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Lisa Voigt

Letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha (1500)



The Letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha describes in some 27 manuscript pages the landing and
brief stay of Pedro lvares Cabrals fleet on the coast of what is now Brazil in April of 1500.
Cabrals voyagelike Columbusswas not one of discovery, but rather was destined for
India in order to establish a feitoria or trading station and thus consolidate Portugals monopoly
over this trade route (one that had already established by Bartolomeu Dias, who rounded the cape
of Good Hope in 1488, and Vasco da Gama, who made it all the way to India and returned to
Portugal in 1499). There has been some discussion about whether Cabral had prior knowledge
of Brazils existence and whether this is the reason why he steered so far westward as to land on
the coast of South America rather than following the African shoreline south, but there is
apparently no documentary evidence to support this view.
Caminha doesnt use either of the words Discovery or Invention to characterize
Cabrals landingthe word he uses is achamento or findingbut his text has long animated
discussions about the nature of the discovery, whether accidental or intentional, as well as
about its participation in the invention or creation of a Brazilian nation. This is surely the
sense used in a recent Brazilian TV miniseries entitled A Inveno do Brasil (The Invention of
Brazil), which portrays a friendly and highly sexualized encounter between a Portuguese
explorer and Brazilian native women. This is a foundational fiction whose fictiveness is rarely
questioned, so prevalent is the mythology about the peaceful nature of Portuguese colonization
and the origins of Brazil in the happy union of different races. Although the miniseries focuses
on a different episode found in early chronicles of Brazil, its representation of the encounter is
quite similar to the canonical readings of Caminhas letter, according to which the document is
not only Brazils birth certificate, but one that attests to a painless delivery.
While it is easy to criticize such retrospective idealizations of national origins, Caminhas
text does offer an account of a relatively peaceful encounter as well as some statements of
admiration for the Brazilian natives whose appearance he quite elaborately describes. Caminha
focuses on people, rather than nature, although when he does depict the natural setting it is with
the imprecise, aggrandized, and instrumentalized vocabulary we are familiar with in Columbus:
very beautiful shores, very extensive forests, endless waters, such that if one cares to profit by
it, everything will grow in it (33).
[1]
More numerous and interesting are his descriptions of the
natives and of the encounter itself. There are several scenes of intermingling between the
Portuguese sailors and Brazilian natives, usually involving music, dancing, and other (unnamed)
forms of diversion (21). These scenes, alongside Caminhas affirmations that the natives
bodies are so clean and so fat and so beautiful that they could not be more so (23), have been
read as evidence of Caminhas genuine respect for Amerindians. Taken together with his claim
that I shall not set down here anything more than I saw and thought, either to beautify or to
make it less attractive (5), most readings of Caminha praiseor at least take for grantedhis
objectivity and impartiality. Comparative readings of Caminhas and Columbuss letters, of
which there are several, tend to offer Caminhas objectivity, and admiration for or
comprehension of Amerindians, as the most salient points of contrast between the two.
[2]
Now, my goal is not to dismiss these contrastive readings but to show some of the traps
that such a comparative approach could lead to (whether in the classroom or in academic
research). It seems to me that these readings suffer from two levels of naivet: first, by taking
Caminhas claims to objectivity at face value. The authors minor role on the expedition, a
scribe rather than the leader and thus with much less investment than Columbus in the accounts
effect on its audience, is perhaps sufficient to explain the lack of conspicuous authorial presence
and intervention that we find in Columbus. But it is also worth pointing out that Caminhas
letter ends with a personal petition to the Crown, similar to that of Columbuss letter to the
sovereigns (as Margarita Zamora has revealed, this the prior, unpublished version of the Carta a
Santngel): to pardon his son-in-law and release him from exile.
Second, if the canonical and comparative readings have underplayed Caminhas selective
interpretation of events or the possibly interested nature of his representations, they have also
offered their own rather selective interpretations of Caminhas text. To return to the example I
just gave of Caminhas difference with respect to Columbus: the description of the scenes of
peaceful intermingling and the context of the expressions of admiration for the Brazilian
natives are rather revealing. With regard to the former, Caminha is careful to present the
movements and interactions in the scenes of contact as orchestrated by the Portuguese: we told
them to draw back and lay down there bows (usually pointing out that some did, but others
didnt) (9, 18, they put them down, and did not draw back much. It is enough to say that they
put down their bows, 14); we showed them sheep, hens, food, wine (which they generally
ignored or disliked) (12); we made signs for them to leave, and they did so (15). One of the
most interesting scenes of interminglingand the one that precipitates the passage I quoted
with regard to the natives health and beautyis when Diogo Dias, an agreeable and pleasure-
loving man, crosses the river to amuse them with his bagpipe-playing and dancing: they
laughed and enjoyed themselves greatly, we read, And although he reassured and flattered
them a great deal with this, they soon became sullen like wild men and went away upstream (22,
my emphasis). The natives departurea moment in which their movements cease to coincide
with Portuguese desiresis suddenly explained in terms of native barbarism. A few sentences
later, Caminha reasserts this association in phrasing reminiscent of Columbus: It suffices to say
that up to this time, although they were somewhat tamed, a moment afterwards they became
frightened like sparrows at a feeding place (22).
The comparison of the natives to animals, specifically birds, continues in the passage that
follows, which contains one of the affirmations supposedly evincing Caminhas admiration for
the Brazilian natives:
The other two [natives] whom the captain had on the ships, and to whom he gave what
has already been mentioned, did not appear again, from which I infer that they are bestial
people and of very little knowledge; and for this reason they are so timid. Yet withal they
are well cared for and very clean, and in this it seems to me that they are rather like birds
or wild animals, to which the air gives better feathers and better hair than to tame ones.
And their bodies are so clean and so fat and so beautiful that they could not be more so;
and this causes me to presume that they have no houses or dwellings in which to gather,
and the air in which they are brought up in makes them so. (23)
This presumption is contradicted on the next page, when the convicts who are continually being
sent among the natives, and who just as insistently are sent away, return with reports of the
housing in the village. In any case, the passage serves as a good example of just what Caminhas
admiration of the natives proximity to nature implies.
I want to conclude, though, with one example of a difference from Columbus that I think is
worth interrogating: that is, Caminhas recognition of a language barrier, and in particular his
recognition of the interested nature of Portuguese interpretations of native speech. This occurs
two days after arrival, when the two natives were brought on board ship. After describing how
they react to the objects shown to them, as well as those which they notice on their own (the
captains collar and rosary beads), Caminha writes: He made a sign towards the land and then to
the beads and to the collar of the captain, as if to say that they would give gold for that. We
interpreted this so because we wished to, but if he meant that he would take the beads and also
the collar, we did not wish to understand because we did not intend to give it to him (13). Such
passages put Columbuss manipulations of native speech in a new light. I usually teach Caminha
before Columbus in order to avoid students assumptions that with Caminha theyre suddenly
getting the truth about the encounter, as well as to make them more attuned to Columbuss
manipulations. I would like to conclude with two questions raised by this brief consideration of
Caminhas Letter: First, how can we read colonial texts about the encounteror passages within
those textsin which authorial intervention and manipulation dont seem to be present, as in the
case I just cited? (i.e., do we have to read all representations of the encounter as only telling us
about the prejudices, preconceptions and preoccupations of the European explorer and writer?)
Second, how can we recognize the differences and local specificities of colonial textsthe
differences that exist between Caminhas and Columbuss representations, for examplewithout
essentializing these differences or using them to posit a broader contrast between cultural and
national histories (such as Brazils peaceful conquest versus that of Mexico or Peru, or the
Portuguese as nicer colonizers than the Spanish or the English)?

