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Letter of Pêro Vaz de Caminha

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Letter of Pêro Vaz de Caminha

In his letter to Manuel I of Portugal, Pêro Vaz de Caminha gives what is considered by many today as being one of the most accurate accounts of what Brazil used to look like in 1500. "Arvoredo Tanto, e tamanho, e tão basto, e de tanta folhagem, que não se pode calcular", which roughly translates as "Such vastness of the enormous treeline, with abundant foliage, that is incalculable", is one of Pêro's most famous descriptions.

The admiral of the ship that sailed to Brazil sent Nicolau Coelho out to interact with the natives. The people they encountered when they arrived in Brazil were living in the Mesolithic period (start of change from a hunther-gatherer lifestyle to an agricultural and sedentarian one). They were brown and reddish-skinned and completely unclothed. Also, their languages were divided in four major families with many isolates, and even related languages and dialects were likely to not be mutually inteligible, so they had to communicate through actions and sign languages. They tried to give the natives things to eat such as bread, fish, cakes, honey and even wine. The natives took one taste of the things then spit them all out. They also tried to give them just water but the natives only swashed the water in their mouths, then spit it out. The one thing they did consent to was a cloak they could use to cover themselves while they slept.

One of the admiral's objectives with the natives was to get them to accept Christianity. They set up a cross in the village of the natives and the explorers all went up, knelt in front of it and kissed it, to show the natives the importance of the symbol and their love of Christianity.

He describes on a diary form the first journey from Portugal to Brazil and their arrival in this country. This letter is considered the first document of the Brazilian history as much as its first literary text. The original of this 27-page document can be found in the Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, Lisbon.

Contents

General description of the native people
"A feição deles é serem pardos, um tanto avermelhados, de bons rostos e bons narizes, bem feitos. Andam nus, sem cobertura alguma. Nem fazem mais caso de encobrir ou deixa de encobrir suas vergonhas do que de mostrar a cara. Acerca disso são de grande inocência." They are brown skinned, of a quite reddish complexion, with handsome faces and noses, in such "scarved" features. They go about naked, without clothing. They do not bother about to cover or to uncover their bodies, and show their private parts as readily as they show their faces. In this matter they are of great innocence.
"... andam bem curados, e muito limpos. E naquilo ainda mais me convenço que são como aves, ou alimárias montezinhas, as quais o ar faz melhores penas e melhor cabelo que às mansas, porque os seus corpos são tão limpos e tão gordos e tão formosos que não pode ser mais!" ... they take a good care of themselves and they are really hygienic. In that I am convinced they are like birds, or mountain animals, with whom the "air" (referring to refreshing hygiene habits) does better to feathers and hair than the comfort [of the lack of regular washing and grooming], because their bodies are so clean and so plump and in such nice shape that could not be better!
"E não comem senão deste inhame, de que aqui há muito, e dessas sementes e frutos que a terra e as árvores de si deitam. E com isto andam tais e tão rijos e tão nédios que o não somos nós tanto, com quanto trigo e legumes comemos." They only eat this "yam" (referring to the manioc, then unknown to the Europeans), which is very plentiful here, and those seeds and fruits that the earth and the trees give of themselves. Nevertheless, they are of a finer, sturdier, and sleeker condition than we are for all the wheat and vegetables we eat.


Comments on the native women, comparing them to European women.
"Ali andavam entre eles três ou quatro moças, bem novinhas e gentis, com cabelos muito pretos e compridos pelas costas; e suas vergonhas, tão altas e tão cerradinhas e tão limpas das cabeleiras que, de as nós muito bem olharmos, não se envergonhavam." Walking among them there were three or four women, young and gentle, with their hair very black and very long, loose to their backs; their private parts, so prominent and so neat, and so clean of their hairs that we, by very much looking at them, did not get ashamed.
"E uma daquelas moças era toda tingida de baixo a cima, daquela tintura e certo era tão bem feita e tão redonda, e sua vergonha tão graciosa que a muitas mulheres de nossa terra, vendo-lhe tais feições envergonhara, por não terem as suas como ela." One of those young women had the whole body painted, from bottom to top with that tincture, and sure she was so good shaped and so rounded, and her private part so graceful that most women in our land, if had seen those features would feel abashed for not having their own like she has hers.


External links

  • (Portuguese) A Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha
  • (Portuguese) A Carta de Pero Vaz de Caminha
  • The Letter of Pero Vaz de Caminha
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