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Memory

On Firm Ground

“Priest-mathematicians” and their detailed maps of Brazil’s scrublands

Mappa corographico da capitania do Rio de Janeiro (Colored Map of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro), attributed to Domingos Capassi

National Library Mappa corographico da capitania do Rio de Janeiro (Colored Map of the Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro), attributed to Domingos CapassiNational Library

Jesuit priests had a privileged scientific education, especially in mathematics and astronomy. In Rome, they followed step-by-step the discoveries made thanks to a new device—the telescope—and maintained a dialogue with Galileo. Because experts in these fields were so rare, monarchs would call upon them unexpectedly to carry out tasks in distant lands. In 1729, Dom João V of Portugal enlisted two known priest-mathematicians who were also astronomers and cartographers—the Portuguese Diogo Soares and the Italian Domingos Capassi—to make, in the words of the royal order that chartered them as the King’s cartographers, “maps of said State, not only along the coast but into the scrublands, with all the demarcations required to better distinguish and learn about the districts in each diocese, government, captaincy, district and granted territory.” Soares, a professor of mathematics at Saint Anthony College in Lisbon, had written about Brazil in his 1721 manuscript, Novo atlas lusitano ou teatro universal do mundo todo (New Portuguese Atlas or Complete Theater of the Whole World): “It is an extremely fertile and healthy country, with the best gold in America, and a lot of tobacco and sugar.”

Map of the Ribeirão do Carmo region and the das Velhas and Paraopeba rivers in Minas Gerais, attributed to  Diogo Soares

Overseas Historical Archive, Lisbon Map of the Ribeirão do Carmo region and the das Velhas and Paraopeba rivers in Minas Gerais, attributed to Diogo SoaresOverseas Historical Archive, Lisbon

The work that Soares and Capassi finished in Brazil in 1748, Novo atlas da América portuguesa (New Atlas of Portuguese America), forms a compendium of 31 maps of the entire south and southwest coast of Brazil extending to Cabo Frio, along the coast of Rio de Janeiro, and much of the interior. The work also provides accounts of the journeys of frontiersmen and the routes they took. One of the maps, from 1737, the Carta 9ª da costa do Brazil desde a  barra de Santos até à da Marambaya (9th Map of the Coast of Brazil from the Santos to the Marambaya Banks) “shows for the first time the urban, river and road network of the Paulista plateau and its links to the coast,” explains Professor Beatriz Bueno of the University of São Paulo (USP) in an article published in Anais do Museu Paulista. The maps helped Portugal secure its territories during negotiations with Spain leading up to the Treaty of Madrid of 1750, which abrogated the earlier Treaty of Tordesillas, establishing new boundaries separating the possessions of the two kingdoms in the Americas and allowing Portugal official title to the territories it already occupied in the Amazon and central-west and southern regions of Brazil.

In 1502, an anonymous cartographer created the first map showing Brazil, and by 1509, other cartographers had produced better ones; but European competitors—German, Italian and French—were making their own maps on which nations relied to occupy, maintain, explore and defend their territories. In his Mapa da maior parte da costa e sertão do Brazil (Map of the Greater Portion of the Coast and Scrublands of Brazil) from around 1700, Father Jaques Cocleo, a French Jesuit and mathematics and astronomy professor in Lisbon until 1660, had, after moving to Brazil, described rivers, mountains, towns, routes and mining regions in the interior, but left his work unfinished at the time of his death, around 1710.  The Portuguese king, however, needed more information to continue exploring his most important colony.

Morro do Castelo, in Rio de Janeiro, with the Jesuit College at right. Detail from the print by Victor Meirelles

Wikimedia Morro do Castelo, in Rio de Janeiro, with the Jesuit College at right. Detail from the print by Victor MeirellesWikimedia

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro in February of 1730, Soares and Capassi built an astronomical observatory at the Jesuit College on Castelo Hill, where they began their measurements. “There were no continuous observations; their work basically served to determine Rio’s longitude in relation to Paris,” concludes Jorge Pimentel Cintra, USP professor who together with his team has studied the priests’ manuscripts and maps. In 1732, Soares and Capassi traveled throughout the State of Minas Gerais gathering frontiersmen’s accounts of gold and diamond mines, whose locations they defined and reproduced in maps that covered the territory from the south of Minas Gerais to the metropolitan area of present-day Belo Horizonte. Later, they surveyed the geographic coordinates of the main ports of the Captaincy of Rio Grande de São Pedro. After Capassi died in 1736, Soares set out by himself to create additional maps and plans of fortifications for the defense of Rio de Janeiro until his own death, in 1748, in the state of Goiás.

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