Review: Picturesque, book narrates saga by Gonçalves Dias traveling with camels through the sertão


At first glance, only lysergic levels of imagination would be able to conceive the romantic poet Gonçalves Dias (yes, the one in “My land has palm trees/Where the thrush sings”) trying to “drive” camels in the vicinity of Fortaleza (CE) with help of young Bedouins.

The scene, however, not only really happened, but was royally financed by the imperial government of Dom Pedro 2º, as part of the first 100% Brazilian scientific expedition (except for the desert animals and their drivers, of course – these were natives of Algeria, then under French rule).

The saga of Gonçalves Dias and his companions on the journey into the hinterland is told in “Catorze Camelos Para o Ceará”, a work by journalist Delmo Moreira who recently arrived in bookstores.

It is a book to be read in one sitting, picturesque and good-humored in its details, unusual in its approach and, at the same time, capable of providing a kind of intensity about the deep Brazil of the mid-19th century. In fact, a profound Brazil that it is not separated from us by such a huge abyss, judging by such things as disputes over funding to finance national science, excessive bureaucracy and prejudice against basic research, which supposedly “doesn’t work” – all things that Brazilian scientists today know it well.

Begun in January 1859, with the departure of a multidisciplinary team of specialists from Rio de Janeiro to the capital of Ceará, the expedition emerged, in part, as an attempt to show that imperial Brazil was so capable of obtaining valuable scientific data about its territory. as to the incursions made in the country by European naturalists in previous decades.

At the same time, there were somewhat unrealistic (and, as it turned out later, completely unfounded) expectations that the geological surveys carried out by the commission would reveal great mineral wealth in the northeastern interior – there was even talk of imitating the gold rush that had enriched the California a few years earlier.

There was no lack of interesting figures in the list of personalities that made up the Imperial Scientific Commission for the Exploration of Northern Provinces, as the undertaking was officially known.

From a strictly academic point of view, the main name was the physician and botanist Freire Alemão, a man of humble origins who corresponded with the main naturalists in Europe. Gonçalves Dias, in addition to being a poetic genius, was an excellent ethnographer, in part because his partially indigenous origins made him feel at home among native peoples. Guilherme Schüch, future Baron of Capanema and childhood friend of Dom Pedro 2º, was an engineer and mineralogist, while Manoel Ferreira Lagos would be in charge of the zoology work on behalf of the National Museum.

What about camels? Well, the 14 desert ungulates –to be more exact, were dromedaries, with a single hump– were part of a parallel project to acclimate the species to the semiarid region of the Northeast. They arrived at the Fortaleza by sea, in a clumsy disembarkation, and spent some time getting fatter and getting used to the new surroundings while the imperial commission did not leave for the caatinga.

After the adventures of Gonçalves Dias on small trips with the animals, the group members ended up deciding that it would be a lot of work to employ the newcomer species and appealed to better known pack animals. The situation would end up inspiring a samba-plot by Empress Leopoldinense, with the title “A donkey that carries me is better than a camel that knocks me down… there in Ceará”.

And the fact is that most of the expedition’s members turned the trip into their own private Carnival. The bad tongues in the court of Rio came to dub the undertaking the “Deflowering Commission”, because of the gossip about the amorous conquests of Gonçalves Dias and other members of the team among the girls of Ceará. The poet and his colleagues even prepared more than one house in the vicinity of Fortaleza just to house the lovers.

If the gossips were right in this regard, one cannot accuse the team of lack of work capacity even with the flirtation impetus. The journeys through the interior allowed the collection of thousands of specimens of animals and plants, some of which belong to species never described before. On the anthropological side, the members of the commission were keen observers of backland customs, revealing how the region was still almost isolated from what was happening in the centers of power in the Southeast.

It is ironic that a large part of the samples brought by the expedition members were destroyed by the fire at the National Museum in 2018. If the apparent Brazilian inability to do justice to its own past has become commonplace, it is also indisputable that knowing the picaresque stories of the book is a way to get it back despite the flames.


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