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The Alphabetic Colonization of Amerindian Oral Ecologies in Early Brazil

Summary and Keywords

Although it has received less scholarly attention than firearms, microbes, domestic animals and plants, market economy, and statecraft, alphabetic reading and writing was crucial in the European conquest and colonization of the Americas from the late 15th century on. Unlike the agrarian empires the Spaniards encountered in the Andes and the Mexican highlands, the Portuguese frontier advanced upon tribal peoples who relied exclusively on oral language, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. These were semi-sedentary horticultural villagers whose entire socio-ecology (myths and knowledge, territoriality, subsistence strategies, etc.) was conditioned by the face-to-faceness and fugacity of spoken words. In turn, their Portuguese colonizers—for a while rivaled by the French, who enjoyed short periods of stable settlement through the early 17th century—were urban-based, oceangoing merchants, bureaucrats, soldiers, and religious missionaries whose organization strictly depended on the durability and transferability of written texts. Even if most of the Portuguese who came to Brazil in the 16th century were themselves illiterate, colonization as a social enterprise framed their actions according to prescribed roles set down in writing (both handwriting and printed script). Thus, the Portuguese colonization of Brazilian native lands and human populations can be interpreted from the point of view of the imposition of an alphabetically organized way of life. Two major dimensions of this “letterscaping” can be discerned as to its impact on Amerindian bodies (human and nonhuman) and modes of understanding. Although the 16th century was only the introductory act in that drama, its historical record shows the basic outlines of the alphabetic colonization that would play out through the early 19th century: native decimation and enslavement, territory usurpation by sesmaria grants, forest recovery in former native croplands (then resignified as “virgin forest”), loss of native ecological knowledge not recorded in writing, disempowerment of native cultural attunement to the wild soundscape, among other processes.

Keywords: alphabetic literacy, Portuguese colonialism, Tupi peoples, orality, Brazilian coastal forests, 16th century

Literacy and the Ecology of European Colonialism in Brazil

The European conquest and colonization of the Americas is one of the oldest topics of environmental history. Brilliantly inaugurated by Alfred Crosby’s The Columbian Exchange in the early 1970s, methodologically developed by Richard White’s Land Use, Environment, and Social Change and William Cronon’s Changes in the Land in the 1980s, and firmly consolidated by Elinor Melville’s A Plague of Sheep and Warren Dean’s With Broadax and Firebrand in the 1990s, the field produced a highly respected body of knowledge, perhaps the greatest contribution of environmental history to the historical discipline at large to this day.1 In their own specific ways, all these authors tried to show how different socio-ecologies—i.e., regimes of human accommodation to (and transformation of) the biosphere, comprising a selection of habitats and resources (including other species), modes of economic production and political organization, and ways of symbolizing and understanding—shaped the encounter between Amerindians and Europeans as well as its longer-term historical outcomes. Building on earlier work by historical geographers such as Carl Sauer and his disciples at Berkeley, this general method yielded highly consistent analyses of social and environmental change, especially those processes more obviously linked to the “material stuff of nature” (land use change, deforestation, biological invasion, etc.).

Perhaps because of this understandable privileging of more down-to-earth processes, some facets of the European enterprise in the Americas were not explored as seriously as they deserved. Among these relatively untapped themes there is one so constitutively omnipresent in historical enquiry to the point of making itself invisible: the alphabetic nature of European colonizing societies, in contrast to Amerindian ones, some of which had developed their own systems of writing, while others were totally oral. In fact, Crosby had introduced the problem in his work on neo-Europes:

We—you who read and I who write this sentence—are part of that continuity [of the Old World civilization]. These words are in an alphabetical form of writing, a very clever Middle Eastern invention produced by peoples even more directly influenced by the Sumerian example than we are. The Sumerians and the inventors of the alphabet, and you and I, no matter what our genetic heritage, are in one category: heirs of post-Neolithic Old World cultures.2

First developed by the Sumerians in the fourth millennium bce, writing was both the result and cause of the socio-ecological changes that swept over Eurasia since the end of the last glacial period (c. 10,000 years ago). Inextricably interwoven in the complex systemic changes that greatly incremented human control over the biosphere, writing helped made societies at the westernmost “peninsula” of the Eurasian landmass what they were in the late Middle Ages: urban-based tributary empires and kingdoms whose agropastoral populations were resistant to zoonoses, culturally cemented by monotheistic religions, armed with steel and fire, and capable of oceangoing voyages carrying reasonable amounts of people and their “portmanteau biota,” as well as weapons and merchandise.3 While writing has a complex history of its own, what must be highlighted here is that, in a decisive breakthrough around the 8th century bce, the Greeks transformed the Semitic syllabary into the 22-letter alphabet that “conquered the world,” in I. J. Gelb’s words.4 Unlike the Semitic and other previous systems, Greek writing was fully self-contained, as even the sounded breath had been codified with vowel signs. The names of letters themselves had lost connection with the outside world: while Aleph means “ox” in Hebrew, Alpha does not denote anything but the first letter of the Greek alphabet.5

This logo-technique ended up restructuring the entire socio-ecology of the Old World. It did so by durably registering human discourse outside human speech and memory, substituting “the fixed text for the variable utterance.”6 The European 13th century promoted the intersection between two rising curves, that of mechanization and that of literacy, thus “creating a market dynamic which logically, if slowly, would evolve toward economical block-printing and movable type.”7 Especially after the invention of the printing press by German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s, written materials became technical appendices, which government, trade, education, and world-building in general could not do without. In his well-known jocular style, French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote in the late 16th century that, when he asked an acquaintance of his what he knew of, he “asks me for a book in order to point it out to me, and wouldn’t dare tell me that he has an itchy backside unless he goes immediately and studies in his lexicon what is itchy and what is a backside.”8 Although caricatured, the image of someone having to point out to graphic elements in order to make sense of himself reminds one that books had become full-fledged reflexive realities—printed words turned into worlds in their own right.

While it is true that oral language is capable of extending “time and space beyond the sensorial immediacy,”9 this decoupling is extremely precarious. In entirely oral cultures, the objectivity of social discourse depends upon a community of speakers and its socio-ecological contexts, therefore allowing a certain “adaptive forgetfulness” to reshape it according to changing circumstances.10 Written language, on the other hand, does not fade away, it simply cannot be forgotten; once written down, human parlance is left to an indefinite posterity, promoting a whole new level of sensorial rift. As a growing written corpus progressively engulfs the bonds between people and the rest of nature—such as land tenure, agricultural techniques, food regulations (taboos), even the very meaning of living upon the earth as a religious discourse—people organize their livelihoods less and less through the exchange of spoken words, increasingly resorting to language and knowledge stored in specially designed, politically controlled places (libraries, archives, chancelleries, map collections). Thus, by anchoring eco-social life in external containers of information, writing entails a historical dialectic between “dead” and “living” language, between “sealed” text and “ventilating” interpretation. As João de Barros, a Portuguese grammarian and historian, noted in 1552, “being animated, [speech] has no life but the instant of pronunciation, and it passes, like time, that there is no return; letters, being dead characters, not animate, contain within themselves a spirit of life, for they give it to us in all things.”11

By materializing human cultural heritage, transforming it into codified, geographically controllable objects, writing “provided a powerful way of concentrating in the hands of a few the knowledge accumulated by millions.”12 The need for specialists—whether in the treatment of tribute or sacred records—favored the concentration of power, at both intra- and inter-societal levels. More precisely, literacy aided some humans taking control not only of other humans, but of the earth itself in its ecological entelechy. Such power over people, nonhuman organisms, and abiotic materials starkly reveals itself in the fact that written documents are the most widely used means of knowing the past in contemporary Western and westernized societies. This very piece of scholarship is entirely built upon written materials that, while enabling historical inquiry itself, are always the result of someone (capable of using the alphabetic technology) describing, classifying, chronicling, or analyzing someone or something else (who or which is either altogether incapable of using the alphabetic technology or less well positioned to grant social authority to her or his own writings). In such an unequal power situation, the Amerindians could only make themselves present in European documents by an absence—their voices’ absence. Even when their speech was transcribed, the enunciators were not usually represented as first-person speakers.13

This is what generally happened wherever the Europeans colonized Amerindian peoples whose language was basically oral, such as the Tupi of Atlantic Brazil. On April 22, 1500, they were reached by Portuguese “discoverers,” followed by brazilwood merchants and finally agricultural settlers, from the 1530s onwards.14 Frenchmen also attended Brazilian shores for trading dyewood with the Tupi, even attempting to settle permanently, so that for decades it remained an open question whether Brazil would be a Portuguese or a French colony.15 Whatever the specific European ethnicity, however, the Brazilian colonial situation could be described as the arrival of peoples who “favored communication with men” in a land of peoples who “favored communication with the world.”16 Put slightly differently, it was a civilizational clash between peoples that spoke about the world (i.e., among humans, as illustrated by Figure 1) as things to be subjugated and managed and peoples who spoke to the world as with whom one is in dialogue.

