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“葡萄牙发现巴西”Report on “the discovery of Brazil”


Report on “the discovery of Brazil”

(Ma Guang)


This is a letter to John , Don Manual (1495-1521) which was written by Pedro Vaz de Caminha in Porto-Seguro of Vera Cruz on 1st May, 1500. In this letter, the writer selected some important things which he saw during the voyage to describe to the king objectively.[1] After reading his letter seriously, we can get some following information of the native people and early contacts of Portuguese with them.


Painting, hair, clothing and body  

There were different styles of paints on the native people’s body. Some of them were painted red, or black, or in quarters, both on body and legs, which looked very well. They all had their lips pierced and some had bones in them, but many had not. They put these bones in from inside the lip and the part which is placed between the lip and the teeth is made like a rook in chess. They fitted them in in such a way that they did not hurt them nor hinder them talking or eating or drinking.[2] All their foreheads were painted with black paint form temple to temple.[3] “Others, again, wore three sticks, on in the middle and one at each side. Others were covered with a motley paint, that is to say, half of them was their own colour and half was covered with a black, slightly bluish paint. Others were painted in quarters.”[4]


They were not used to wearing cloth, so after two of them were wore cloth they were again naked soon.[5] When they slept, they did not try to cover up their private parts in any way, which were not circumcised and had their hairs well shaved and arranged.[6]


Young women were very pretty and had abundant long black hair down their backs. One of them had a thigh black painted from her knee to her hip and her buttocks, and otherwise she was of her natural colour. Another was painted round the backs of her knees and on the palms of her feet; her private parts “were all naked and ingenuously uncovered, and there was no immodesty at all in this.”[7]


Their hair is straight. Some of them sheared their hair with sharp stones, but leaved it a certain length, not cutting it to the roots
, though they shaved it above the ears. “One of them had on a kind of wig covered with yellow feathers which ran round from behind the cavity of the skull, form temple to temple, and so to the back of the head; it must have been about a hand’s breadth wide, was very close-set and thick, and covered his occiput and his ears. It was fastened, feather by feather to his hair with a white paste like wax (but it was not wax), so that the wig was very round and full and regular, and did not need to be specially cleaned when the head was washed, only lifted up.”[8] 


Contacts with each other

On 23rd April, they first met the native people, Tupi Indians. When they first contacted, both sides were friendly and there was no fight against each other. At first when they met they did not understand what each other said, so they had to make signs to each other and the signs worked. When Nicolau Coelho made a sign to Tupi Indians to put down their bows, they put them down. They always had a long and black bow and arrows with them.[9] When a seaman showed the native people a ram, they took no notice of it, but when they showed them a hen, “they were almost afraid of it and did not want to take it in their hands; finally they did, but as if alarmed by it.”[10] 


At first, when they were given bread, sweetmeats, cakes, honey, dried figs by Portuguese, which they never saw before, they would hardly eat anything of all this, even if they tasted it, they spat it out at once. When they were given wine, they also did not like at all and merely sipped it. When they were given water in a pitcher, they just “took a mouthful, but did not drink it.”[11] Maybe they were afraid that these foods and drink were poisonous and dared not to eat and drink them.


When they became known to each side, most of them began to believe in Portuguese, but some of them still had their bows and arrows with them because they did not trust Portuguese.[12] Some fearless people even more encourage and could go to contact with Portuguese without any bows and arrows straight away and did not try to escape. Then they were “so intimate with us that they almost hindered us in what we had to do.”[13] When they were given food and drink, they ate very heartily of everything that was given to them, especially cold boiled ham and rice, and at last some even dared to drink wine.[14]



Although they both did not understand what the other side said, when they first met, they made a trade with each other. When Nicolau Coelho threw the native people a red cap, and a linen bonnet he had on his head, and a black hat, one of the native people threw him “a hat of large feathers with a small crown of red and grey feathers,” which the writer thought was a parrot’s, and another gave him “a large bough covered with little white beads which looked like seed-pearls.”[15] They local people showed their friendship to Portuguese: they bought gourds of water to them and filled barrels Portuguese had with them. Local people gave Portuguese some of their bows and arrows in exchange for hats, varvels, bracelets and linen bonnets and for anything they were willing to give them.


