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The patriarch of science

The ideas of José Bonifácio were marked by the close bond between statesman and naturalist

Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita and José Mindlin-USPJosé Bonifácio, 1861 lithograph by Frenchman Jean Sisson: a learned man and scholar of many fields of knowledgeBiblioteca Brasiliana Guita and José Mindlin-USP

A 2011 survey by the Brazilian Congress showed that only 8% of its 652 representatives and senators hold a master’s degree or doctorate. Looking at senators alone, 9.5% have never even enrolled in a college or university. Perhaps these statistics do not affect a congressman’s performance, as some experts suggest, but a comparison with the résumé of one politician from the past, José Bonifácio (1763-1838), gives us food for thought. Bonifácio was a scientist admired by his peers, who had an international career – something rare in the 18th century. He was versed in mining and metallurgy, both theoretically and in practice, and published many articles in a number of languages in Europe’s top academic journals.

Bonifácio could, after all, speak and write six languages and read 11 and was a highly learned man and an avid reader of scholars from a wide gamut of fields of thought. He was a member of the world’s leading academies of science, discovered various minerals, served as professor at the University of Coimbra, and headed up some of the main industries of Portugal and Brazil. He is also the only Brazilian ever linked with the discovery of a new chemical element (lithium); further, calciumiron garnet was named “andradite” in his honor. Well before the advent of ecology, he promoted the rational exploitation of our natural resources and reviled the destruction of forests. Bonifácio considered the sciences essential to the development of Brazil. He called for the establishment of universities, mining schools, scientific expeditions to chart the Brazilian territory, and economic and scientific societies.

“But he was reduced to the political role of Patriarch of Independence, a movement he rejected up to the last moment. First and foremost, Bonifácio was a scientist formed by the Enlightenment, who scorned armchair knowledge. He believed in science of a propositional and practical bent. In his opinion, his position as a scientist enabled him to find rational solutions for the problems faced by the State,” explains historian Miriam Dolhnikoff, of the University of São Paulo (USP) and author of the recently published biography José Bonifácio (Companhia das Letras). “As a politician – his most well-known side – he was at the forefront of the process of building a new nation, but the way he thought about this nation was defined by his training as a scientist,” she says. According to this researcher, the “political scientist” wanted to engineer the Brazilian nationality within his social laboratory, which would basically entail mixing the country’s diverse cultural patterns in the test tubes of ordinary life to produce a single pattern, synthesized through miscegenation.

“The knowledge concentrated in Bonifácio’s accomplishments as a politician does have merit. But his political engagement in Brazil was limited to only two years in the life of a 59-year-old retired man, who boasted a long career as a mineralogist in Portugal,” points out journalist and political scientist Jorge Caldeira, responsible for the digitalization of the complete works of José Bonifácio, available at the portal Bonifácio’s Works ( “He was the most respected Brazilian scholar in the international scientific community of his day. This is why he would not accept compromise, and he was a victim of bias because he was a world-renowned scientist who also wielded great political power.”

Bonifácio was part of a new generation of Brazilians in Coimbra. “If the majority followed the tradition of studying law to then return to Brazil to manage their family’s businesses, the new enlightened mentality drew many students from the colony who saw scientific knowledge as affording them the opportunity to develop their abilities and the Empire’s potential,” explains Dolhnikoff. From 1772 to 1822, 450 of the 866 Brazilian graduates of Coimbra majored in mathematics; 250 studied natural philosophy (i.e., natural sciences); and 65 took up medicine. The young 20-year-old Bonifácio arrived in Portugal in 1780 in the midst of a modernization movement that intended to wage battle against what contemporaries interpreted as the “decline of the kingdom.” “At that time, there was a strong identification between science and politics. The State recruited naturalists for important administrative posts to ensure enforcement of reformist policy,” states historian Alex Varela, author of Juro-lhe pela honra de bom vassalo e bom português: análise das memórias científicas de José Bonifácio (I swear on my honor as a good subject and a good Portuguese: an analysis of the scientific memoires of José Bonifácio) (Annablume).

Marcos Scheliga / Latinstock BrasilCourtyard of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, where Bonifácio was introduced to modern ideasMarcos Scheliga / Latinstock Brasil

As a result, the University of Coimbra, centerpiece of Portuguese knowledge, underwent major reform in 1772, importing professors to make up for the local shortage. One of the most influential of these was Domingos Vandelli, eminent naturalist and friend of Linnaeus, hired to teach natural history and chemistry. In a short time, the Italian had put together a group of disciples who defended dominion over nature as the way Portugal could catch up with the rest of enlightened Europe economically. “He believed that the nature of the colonies had to be inventoried by scientific institutions, because these natural resources would restore the kingdom,” observes Varela. As Vandelli’s student, Bonifácio came to view science not as a mere form of knowledge but as an instrument capable of transforming society. “It was applied, pragmatic science that would have the social function of solving problems. Nature in the colony should be understood and exploited scientifically in order to contribute to Portuguese industrialization,” affirms the researcher.