The Alphabetic Colonization of Amerindian Oral Ecologies in Early BrazilClick to view larger

Figure 1. Excerpt from the Royal Charter donating the Captaincy of Pernambuco to Duarte Coelho, September 27, 1534. Available at the Biblioteca Digital Luso-Brasileira:

As a means for representing language—instead of experience, which was the case of native Mexican pictographic writing, for example—alphabetic writing was particularly well suited to record what humans have to say when reporting things to a third party, be it oneself in the future (i.e., one’s own memory) or another absent person, either for spatial or temporal reasons (the one far away and the one yet to be borne). Europeans were well aware of this, what made them praise alphabetic writing as humankind’s utmost achievement, a gift from their god that distinguished them from the “savages.”17 Genevan theology student Jean de Léry was one of the first to express such a view. He had come to join the France Antarctique, a colony founded by Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon in Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro, in the late 1550s.18 Reflecting on the religious and civil differences between his countrymen and the Tupinambá, who “know nothing of writing, either sacred or secular,” Léry was lead to conclude for the inevitable superiority of Europeans:

For while they can communicate nothing except by the spoken word, we, on the other hand, have this advantage, that without budging from our place, by means of writing and the letters that we send, we can declare our secrets to whomever we choose, even to the ends of the earth. So even aside from the learning that we acquire from books, of which the savages seem likewise completely destitute, this invention of writing, which we possess and of which they are just as utterly deprived, must be ranked among the singular gifts which men over here [i.e., Europe] have received from God.19

In turn, the Tupi purely oral language implied a dialogical engagement in which all parties involved were either physically present or else were made present (not merely represented) by having their names invoked, in a way that even third parties were in a sense subjects to whom one must speak to. There were scarce strictly objectified discursive entities. As long as “speech is the body which signifies,”20 oral language tends to be extremely inclusive and incorporative of other-than-human bodily manifestations. Unlike the self-referential alphabetic language, spoken language kept the Tupi open and responsive to nonhuman productions of meaning—bird singing, for example, was thought to convey crucial messages about the future. In fact, to be a “person” was not a privilege of people, as the Tupi believed that many of the things and beings they lived with, especially large mammals, saw themselves as human, as well as their whole livelihood—albeit only shamans were able to actually see these animals as they saw themselves.21 Given this inclusive theory of human-like awareness, it is not surprising the Tupi could interpret the sight of a European man reading a book during a wind storm as a sort of shaman looking into (talking to?) the “thunder-skin.”22

The Tupi were not that far from the truth, if only because 16th-century books were often leather-covered. Besides, parchment—which was no more than chemically treated animal skin—had been the main surface of inscription for centuries, ousted by paper only after the 13th century. Traditional papermaking consisted of macerating the lightest possible hemp and flax rags soaked in residue-free water so to obtain cellulose pulp; stamped and put to dry on clotheslines, this pulp was molded into paper sheets.23 There is no evidence of papermaking in Brazil, so that every single sheet used by the Portuguese seems to have been imported. In fact, much of the paper—at least the higher-quality—used in Portugal was imported from Spain, France, Italy, and elsewhere. In Portugal, there were paper mills working in Leiria and Coimbra, in the 15th century, and in Braga, in the 16th century.24

Along with paper, ink constituted the “infrastructure” of writing acts, therefore dependent upon natural resources. The most commonly used inks were made with pulverized plant galls (something like tumors) mixed with other substances, sometimes including ferrous sulfate, giving the somewhat corrosive “iron-gall inks.”25 Here Brazil’s environment might have played a role, albeit small in all probability. In addition to dyeing clothes, the extract from brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata Lam.) was used in the manufacture of a red writing ink; Lery’s account itself was partly written with brazilwood ink, “the very substance of America.”26

More experienced than their French rivals in the overseas trade business, the Portuguese were what one might call an alphabetic mercantile empire with strong Salvationist underpinnings.27 Their 16th-century “seaborne empire,” to use historian Charles Boxer’s expression, demanded the written coordination of fortresses, trading posts, towns, and plantations on the shores of all the world’s oceans from Portuguese command centers, especially Lisbon.28 This literate government was based on a standardized system of writing, spanning from the royal chancellery to the peripheral administration, including colonial municipalities. Thus, clerks and other scriptural officers played a crucial connecting role, keeping that huge, complex hierarchical system coherent.29 Just like military control and commercial/fiscal bookkeeping, the Holy Bible’s call to convert the heathens was a powerful literate motive driving the Portuguese overseas. The worldwide catechetical project led by the Society of Jesus was an all-embracing policy of acculturation, which unsurprisingly included literacy teaching. “It was not enough to preach the Christian faith,” noted philosopher David Abram in this respect, “one had to induce the unlettered, tribal peoples to begin to use the technology upon which that faith depended.”30

But the alphabetic colonization of Brazil was not the work of lettered men alone. Even illiterate officers and settlers acted within an alphabetically structured societal framework. The most obvious examples are soldiers, who were the illiterate spearheads of a war machine which was “particularly a writing machine.”31 In fact, one could say the alphabet “marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest.”32 Less metaphorically, it would be more appropriate to say that alphabetic literacy organized that marching. As a “set of techniques for communications and for decoding and reproducing written or printed materials,”33 it allowed the hierarchical coordination of collective use of certain resources, techniques, and ideas comprising a sort of colonizing biotechnical apparatus—oceanic vessels, microbes, fire and metal weapons, domesticated plants and animals, Christian mythology, statecraft and mercantilism. In addition to imprinting certain literary conventions on the navigators’, explorers’, conquistadors’, and settlers’ expectations and perceptions (especially Edenic-like motives such as the lands’ “virginity”), alphabetic texts made possible the logistics of military conquest, the institutionalization of exploitative practices, the granting and enforcement of seigneurial rights, the governance and management of territory (including taxation), as well as the religious and cultural subjugation of its native populations.

There is no crass evolutionism in such a statement as long as one refuses historical-anthropological linearity and strict technological determinism. While alphabetic writing did open certain developmental pathways that remain inaccessible to entirely oral cultures, these developments—besides not being necessary to high culture and even civilization, understood as sophisticated social control of individual behavior—do not automatically lead to moral or social superiority (or inferiority).34 In other words, writing favors certain objectifying purposes, including the conquest and subjugation of peoples and ecosystems, but nothing suggests that these are desirable goals from the point of view of cultural elaboration and a sustainable coexistence with the rest of nature. Of course, this also means that, however advantageous literacy has been to the Portuguese’s and other Europeans’ conquest and colonization of America, it does not excuse any of their actions on moral grounds. Contrary to their own belief at the time, being capable of writing and reading alphabetic script did not give them any right to conquer, decimate, enslave, and rule the Amerindians.

Precisely because of that illegitimacy, historians of today have the professional duty to unveil the colonization of the Americas as a political process—a process by which the “overbearing power of the order of signs” provided the Europeans with a “superior, self-legitimating position, where unfettered imagination could require reality to conform to abstract whimsy.”35 This is what historian Michel de Certeau has called the “writing that conquers,” the one that “will use the New World as if it were a blank, ‘savage’ page on which Western desire will be written;” it transformed “the space of the other into a field of expansion for a system of production.”36 This writing of European will upon Amerindian bodies and souls, this phonographic domestication of native oral livelihoods, can be thought of as the very central nexus of the Portuguese colonization of Brazil. “The exploratory, prospective and dominating nature of European scriptural practice provided a model for the occupation of a new territory,” remarked literature scholar Martin Lienhard.37

Tupi Oral Ecologies

Until the pioneers, especially from São Paulo, started to push the Portuguese borders eastward in the early 17th century, Brazil remained bounded by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Signed by the monarchs of Castile and Portugal in June 1494, little over a year after Christopher Columbus’s return from his first voyage to America, the treaty distributed the “newly discovered and undiscovered lands” between the two Iberian kingdoms by means of a meridian 370 leagues west of the island of Santo Antão, in the Cape Verde archipelago.38 Plotted on the map of the South American continent, this imaginary line connecting the two Earth poles silhouetted something like a harp, as stressed by Pero Magalhães de Gandavo, author of the first history of Brazil.39 Indeed, the Tordesillas line composed a scalene triangle with the eastern Atlantic coast, predominantly oriented in the northeast-southwest direction (from Cape of São Roque to Paranaguá Bay), and the northern Atlantic coast, predominantly oriented in the southeast-northwest direction (from Cape of São Roque to the mouth of the Amazon River).

This European jurisdiction was completely abstract—mere alphabetic and geometric boundary lines—as it solemnly neglected the consolidated native settlement. This “harp” territory that the Portuguese had legally carved for themselves was already inhabited by a myriad of indigenous ethnic groups, each one composed of dozens of small bands or multi-family villages, depending on the kind of subsistence economy. Almost all the land closest to the Atlantic, where lowland tropical forests, mangroves, estuaries, and sandbanks formed highly productive ecosystem mosaics, were occupied by Tupi groups.40 Fearless and well-armed warriors, they had arrived at the Atlantic seaboard a few centuries before the Portuguese, probably from the Amazon Basin, displacing local hunter-gatherer peoples who had been living off the abundant seafood for millennia.41 According to certain interpretations, the word Tupi means “those of the first generation,” suggesting a claim of descent of the first invaders.42 Bringing hoe horticulture from their original Amazonian heartland—along with their crops, especially manioc—the Tupi took firm hold over most of the Atlantic forests, though they suffered with sporadic attacks from the former occupants, who managed to retain possession of small enclaves amid the more or less continuous Tupi-speaking territory. These groups were the Tapuias, meaning “barbarians” in the Tupi language.43

How many native people were there at the time of Portuguese arrival is something nearly impossible to determine. In the absence of pre-colonial written records, one can merely estimate, based on archaeological and ecological methods checked by later-produced written records. Although sometimes not directly comparable—some are spatially broad and poorly defined, apparently covering the entire coastal area and even Brazil as a whole, while others apply to specific ecosystems—population density estimates have widely ranged from less than 0.1 and 10 inhabitants per square kilometer.44 As far as the Atlantic Forest biome is concerned, within whose boundaries early Portuguese colonization has developed, both carrying-capacity modeling and the earliest firsthand reports suggest that the upper limit is more likely, at least in transitional environments (ecotones) between upland forests and fluvial-marine ecosystems, particularly plentiful of game, fish and shellfish resources. Based on the average of lower bound estimates, a recent modeling effort encompassing hundreds of indigenous territories spread across all Brazilian biomes concluded that the Atlantic Forest had the highest carrying-capacity (0.86 inhabitants/km2), well ahead even of the Amazon Rainforest (0.60 inhabitants/km2). Yet the higher bound estimates indicate that coastal environments could have supported dozens of people per square kilometer.45

