Analysis: “The Discovery of Brazil,” by Pero Vas de Caminha

The following is an analysis of a letter written to the king of Portugal by Pero Vas de Caminha, relating the ‘discovery’ of Brazil.  The majority of the full text of the letter this is based on can be found here, though the book isn’t in the public domain, so two pages of it are missing from the Google Books preview.  Also, there is no preview in Google Books for “Portuguese Voyages: 1498-1663,” the source I used for the letter, so the link above goes to another book that also contains the document. In the book linked to above, the letter is the first chapter.  I mention this, because the page numbers in the text below won’t correspond to the page numbers in the linked book.

Scan of the letter Caminha sent to the king of
Portugal, Manuel I. Source: Wikipedia.

After spending some time in the newly discovered land of Brazil, which the Portuguese named the “Land of the True Cross,” a professional scribe named Pero Vas de Caminha submitted a letter to the king of Portugal, titled “The Discovery of Brazil.” The letter is dated 1 May, 1500, and presents itself as an informative piece meant solely to relate what Caminha saw to the king. In the introductory paragraph, Caminha humbly introduces himself and makes light of his ability to write. However, a footnote added when the letter was added to the anthology Portuguese Voyages: 1498-1663 (edited by Charles David Ley), lets the reader know that Caminha is a highly trained and professional scribe. So, it is therefore unlikely that he wrote without a purpose, simply repeating what he saw as he claims. After careful reading, the letter appears to be a finely crafted piece of persuasive writing that gives the king every reason he needs to order the colonization of the newly discovered area.

One of the greatest challenges of colonization is local resistance or outright war. Caminha knows this and continually reminds the king that the natives are not aggressive. He does this by slowly revealing over the course of his letter how easy it is to train the local population. His evidence is how quickly they teach the locals to lay down their bows and eventually leave them behind when the Portuguese come ashore to gather supplies, explore, or conduct religious services. The first time Caminha mentions this is when he says that a crewmember, Nicolau Coelho, went ashore and indicated that the natives should put down their bows, which they did (42). This is repeated during each encounter with the natives until they put down their bows before being asked to, “as we had taught them to do” (50). Later, the natives don’t bring bows at all, unless it’s for the purpose of trading them for European items. Caminha’s purpose here is to show that the natives are easily trainable and easily disarmed without the need for violence. Caminha also tells the king that he thinks it would be best to conciliate with and pacify the people rather than use force against them (49). This introduces the king to the idea that he could colonize the land without having to commit many men, making it a low cost venture.

After demonstrating that the natives are not violent, Caminha demonstrates how likely they are to assimilate into Portuguese culture and society as a subject population. He tackles this in a number of different ways. He plays on the king’s desire to convert people to Christianity by emphasizing how easy it would be to bring the natives into the Christian fold. After watching the natives participate in a Mass, he writes to the king, “My opinion and every one’s opinion is that these people lack nothing to become completely Christian except understanding us, for they accepted as we do all they saw us do… they would all be persuaded and converted as Your Majesty desires” (58). He excuses their differences, such as nakedness and body paint, as innocence and incomprehension of European modesty and emphasizes that they could easily accept European values of morality, if given the chance. Caminha made sure to note that many natives attended the mass, even without being able to understand the language, and that afterwards, one man seemed to be trying to explain to others what was going on (57). He must have felt this demonstrated a readiness on the part of the natives to believe in Christianity, which would facilitate integration into a Portuguese empire. The added incentive in this situation is that in addition to aiding assimilation, the conversion of a whole population to Christianity would bring great prestige to Portugal in the eyes of its European neighbors. Caminha goes on by telling the king that the natives have a poor diet of mostly roots and seeds, but took quite readily to European foods, “especially cold boiled ham and rice” (53, 55). He goes on to say that he believes they would come to enjoy wine as well (55). The last bit of evidence he offers for the possibility of easy assimilation is the fact that the natives already live a semi-sedentary life, as evidenced by the “hamlet of nine or ten houses” (53). A sedentary population is more easily managed and tracked than a nomadic one, and a sedentary lifestyle lends itself to agriculture, the possibility of which Caminha also hints at.

