Quest for Permanence in the Tropics: Portuguese Bioprospecting in Asia (16th-18th Centuries)

In: Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient

The history of agricultural, botanical, pharmacological, and medical exchanges is one of the most fascinating chapters in early modern natural history. Until recently, however, historiography has been dominated by the British experience from the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, with Kew Gardens at the center of the “green imperialism.” In this article we address the hard-won knowledge acquired by those who participated in early modern Portuguese imperial bioprospecting in Asia. The Portuguese were the first to transplant important economic plants from one continent to another, on their imposing colonial chessboard. In spite of this, the history of Portuguese bioprospecting is still fragmentary, especially with respect to India and the Indian Ocean. We argue not only that the Portuguese—imperial officials, missionaries, and the people connected with them, all living and working under the banner of the Portuguese empire—were interested in gathering knowledge but also that the results of their endeavors were relevant for the development of natural history in the early modern period and that they were important actors within the larger community of naturalists.

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  • 2

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  • 16

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  • 25

    Brian W. Ogilvie, The Science of Describing: Natural History in Renaissance Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006): 5-8.

  • 27

    Augusto da Silva Carvalho, Garcia d’Orta (Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade, 1934), 107-112. According to this author, most of the physicians in Goa were surgeons who were not necessarily accomplished humanists, as Orta was.

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  • 30

    Jaime Walter, “Simão Alvares e seu rol das drogas.” Studia 10 (1962): 117-149; Donald Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe: The Century of Discovery (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 2/2: 429. Álvares’s text is published in António Alberto de Andrade Banha, “Drogas do Oriente (no v Centenário do Nascimento de Vasco da Gama).” Arquivos do Centro Cultural Português 3 (1971): 112-188.

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  • 34

    Palmira Fontes da Costa, “Geographical Expansion and the Reconfiguration of Medical Authority: Garcia de Orta’s Colloquies on the Simples and Drugs of India (1563).” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 43 (2012): 74-81.

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  • 35

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  • 36

    Costa, Tractado delas drogas: 227.

  • 41

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  • 49

    Teresa Nobre de Carvalho, “Imagens do mundo natural asiático na obra botânica de Cristóvão da Costa.” Revista de Cultura (Macao) 20 (2006): 37. Da Costa published two more treatises on moral and spiritual topics, Tratado en contra, y pro de la vida solitaria (Venice, 1592) and Tratado en loor de las mugeres (Venice, 1592).

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  • 67

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  • 73

    Charles Borges, The Economics of Goa Jesuits, 1542-1759: An Explanation of their Rise and Fall (New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company, 1994): 82.

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  • 79

    Ray Desmond, Great Natural History Books and Their Creators (London: British Library and Oak Knoll Press, 2003): 40. See the excellent pioneering work by Giuseppe Olmi, “Lavorare per i libri degli altri. Padre Matteo di S. Giuseppe, medico, botanico e disegnatore di piante, ‘qui nomine suo nihil edidit’.” In Belle le contrade della memoria: Studi su documenti e libri in onore di Maria Gioia Tavoni, ed. Federica Rossi and Paolo Tinti (Bologna: Pàtron editore, 2009): 53-79. One copy of his Viridarium orientale is preserved in the Muséum de l’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, ms. 1764. We have consulted Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma, Vittorio Emanuele ii, mss. Rari, Fondi Minori, Santa Maria della Scala, Varia, ms. 178, but the most interesting volumes, in which botanical and spiritual obsessions of the author are displayed in hundreds of drawings, are preserved in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, ms. Redi 186 and ms. Mediceo Palatino 29 (1-8 vols.).

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  • 88

    Duarte Ribeiro de Macedo, Obras ineditas de Duarte Ribeiro de Macedo, Desembargador dos Aggravos da Casa da Supplicação, Cavalleiro Professo da Ordem de Christo, e Concelheiro da Fazenda de Senhor Rei D. Affonso Sexto (Lisbon: Impressão Regia, 1817): 130.

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  • 91

    Duarte Ribeiro de Macedo, Obras inéditas: 122.

  • 93

    M. da Costa Nunes, Documentação para a historia da Congregação do Oratório de Santa Cruz dos Milagres do Clero Natural de Goa (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos, 1966): 649. The situation became embarrassing when these promises were not kept, and the king was becoming impatient. The missionaries tried to wriggle out of the situation by denouncing the Dutch control of the maritime trade between the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka. Moreover, every shipment of goods sent from Goa for missionary use, such as tobacco, and other objects needed for church service had a difficult route, and by the time it reached the missionaries, if it ever reached them, its contents had diminished by half or more. Ines G. Županov, “Goan Brahmans in the Land of Promise: Missionaries, Spies and Gentiles in 17th-18th Century Sri Lanka.” In Portugal-Sri Lanka: 500 Years, ed. Jorge Flores (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2006b): 171-210.

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  • 94

    Borralho and Fortes, “Do Jardim de Éden às Terras de Vera Cruz,” 71-93; Capistrano de Abreu, Diálogos das grandezas do Brasil, 30. “E é tanto isto assim, que não faltam autores que querem afirmar estar nesta parte situado o paraíso terreal, e fortificam sua razão com dizerem que a Equinocial partia o dia pelo meio.”

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