According to classic ethnological taxonomy, the Tupi were Late Stone Age peoples, meaning that they depended on lithic artifacts and associated technologies such as wooden instruments (bows and arrows, ax handles, horticultural digging sticks, etc.). With wood, they also built houses and boats (dugouts, bark canoes, and rafts). They mastered the art of pottery, and their beautifully decorated recipients helped them prepare their staple food, manioc flour, and their ritual drink, yam or maize beer, among many other things. Both men and women used numerous props and adornments made of bird feathers and plumage, human and animal teeth and bone, cotton, shells, and wood pieces—but not much beyond that. The almost complete nudity of the Tupi, especially women, was one of the traits most emphasized by the early European chroniclers, all of them men. Apparently, only the closely related Guarani groups that inhabited cooler regions farther inland, such as the Paraná Basin forests, wore larger pieces of cotton clothing.46 While the Tupi had domesticated or semi-domesticated numerous plant species (cassava, beans, pumpkins, peanuts, etc.), their animal companions were restricted to a few bird species such as parrots (whose feathers were plucked annually), agoutis, and other small mammals. At first calling them “jaguars,” the Indians gladly received dogs from the Portuguese, adopting them as pets and using them in certain types of hunting.47

Except perhaps for their tattoos with warrior-status meaning (scarification painted with native dyes),48 the Tupi did not have any graphic system for representation and communication. However, their exclusively oral language was very resourceful. According to linguist and historian Aryon Rodrigues, the Tupinambá language, which predominated in the coast, was a phonetically harmonious language, with “perfect balance between vowels and consonants.” Its morphological system was complex but very consistent. Conjugated to a relatively versatile syntactic structure, it allowed an “easy and spontaneous manifestation of thought,” thanks to the ease to form compound and derivative expressions. Unfortunately, most of this linguistic wealth is now forever lost. In the form that the 16th-century Europeans came to know it, the Tupinambá language no longer exists. Spoken to this day, especially in Amazonia, is a very simplified version called Nheengatu, the historical result of a Tupi increasingly spoken (and written) by European and mestizo stocks.49

The Tupi relied solely on oral language for their deep recollections and structural knowledge. Virtually all of their oral tradition incorporated the surrounding forest ecosystems as part of the mythical career of their civilizing heroes. The chants that accompanied their dances contained numerous references to what we are used to call “nature” in the form of similes or metaphors likening two different non-human shapes or behaviors, as well as comparing human with non-human.50 As a rule, the heroes’ adventures involved numerous metamorphoses of themselves and of other beings and things. One of the most important and common among Tupi heroes was Maira-monan or the “ancient transformer.” According to friar André Thevet, the first European to register Tupi mythology in the 1550s, Maira-monan was said to order “all things as he pleases, forming them in various ways and then converting them into different shapes, animals, birds, fish, snakes, according to its country and habitation, turning man into beast to punish him for his wickedness, as he pleases.”51 Being a spatialized story (“according to country and habitation”), it incorporated a memory of the lived territory, its physical and human compartments, while at the same time re-sanctioning those places every time it was told.

Songs, incantations, and dances often took part in Tupi economic activities. As horticultural peoples, many of their magical-religious practices probably had the purpose of increasing their gardens’ fertility.52 They relied solely on rainfall to irrigate their crops, so they must have developed rituals to propitiate the rain. Unfortunately, scarce documentation about these practices survived to this day. In the early 17th century, Yves d’Evreux, a French Capuchin who lived with the Tupinambá of Maranhão, wrote one of the few accounts of native rain dance. He reported about certain shaman who had recently arrived to the village he was visiting:

He instituted a dance or general procession, urging all the savages, men, women and children, to carry in their hands a branch of a certain prickly palm called Toucon, going all of them singing and dancing around the huts to urge, as the sorcerer said, his spirit to send rain (because that year the rainy season had come very late), and after the procession they drank caium until they dropped. He told them to fill with water several large clay pots and muttered who knows what words on them, after what he soaked one palm branch with which he sprinkled the head of each attendant. He said, “Be clean and pure so that my spirit sends rain in abundance.” Then he took a thick hollow cane filled with an herb called Petun and set fire at one end and blew smoke over the savages, while saying “Take the strength of my spirit, through which you will always be healthy and brave against your enemies.” He planted a May tree in the middle of the village, laden with cotton, and after giving many laps around it, he predicted for that year a large cotton harvest.53

Another example of illocutionary discourse comes from the same firsthand account. The Tupi women usually captured female saúva ants (Atta sp.) at the time of their mating flight, from September do December. Roasted, their plump abdomens were a fine delicacy, especially for children and elders.54 Friar d’Evreux reported a practice apparently designed to capture worker ants: women “enchanted” the ants, attracting them out of the nest with their singing: Come my friend, come see the pretty girl, she will give you nuts. “They repeat these words as the ants come out and are caught,” wrote d’Evreux; “then their wings and legs are cut. When two women are in the same hole [a nest entry], they intone the melody one after another; and when the ants begin to leave, they belong to the girl who is singing.”55

Just as they spoke to the world, the Tupi also paid attention to what the world had to tell them. Interpreting nonhuman phenomena provided basic guidance for those peoples. For example, they went to war only when the victory was certain, something they were assured of by means of interpreting dreams, as well as ritualistic performances such as dancing and the recitation of charms. The Tupi closely observed the manifestations of the surrounding ecology in search for signs of approval or disapproval of the intended warrior endeavor. As the nonhuman environment was highly dynamic, the omens could change rather abruptly: even after have almost taken a village, a party of warriors might retreat just because a parrot uttered a few words. Even the way the body of the slain enemy fell to the floor in the Tupi cannibalistic ritual meant something to the natives—in this case, about the executioner’s fate.56

While almost all events captured by the senses had a discernible meaning, not everyone had the keys to unlock it. The authorized interpreters were the pajés or caraíbes (shamans), the ritual specialists, most usually men, who had proved themselves capable to converse with the broader existential field of animals, plants, winds, spirits, and otherly-human subjects in general. Called “sorcerers” by European colonists and clergymen—what denounces the witch-hunt imagery then prevailing in Europe—the shamans were in fact “necessary go-betweens between nature and culture.”57 The Tupi shamans communicated with several species of birds and other flying animals, including magpies, owls, and bats, which were sometimes kept tamed at home. For example, the cuckoo Martim tapirera (from the Cuculus genus) was the messenger of the spirits of the dead.58

European Colonial Literacy

With the arrival of Europeans—mainly the Portuguese, who eventually drove out the French in the 16th and early 17th centuries, as well as the Dutch in the mid-17th—the written word established itself in former Tupi territories as the only valid one. In opposition to native spoken words, considered precarious and uncertain, written letters “boasted a permanence, a kind of autonomy from the material world” allowing them to capture and shape that world without being influenced back by it.59 The monopoly of the objectifying word placed the Portuguese colonizers at the center of a massive process of reorganization of native Brazilian land and life.

Colonization itself might be seen as the capturing of native human-influenced ecosystems by a European scriptural economy in its eagerness of totalizing the sensible world as alphabetic text. Legal codes, charters, reports, letters, surveys, maps, and other genres of writing were used to domesticate every corner and aspect of native oral ecologies, projecting them onto a surface of signs which only the projectors were able to decode. This “letterscaping” operated in two major dimensions, namely, material-economic and semiotic-cultural—put another way, the imprinting of alphabet letters on Amerindian land (including plant and animal bodies, human and nonhuman) and soul.

In the first dimension, especially noteworthy are the written foundations for the claiming of territory, the most basic instrument of European colonization. The Portuguese Crown had originally taken over the Brazilian territory by right of conquest, that is, by force of arms—so the historiography goes.60 However, such an assertion may misleadingly suggest that the de facto possession preceded the de jure possession, which is not exactly true. In order to understand this one must keep in mind that church and state were not separate institutions in late medieval and early modern Christendom. Indeed, Rome’s ordinations were the most important sources of law. Throughout the second half of the 15th century, Roman popes issued bulls that granted the Iberians, discoverers and subduers of infidel and heathen peoples overseas (first in Africa and then in America), not only religious but also secular power over the seized territories. The Treaty of Tordesillas established regulations (to use a provocatively anachronistic legal language) for the law issued by Pope Alexander VI the year before, the famous “Inter Caetera” Bull. In this sense, the ultimate source of Iberian territorial rights upon America was the Bible, in which Jesus Christ commands the expansion of his doctrine to all corners of the world, leaving in charge of the enterprise his apostle Peter, the first pope:

. . . We, having been elevated, by the favour of divine clemency, although undeserving by our merits of so high a rank, to this sacred seat of Peter, acknowledging you, as true catholic Kings and Princes . . . who had resolved in your minds, for some time past, to seek for and discover some remote and unknown islands and main-lands, and by no others hitherto found out, in order to induce the natives and inhabitants of them to worship our Redeemer and to profess the Catholic faith . . . We of our own motion . . . by the authority of God omnipotent granted to Us through blessed Peter . . . give, concede, and assign for ever to you, and to the kings of Castile and Leon, your successors, all the islands and main-lands discovered and which may hereafter be discovered, towards the west and south, with all their dominions, cities, castles, places, and towns, and with all their rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, whether the lands and islands found or that shall be found, be situated towards India, or towards any other part whatsoever; and we make, constitute and depute you, and your foresaid heirs and successors, lords of them, with full, free and absolute power and authority and jurisdiction . . .61

Here the written word reveals all of its foundational value. Although the reading and interpretation of texts may vary—and indeed varies according to the social particularities of human readers and their ecological contexts—the alphabetic inscriptions themselves remain formally the same throughout time and space. This allows a wide historical and geographical separation between the source (or ultimate source) and the exercise (or effective exercise) of power. As long as their material supports are preserved, written texts are immune to aging, retaining or even increasing their power; in fact, in many fields of European social life (e.g., law and religion) the older the document, the more authority it grants to its holder. By the same token, written rulings enacted in Europe could establish social and ecological arrangements for a huge overseas territory thousands of kilometers away. What is more, writing (scriptum in Latin) enabled prescription (from the Latin praescriptio, which means “written beforehand”), or the prepositive formalization of a future, far-away action.

