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The botanist who wrote books at Court

Books were written 210 years ago by Brother Mariano Veloso about the problems of Brazil as a colony

National Press/The Mint/National Library, Lisbon Illustration from “Arte do carvoeiro ou methodo de fazer carvão de madeira” (Art of the charcoal maker, or how to make charcoal from wood by Duhamel du Monceau, edited by Arco do Cego, 1801)National Press/The Mint/National Library, Lisbon

For three years, between 1799 and 1801, a Brazilian editor in Lisbon gathered around himself in a print shop a group of illustrious Brazilians and Portuguese who were keen to produce technical European texts. Most of them dealt with issues relating to agriculture and production methods that were more efficient than those used by farmers and animal breeders in Portugal and Brazil. The print shop became known as the Casa Literaria do Arco do Cego [Literary House of the Ark of the Blind Man] and its editor, Brother José Mariano da Conceição Veloso, as one of the most remarkable figures of his day at Court and in the Colony.

The Arco do Cego lasted only three years and eventually became part of the Regia publishing house. Brother Veloso’s fame, however, comes from before this. His baptismal name was José Veloso Xavier and he was born in the former São José d’El Rei, today Tiradentes (MG). Little is known about the background of this religious man. It is known that at 19 he entered the monastery of São Boaventura in Macacu and after five years went to the Santo Antonio monastery in Rio. He became a geometry and natural history teacher, but his main interest was always botany.

In 1783, the monk was officially linked to the Portuguese government as one of those in charge of carrying out philosophical voyages of recognition of the Colony, as they were known at the time, and collecting specimens of fauna and flora that were sent to the Court. Admiration for Veloso had the Viceroy, Luis de Vasconcelos e Sousa – who had a special appreciation for the natural sciences – to determine that he travel throughout the whole of the province of Rio to collect and examine local plants. For eight years (1783-1790), Veloso collected thousands of specimens that would shape his major work, Flora fluminense. Several companions from the congregation helped him describe the plants and draw what he had collected.

Flora fluminense contained 1626 species distributed across 396 genera. Its publication in 10 volumes was an event of epic dimensions that was only fully completed in 1881, 70 years after the death of Veloso.While he was still alive, the monk received criticisms that delayed publication.

Sometimes, in a veiled way, as intrigue; at other times, openly, like that of the “professional” Portuguese botanist, Félix de Avelar Brotero, who said that there were major errors in the drawings, descriptions and names of the genera and species. Because of Veloso’s largely self-taught formation, he did not have a comfortable relationship with the Royal Academy of Sciences of Portugal. The Portuguese naturalist community never recognized him as one of their own, according to historians Maria de Fatima Nunes and João Carlos Brigola, from the University of Evora, in Portugal, in a biographical essay that forms part of the book A Casa Literária do Arco do Cego (National Press / Mint / National Library, Lisbon, 1999).

Veloso went to Lisbon in 1790 and six years later published the agrarian periodical, Paladio Portuguez and Clarim de Palas, which dealt with news and improvements in agriculture, manufacturing and trade. In 1799, he was appointed to the Arco do Cego and even after the print shop was taken over by Regia in 1801, he continued working in the area.

“Veloso published books that were always concerned with problems of the Colony,” says historian Marcia Ferraz, from the Simão Mathias Center for the Study of the History of Science, the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP). “O fazendeiro do Brasil [The Farmer from Brazil] series, for example, ran to 11 volumes that dealt with everything from the manufacture of sugar to the growing of coffee, cocoa and dye plants and taught how to prepare dairy products.” In the Arco do Cego’s 3 years 83 books were written or translated, many of them published in partnership with other printers. The topics covered agriculture, natural history, medicine and public health, marine, the exact sciences, poetry and history. The prints and technical drawings were abundant and had a clear didactic purpose.

With the French invasion in 1808, Veloso returned to Rio where he died in 1811 aged 69. His work as editor and botanist was well recognized. He did not live to see his greatest work published.