Cultural Contributions

Retrieving Brazilian history

The winner of the fourth edition of the Clarival do Prado Valladares Award, scholar Maria Lęda Oliveira will republish the original manuscript of the first History of Brazil, completed in 1630

written by: Karolina Gutiez
photo by: Eduardo Moody

Friar Vicente do Salvador, a Franciscan missionary and historian born in Matuim, on the outskirts of the city of Salvador, in 1567, would be very pleased to know that the manuscripts of his “History of Brazil,” written between 1626 and 1630, are being retrieved and restored after nearly four centuries. Maria Lęda Oliveira Alves da Silva, the winner of the fourth edition of the Clarival do Prado Valladares Award, is responsible for the project titled “History and Politics in 17th-Century Bahia – Friar Vicente do Salvador’s History of Brazil,” which will publish the original version of the first Brazilian history book – a milestone in the political culture of the Portuguese Empire and, above all, Brazil.

The only known original records of Friar Vicente’s work, which form the basis of Maria Lęda’s study, are codices 24 and 49, which belong to Torre do Tombo, the Portuguese Government’s central archives. Neither of them is complete. The first dates from the 17th century, and contains two chapters that are missing in codex 49, written in the 18th century. However, the second one is the most authoritative text.

Two other figures devoted themselves to retrieving Friar Vicente’s work before Maria Lęda, who has a PhD in the History and Theory of Ideas from the New University of Lisbon. The Brazilian historian Joăo Capistrano de Abreu published two books on it in 1888 and 1918, without having access to the original manuscripts. He based his work on a manuscript copy sent from Lisbon by copyists. Then, Friar Venâncio Villeke published his version of the History in 1965 after studying codices 24 and 49. “Both editions have serious problems when it comes to establishing the definitive text. The outcome of both authors’ work has been the publication of a History of Brazil that bears little resemblance to the original. It is more like a patchwork quilt, stitched together at random,” says the scholar, explaining what led her to take up this project.

Maria Lęda is republishing the codices according to the rules of transcription, retaining apparent errors and canceled text, illustrations, etc., based on the rules of Paleography, the study of ancient forms of writing, including dating and deciphering the manuscript and determining its origins and interpretation. She based her work on codex 49, with a few allusions to and some information from codex 24, which are always duly referenced and fact-checked. In previous editions, the authors grafted one codex onto another – out of ignorance rather than irresponsibility – using the most interesting data from each.

In addition to reproducing the History of Brazil in the first volume, the book will also include a second volume on the life of Friar Vicente do Salvador, the historiography of the Baroque period, the political significance of the work, and its impact on scholarship and use as a reference work by other authors. This new publication will be profusely illustrated with nearly 180 maps produced by the Portuguese between 1500 and 1650 that have never been published together before.

“Until now, we lacked an edition that faithfully restored the textual tradition of the manuscripts and provided an analysis of Friar Vicente’s political ideas,” underscores Maria Lęda. The Franciscan historian saw Brazil as a key part of the Portuguese Empire, both politically and economically. Back in the 1600s, he discussed the idea of transferring the Portuguese Court to its colony, which actually did take place in 1808. “Friar Vicente was keenly aware of the historical situation in the past and present, while attempting to find solutions for the future. He stayed abreast of the unstable world and fragile conditions of the Portuguese Empire.”

Maria Lęda began this study for her PhD dissertation, and her research has taken her to nearly 20 archives in Portugal, Italy, France and Brazil. “Winning the Clarival do Prado Valladares Award and the Odebrecht Group’s sponsorship will make it possible to bring together the work and its iconography in a publication that is worthy of its subject matter and does justice to Friar Vicente and Capistrano de Abreu,” says Maria Lęda.

Book will be launched in November
An initiative of the Odebrecht Group, the Clarival do Prado Valladares Award is bestowed annually on an original research project on the history of Brazil. Odebrecht is responsible for providing the resources required to carry out the winning project, from research to the publication of an illustrated book. The deadline for submissions for the fifth edition of the award was March 31, 2008, and 335 entries were received overall.

The book that will result from the “History and Politics in 17th-Century Bahia – Friar Vicente do Salvador’s History of Brazil” project will be launched on November 27 in the city of Salvador, Bahia.