Portuguese and Spaniards landed in America not as invaders who would try their luck on the battlefield for local territorial hegemony, but as full-fledged proprietors whose rights had been established and consecrated beforehand in writing. In other words, they crossed the Atlantic to claim in loco what was already theirs. In modern Western law, the written form enjoys a particular kind of authority, one strongly associated with permanency and self-containment. Writings were durable and therefore reliable sources to truth. Bound writings or books form a world a se, whose existence is independent and even more relevant than the natural, external world itself—as the legal saying goes, “what is not in the books is not in the world.”62 Thus, European legal writing shaped the New World in its own image and likeness: imbued with (in ethos) and authorized by (in jurisdiction) scriptural rights, the Iberian Crowns took control of large Amerindian territories by physical force and then redistributed the preempted lands by means of written procedures to whom had rendered them services (sometimes in the military conquest itself).

In Portuguese America, the redistribution of the lands “originally” acquired by the Crown was carried out by means of adapting two medieval institutions, namely the donatary captaincy and the sesmaria. Essentially, the donatary captaincy was an adaptation of late medieval Portuguese senhorio. Rather than direct ownership of land, the seigniorial grant meant that the king gave up some of his own prerogatives (right to take tribute, to appoint officials, to judge, to monopolize certain economic activities, etc.) in favor of a fidalgo who had rendered him services (and who was expected to keep doing it in the future). As explained by historian H. B. Johnson, “The donatary (as the recipient of royal largess was called, since he was given a ‘gift’ or doação) was to enjoy these rights ‘forever’ and they are transmissible, under certain conditions, to his heirs.” In Brazil, where the main goal was settlement and economic development, the grantee’s rights included extremely lucrative conditions for exploiting local natural resources (monopolies were the rule, such as over brazilwood trade), as well as the distribution of land for potential settlers (Figure 2).

The Alphabetic Colonization of Amerindian Oral Ecologies in Early BrazilClick to view larger

Figure 2. “Leitura da carta de Caminha” [The Reading of Caminha’s Letter]. Pero Vaz de Caminha was the clerk of the Portuguese fleet who arrived in Brazil in April 1500. Painting by Aurélio de Figueiredo (1856–1916). História do Brasil, vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: Bloch, 1980).

In this the donatary acted as a sesmeiro, that is, the grantor of sesmarias, land parcels given free of any right except the tithe (one-tenth of all rural production) due to the Order of Christ.63 The sesmaria charters were the main alphabetic instrument of Portuguese territorialization in Brazil. Granting land was a prerogative of the king, who delegated it to his deputies in the colony—donataries in the private captaincies and governor-generals in the royal captaincies, with the creation of the office in 1548. The royal regiment brought by the first one in the office, Tomé de Sousa, did not require the governor’s grants to be confirmed later by the king.64 After presenting a petition to the governor, and once all legal-scriptural procedures had been met, the applicant received a charter such as this one, issued in 1566:

Be aware all those who shall see this Carta de sesmaria that, in the Year of Birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ Year of one thousand five hundred sixty-one . . . in this city of Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, was presented to me a petition by Francisco Toscano with an order of Mem de Sá, of the King’s Council and Governor General of all this coast of Brazil, as follows. Francisco Toscano says that . . . in the estuary of the Paraguaçu river, heading north to the edge of a sesmaria of two and a half leagues along the sea . . . granted to Fernão Rodrigues Castelo Branco, there are wastelands to be exploited, which are vacant and unoccupied, not granted to anyone . . .; and because he wants to take advantage of them, asks Your Lordship to grant him and issue a Carta de Sesmaria . . . And he shall receive the royal favor. And having been approved by the Governor as a fair request, and being in the Republic’s interest and for the service of God and the King our Lord, and in order to populate the land, I grant the supplicant Francisco Toscano the land which he requires, namely, from the estuary of the Paraguaçu river all the way to Fernão Rodrigues Castelo Branco’s sesmaria, and towards the sertão along the river to the water body . . . and I grant him the said water body with all the others, which extend into the sertão up to Fernão Rodrigues’ sesmaria . . . I, Manuel Oliva, Registrar of Finance of these parts of Brazil, have registered and certified this Carta, which had been signed by Bartholomeu Froes, and is registered on truth.65

A good deal could be said about the discursive structure of this document. However, for the purposes of the present discussion, the most important is to analyze this kind of writing as an encrypted, ethno-centered account that outwardly projects one’s own values and understandings upon the landscape as objective truths. Supposedly public, this sesmaria charter was expressly written to be seen, exactly what guaranteed its legitimacy. However, as one knows, to see a text was not enough—one had to be able to read it. Not all local stakeholders were capable of reading, a learned ability after all. In the alphabetic fiction created by the legal document, it was as though there was no one around who could not read.

But reading the sesmaria charter would not be an easy task even for a literate Tupi, as he would not find the document on easy public display. Considered the first legal code ever printed out, the Manueline Ordinances (its definitive version was published in 1521) required sesmaria grants to be made known by means of written edicts “posted for thirty days in those places and in two other places nearby,” but only in the case that “sesmeiros [local grantors of sesmarias] are not able to know who are the lords of the lands and properties.”66 Obviously, this requirement implicitly referred to European lords alone, as the Amerindians were not considered natural landlords by original occupancy. Once consummated the granting, the sesmaria charter was to be copied into the city council’s register and stored in an ark of which the key was kept in the hands of few officials, among them the clerk.67

Not intended for indigenous reading anyway, it was only natural that sesmaria charters invisibilized the indigenous marks on the landscape. Indeed, there is absolutely no mention of Indians or any of their activities, past or current. The presence of matos maninhos (i.e., uncultivated land generally bearing secondary forests) automatically meant that the land was ready for the taking, concealing the possibility that they had been left fallow, perhaps planted with slow-growing species such as fruit trees.68 For boundary demarcation and registration, the Portuguese used landforms as geographical references.69 The only specifically human reference—though a purely legal one, as Castelo Branco did not actually occupy the land—is another sesmaria, a European legislative act. Confined in this self-referencing, both the applicant and the granting authority omit all that does not matter to a European land-tenure regime, purifying and flattening the landscape through the idea of sertão, a likely short for desertão (i.e., a vast expanse devoid of people).70

The second dimension of colonial letterscaping had to do with the subjective internalization of literacy-based social values and institutions. The diffusion of the full-fledged alphabetic script from its original Greek heartland to other areas, as happened earlier in Rome, never failed to carry with it other social and cultural features, mostly the ones enabled by writing itself.71 In the Portuguese colonization of Brazil, the most important of these alphabetically inculcated cultural systems was Christianity, a “universalistic religion of conversion.”72 As already seen, Pope Alexander VI granted the Iberians all unknown lands overseas so that, as “apostolic vicars,” they converted the heathen to the Christian faith. However, unlike the Spaniards, who early attached religious and territorial expansion in practice, the Portuguese took a while to call in the clergy to participate in colonial matters. “Clergy played no role in the first thirty-five years of the Portuguese presence in Brazil,” noted historian Patricia Seed; “nor were there any efforts to claim or Christianize indigenous peoples.”73 Religious preaching and conversion only began in 1549, when the Crown took direct administrative control over Brazil through the establishment of a Government General. In Tomé de Souza’s regiment, the king João III reaffirmed that “the main reason that motivated me to order the settling of the said lands of Brazil was that its peoples were converted to our Holy Catholic Faith.”74

The task was mostly delegated to the regular clergy, that is, the priests of the various religious orders, each with its own philosophy and hierarchy. Since the Middle Ages these were recognized as ethically, disciplinarily, and intellectually superior to the secular clergy, that is, the priests who ordinarily led the rituals and administered the sacraments to the Catholic faithful; besides being few in number, this ecclesiastical body was often unwilling to move to far-flung, inhospitable territory. A religious order founded in 1534 as a papal bulwark against the Protestant Reformation, the Society of Jesus was the first to arrive in Brazil. Until their expulsion in the mid-18th century, the Jesuits remained as the most important Catholic missionaries working among the Brazilian indigenous populations.75 The first Jesuit mission came in Souza’s fleet and landed in what was to become the city of Salvador on March 29, 1549: six clergymen, among priests and “brothers,” led by Manoel da Nóbrega. In the twenty following years, about another forty arrived from Europe and forty-five were recruited and ordained in Brazil.76

When in 1549, just a few weeks after landing in Bahia, Nóbrega wrote that in Brazil everything was “blank sheets” and that the Jesuits could and should “write at will,” he was practically repeating the inaugural report of Pero Vaz de Caminha, nearly half a century before: “They [the Amerindians] seem to me people of such innocence that, if we could understand them and them us, they would soon become Christians, because they do not have or understand any form of religion . . . [O]ne can easily imprint on them any shape wanted.” Although little noticed by scholars of early Brazil, both the clerk of the discovering fleet and the head of the first Jesuit mission were not only expounding their hasty theory about the Indians’ (lack of) religion, they were also implicitly stating that the very technology they were using to ponder, record, and communicate their thoughts was one of the major Portuguese instruments of colonization.77

It comes as no surprise that the religious missionaries became the most important literacy teachers in Portuguese America. Helped by the Tupi villagers, the Jesuits built huts where they could spend the night or a couple of days, but they did not live there permanently. In some places, however, they raised “homes for boys” (casas de meninos), boarding schools where the priests took in native and mestizo children as catechumens and literacy students. Generally, they established these schools in consolidated coastal settlements, such as Salvador, São Vicente, Olinda, and Rio de Janeiro; the only exception was São Paulo, on the plateau to the west of the town of São Vicente, where the school catalyzed the grouping of three nearby villages to form a frontier town especially suitable for missionary expansion. It could even be argued that these casas were the first institutions to truly root the core values of Christian civilization in Brazil.

