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New publication reviews Dutch colonial sources on the Indigenous Brazilian Tapuia people

New publication reviews Dutch colonial sources on the Indigenous Brazilian Tapuia people: ‘For them the Dutch were another piece on the political chess board’

In the 17th century, the Dutch had a short-lived colonial venture on the Brazilian coast. In the time they exploited this region, they documented aspects of the societies they encountered. One of the groups they interacted with was the Tapuia people. The exposure of such documents about Brazilian Amerindians written in 17th century Dutch is very limited on an international level. This work by Mariana Françozo and Martijn van den Bel helps to fill the gap.

An excerpt from one of the documents that was (partially) translated, the roteiro manuscript of Hessel Gerritsz, c. 1629, B-BnRJ MS 1312882; belongs to the National Library of Brazil.

15 colonial documents

The publication, titled The Tapuia of Northeastern Brazil in Dutch Sources (1628–1648), reviews some 15 colonial sources dealing with the Tapuia people. This being just a small selection of the whole body of documents. ‘This selection shows how the Dutch came in contact with the Tapuia,’ Martijn van den Bel explains. ‘The other peoples active in the region, the Tupi, were connected with the Portuguese, so the Dutch focused on their enemies: the Tapuia.’

Mariana Françozo emphasises the importance of the documents: ‘There is a lot of information on the period of Dutch colonial activity in Brazil, at least in regard to the Dutch. The Indigenous side of the story is little known, however.’ The Dutch sources are, obviously, in Dutch, which makes these hard to access by the international academic world. ‘The publication's goal is to share these colonial documents with other scholars and interested parties on Northeastern Brazil.’

Outplaying the Dutch

So what kind of information can be found in the historical records? ‘They give us some hints on how these Tapuia groups were organised,’ Van den Bel notes. ‘For example, there are references to one of the leaders, named Jandui. A very interesting person.’ ‘It's a returning name,’ Françozo adds. ‘Jandui seemed to look at the Dutch as another one of the pieces on the political chess board. He was very aware of what the Dutch wanted and how to outplay them. Of course, the Tapuia were in the end victims of violence, but at the same time they were very intelligent in making their choices.’

Asked about his favorite passage, Van den Bel refers to the running with the logs. ‘The colonial documents mention this sport the Tapuia play. They cut down a big tree, remove the bark, and grease it. Then they put it on their shoulder and run a track.’ You would think that is difficult enough, but no... ‘After that, they have to catch a rat, while still carrying the log.’

The image of the log-run from W. Piso and G. Marcgraf, Historia Naturalis Brasiliae, Leiden and Amsterdam 1648, p.280. No copyrights.

Reconstructing a story

An often-heard critique is that colonial documents are academically unusable due to their prejudices. Françozo disagrees with this notion: ‘There are ways of reading through the documents, sifting through inventions and exaggerations, and still find elements that will help you.’ Van den Bel nods. ‘Sometimes these documents are the only thing we have. I’m an archaeologist, when I pick up a stone or a sherd, I want to know the whole story. And these documents help me to reconstruct one. If you look carefully, you will find that the Tapuia adapted to the rise of the colonial powers. They turn out to be highly adaptable, and thus managed to survive.’

See for more information about the publication the website of the publisher.

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