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News from the New World

Before the naturalists, there was already a concern with describing Brazil's animals and plants

The journeys with the objective of describing the riches of the New World became frequent from the 18th century onwards, and a series of rules were drawn up to define what should be observed, collected, described and drawn, delimiting what could be interesting to the Europeans and, in particular, to the sciences.  Before this, travelers, settlers and missionaries wrote reports on the animals, plants, minerals, geography and natives of the Americas.

They all described the flora and the fauna that was unknown in the Northern Hemisphere, and some tried to give the maximum of information about the behavior and the usefulness of the animal or plant being investigated. There was great curiosity about the recently discovered lands, and many of these works were published from the 16th century, but various others were only made public a long time afterwards. Some reports would arrive at the metropolis, were read by the authorities or in the academies, and would end up filed and forgotten. Others were banned by the governments of Portugal and of Spain, which were not interested in showing the world the riches of their colonies.

The best example of this care in keeping the foreigners in ignorance about Brazil occurred when the Italian André João Antonil published in Lisbon his book Brazil’s Culture and Opulence, in 1711. The Portuguese government withdrew and burnt the edition – few copies were saved. But what might have been the first description of Brazilian natural resources with a certain methodological care? “It’s impossible to know”, says Márcia Ferraz, from the Simão Mathias Center for Studies in the History of Science (Cesima), of the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, a specialist in the period.

“Many texts only became known centuries after being written, and unpublished reports from the 16th century may exist that we are unaware of.” One of the most ancient documents in which there is a clear concern with information is a letter written in 1560 by Jesuit priest José de Anchieta, with the  title Making a Description of the Countless Natural Things that are to be Found in the Province of São Vicente. In it, the missionary made numerous descriptions and observations: from the manatee to the crab, from the anteater to the bees, from the various trees to the “purgative plants”.

In 1576, Pero de Magalhães de Gandavo published his History of the Province of Santa Cruz which we commonly call Brazil, with 48 pages, in Lisbon. He reports the discovery rapidly, talks about the fruits, the poisonous animals, the birds and fish, and the Indians. Then there was the Descriptive Treatise on Brazil, by Gabriel Soares de Sousa, written in the colony and taken to Portugal in 1587, not published immediately. Rich in information about the new lands, it had only a partial printing in 1800, 213 years afterwards. “With the extraordinary History of the Animals and Trees of Maranhão, worse happened”, says Márcia. Between 1624 and 1627, Friar Cristóvão of Lisbon, a Portuguese Franciscan, carried out a work similar to Anchieta’s, with one advantage: he did drawings of what he observed, described them, and transcribed the name just as he heard them from the natives. “The first edition of the originals kept at the Ultramarine Historical Archives was printed in 1967.”  Better luck befell Guilherme Piso – a doctor of Maurício de Nassau and Dutch like him – and George Marcgrave, a German engineer. Of the authorship of the two, in 1648 their Natural History of Brazil came out published, in Amsterdam. Piso wrote about diseases and plants, and Marcgrave about animals and the geography of the Northeast.  Ten years later, Piso published a revised edition, which only won a version in Portuguese in the 20th century.