The Tupi proved astonished and intrigued with alphabetic literacy since the first months of missionary preaching. There are Jesuit reports suggesting that, without the alphabet, they would not have been able to attract many catechumens. In 1552 Father Antonio Pires reported that, being very impressed with Manoel da Nóbrega, the Indians greatly valued a priest “who was literate and preacher because this reputation of literate comes very handy.”78 In fact, a few months after arriving in Bahia, Nóbrega himself had reported: “we started to visit their villages, a group of four companions, talking familiarly and announcing the kingdom of heaven to them, if they do what we teach them . . . We invite the boys to read and write and we also teach them the Christian doctrine . . . because they really admire how we can read and write and have great envy and willingness to learn and desire to be Christians like us.”79 Writing from São Paulo in August 1556, José de Anchieta noted that the natives were so delighted with the “knowledge of the letters” that “if they could not be seduced on that occasion,” perhaps the priests “could not get a second chance.”80

In a sense, the Jesuit project of religious conversion based itself on a radical shift in the source of what might be called “foundational voice,” the “voice in relation to which subjects are discursively constituted or interpellated.”81 In other words, it was the authoritative domain beyond the human individual level where the Indians sought guidance to actualize their conduct. In Tupi oral cultures, that voice came from the environment itself, as interpreted by the shamans. In its various facets and functions, shamanism was in charge of managing the tribe’s relationships with the outside world: with the spirits, with the weather, with animals, with the pathogens, with the other tribes.82 Shamans provided guidance for their fellows by acting as a go-between, negotiating the tribal relations with the larger ecosystem—hearing and translating the pleas and advices of the nonhuman sphere, including dead people or former humans. In order to restructure these societies, the Jesuits had first to destroy the authority of the nonhuman voices and then replace it with an equally magical one but spoken by a single type of entity, namely books. Even though literacy teaching has been very limited, it was fully viable for missionaries to invoke orally the Holy Scriptures and other written documents as sources of authority. If they could convince their catechumens that those objects truly spoke to them, they could then replace the shamans as interpreters of the sacred.

Alphabetical Reordering

The 16th-century colonization of Brazil shows that the effects of alphabetic writing extended well beyond the intellectual domain, impinging on all dimensions of human inhabitation—beginning with land tenure. At the turn of the century, perhaps 16,000 square kilometers had been appropriated and partially repopulated through scripturally fabricated land grants.83 Much of it was hoarded by unscrupulous royal officers such as governor Mem de Sá, who used his institutional power to benefit himself and relatives as well as colleagues in the royal service. In 1559 Sá granted Fernão Castelo Branco—a nobleman from the royal house who had held various senior positions in the royal service, but who never came to Brazil—a large holding, exactly the one referred to in the charter transcribed above. Unsurprisingly, Castelo Branco renounced his land rights the next year in favor of the governor’s son, Francisco de Sá. Soon thereafter, as we have seen, Mem de Sá granted the adjacent lands to Francisco Toscano, another nobleman and high royal official who never came to Brazil either; Toscano by his turn donated the newly acquired lands to Brás Fragoso, Brazil’s minister of justice at that time.84

This intimate association between legal writing, political power, and land grabbing is at the origin of the worst of the “colonial curses” hindering Brazil’s development to this day, namely, its highly unequal land distribution. Today, as in the 16th century, public authorities (elected or not) take advantage of their positions and political prestige to appropriate land, expelling indigenous residents as well as degrading ecosystems. Their most characteristic swindle is the so-called grilagem, the practice of forging land titles and then storing them for a while in a drawer or box with crickets (grilos); these insects secrete a substance that artificially gives the paper an ancient aspect, thereby increasing the document’s appearance of legitimacy. While not all landowner politicians have acquired their estates illegally, their political power seldom fails to feed on their rural possessions—mainly due to the vote of the landless peasants that these local potentates, the famous “colonels” of rural Brazil, allow to live on their lands—which in turn tend to grow through the manipulation of legal writing made possible by the holding of public offices.85

Just as in today’s Amazon, the agrarian titling frontier advanced in the 16th-century Atlantic Forest as a satanic mill of genocide and ethnocide. In Pernambuco (the oldest and most prosperous sugar region), Bahia (seat of the general government and a rising sugar economy), and São Vicente (a key region for controlling the communications in the South Atlantic and the hinterlands), native population density probably fell tenfold during the 1500s.86 Since orally performed language could not survive without speaking communities, colonial depopulation bottlenecked the historical continuity of native cultural heritage. Grammatical techniques allowed the alphabetical codification of the Tupinambá language—the most widespread and hence useful one for Catholic catechesis87—while the remainder of the complex mosaic of languages collapsed under the pressure of conquest wars, epidemics caused by exotic pathogens, enslavement, and detribalization. It has been estimated that since the beginning of Portuguese colonization, Brazil’s native languages are becoming extinct at a rate of two per year.88 Also, probably dozens of locally domesticated cultivars have been lost, by both lack of human lore and cultivation.89

Unlike today, however, land grabbed in early Brazil was not readily converted to extraction-intensive use. In fact, an argument has been made for colonial latifundia barring deforestation, on the grounds that large land holders as a rule did not have the resources to put all their assigned acreage to work, while preventing many free folk from having legally secure access to land. Scriptural land-grabbing may even have led to forest area increase in that it deprived native agriculture of a great share of its workers and thus encouraged secondary succession in former farmlands—what latecomer Europeans readily and willingly identified with “virgin,” untouched nature.90

Untied and objectified on paper as the settlers’ property, native labor and land fueled the formation of the sugar plantations that would help revolutionize the world economy.91 Alphabetic writing played a key role in what Karl Marx has called the “historic processes of dissolution”92 of use value–oriented property relationships—including, in the Tupi case, ethnic affiliations, mythological and ethnobiological heritage, magical practices, etc. Contradictorily, writing separated humans and nature by projecting them in a single surface of inscription—sheets of paper. Not only were the soil, waters, native plants, and animals deprived of the subjectivity they enjoyed under the perspectival view of the Tupi, so were the indigenous humans themselves, who were enslaved and deprived of their own will, cultural ties, and productive energy. Once imprisoned, the indigenes became goods of almost the same status as their masters’ land, furniture, and cattle, so attested their wills and postmortem inventories. Whether registered as “pieces” or under the disguising rubric of “administered” (índios administrados, i.e., theoretically not held captive), enslaved Tupi became the capital with which European colonists initiated their enterprises, especially sugar plantations. In Pernambuco, some estates had up to two hundred Indian slaves in the early 1550s.93

The indigenes who made it through the wars of conquest and managed to avoid European diseases and captivity either fled to the sertão—where they regrouped, reshaped their socio-ecologies, and sometimes raised new barricades against the colonial frontier—or took refuge in Portuguese-fostered resettlements close to coastal colonial cities. In these aldeamentos, while they had a minimum of protection against the most explicit settler violence, as well as a land lot to cultivate, the Tupi were subject to Jesuit oversight and catechesis. The sources of knowledge and faith on which they had traditionally relied—the natural environment’s voices—were disempowered by the sacred written word in the process of religious conversion and indoctrination. The ecosystem’s soundscape needed to be desacralized, its meaningful utterings, cries, whispers, and calls silenced, so that the Christian habitus could be introjected into Tupi subjectivity. In just a few years, the Jesuit educational dispositif had already converted some of the natives into agents of conversion of their own people. In a letter addressed to the Provincial of Portugal, in 1552, Nóbrega tells about the “first fruits of the land”: two Indian boys who “can read and write well, and sing, and are preachers here.”94

Even so, it would be oversimplistic to describe the Tupi as totally passive victims of European literacy. The Amerindians tried to take advantage of the colonial situation to the best of their ability by appropriating the European biotechnical apparatus, alphabetic writing included. Here one needs to discern documents written by Europeans or Euro-descendants (clerks, notaries, and the like) on behalf of Amerindians from documents written by Amerindians themselves. Many examples of the first kind survived through the present day, including some from the 16th century—for instance, requisitions of sesmarias.95 On the other hand, indigenous writings proper are scarce, even in the ensuing centuries of colonization. The most emblematic case occurred in the mid-18th century, when the Guarani Indians of the Spanish Jesuit missions in the Uruguay River basin decided not to abide by their monarch’s decision to cede that territory to Portugal in exchange for the Colonia do Sacramento, current Uruguay. From the interception of the enemy’s letters, through the military-organizational use of messages, to epistolary negotiations and even “diplomatic” agreements, the Guarani practically exhausted all the possibilities opened up by alphabetic writing and reading.96

Discussion of the Literature

Whereas the relationships between media technologies and imperialism were explored as early as 1950 by brilliantly versatile economic historian Harold Innis,97 the discussion of alphabetic literacy’s effects on human social ecology is mainly due to two studies nearly simultaneously published, one authored by media scholar Marshall McLuhan, and the other by anthropologist Jack Goody and literary critic Ian Watt.98 Both works were heavily criticized for allegedly imparting excessive causal power to alphabetic literacy, and are nowadays considered dated by most scholars in the field. For better or worse, these undoubtedly essayistic and exploratory works remain to this day as classic references for those investigating the impacts of Western literacy upon non-Western societies—especially Goody’s and Watt’s, which has a greater anthropological grip. The theme of literacy’s restructuring of orally based social norms, values and expectations would be later expanded by Goody in a series of books;99 his concept of writing as an “intellectual technology,” with all of its societal implications, was collaterally developed by other scholars, such as Walter Ong.100

Although Goody has often addressed neo-colonial African cases, and even African slavery in 19th-century Brazil101, his forays into the early-modern Ibero-American world were sporadic and unsystematic. As to the role of literacy in the European colonization of the Americas, Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America has been a milestone. One of book’s main arguments is that, compared with pictographic and other forms of writing, the alphabet provided Spaniards with particular flexibility and adaptability in facing novel situations, which turned out to be crucial in Hernán Cortéz’s conquest of Mexico. Although underlining that alphabetic technology does not lead to higher social and moral values, Todorov recognized that, by representing language rather than experience, it exclusively enabled certain socio-technical developments, among which the mastering of information about the world.102

In a completely different direction, Walter Mignolo’s The Darker Side of the Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization, was especially relevant for combining literacy studies with post-colonial approaches. Applying what he dubs as “plurotopic hermeneutics” to the early colonial situation in Spanish America (with an emphasis on Mexico), Mignolo pursued a comparative analysis of writing products and activities in both societies involved, Amerindian and European. Distancing himself from Goody and his followers, seen as implicitly evolutionary, Mignolo stressed the colonizing character of the Europeans’ imposition of their regionally and historically situated solution to the problem of knowledge, storytelling and territoriality. “It is needed to get away from the evolutionary model at the basis of the consequences of literacy thesis and to learn from comparative studies and from cultural coevolution,” he wrote.103