Selected Bibliography

Manuscript: Lisbon, Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, gaveta VIII, mao 2, n8.

Editions in Portuguese
Casal, Manuel Aires de. Corografia braslica, ou relao histrico-geogrfica do reino do
Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Rgia, 1817. This text contains the first published edition
of Caminhas letter. Facsimile of this edition: Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional, 1945.

Corteso, Jaime. A Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha. Rio de Janeiro: Livros de Portugal, 1943.
Includes introductory study, facsimile of the manuscript, transcription, modernized
adaptation, appendices of related documents, and bibliography.

Arroyo, Leonardo. A Carta de Pro Vaz de Caminha. So Paulo: Ed. Melhoramentos, 1971. 2
nd
ed. Includes introductory study, facsimile of the manuscript, transcription, modernized
adaptation, glossary, appendices of related documents, and bibliography.

Pereira, Paulo Roberto. Os trs nicos testemunhos de descobrimento do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro:
Ed. Nova Aguilar, 1999. Includes reproductions of earliest maps of Brazil, and two other
brief accounts of Cabral's voyage with references to Brazil (Carta de Mestre Joo Faras
and Relao do Piloto Annimo). Also offers a bibliography of editions and translations of
Caminhas letter.

Editions in English
Southey, Robert. History of Brazil. Vol. I. 2
nd
ed. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and
Brown, 1822.

Greenlee, William Brooks. The Voyages of Pedro Alvares Cabral to Brazil and India from
Contemporary Documents and Narratives. London: Hakluyt Society, 1938. 3-33.
Includes rather extensive footnotes and illustrations.

Ley, C. D. Portuguese Voyages 1498-1663: Tales from the Great Age of Discovery. London:
Phoenix Press, 2000. 41-59. (First published in London by J. M. Dent & Sons, 1947.)



[1]
All citations of Caminhas Letter are from William Brooks Greenlee, The Voyages of Pedro Alvares Cabral to
Brazil and India from Contemporary Documents and Narratives (London: Hakluyt Society, 1938): 3-33.

[2]
See, for example, Jerry M. Williams, Early Images of America in Two Letters of Discovery, Brasil/Brazil 5.4
(1991): 5-22 and Claude Hulet, The Columbus Letter of February 15, 1493, and the Pero Vaz de Caminha Letter of
May 1, 1500: A Comparison, Mester 14.1 (1995): 107-124.