“Bonifácio’s choice to study mineralogy fit in with this utilitarian outlook on science. He carried his vision as an enlightened scientist into politics. As a mineralogist, he wanted to amalgamate the metals available to him to forge the character of a civilized nation. Nature and history provided all the necessary elements. Reason and knowledge alone were enough, together with the power of the State, to transform these into noble metal,” says Dolhnikoff. “The man of science should associate himself with the State and accept the hierarchical values of this society. In exchange, the scholar earned honor and privileges, in the hierarchical spirit of the Ancién Regime,” asserts historian Berenice Cavalcante, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro (PUC/RJ) and author of José Bonifácio: razão e sensibilidade (José Bonifácio: reason and sensibility) (FGV). Bonifácio the scientist was thus essentially an employee of the State. The government in turn invested heavily in training academic personnel who were expected to provide the Empire with what it lacked most: technical knowledge. Specialization and professionalization trips were offered for this purpose, like the one Bonifácio took between 1790 and 1800 through central and northern Europe, where he visited the major mining schools and regions.

These were not “philosophical journeys.” The beneficiary was supposed to observe everything, with the mission of bringing an atmosphere of modernity back to the Empire. “Only important places like centers of mineralogical knowledge and natural philosophy and chemistry were visited,” says Cavalcante. In France, Bonifácio took Fourcroy’s chemistry course; in Germany he met Humboldt, took classes with Kant, and worked at the mines; he visited the mines of Bohemia; and he did research in Sweden and Denmark. His article on the minerals he found, especially petalite and spodumene, made a great impact, and it was after English chemist Humphry Davy read the publication that the latter was able to discover a new element, named lithium.

“It was also on this trip that Bonifácio re-embraced Vandelli’s critical view of the irrational destruction of nature, reformulating it in tune with his own precepts, out of sharp concern over the environmental question. Unfortunately, historians have underestimated this component of Bonifácio’s thought,” states historian José Augusto Pádua, professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) and author of Um sopro de destruição: pensamento político e crítica ambiental no Brasil escravista (A breath of destruction: political thought and environmental criticism in slaveholding Brazil) (Zahar). “Bonifácio had first-hand experience with the process of engendering a new theoretical universe concerning the dynamics of nature. Above all, his writings do not constitute a mere transposition of the European discussion to the Luso-Brazilian milieu but rather a personal interpretation derived from his experiences and reflections,” observes Pádua. According to this author, Bonifácio believed that the growth brought by development could not be based on the anti-scientific destruction of forests, as such actions posed a threat to the future. “Our precious woods are disappearing, the victims of fire and the axe, of ignorance and egotism. Without plant life, our beautiful Brazil will be reduced to the arid deserts of Libya. The day will then come when our affronted nature will be avenged for so many crimes,” he wrote in 1828.

Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita and José Mindlin-USPTitle page of the book on botanical gardens written by Domingos Vandelli, dedicated to Queen Maria I. Above, andradite, the stone named in honor of José Bonifácio and his pioneering work in mineralogyBiblioteca Brasiliana Guita and José Mindlin-USP

“We must be careful about seeing Bonifácio as an ‘ecologist’, because the possibility that natural riches would be exhausted had not been posited back then, and no one had any notion that the destruction of nature would jeopardize the environment. He was a scientist concerned about using nature as efficaciously and rationally as possible to ensure better economic results,” Dolhnikoff cautions. This pragmatic outlook caught the attention of the nobleman Dom Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho, Minister of the Navy and Overseas. A member of the Royal Academy of Sciences, Coutinho was a man of the Enlightenment who supported the revival of mining in the colony – which many felt had been “depleted” – as the key to reinvigorating the Empire, so long as it was “scientifically” led. As soon as Bonifácio came back from his pilgrimage through Europe, Dom Rodrigo invited him to establish a professorial chair in metallurgy at Coimbra and also appointed him superintendent of the mines of the kingdom of Portugal in 1801. This was the beginning of the organic melding of scientist and statesman, a union that remained in perfect harmony until his return to Brazil.