Still, none of these authors explored the links between alphabetic writing and environmental attitudes. This groundbreaking insight is owed to philosopher David Abram, who developed it in The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World. Abram’s fundamental thesis is that the development of the Greek alphabet was the culmination of a long-term shift that turned Western peoples away from humankind’s sensorial engagement with the Earth, toward an imprisoning relationship with written letters. As representations of the human vocality itself rather than the outside world, alphabetical signs short-circuited the human semiosis, with serious consequences for environmental sensibility and inhabitation. Although not a historical study in the strict sense, Abram’s work opened up promising pathways for studying the impact of literacy on indigenous communities, including the role of missionary literacy teaching.104

As to 16th-century Brazil specifically, very little has been advanced so far. There are studies about both Tupi-Guarani oral dynamics (especially myths) and Portuguese literacy (especially epistolary government), but separately and outside the scope of literacy-as-technology perspective and to its links to socio-environmental change. As to general studies about Tupi-Guarani society and culture, including the ancient Tupinambá, anthropologist Eduardo Viveiro de Castro has compiled the fundamental literature available in the late 20th century.105 On the Tupi warrior tattooing, apparently their most sophisticated form of graphic communication, one must resort to Renato Sztutman’s study.106 Alfred Métraux’s classic work about Tupi religious concepts and practices, La religion des Tupinamba et ses rapports avec celle des autres tribus tupi-guarani (1928), is still worth reading today.107 For a more traditional account (i.e., a military, socio-economic and cultural point of view) of the European conquest of the Tupinambá in the 16th century one can profitably consult Mário Maestri’s Os senhores do litoral: conquista portuguesa e agonia Tupinambá no litoral brasílico (século 16).108

Regarding Portuguese literate practices, Ronald Raminelli explored the epistolary communication that supported the Portuguese government-at-a-distance of Brazil in his Viagens ultramarinas: monarcas, vassalos e governo a distância.109 Mauricio Abreu’s Geografia histórica do Rio de Janeiro, 1502–1700, a colossal, vastly documented work on the Europeanization of Rio de Janeiro in the 16th and 17th centuries, is mandatory for its spatially detailed analysis of land grants (sesmarias), one of the most important fronts of alphabetic frontier, as well as for addressing Rio’s urbanity.110 More recently, Justino Magalhães discussed the Portuguese colonial municipalism as a scripturally founded and operated order.111

The student of colonial literacy should also pay attention to classic studies about environmental perceptions shaped by alphabetic reading and writing. For example, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda’s Visão do paraíso: os motivos edênicos no descobrimento e colonização do Brasil is a heavily erudite study of the influence of certain literary topoi on the European colonization of Brazil. Even without the literacy problematic in mind, the author explored the power of written formulas about earthly paradise—fantastical images originating in the 3rd century ce—on the mentality of 16th-century Iberian navigators, explorers, and settlers. Albeit indirectly, Holanda showed the importance of literacy to the migration of ideas capable of maintaining much of their formal integrity even when confronted with ecological experiences that discredited them.112

Historian Andrea Daher is one of the few scholars of colonial Brazil who tried to look at the literacy problem through the technical-colonial prism, mainly related to religious conversion. Disciple of the French tradition of political-cultural studies, Daher focused more on the internal logic of the writing field, so to speak, while tangentially dialoguing with Goody’s and Ong’s work.113 One of her main theoretical guideposts was Michel de Certeau, whose explorations of the European early modern “scriptural economy”—especially in chapters of his The Writing of History and The Practice of Everyday Life—still stand as the greatest French contribution on the theme.114

Primary Sources

What is most interesting—but also disorienting—about colonial literacy as a historical object is that there are hardly source materials specifically suited for its study. That is because alphabetic literacy was at the very basis of the European colonization of the Americas, being at the same time an instrument of domination and an instrument of depiction and evaluation (justification) of that domination. Almost everything Portuguese and other Europeans practiced in what would become Brazil passed through written procedures or ended up written down for descriptive or administrative purposes. In other words, all written heritage left by 16th-century colonizers, whatever the subject, is potentially a source for the historical analysis of alphabetic literacy’s impact upon New World’s peoples and lands. Unfortunately, there are no records of 16th-century native writing (see above), although they do exist for the following centuries.

Naturally, some European sources address literacy more self-consciously, in which relatively rare cases one could speak of meta-sources. The finest examples are chronicles written by explorers, colonists, and other literate Europeans who in a way or another touched on the subject, most often when reporting the differences between Tupinambá culture and their own. Jean de Léry’s account, Histoire d’un voyage fait en la terre du Brésil (1578), is the richest of them, but one can also find important remarks in Pero Magalhães de Gândavo’s História da província de Santa Cruz (1576) and Gabriel Soares de Sousa’s Tratado descritivo do Brasil em 1587, both of which forward the idea that the Tupi language lacked three alphabet letters (F, L, and R), which supposedly made their society lack Faith (), Law (Lei), and King (Rei). The three accounts have gone through several editions, and both Léry’s and Gândavo’s have been translated into English.115 Yet to be fully translated into English is André Thevet’s Cosmographie universelle (1575), of which the fourth volume covers Atlantic Brazil, among other places.116 It contains the first systematic records of Tupinambá oral mythology. It is available in Gallica, Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s digital library.

Another important set of meta-sources is the extensive body of Jesuit writings, especially epistolary exchanges. In the letters they sent to each other, both in Brazil and around the world, the society’s priests and brothers reported their daily work with the natives and often touched on the issue of literacy. Most of this corpus has been published and is easily accessible in libraries, especially in Portugal and Brazil. The great compiler, transcriber and analyst of these sources was Father Serafim Leite, who until the 1960s published several volumes with the 16th- and 17th-century letters. A good sample of the letters written through 1563 can be found in Leite’s Cartas dos primeiros jesuítas do Brasil, while a broader temporal coverage is found in Novas cartas jesuíticas.117

Last but not least, there is another kind of Jesuit work the historian of Portuguese colonial literacy cannot do without: José de Anchieta’s grammar of the Tupinambá language. Although a handwritten version of the Arte de grammatica da lingoa mais usada na costa do Brasil was already in circulation by the 1550s, it only found its way to the press in 1595, in Coimbra.118 Since then it has gone through a few editions, but the original printing has been digitalized and is available online at Biblioteca Brasiliana.

Further Reading

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in A More-Than-Human World. New York: Vintage, 1997.Find this resource:

    Abreu, Mauricio A. Geografia histórica do Rio de Janeiro, 1502–1700. 2 vols. Rio de Janeiro: Andrea Jakobsson, 2010.Find this resource:

      Alcides, Sérgio. “F, L e R: Gândavo e o ABC da colonização.” Escritos—Revista da Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa 3.3 (2009): 39–53.Find this resource:

        Cabral, Diogo de Carvalho. “Palavra e território: escrita alfabética e a colonização portuguesa da Mata Atlântica.” Fronteiras: Sociedade, Tecnologia e Meio Ambiente 4 (2015): 207–223.Find this resource:

          Daher, Andrea. A oralidade perdida: ensaios de história das práticas letradas. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2012.Find this resource:

            Holanda, Sérgio Buarque. Visão do paraíso: os motivos edênicos no descobrimento e colonização do Brasil. 2d ed. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1969.Find this resource:

              Maestri, Mário. Os senhores do litoral: conquista portuguesa e agonia Tupinambá no litoral brasílico (século 16). 3d ed. Porto Alegre: Editora da UFRGS, 2013.Find this resource:

                Magalhães, Justino. “Como um texto—configurações da escrita do município colonial.” História: Questões & Debates 60 (2014): 65–83.Find this resource:

                  Mignolo, Walter D. The Darker Side of Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality And Colonization. 2d ed. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003.Find this resource:


                    (1.) Richard White, Land Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986); Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); Alfred W. Crosby, Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, 30th anniversary ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003).

                    (2.) Alfred W. Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900, 2d ed. (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 21.

                    (3.) Crosby, Imperialism, 8–40; Jack Goody and Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 5.3 (1963): 304–345; and David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 275–281, 286–289, 306–308.

                    (4.) I. J. Gelb, A Study of Writing, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), 184.

                    (5.) David Abram, The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997), 100–101.

                    (6.) Jack Goody, The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 99.

                    (7.) Robert I. Burns, “The Paper Revolution in Europe: Crusader Valencia’s Paper Industry—A Technological and Behavioral Breakthrough,” Pacific Historical Review 50.1 (1981): 19.

                    (8.) Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays of Montaigne, trans. Donald Frame (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1965), 101.

                    (9.) Pierre Lévy, Becoming Virtual: Reality in the Digital Age, trans. Robert Bononno (New York: Plenum Trade, 1998), 94.

                    (10.) Goody and Watt, “Consequences,” 307–311.

                    (11.) João de Barros, Asia de Joam de Barros dos fectos que os Portugueses fizeram no descobrimento e conquista dos mares e terras do Oriente (Lisboa: Germão Galhardo, 1552); Sérgio Alcides, “F, L e R: Gândavo e o ABC da colonização,” Escritos—Revista da Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa 3.3 (2009): 43.

                    (12.) Christian, Maps, 276.

                    (13.) Andrea Daher, “Narrativas entre escrita e oralidade,” in A oralidade perdida: ensaios de história das práticas letradas (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2012), 19.

                    (14.) For a classic view, see Alexander Marchant, From Barter to Slavery: The Economic Relations of Portuguese and Indians in the Settlement of Brazil, 1500–1580 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942). Recently published general compendiums on 16th-century Brazil include Jorge Couto, A construção do Brasil: ameríndios, portugueses e africanos, do início do povoamento a finais do quinhentos, 3d ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Forense, 2011), and J. Fragoso and M. F. Gouvêa, eds., O Brasil colonial, vol. 1 (1443–1580) (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2014).

