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When you plant, money grows

After losing sources from the Orient, the Portuguese recovered their lucrative spices

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF DENMARK, COPENHAGENCoconut (by Eckout): national symbol only arrived here in 1553, in vessels coming from East AsiaNATIONAL MUSEUM OF DENMARK, COPENHAGEN

French historian Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) used to tell the history of humanity through the exchanges, in the economy, amongst peoples. “There have beenworld-economies since ever, or at least for a long time. Likewise for ever, at least for a long time, there have been societies, civilizations, states, and even empires”, wrote Braudel, in Le Temps du Monde. But if this economy has always governed the destinies of the world, 500 years ago it speeded up. After Christopher Columbus’s journey to America, things have never been the same again. Men, diseases, animals, and plants overcame the physical barrier of evolution and leapt across continents in ships commanded by fearless discoverers.

Braudel also used to say that, after the discovery of America, the Europeans remained a good time without knowing what to do with that immensity of lands. It was only in the 17th and 18th centuries that colonization began in earnest. The exchanges intensified, the towns began to form. And, in the effort to transform those inhospitable lands into a lucrative paradise equivalent to the Indies, Portugal started bringing in its ships, in a constant way, trees, seeds, cuttings, and wise connoisseurs of the secrets of the plants. Historian Márcia Moisés Ribeiro, linked to the Brazilian Studies Institute of the University of São Paulo (IEB/USP), is studying this time of change, when in Portuguese America attempts occurred to plant the spices from the Orient: clove, ginger, cinnamon, and pepper.

“The frequency of contacts between the Portuguese colonies world-wide, and more specifically between Brazil and the Orient, became more intense after the end of the 17th century. As the journey from the Orient to Portugal was a long one, a stopover of a few days in Brazil was inevitable. Even so, the authorities from Lisbon tried to prohibit the break to prevent contraband, which ended up happening willy-nilly”, says Marcia. In 1672, there was an order from the king that came to allow a stopover in Salvador, in Bahia. This led to an increase in the frequency of ships that, coming from the Orient, would stop in Brazil to unload some cargo, almost always illegally, and to receive merchandise to be transported to Europe. “It was this intense traffic of ships that made possible the entry of plants, spices, and provisions that were useful for the pharmacies of Brazil”, the researcher says.

The exchanges between the continents began a few years after the Portuguese disembarked in Brazil. “The coconut tree arrived here in around 1553, on board vessels coming from Cabo Verde, but originating from the Asian East. Today, this tree has become one of the symbols of the country”, the historian explains. In the wake of the palm tree, mangoes, jackfruit, cinnamon, sugar, and cotton landed in Brazil. But, going beyond a collection of stories about which plants came here, Marcia’s research concerns itself with analyzing the role of the Portuguese state as a mediator of the scientific activities relating to making good use of the natural resources of the vast regions of the ultramarine empire.

Study of nature – “During the 18th century, the study of nature came to be justified to the extent that it generated benefits for society. The metropolitan government sought to get to know all the botanical species, not just those from Portuguese America, as well as those from other dominions, so as to classify them under the Linnaeus system and, in particular, to discover their medicinal, technological, and alimentary uses”, Marcia analyzed. Little by little, the Portuguese government came to openly encourage the exchange of plants between the continents, in an attempt to diversify the crops and to save the balance of trade, which was now beginning to concern the Portuguese rulers.

Márcia is recovering a pioneering study by historian Maria Odila da Silva Dias, published in 1969, which remained hidden in the magazine of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). Named Aspects of illustration in Brazil , the work tells how, in 1796, Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho, an illustrious absolutist and a minister of Maria I, began a policy for renovating agriculture and introducing new rural techniques. He asked the governors of the captaincies for reports on the processes employed in the preparation and cultivation of exportable provisions; he ordered them to carry out surveys of native plants to be sent to the kingdom, and explorations for minerals; he promised prizes for the most industrious laborers; and he set about promoting the introduction of the plow and the cultivation of new produce.

And it was not just this. Under the official policy of promoting the exchange of plants and knowledge, the governor of the captaincy of São Paulo would receive “leaflets and memorandums about sugar trees in general, about the kinds of sugar manufactured in Rio, about the cultivation of potatoes, indigo, coffee Goa cinnamon, Girofle cloves, the urumbeba , about the cotton plant, the cultivation of flax and hemp; about the varieties of quinine, with regard to fixed and illuminated alkalis; about the agricultural methods used in North America, and books of a more technical nature about processes of cold stamping, the construction of rural buildings, the preparation of Roquefort cheese, the art of making glue; treatises on mineralogy and about the extraction and preparation of saltpeter; studies on botany, treatises on medicine”, wrote Maria Odila.

