Animals and society in Brazil from the 16th to 19th centuries

A blog with a mission today from Ana Lucia Camphora who summarises her groundbreaking book on animal-human relations in Brazil, which will be published by The White Horse Press in early 2021 … if funds can be raised for translation! Find out how to help here. (Note: no money from this fundraiser will come to The White Horse Press and it is not organised by us)

Brazil, the largest country in South America, extends over 8.5 million square kilometres that are home to some of the planet’s richest fauna. According to the Red Book of Brazilian Endangered Species (2008), approximately 530 mammals, 1,800 birds, 680 reptiles, 800 amphibians, 3,000 fishes and uncountable variety of invertebrates are distributed over its five expansive biomes. As of the end of the last century, improvements in Brazilian livestock breeding placed the country firmly within the ranks of the world’s largest meat producers (beef, chicken and pork).  This paradoxical reality – that is, that a land of such diverse native flora and fauna would become a major global player in an industry tied to the role of non-native domesticated species – inspired me to look back into our past. I was intent on going further into the trajectories which mired us, human and non-human beings, in our  present-day challenges.

hunting RUGENDAS 1835
Hunting in the wild forest, pl. 23 (detail), J.M.Rugendas (1835)

My research was motivated by a single question: where to find, and to place, non-human animals within the ‘big picture’ of Brazilian history? Over the course of my research, I realized non-human animals had always been there, alongside their human counterparts.  This of course meant that, starting with colonisation processes,  both native and European domesticated species  played a fundamental role, changing and diversifying as  the development of Brazilian society proceeded apace.

Over the course of my research, fragments of selected narratives obtained from letters, diaries, reports and conventional historical registers made it increasingly clear how and why  the first four centuries of colonial history were not exclusively a human endeavour, but rather a construction that moved forward on the basis of interspecies relations. My intention was not to produce a massive treatise  from the evidence and testimonies I uncovered, but rather to offer a starting point for bringing these relations into a historical narrative that had previously ignored them. In showing the decisive importance of interspecies relations in the construction of Portuguese South American colonial life, I would be helping to complete and complexify our understanding of a universe that was and is at once both particular and of broad relevance.

bahiaroutine RUGENDAS1835
Bahia customs, pl. 20 (detail), J.M.Rugendas (1835)

In this vein,  Animals and Society in Brazil,  From the 16th to 19th Centuries,  published in Brazil in 2017, provides a pioneering overview on how social relations were constructed as interspecies relations, unfolding over the course of several centuries and into the first ‘modernising projects’ of the late nineteenth century. In  both rural and urban colonial environments, other animals were used by humans for food, medicine, motor force, cargo and transportation, as well as in play, sport and domestic leisure. Animals were described and thought of in often-contradictory ways: as things, food, tools, as beings capable of expressing feelings and human-like behaviour, as sources of spiritual power, medicine, assets of the Portuguese Crown, and threats both to human survival and property. All these diverse meanings and functions came together to configure what is still a scantly-understood chapter of Brazilian History.

In 2019, I had the opportunity to present the subject matter of this book at  the 10th Biennial Conference of the European Society for Environmental History, held in Tallinn, Estonia, in a paper entitled ‘Hybrid ties between human and non-human animals in the formation of Brazilian society: a story to be told’. From my exchanges there with scholars from other parts of the world who soon became new interlocutors arose possibility to have the book translated into English. In particular, it was my good fortune to encounter enthusiasm and support for this translation and publication project on the part of The White Horse Press.

mules RUGENDAS1835
Market in the mining bay, pl. 13 (detail), J.M.Rugendas (1835)

I am certain that the new edition of my book will represent a fundamental contribution to the construction of an international corpus of knowledge in the fields of environmental history and human-animal studies,  complexifying existing narratives and throwing new light on the role of Latin American societies within a global scenario, past and present.  Underlying my narrative is a theoretical and methodological perspective that is committed to the reconstruction of experiences and interactions between a wide range of animal species and human actors.

