#CIHA202401406Forest Mappings: Brazilwood Extraction and Indigenous Knowledge in 16th-century Brazil

G. Ecologie et Politique
Making Green Worlds (ca. 1492-1700)
E. Wrightson 1.
1University Of Pennsylvania - Philadelphia (États-Unis)

Adresse email : eew@sas.upenn.edu (E.Wrightson)


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Sujet de la session en français / Topic in french

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In a chart labeled “Terra Brasilis,” the 1519 Miller Atlas emphasizes the territory’s economic potential by depicting a seemingly endless forest of lucrative brazilwood ready for European harvest. My paper considers a series of mid-16th-century luxury maps and atlases like the Miller Atlas produced by Portuguese and Dieppe school cartographers, which include elaborate representations of the early modern brazilwood trade. Called pau-brasil by the Portuguese and ibirapitanga in the Tupi language, brazilwood (Caesalpinia/Paubrasilia echinata) was Europe’s primary source of revenue in the early decades of the colonial period, when it was used to produce popular red pigments and dyes. In the Miller Atlas, however, the miniaturist ignored the biodiversity of Brazil’s forests, instead filling the continent’s interior with a homogeneity of brazilwood trees and highlighting their means of extraction —Indigenous woodcutters. The Miller Atlas thus invents an edenic, exploitable “green world” in Brazil, transforming forests into “resources” and Indigenous peoples into “laborers.”

In actuality, the extraction of brazilwood was much more complex. Brazilwood is what anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing calls a “nonscalable” resource – unmanageable, contingent, and perhaps messy. Brazilwood, while initially plentiful, grew in dispersed groves throughout the vast and diverse Brazilian Atlantic Forest. It was impossible to disentangle brazilwood from such a complex ecosystem and restructure it into controlled plantation rows. Brazilwood and its harvesting, I argue, forced Europeans to confront the precarity of their position in Brazil. As such, artists and cartographers producing these 16th-century maps employed imagery that conveyed that precarity in the process of instantiating ways of seeing that enabled the region’s exploitation.

In this paper, I explore moments of tension and contradiction in European mapping used to visualize a new environment and its extractable resources. I highlight evidence of the importance of Indigenous participation in the brazilwood trade. Europeans relied on Indigenous peoples to locate, fell, and transport trees, using specialized knowledge. On one level, these maps cast Indigenous people as (forced) laborers and (un)willing traders of brazilwood with Europeans. However, I claim that European mapping strategies falter as their vision is occluded when it comes to pictorializing brazilwood trees in situ. Placing maps in conversation with 16th-century and modern ethnographic and ecological texts, I propose that such pictorial moments attest to Indigenous botanical and navigational knowledge submerged within an ostensibly European visual document. Furthermore, I point to the proliferation of motifs of deforestation in these maps —bare stumps in growing clearings, mounting shards of discarded wood. This iconography suggests that Europeans were aware of the real environmental impact of their extractivism and the anthropogenic changes being wrought on the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Pictorializing deforestation, I argue, encapsulated European anxieties about the lucrative, but unmanageable, brazilwood trade. 

By focusing on the representation of the 16th-century brazilwood trade, this paper reveals how Indigenous industries and newly-encountered environments destabilized the European colonial gaze, bringing the networks binding colonizers, Indigenous peoples, and land into focus. 

Keywords: extraction, wood, colonial Brazil, mapping, Indigenous knowledge, deforestation



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CV de 500 signes incluant les informations suivantes: Prénom, nom, titre, fonction, institution

Erin Wrightson, PhD Candidate in the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania; 2024 Fulbright Fellow, Recife, Brazil; 2022/2023 Research Fellow, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Supported by Penn/Mellon Just Futures Initiative, Dumbarton Oaks Plant Humanities Program, and Penn School of Arts and Sciences. 




Résumé / Abstract

This paper considers a series of mid-16th-century luxury maps and atlases produced by Portuguese and Dieppe school cartographers, which include elaborate representations of the early modern brazilwood trade. Brazilwood, a red dyewood, was never cultivated commercially, and its extraction relied on Indigenous labor, trade, and experience in forest ecosystems. I highlight moments of tension and contradiction in European mapping strategies; artists and cartographers both instantiated ways of seeing to enable resource extraction while simultaneously conveying European precarity and reliance on Indigenous knowledges. The proliferation of motifs of deforestation in such maps, therefore, encapsulate European anxieties about environmental change and the ultimate success of the colonial project in Brazil.