Portuguese wanted to ask them whether there was gold in that land or not, but unfortunately, they did not understand them.[16] However, maybe at that time the local people had known that there were gold and silver, for they began to point towards the land as if there were gold and silver when they saw the admiral’s collar and a silver candlestick, and there may be parrots there.[17]



The native people liked dance. When they were pleased, they would dance to express their emotion. Their dances were usually accompanied by instruments and singing. When they were dancing, they were “opposite each other, but without touching hands,” which maybe was different with Portuguese, who so felt surprised with their dance. When one Portuguese began dancing with them taking them by the hand, they “laughed and were please and danced very well with him to the sound of the bagpipe.[18]


House and food

At first, Portuguese had no chance to find the native people’s houses because the native people did not allow them see them. At last, they were allowed to see the native people’s houses. Those houses were each as big as flagship and were made of wooden planks sideways on. “Their houses were fairly high and the roofs were straw. Each enclosed a single space with no partitions, but a number of posts. High up from post to post ran nets, in which they slept. Down below they lit firs to warm themselves. Each house had two little doors, one at one end and one at the other. Thirty or forty people were lodged in each house.”[19] When it was getting late, however, they soon made all Portuguese turn back because they would not let any of them stay there night, though they gave one of them bows and arrows and took nothing that was his.[20].


They had nothing made of iron to cut their wood and sticks with stones fashioned like wedges which they fit into a stick between two laths which they tie up very tightly to make them secure. [21]


The native people did not plough or breed cattle. There were no oxen, goats, sheep, fowls, duck or dog, nor any other animal accustomed to live with man. They only ate this inhame, which consisted of plenty of mandioc and other seeds. Nevertheless, “they were of a finer, sturdier, and sleeker condition than we are for all the wheat and vegetables we eat.”[22]


Geography and Environment

The environment of that place was very good and there was no pollution. The water of river was good and plentiful. There were a few but very high palms along the river with very dates in them.[23] In some parts there were great banks along by the shore, some of which were red and some white; inland it is all flat and very full of large woods. The trees were big and the land was very extensive. The air was very healthful and the water was plentiful and infinite. On 22nd April, they found the mountain Easter Mount, which in one of the highest mountains in the province of Bahia, and the country the Land of the True Cross.[24] There were many trees on some mountains, in which they came across the birds called “belly-rippers” on 22nd April.[25] There were many doves and parrots in the trees. Some of parrots were green, others grey, some big, others little. There were some rock pigeons which may be bigger than those in Portugal.[26]  



When one native people saw the white beads of a rosary, he made a sign to be given and put them round his neck and was very glad with them. Then he returned them.[27]


When Portuguese heard Mass, the native people with their bows and arrows just sat relaxed looking at them. When the Mass was over, and Portuguese started to listen to the sermon, many of them got up and played on horns or shells and began to leap and dance.[28]


At last, before Portuguese leaved, some native people were hung a crucifix round their necks. Portuguese thought they were superior to these native people and should convert them to catholic to salvage them. 


From this important letter which is a piece of primary material, we can get lots of information of the native people, such as painting on their body, their hair, clothing, religious, customs, geography, environment, and their first contact with Portuguese, etc, which are all useful for us to understand what the early local people look like, and how they lived there, and what was the respond to Portuguese.  


[1] “I shall not set down anything beyond what I have seen and reflected on, either to add beauty or ugliness to the narrative.” The Discovery of Brazil, in Charles David Ley (ed.), Portuguese Voyages 1498-1663, London, J. M. Dent, 1953, p. 40.

[2] The Discovery of Brazil, pp. 43-44.

[3] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 53.

[4] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 46.

[5] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 46.

[6] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 45.

[7] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 50.

[8] The Discovery of Brazil, pp. 44.

[9] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 54.

[10] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 44.

[11] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 45.

[12] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 48.

[13] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 54.

[14] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 55.

[15] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 42.

[16] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 50.

[17] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 44.

[18] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 51.

[19] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 53.

[20] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 52.

[21] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 54.

[22] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 56.

[23] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 51.

[24] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 42.

[25] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 42.

[26] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 54.

[27] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 45.

[28] The Discovery of Brazil, p. 48.


“葡萄牙发现巴西”Report on “the discovery of Brazil” - 半省堂 - 1