Whereas specific species characteristics and relations to human history, as domesticated or wild, is a point of departure for thinking of the diversity of the former, the latter, in turn, exemplify all the tensions and conflicts of human social groups –  in this case, indigenous people, enslaved populations, colonisers and settlers of diverse backgrounds. The six chapters of the book move from discussions of hunting of wildlife, indigenous uses of animals for medicinal purposes and the appropriation of such traditional knowledge by European settlers, to the territorial expansion and establishment of ranching and farming based on the new and in many ways overwhelming presence of domesticated animals that colonisers brought with them.


ox car RUGENDAS1835
Farmer family going to church, pl. 17 (detail), J.M.Rugendas (1835)

In Chapter 1. ‘Natural provisions of the land’, from the outset of occupation of the new territory, native animals were identified as a food source and enabled the survival of the Europeans who landed on Brazilian shores. Some species were immediately turned into products for the European market. In Chapter 2. ‘In illness and health’, in observing animals such as the ‘guariba’ monkey, which used certain plants to cure its own wounds, Europeans learned ways to cure that ensured their own survival in the colony. Colonial medicine prescribed formulas based on the use of animal horns, teeth, claws, bones, skins, hooves, shells and fat, for treating particular illnesses. Chapter 3. ‘Hunters and whalers’, shows hunting as a component of identity and connection between ‘barbarian’ natives and ‘civilised’ Europeans. It explores the role of the hunter in the colonial economy and the monopoly over whaling and its effects on the colonial economy, for almost three hundred years. Chapter 4. ‘The animals brought to the New World’, is about how European explorers introduced domestic animals to Brazilian lands and how these animals adapted to and influenced the customs, values and economy of the colony. Chapter 5. ‘Horsemen, mules and ‘mulattos’’, explores the role of horses and mules in constructing the social, cultural and economic bases of colonial life. Chapter 6. ‘Whipping posts and slaughterhouses – Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century’, illuminates the complicated issue of how functions and attributes were shared by enslaved people and domesticated animals, as well as the dynamics of the slaughterhouses that were part of the urban context.

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Indigenous family, the Botocudos, pl. 16 (detail), J.M.Rugendas (1835)

Translation itself is a challenge, demanding, in this case adaptation for an international readership that is largely unfamiliar with Brazilian history – in addition to dealing with the linguistic challenges that are always a part of such endeavours.  The person responsible for the English language version of my work is Miriam Adelman, a friend and research partner with ample experience writing and translating in (and from) Brazilian Portuguese and English.  We continue to work closely on the numerous cultural, historical and linguistic dimensions of this project, committed to advancing what is both a densely constructed and yet unfinished work – a veritable work in progress!

Since funding for this type of endeavour is extremely hard to come by in Brazil, we have set up a crowd funding campaign to cover the costs of translation and necessary adaptions of the text for a broad international readership. Those who are able to help us with our crowdfunding campaign will be duly rewarded, receiving the English edition hot off the press – in e-book format, and in some cases, print copies – courtesy of The White Horse Press.  Moreover, donors will be invited to take part in an exclusive interactive virtual space which will be available online for a period of eight months (April to December 2020) containing in-depth information and follow-up on the research behind the book. In blog format, it will include videoconferences, podcasts, translated passages from the book itself, historical commentary on authors cited within the work, annotated maps and a wealth of illustrations produced by a variety of artists whom, as of the seventeenth century, richly documented animal presences within Brazilian colonial society.  The opportunity to create this interactive virtual space as a way of compensating donors’ support is, for us, another way of expressing our gratitude, cooperative spirit and committment to the theme of this research. We also intend to use it to create new engagements and potentialise ramifications within this vibrant field of knowledge and practice.

Please join us in this venture!  Your support is fundamental.  Our crowdfunding campaign is constantly updated through this webpage.

Note: The illustrations selected for this blog were created by Johann Moritz Rugendas (1802-1858), a German artist and graduate of the Munich Academy, who visited Brazil from 1821 to 1823, to document the nature and the society of Portuguese South America. In his pictures, Rugendas highlighted the most relevant aspects of the interactions and worldviews of a complex network that had  already come into being in the early sixteenth century.

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