                    (15.) Sérgio Buarque de Holanda and Olga Pantaleão, “Franceses, holandeses e ingleses no Brasil quinhentista,” in História geral da civilização brasileira, t.1/v.1—A época colonial: do descobrimento à expansão territorial, 17th ed., ed. S. B. Holanda (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 2010), 165.

                    (16.) Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 252.

                    (17.) Daher, “A redução à língua geral,” in A oralidade, 73; Martin Lienhard, “Writing and Power in the Conquest of America,” Latin American Perspectives 19.3 (1992): 81; Peter Wogan, “Perceptions of European Literacy in Early Contact Situations,” Ethnohistory 41.3 (1994): 407–429; and Walter D. Mignolo, The Darker Side of Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization, 2d ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 45, 71–75.

                    (18.) This colony was finally extirpated in 1567 by Governor Mem de Sá, who had supported the foundation of the Portuguese city of Rio de Janeiro two years before; see Mauricio A. Abreu, Geografia histórica do Rio de Janeiro, 1502–1700, vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: Andrea Jakobsson, 2010), 63–97.

                    (19.) Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, trans. Jane Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 135.

                    (20.) Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 216.

                    (21.) This Amerindian worldview, which has been deeply theorized in the past two decades, was dubbed “Perspectivism” by Tânia S. Lima and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. The founding texts, so to speak, are Lima’s “O dois e seu múltiplo: reflexões sobre o perspectivismo em uma cosmologia Tupi,” Mana 2.2 (1996): 21–47, and Viveiro de Castro’s “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism,” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 4.3 (1998): 469–488.

                    (22.) That man was Hans Staden, a German mercenary who shipwrecked off the south coast of São Paulo in the late 1540s. Staden tells this episode himself in his The Captivity of Hans Stade of Hesse in A.D. 1547–1555 Among the Wild Tribes of Eastern Brazil, trans. Albert Tootal and annot. Richard Burton (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1874), 85.

                    (23.) Burns, “Paper,” 13–19, 27–30; and Timothy Barrett, “European Papermaking Techniques 1300–1800,” in Paper Through Time: Nondestructive Analysis of 14th- Through 19th-Century Papers, The University of Iowa. Last modified July 14, 2014. Available at

                    (24.) Saul António Gomes, “Notas sobre a produção de sal-gema e de papel em Leiria e Coimbra durante a Idade Média,” Revista Portuguesa de História 31.1 (1996): 431–446; Aurélio de Oliveira, “Fabrico de papel em Braga no século XVI,” Revista da Faculdade de Letras—História (Porto) série III, 8 (2007): 25–28.

                    (25.) Richard W. Clement, “Medieval and Renaissance Book Production,” Library Faculty & Staff Publications, paper 10, 1997. Available at

                    (26.) Léry, History, xlv (quotation from Whatley’s note at p. 229.)

                    (27.) On the concept of “Salvationist mercantile empire,” see Darcy Ribeiro, O processo civilizatório (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1968), 133–140.

                    (28.) Charles R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825 (London: Hutchinson, 1969).

                    (29.) Justino Magalhães, “Como um texto—configurações da escrita do município colonial,” História: Questões & Debates 60 (2014): 67–68.

                    (30.) Abram, Spell, 254.

                    (31.) Daher, “Narrativas monumentalizadas,” in Oralidade, 231.

                    (32.) Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999), 215–216.

                    (33.) Harvey J. Graff, The Legacies of Literacy: Continuities and Contradictions in Western Culture And Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 4.

                    (34.) Todorov, Conquest, 252; and Mignolo, Renaissance, 117–118.

                    (35.) Angel Rama, The Lettered City, trans. John Charles Chasteen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 10.

                    (36.) Certeau, Writing, xxv–xxvi.

                    (37.) Lienhard, “Writing,” 80.

                    (38.) See, e.g., Jaime Cortesão, Raposo Tavares e a formação territorial do Brasil (São Paulo: Imprensa Oficial do Estado de São Paulo/FUNDAP, 2012).

                    (39.) Pero Magalhães de Gândavo, The Histories of Brazil, trans. John Stetson Jr. (New York: The Cortes Society, 1927), 25.

                    (40.) For a good ecological synthesis about the Brazilian Atlantic Forest biome, see Athayde Thonhasca Jr., Ecologia e história natural da Mata Atlântica (São Paulo: Interciência, 2005). Despite major cultural similarities, there was some differentiation between the northern tribes, the Tupi, who dominated the coastal strip from the current state of Ceará to the Ribeira valley, in the southern coast of the current state of São Paulo, and the southern tribes, the Guarani, who occupied the Paraná-Paraguay basin plus the adjacent coastal strip to the Bay of Cananéia, in São Paulo; see Carlos Fausto, “Fragmentos de história e cultura Tupinambá: da etnologia como instrumento crítico de conhecimento etno-histórico,” in História dos índios no Brasil (São Paulo: Cia. das Letras, 1992), 381–382.

                    (41.) See the chapters by Carlos Etchvarne, Astolfo G. M. Araújo, and Deisi S. Eloy de Farias et al. in Diogo de Carvalho Cabral and Ana Goulart Bustamante, eds., Metamorfoses florestais: culturas, ecologias e as transformações históricas da Mata Atlântica (Curitiba, Brazil: Prismas, 2016), 85–148.

                    (42.) Adolfo de Varnhagen, Historia geral do Brazil antes da sua separação e independencia de Portugal, 2d ed., vol. 1 (Rio de Janeiro: E. e H. Laemmert, 1877), 17.

                    (43.) Varnhagen, Historia, 21; Alfred Métraux, “The Tupinamba,” in J. H. Steward, ed., Handbook of South American Indians, vol. 3. (Washington, DC: Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin no. 143, Smithsonian Institution, 1948), 97–98.

                    (44.) The lower figure has been proposed by Varnhagen (Historia, 14) and the higher one by Pierre Clastres, “Elementos de demografia ameríndia,” in A sociedade contra o Estado (investigações de antropologia política) (Porto, Brazil: Afrontamento, 1979), 89–91.

                    (45.) Justin R. Bucciferro, “Neither Counterfeit nor Paradise: The Carrying Capacity of Pre-Columbian Ecosystems in Brazil,” Economic Anthropology 3.1 (2016): 17–30.

                    (46.) Métraux, “Tupinamba,” 102–111; Alfred Métraux, “The Guaraní,” in Steward, Handbook, 82–83.

                    (47.) Métraux, “Tupinamba,” 101–102, 105–108; and Darcy Ribeiro, “Os índios Urubus. Ciclo anual das atividades de subsistência de uma tribo da floresta tropical,” in Leituras de etnologia brasileira (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1976), 31–32.

                    (48.) The Tupi tattooed their warrior (cannibalistic) achievements on their bodies, which functioned as “military insignia,” according to the author of the Diálogos das Grandezas do Brasil (São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 1977), 259, written in the early 17th century and first published in 1930. Once consummate the anthropophagic ritual, reported André Thevet, the executer “makes several incisions on his chest, as well as on other parts of his body with a saw made up of coati teeth, cutting so delicately that one would say that it is a torn collar. And as I inquired them about the cause of these cuts and of these incisions, they answered me that he [the executor] does it for pleasure, to be admired and bear the glory of having had such a great honor as to massacre an enemy,” Thevet, La cosmographie universelle d’André Thevet, cosmographe du Roy, vol. 4 (Paris: Chez Guillaume Chaudiere, 1575), 946. These scarifications were lightly pigmented with genipap dye. According to anthropologist Alfred Métraux, who examined mid-20th-century drawings, “such tattoo marks formed regular geometrical patterns, not unlike designs on pottery,” Métraux, “Tupinamba,” 108. Used also for the treatment of diseases, “the scarifications were at once visual marks and part of a technology for producing strong and healthy bodies,” Renato Sztutman, “De nomes e marcas—ensaio sobre a grandeza do guerreiro selvagem,” Revista de Antropologia (São Paulo) 52.1 (2009): 66.

                    (49.) Aryon D. Rodrigues, “As línguas gerais sul-americanas,” PAPIA 4.2 (1996): 6–18, and Rodriques, “Esboço de uma introdução ao estudo da língua Tupi,” Revista Brasileira de Linguística Antropológica 3.1 (2013): 31–44.

                    (50.) Métraux, “The Tupinamba,” 126; and A religião dos Tupinambás e suas relações com as demais tribos Tupis, 2d ed., trans. Estevão Pinto (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1979, 168–169).

                    (51.) Thevet, Cosmographie, 913.

                    (52.) Métraux, Religião, 148.

                    (53.) Yves d’Evreux, Voyage dans le nord du Brésil fait durant les années 1613 et 1614 (Paris: Librarie A. Franck, 1864), 137.

                    (54.) See Diogo de Carvalho Cabral, “Into the Bowels of Tropical Earth: Leaf-Cutting Ants and the Colonial Making of Agrarian Brazil,” Journal of Historical Geography 50 (2015): 97–98.

                    (55.) d’Evreux, Voyage, 176.

                    (56.) Métraux, “Tupinamba,” 119–124, and Religião, 150. The Tupi practiced ritual anthropophagy, which means the flesh of sacrificed enemies was ingested not for biological nurturing but for its magical-symbolic meaning. The classic interpretation of this ritual is that of Florestan Fernandes in A função social da guerra na sociedade Tupinambá, 2d ed. (São Paulo: Edusp/Pioneira, 1970).

                    (57.) Etienne Samain, “A vontade de ser: notas sobre os índios Urubu-Kaapor e sua mitologia,” Revista de Antropologia 27/28 (1984/1985): 256.

                    (58.) Métraux, Religião, 57, 68–69.

                    (59.) Rama, City, 6.

                    (60.) See, e.g., Mauricio de Almeida Abreu, “A apropriação do território no Brasil colonial,” in Explorações geográficas: percursos no fim do século, ed. I. E. Castro, P. C. C. Gomes, and R. L. Corrêa (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand Brasil, 1997), 204.

                    (61.) Transcript and translated in Samuel Edward Dawson, The Lines of Demarcation of Pope Alexander VI and the Treaty of Tordesillas, A.D. 1493 and 1494 (Ottawa: J. Hope, 1899), 532–533.

