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Colonial Collecting Expeditions and the Pursuit of Opportunities in the Amazonian Sertão, c. 1750–1800

From: The Americas
Volume 66, Number 4, April 2010
pp. 435-467 | 10.1353/tam.0.0253

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Every year during the second half of the eighteenth century, as river levels dropped, an average of 1,500 Indian crewmen departed nearly 50 villages for the remote interior forests and waterways of the Amazonian sertão.1 During the next six to eight months, as they searched for cacao, sarsaparilla, nuts, or turtle eggs, the crewmen might experience all manner of hardships—epidemics, tribal attacks, famine, mutinies, or the loss of the village canoe and its cargo, to name just a few. Then, upon arriving home, they might find their families reduced to utter poverty or sickness, their wives taken in by other men, or their crops abandoned and devoured by pests. Yet despite the arduousness of the state-sponsored collecting expeditions and the hardships imposed upon those left behind, the trips offered a range of opportunities that other kinds of compulsory labor did not. Some of those who were not required to participate, such as the native officials, even did so voluntarily.2

The Directorate legislation on the administration of the Indians (1757-1798) sought to regulate the distribution of native labor such that all able-bodied, non-elite men were employed in either royal service, communal agriculture, service to private parties, or the annual collecting trips.3 Lists of people engaged in each task and accounts of their productivity fill volume after volume in the colonial archive, representing four decades of recordkeeping by village directors in the captaincies of Pará and the Rio Negro.4 Yet for all this documentation, we know extremely little about the work experiences and preferences of colonial Indians. Those of the collecting expedition crewmen are the one exception, due to a minor paperwork requirement on the part of village directors that has been almost entirely overlooked by historians.5 In addition to the cargo manifests, crew lists, and accounts of trip expenditures, directors were also expected to record testimonies from returning crewmen as to the behavior of their cabo, the canoe boss and expedition leader, during the trip. Although the majority are formulaic proceedings, some three dozen of these devassas (official inquiries) provide unparalleled descriptions of events that occurred in the sertão and depict, often dramatically, the limits of colonial control in that sphere. And in contrast to almost every other type of colonial Amazonian source, the officials recording the devassas quoted or paraphrased Indians themselves—or at least, they purported to do so. When read alongside the other documents in the directors' reports, the devassas serve as a window onto how the collecting expeditions worked in practice and how they were experienced by their native participants in different places and time periods. They add another dimension to the recent historiography on Indians' efforts to exercise choice and to carve out spaces of autonomy within the constraints of the Portuguese colonial system.6

This essay uses the crewmen's testimonies to address the broad question of what opportunities they encountered on their annual forays into the interior. More specifically, it aims to provide a satisfactory explanation for the cases of apparently voluntary participation in the expeditions—cases that undermine the conventional view that only coercive measures could induce Indians to take part. The essay first situates the comércio do sertão within a context of Crown efforts to harness native collecting expertise and knowledge of the interior for regional economic development. It then explores the ways in which the expeditions afforded room for independent action, fostered the expansion of social networks, and shaped the economic prospects of native Amazonians.

Institutionalizing the Comércio do Sertão

"There are so many manatee and turtles, that if one piled together just those that have been taken and eaten until now, they would make mountains larger than those of Potosí." In this (possibly) hyperbolic remark, a Jesuit missionary compared the Amazon's bounty of natural resources with the famous mineral reserves of the neighboring viceroyalty of Peru.7 Everyone with a stake in the Amazonian economy, from the most humble settler to the Overseas Council in Lisbon, wanted to believe in the possibility of a major Amazonian export boom based on the extraction of wild products like cacao, sarsaparilla, Amazonian clove (cravo), nuts...