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Hispanic American Historical Review 80.4 (2000) 697-719

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The Heathen Castes of Sixteenth-Century Portuguese America: Unity, Diversity, and the Invention of the Brazilian Indians

John M. Monteiro


IMAGE LINK= The Portuguese first arrived on the eastern coast of South America in April 1500, but it was only in the final quarter of the sixteenth century that they began to produce systematic accounts that described and classified indigenous populations. 1 However, with the exception of Pero de Magalhães Gândavo's brief História da província de Santa Cruz, published in Lisbon in 1576, and various Jesuit letters widely disseminated throughout Europe in several languages, the most important Portuguese writings remained unpublished for centuries. 2 For example, both Gabriel Soares de Sousa's rich descriptive treatise of 1587, considered by many to be the single most important sixteenth-century account, and Jesuit father Fernão Cardim's writings circulated in multiple manuscript copies and probably did not have a great deal of influence before the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, the Tratado descritivo, as Soares de Sousa's texts came to be known, and the Tratados da terra e gente do Brasil, a compilation of Cardim's works, provide a clear guide to the accumulated perceptions and images that the Portuguese had about the vast, varied, and largely [End Page 697] incomprehensible indigenous universe during this crucial period in Portuguese-indigenous relations. 3

This article examines Gabriel Soares de Sousa's writings in two steps: first, in the historical context of the late sixteenth century; and second, in the historiographical context of the nineteenth century, when his detailed descriptions and schematic classifications were absorbed by Brazil's first national historians as objective ethnographic facts. One of the problems that this created lay in the tendency for Brazilian historians to project back to 1500--the emblematic eve-of-conquest date--a portrait of indigenous diversity and interethnic relations that actually developed much later, reflecting the deep transformations that had already affected many of the coastal societies. Nonetheless, like other historiographical traditions in the Americas, these early accounts were written by the observers themselves and interpreted by latter-day historians to convey a static and permanent image of pristine societies as if they had been untouched by contact with Europeans. At the same time, this approach has ignored the role of indigenous polities and actors in their response to European expansion, which played an important part in shaping the kinds of ethnic configurations that have been passed down generation after generation as "original" and timeless, only to be upset, dilapidated, and, finally, destroyed by Western colonialism. Recent ethnohistorical trends, however, have begun to undermine these long-established views, interweaving careful documentary research and new anthropological perspectives to produce a refreshing portrait of creative indigenous responses, which, against all odds, carved out a significant place in colonial history in ways that can no longer be omitted from the historical register. 4 [End Page 698]

Gabriel Soares de Sousa, the Ethnographer

In 1587 Portuguese sugar planter and overland explorer Gabriel Soares de Sousa undertook a long journey from Bahia to Madrid, in an effort to garner royal support so that he could search the endless sertão for silver mines. As part of his credentials, he presented Dom Cristóvão de Moura with three manuscripts, offering precious information and perceptive insights on the land, people, and early history of the Portuguese colonies in the Americas. 5 The first text, the Roteiro geral: Com largas informações de toda a costa do Brasil, provided a succinct description of the Atlantic coast from the "land of the Caribs," north of the Amazon river, to the River Platte. The second and certainly the most important text was the Memorial e declaração das grandezas da Bahia de Todos os Santos, de sua fertilidade e das notáveis partes que tem, a meticulous description of the topography, plants, animals, and native populations of Bahia; this text is so rich and evocative in detail that it...