Caminha repetitively describes the land as being rich in resources and specifically mentions that it would be good for agriculture. He tells the king, “The country is so well-favoured that if it were rightly cultivated it would yield everything, because of its waters” (59). Immediately after this, he tells the king that he should think first and foremost about ensuring the salvation of the people, but his intent is probably to leave the king with the idea that Portugal’s economy could benefit greatly from introducing agriculture to the natives. Caminha has already told the king there are no native crops to speak of, so he presents an opportunity for immediate returns by stating twice that the land is already rich in dates which he describes as both good and fine (51, 56). He also indicates that the land could be a great source of timber. He says, “The number, size, and thickness of these trees and the variety of their foliage beggars calculation” (56). Timber was an important resource to secure for the building of ships and permanent settlements.

Caminha also spends quite a bit of time in his letter detailing the amount of trade between the Portuguese and the natives. He focuses mostly on the trade of bows and arrows and exotic birds, though he does mention beads as well. It seems as though he’s trying to convince the king that even if the land isn’t cultivated, a lucrative trade can be established with the natives for bows, arrows, birds, and possibly the timber mentioned before. He tells the king that the natives trade their bows and arrows for “hats and linen caps and whatever else we could give them” (50). He also says, “our men exchanged some varvels and other small things of little value… for some very large and beautiful red parrots and two small green ones, some caps of green feathers, and a cloth of many colours, also of feathers, a rather beautiful kind of material…” From these quotes, Caminha apparently places greater value on the items being received by the sailors than what they’re giving up in trade. When mentioned in a letter to the king of Portugal, it hints at the possibility of establishing a trade network that is not only lucrative, but almost exploitative, since the natives did not possess the same standard of value as the Europeans. Caminha probably believed that as long as both parties were satisfied, there was no harm in it, and it could greatly benefit Portugal. One thing that Caminha seemed especially interested in was the potential presence of silver and gold in the discovered land. Unfortunately, he was never able to determine if any existed, but perhaps to add to the king’s interest, he related a story in which the natives seemed to indicate that gold and silver could be found there (44-45).

Caminha gives a good deal of attention to describing how physically fit the natives are. He says that they are “healthy and vigorous” and compares them to wildlife, which gives the impression of a strong and robust people (52 – 55). He tells the king that they enjoy engaging in physical activities, like dancing, and demonstrated an interest in acrobatics (51). To demonstrate how hard-working the natives are, Caminha relates a story about them helping the Portuguese load logs onto a ship. The natives turned the work into a sport and enjoyed themselves, vying with the Portuguese to see who could load the most wood (54). This matters because a population that is healthy and hard-working is productive and adds another reason for the king of Portugal to colonize the land.

The intention of this letter seems less likely to be about informing the king of what Caminha saw in the discovered land and more about presenting the king with options. Caminha gives the king a description of the type of people living in the land and gives a description of positive attributes that would make them good citizens, or at the least good workers. Caminha then tells the king what the land is worth, listing off timber, potential cultivation, a potential for precious metals, and exotic animals. He seems more inclined to utilizing the land for cultivation with the natives as a local work force, given their physical attributes. He probably reasons that if the locals are introduced to agriculture and a monetary system, they could become a large taxable population for the small country of Portugal. However, if the king doesn’t feel like making that sort of investment in time and manpower, he assures the king of the value of the land either through trade or as a temperate, friendly way station for travelers. The amount of timber he describes could easily be used to build and establish a trading outpost. Either way, Caminha seems to be very sure that Brazil is worth colonizing, and that his information is valuable, given his personal request to the king at the end of his letter, lending weight to the idea that his letter is more than just a daily journal.

Note: This essay was graded with an A for content and an A for composition.