Bahia, in 1916

IGHBSampaio (right) works with a theodolite during a trip to Aratu, Bahia, in 1916IGHB

The Bahian Theodoro Fernandes Sampaio had a long career as a civil engineer, from 1878 to 1937. He could have been mistaken for one of the foreign naturalists who visited Brazil in the first half of the 19th century and were interested in everything: from plants to animals, indigenous languages and customs to the climate. Sampaio worked with hydraulics, sanitation, cartography, urban planning and management, and made contributions to geology, geography and history, in addition to venturing into ethnology, anthropology and linguistics—sciences that barely existed in his time.

Since the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of Brazil in 2000, the importance of some historical figures has been recognized anew.  “Theodoro Sampaio is one of those historical figures whose contributions have been given renewed value, but the real importance of his contributions still not understood,” says Ademir Pereira dos Santos, professor of architecture at Taubaté University (Unitau) and Mogi das Cruzes University (UMC), both in upstate São Paulo, and at the Fine Arts University in the city of São Paulo. Santos wrote Theodoro Sampaio–Nos sertões e nas cidades (Odebrecht / Versal Editores, 2010) (Theodoro Sampaio—in the countryside and in the city), a book in which he describes the life and work of the engineer in detail.

Members of the 1888 Geographical and Geological Commission: Theodoro Sampaio is third from left to right, sitting, alongside Orville Derby (bearded)

Geological Institute of São Paulo Members of the 1888 Geographical and Geological Commission: Theodoro Sampaio is third from left to right, sitting, alongside Orville Derby (bearded)Geological Institute of São Paulo

Sampaio (1855-1937) was born in Santo Amaro da Purificação, in the state of Bahia, the son of a slave named Domingas. His father’s identity is uncertain: Father Manoel Fernandes Sampaio, a priest, from whom he inherited his surname, or Viscount Aramaré, Manoel Lopes da Costa Pinto, Domingas’ owner. “Only Theodoro knew and he never even told his children,” says Santos. His father clearly had assets and influence because he was born free and received a good education in Rio de Janeiro. At court, he studied engineering at the Polytechnic School of Rio de Janeiro and graduated at the age of 22. Between 1878 and 1884 he purchased the freedom of his three black siblings.

In 1879, Sampaio joined the Imperial Hydraulics Commission, which studied and proposed works to improve navigation along rivers. He spent four years working in the São Francisco river valley from Alagoas to Sergipe, and in towns near the spring in the states of Pernambuco, Bahia and Minas Gerais. A concise narrator and talented designer, he contributed to the making of the Carta da bacia do São Francisco (Map of the São Francisco River Basin), revised it, and added part of the Chapada Diamantina region.

Map by Sampaio showing the distribution of ethnic groups, according to Carl von Martius

IGHB Map by Sampaio showing the distribution of ethnic groups, according to Carl von MartiusIGHB

He came to São Paulo in 1886 at the invitation of the American Geologist Orville Derby, Head of the São Paulo Geographic and Geological Commission. Most of the state of São Paulo was largely unknown and the engineer helped explore and chart the region—indispensable to the government—as well as design works to make the Paranapanema River navigable. Sampaio established the first geodetic base in Brazil, near the city of Sorocaba. The technique is used to represent the spherical shape of Earth’s surface cartographically, that is flatly, and is vital to improving the accuracy of maps covering large regions.

During his years in the São Paulo and northeastern Brazil countryside, he gathered information for two books: O tupi na geografia nacional  (Tupi in national geography) (1901) and O rio São Francisco e a Chapada Diamantina (The San Francisco River and the Chapada Diamantina Region) (1905). He also let the great author Euclides da Cunha copy a map he had made of the Canudos region and answered questions about its geography and climate, which the writer later used in articles before traveling to the area and writing his famous work Os sertões (Backlands: The Canudos Campaign).

“He worked for the government of São Paulo on everything from implementing health services to expanding streetcar lines in the city,” Santos says. He published technical articles and did historical research—he was one of the founders of the Historical and Geographical Institute of São Paulo, in 1894. 

At age 50, he returned to Bahia and opened his own engineering firm, which designed the new water supply system for the city of Salvador, among other infrastructure and urbanization projects. He was very active in the Geographic and Historical Institute of Bahia (IGHB), over which he presided for 14 years. “Those who knew him said he was very discreet and quiet, but an exceptional speaker,” says Consuelo Pondé de Sena, president of the IGHB. During the last phase of his life—he died at age 82—he published studies on the history of Salvador and Bahia.

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