Oriental experts
“Although the theme of nature has been receiving greater attention on the part of Brazilian and Portuguese historians in the last few decades, it was never absent from the concerns of historiography of a more traditional bent”, the researcher says. However, the greater part of the studies turned with greater intensity to the 1770’s and 1780’s, when the foundation of the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon took place, while the period that preceded this event was scant of deeper analyses. And it is precisely on this period that Marcia focuses her attention.

It would not be of much use to send plants to Brazil, unless the technology for cultivating them was not imported together with them. “Aware of the lack of people skilled in handling in Portuguese America, the metropolitan government took the care of sending to Brazil several oriental experts”, the researcher says. On one of these journeys, in the same ship that brought D. Pedro de Almeida from Portugal, having just left the post of viceroy of India, a group of Goans embarked with the mission of complying with the royal orders to disseminate amongst the inhabitants of Brazil techniques for cultivating oriental plants.

On another occasion, more precisely in 1692, an anonymous correspondence addressed to the viceroy of India comments on the multiplication of cinnamon-bark trees in Bahia and claims that they were not as good as the ones in India, since Brazil lacked individuals specialized in the cultivation of this plant. Another example of importing agricultural techniques from India appears in the exchange of correspondence in 1694 between the Portuguese government and the governor of Maranhão, Francisco de Sá Menezes. Optimistic with the clove plantations in Maranhão, the king of Portugal orders the governor to plant another hundred clove trees and instructs him to follow the advice of the Indian experts to the letter.

Márcia even discovered how much was earned by the Canarins (a term used in Portugal to designate the inhabitants of Goa who went to Brazil). “They used to receive a wage of eight vintens a day to carry out many tasks, amongst them to teach the correct way to sow flax of various qualities, to pass on the techniques for processing and taking care of the planting of mulberry trees, which did not bear fruit”, the researcher says. The mulberry trees were important for silkworms to begin to produce. Concerned with the low production of the mulberry trees, Diogo de Mendonça Corte Real, then governor of Bahia, mentioned the problem to the viceroy of Brazil, Count Atouguia, and attributed that situation as well to the lack of specialized individuals in Brazil, which could only be resolved with the assistance of people who had “intelligence in the cultivation of these trees”. Although the government of D. João V (1706-1750) had been marked by the imports of Asian species to Portuguese America, it was D. José (1750-1777) who most encouraged this kind of practice.

For the plants to be able to be adapted to Brazil, the Portuguese government could count on a powerful ally: the Catholic Church. All over the Brazilian territory there were experimental farms, on which the Jesuits would adapt the plants. One of them became better known, both for the quantity of letters it used to receive from farmers worried about pests and ants, and for the quantity of wise Jesuits who inhabited it. It was called Quinta do Tanque and was in the interior of Bahia. “The Jesuits were important agents in the process of transmitting medical and botanical learning over the various points of the Portuguese Empire. Through the letters, a sort of report on activities prepared by the carried out by the Ignacians, and through the pharmacopoeias, collection of recipes for medicines, the Company of Jesus worked as a link between the various peoples of the colonial Portuguese Empire, as far as scientific culture and practice is concerned”, the researcher explains.

By investing in America, Portugal was trying to compensate economically for the loss of the spices from the Orient. But the country ended up hitting the bull of a target that it was not aiming at. Thanks to this commercial incentive, the cultivation of drugs from India in Brazil contributed towards promoting the circulation of a scientific culture amongst the various overseas dominions, the adventure of plants over the world, as the researcher likes to say.

“The expansionist spirit was seated on contradictory principles. On the one hand, it was avid for novelties, eager to reveal the diversity of the world, but on the other it was dominated by the tradition that led it to fit the unknown to already familiar standards”, Marcia explains. Revealing this learning helps us to comprehend the fundamental role taken on by the Portuguese, as primary and secondary carriers in the global dissemination of plants.

The project
Journeys Overseas, the Circulation of Scientific Knowledge in the Colonial Portuguese Empire 1650-1800 (nº 02/04400-9); Modality Young Researcher Program/FAPESP; Scholarship Holder Márcia Moisés Ribeiro – Brazilian Studies Institute/USP