                    (62.) António Manuel Hespanha, “The Everlasting Return of Orality,” paper presented at the International Symposium in Legal History (Readings of Past Legal Texts), TromsØ, June 2002.

                    (63.) H. B. Johnson Jr., “The Donatary Captaincy in Perspective: Portuguese Backgrounds to the Settlement of Brazil,” Hispanic American Historical Review 52.2 (1972): 207.

                    (64.) “Regimento que levou Tomé de Souza governador do Brasil—Almerim, 17 de dezembro de 1548,” Lisboa, Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino, códice 112.

                    (65.) “Doação e confirmação das terras de Francisco Toscano,” Documentos Históricos da Biblioteca Nacional 13 (1929): 210–211, 216.

                    (66.) Ordenações Manuelinas, Livro IV, Título LXVII, Artigo 2, 165. Available at the University of Coimbra website

                    (67.) Ordenações Manuelinas, Livro I, Título LII, Artigo 7, 360. Available at the University of Coimbra website; “Regimento que levou Tomé de Souza.”

                    (68.) Dean, Broadax, 35; and José de Souza Martins, “Um documento falso sobre a conquista do território dos índios Goitacá no século XVII,” Revista de Antropologia (USP) 39.2 (1996): 157.

                    (69.) But see Patricia Seed, Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492–1640 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 140–148, for a different view.

                    (70.) Victoria Saramago, “O sertão ao redor do mundo: escritos portugueses do século XVI,” in Vastos sertões: história e natureza na ciência e na literatura, ed. S. Dutra e Silva, D. Miranda de Sá, and M. Romero de Sá (Rio de Janeiro: Mauad, 2015), 233.

                    (71.) Goody and Watt, “Consequences,” 319.

                    (72.) Goddy, Logic, 167.

                    (73.) Seed, Ceremonies, 134.

                    (74.) “Regimento que levou Tomé de Souza.”

                    (75.) Maria Regina Celestino de Almeida, “Catequese, aldeamentos e missionação,” in J. Fragoso and M. F. Gouvêa, eds. O Brasil colonial, vol. 1 (1443–1580) (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2014), 437–438.

                    (76.) Afrânio Peixoto, “Missão jesuítica ao Brasil de 1549 a 1568,” in Cartas avulsas, 1550–1568 (Rio de Janeiro: Officina Industrial Graphica, 1931), 39–47.

                    (77.) Pero Vaz de Caminha, A carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha (Estudo crítico de J. F. de Almeida Prado, texto e glossário de Maria Beatriz Nizza da Silva), 2d ed. (Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Agir Editora, 1977), 105–106; and Manoel da Nóbrega, “Ao Dr. Navarro, seu mestre em Coimbra,” in Cartas do Brasil, 1549–1560 (Rio de Janeiro: Officina Industrial Graphica, 1931), 94.

                    (78.) “Carta do padre Antonio Pires de Pernambuco de 5 de junho de 1552,” in Cartas avulsas, 121.

                    (79.) Nóbrega, “Ao Dr. Navarro,” in Cartas do Brasil, 91–92.

                    (80.) José de Anchieta, Cartas inéditas (São Paulo: Typographia da casa Eclectica, 1900), 53–54.

                    (81.) Harry Walker, “Soulful Voices: Birds, Language and Prophecy in Amazonia,” Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 8.1 (2011): art. 1, 15.

                    (82.) Fausto, “Fragmentos,” 387.

                    (83.) The estimate of the Portuguese-controlled territory is Dean’s, Broadax, 64.

                    (84.) Herbert E. Wetzel, Mem de Sá: terceiro governador geral (1557–1572) (Rio de Janeiro: Conselho Federal de Cultura, 1972), 225–254; Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 22, 490; and Rodrigo Ricupero, A formação da elite colonial: Brasil, c.1530—c.1630 (São Paulo: Alameda, 2009), 189–191.

                    (85.) Alceu Luís Castilho, Partido da terra: como os políticos conquistam o território brasileiro (São Paulo: Contexto, 2012). The classic work on rural vote corralling in Brazil is Victor Nunes Leal’s Coronelismo, enxada e voto: o município e o regime representativo no Brasil, 2d ed. (São Paulo: Alfa-Omega, 1975).

                    (86.) Fausto, “Fragmentos,” 383; Warren Dean, “Indigenous Populations of the São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro Coast: Trade, Aldeamento, Slavery and Extinction,” Revista de História (São Paulo) 117 (1984): 3–26; Antonio Carlos Robert Moraes, Bases da formação territorial do Brasil: o território colonial brasileiro no “longo” século XVI (São Paulo: Hucitec, 2000), 309–320; and Mauricio A. Abreu, “European Conquest, Indian Subjection and the Conflicts of Colonization: Brazil in the Early Modern Era,” GeoJournal 60.4 (2004): 365–373.

                    (87.) Joseph de Anchieta, Arte de grammatica da lingoa mais usada na costa do Brasil (Coimbra, Portugal: Antonio de Mariz, 1595).

                    (88.) Hildo Honório do Couto, “Amerindian Language Islands in Brazil,” in Iberian Imperialism and Language Evolution in Latin America, ed. S. S. Mufwene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 76–106.

                    (89.) Although there is no similar study for the Atlantic Forest biome, Charles Clement has estimated that colonial depopulation reduced the Amazonian agro-biodiversity (138 species native to the Amazon and other Neotropical regions) in an order of magnitude; see Clement, “1492 and the Loss of Amazonian Crop Genetic Resources. I. The Relation Between Domestication and Human Population Decline,” Economic Botany 53.2 (1999): 188–202.

                    (90.) Dean, Broadax, 65; and Diogo de Carvalho Cabral, Na presença da floresta: Mata Atlântica e história colonial (Rio de Janeiro: Garamond/FAPERJ, 2014), 66–68, 448–450.

                    (91.) Dean, Broadax, 56; Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

                    (92.) Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations, trans. Jack Cohen (New York: International Publishers, 1965), 110–111.

                    (93.) “Carta que o Padre Antonio Pires escreveu do Brasil, da capitania de Pernambuco, aos irmãos da Companhia, de 2 de agosto de 1551,” in Cartas avulsas, 82.

                    (94.) Nóbrega, “Para o Padre Provincial de Portugal (1552),” in Cartas do Brasil, 131.

                    (95.) See Beatriz Perrone-Moisés, “Terras indígenas na legislação colonial,” Revista da Faculdade de Direito (Universidade de São Paulo) 95 (2000): 114–115.

                    (96.) See Eduardo S. Neumann, Práticas letradas Guarani: produção e usos da escrita indígena (séculos XVII e XVIII) (Rio de Janeiro: Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2005).

                    (97.) Harold A. Innis, Empire and Communications (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950).

                    (98.) Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962); and Jack Goody and Ian Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 5.3 (1963): 304–345.

                    (99.) Jack Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977; The Logic of Writing and the Organization of Society (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986); and The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

                    (100.) Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London/New York: Methuen, 1982).

                    (101.) Jack Goody, “Writing, religion and revolt in Bahia”, Visible Language 20 (1986): 318–343.

                    (102.) Tzvetan Todorov, The Conquest of America, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Harper & Row, 1984).

                    (103.) Mignolo, Walter D. The Darker Side of Renaissance: Literacy, Territoriality and Colonization, 2d ed. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003), 323.

                    (104.) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997).

                    (105.) Eduardo B. Viveiros de Castro, “Bibliografia etnológica básica Tupi-Guarani”, Revista de Antropologia 27/28 (1984/1985): 7–24.

                    (106.) Renato Sztutman, “De nomes e marcas—ensaio sobre a grandeza do guerreiro selvagem,” Revista de Antropologia (São Paulo) 52.1 (2009): 47–96.

                    (107.) Alfred Métraux, La religion des Tupinamba et ses rapports avec celle des autres tribus tupi-guarani (Paris: E. Leroux, 1928).

                    (108.) Mário Maestri, Os senhores do litoral: Conquista portuguesa e agonia Tupinambá no litoral brasílico (século 16), 3d ed. (Porto Alegre: Editora da UFRGS, 2013).

                    (109.) Ronald Raminelli, Viagens ultramarinas. Monarcas, vassalos e governo a distância (São Paulo: Alameda, 2008).

                    (110.) Mauricio A. Abreu, Geografia histórica do Rio de Janeiro, 1502–1700, 2 vols. (Rio de Janeiro: Andrea Jakobsson), 2010.

                    (111.) Justino Magalhães, “Como um texto—configurações da escrita do município colonial.” História: Questões & Debates 60 (2014): 65–83.

                    (112.) Sérgio Buarque de Holanda, Visão do paraíso: Os motivos edênicos no descobrimento e colonização do Brasil, 2d ed. (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1969).

                    (113.) Andrea Daher, A oralidade perdida: ensaios de história das práticas letradas (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2012).

                    (114.) Michel de Certeau, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); and The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, CA/Los Angeles/London, 1988).

                    (115.) Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, Otherwise Called America, trans. Jane Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Pero Magalhães de Gândavo, The Histories of Brazil, trans. John Stetson Jr. (New York: The Cortes Society, 1927); and Gabriel Soares de Sousa, Tratado descritivo do Brasil em 1587, 4th ed. (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1971). On the “lack of letters” problem see Sérgio Alcides, “F, L e R: Gândavo e o ABC da colonização,” Escritos—Revista da Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa 3.3 (2009): 39–53.

                    (116.) André Thevet, La cosmographie universelle d’André Thevet, cosmographe du Roy (Paris: Chez Guillaume Chaudière, 1575).

                    (117.) Serafim Leite, Cartas dos primeiros jesuítas do Brasil, 3 vols. (São Paulo: Comissão do IV Centenário da Cidade de São Paulo, 1954–1958); and Novas cartas jesuíticas (de Nóbrega a Vieira) (São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional, 1940).

                    (118.) Joseph de Anchieta, Arte de grammatica da lingoa mais usada na costa do Brasil (Coimbra, Portugal: Antonio de Mariz, 1595).