In addition to the mines, Bonifácio was made responsible both for the Brazilian Mint, where he sponsored studies and courses in chemistry, and also for the royal forests, where he could apply his ideals regarding harmony between nature and “progress.” Working tirelessly, he surveyed the problems of mining in Portugal; he also set Portugal’s first steam machine to work, rendering coal extraction more efficient; and he started up the Figueiró iron factory, which employed a modern, rational management approach and produced substantial quantities of ore. As if this were not enough, he discovered a new vein of coal in the city of Porto, which he claimed could supply the kingdom for 1,500 years. But Bonifácio grew tired of the sluggish imperial bureaucracy, which kept him from efficiently implementing “technology” in Portugal, and he decided to go back to Brazil in 1819. In a farewell address, he heralded the colony’s potential contributions to the “new” Portuguese Empire: “And gentlemen, what a country this is for a new civilization and for a new base for the sciences! What a land for a great and vast empire!” The shock of reality hit a few years later: “In Brazil, the sciences and fine letters have crumbled. All that matters is selling sugar, coffee, cotton, and tobacco.” Nevertheless, his native land at first delighted the man who had become disenchanted with the “vices” of European modernity.

In 1820, alongside his brother Martim Francisco, Bonifácio took a “mineralogical journey” that commenced in Santos and covered 72 leagues of the São Paulo hinterlands, as he was anxious to assess its natural resources. “Given what he came across, he lamented the tremendous potential that had been lost because of the backwards, ‘careless’ way the Brazilians farmed the land. He was aggravated by the senseless destruction of nature and predicted that once people had depleted these resources, they would be forever migrating, further hampering the arrival of civilization,” states Cavalcante. As a man of the Age of Reason, Bonifácio was not discouraged by these obstacles; instead, they reanimated the retired naturalist and motivated him to take action. “He saw Brazil as a raw mass, pregnant with potential, which could be shaped in accordance with his enlightened will. Bonifácio inaugurated a lineage of statesmen who proposed crafting an overall project of nationhood for the country from a broader and more generous perspective than that prescribed by his peers and contemporaries,” Dolhnikoff observes.

João Carvalho / Creative CommonsAjuda Botanical Garden in Lisbon, designed by Vandelli, who hoped to create a laboratory for the colony’s natural richesJoão Carvalho / Creative Commons

For Dolhnikoff, the label “conservative,” which Bonifácio earned from his fierce defense of the monarchy, is unfair. “He was one of the biggest reformist politicians of his day. His concern with creating a homogeneous nation through miscegenation, the end of slavery, the assimilation of indigenous peoples, and guaranteeing everyone some degree of education and means of survival lay at the heart of his national project, and was a product of his training as a scientist,” she says. We need only remember his pioneering defense of miscegenation as the foundation for a national identity. “At a time when the founders of the first enlightened legislation on the planet – the Americans – believed there were differences between the races, he negated them, a position that only gained ground in the mid-20th century,” says Caldeira. Bonifácio did not consider European production a model to be copied but a method to be redeveloped. “Bonifácio used the Enlightenment as a tool to analyze Brazilians and to found a nation that took Brazilian behavior into account. In his era, no man of the Enlightenment went as far in valuing the reality of Brazilians over the direct transplant of imported models.”

Bonifácio advocated a nation grounded on homogeneity attained through the mixing of the races, which he thought would erase deep racial differences. He did not want Brazil to be “whitened” but felt it was the State’s duty to encourage marriage between indigenes, whites, and mulattoes. “It was not a matter of humanism but of believing that integration would favor the elites, who he saw as playing the role of catalyst of civilization,” states Dolhnikoff. “Symptomatically, he used a chemical term – ‘amalgamation’, an alloy of homogeneous metal – to explain the need to unify society, which was divided into irreconcilable groups. If these many ‘diverse metals’ were not amalgamated, the young nation ran the risk of rupturing at the slightest sign of any political tremor,” observes Varela.

“His defense of abolition followed the same principle. Slavery generated an idle, violent, and therefore uncultured elite, which was an obstacle to development. It was also responsible for the pointless destruction of the forests,” says Dolhnikoff. Bonifácio was not, however, so unrealistic as to call for immediate abolition. He preferred gradual change, advocating the reform of agricultural practices, which should be modernized by providing “ignorant farmers” with scientific instruction and through the application of the Empire’s land-grant system, known as sesmaria. He clashed directly with large landholders when he proposed that uncultivated land be confiscated and sold by the government, with the proceeds going to the poor so that they could enjoy social inclusion.

“He wanted to build a nation led by a constitutional monarchy, and for this he needed the support of the majority of the elite, and the nation he wanted to build was not the nation this elite wanted,” notes Dolhnikoff. He failed to realize he was in a country with misplaced ideals. “The identification of a Brazilian citizenship based on ethnic and religious universalism is still a valid utopia for a nation. José Bonifácio was the first thinker to lend finished form to this idea,” observes Caldeira. “Since then, a number of reform projects have been devised, with the developed world in mind, but without any better results than Bonifácio’s,” the historian says. Along with his projects, Bonifácio bequeathed the country a large collection of minerals and a library of over 1,500 volumes, enormous for his time. Both have almost completely vanished due to Brazil’s reckless disregard for knowledge.