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The Curious Bibliography of Empire

Kirsten Schultz

A “bibliographic curiosity.” That was how the Brazilian writer, diplomat, and bibliophile Manoel de Oliveira Lima (1867-1928) described a manuscript that he acquired in 1897 at the auction of another bibliophile, a Portuguese architect named José Maria Nepomuceno (1836-1895), known for designing the panoptic Pavilhão da Segurança, Portugal’s first psychiatric hospital. The author of the manuscript in question was the Portuguese reformer physician António Ribeiro Sanches. Sanches was born in 1699 to a family of New Christians, people whose ancestors had converted from Judaism to Christianity after late-fifteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese rulers expelled Jewish vassals from their territories. In 1726, to avoid an Inquisitorial investigation into accusations that he secretly practiced Judaism, Sanches began a life-long exile that took him to Paris, London, and Leiden, where he studied with the Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), and to Russia, where he served as a physician in the imperial army, and became a member of the celebrated St. Petersburg Academy. Back in Paris in the late 1740s, Sanches completed his most widely read work, Dissertation sur l’origine de la maladie vénérienne [Dissertation on the origins of venereal disease] (Paris, 1750), the basis for his entry on venereal disease in Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie (1771).

While Sanches’ public reputation thus rested on his ability to heal the human body, in  “Discursos sôbre a America Portugueza [Discourses on Portuguese America],” Sanches set aside the problem of contagious disease to focus instead on another kind of malady: the apparent decline in Portuguese power and prosperity. Oliveira Lima detected in its pages the influence of Luís da Cunha, a Portuguese statesman who served the crown in Paris, and who Sanches met in the Hague, and then reencountered in Paris two years before Da Cunha’s death in 1749. Indeed, like Da Cunha’s political writings, “Discursos” expressed concern with Portugal’s economy, the need to promote industry and a positive balance of trade with commercial rivals and between Portugal and Brazil, and the extent to which religious intolerance and clerical indolence undermined the generation and circulation of wealth. And like Da Cunha, Sanches went beyond critique of the status quo to offer a program of reform.

Asserting that both an excessive bellicosity, and the extension of Portugal’s laws and political institutions to extra-European territories were misguided, “Discursos” distilled a contemporary mercantilist defense of commerce, and provided a blueprint for making territories under European rule into colonies. All aspects of colonial society, economy, and politics, Sanches explained, should be predicated on the colony’s function to produce wealth for the metropole, either through the extraction of commodities or the consumption of goods manufactured in metropolitan centers. More specifically, this entailed ruling through a simple set of laws, distinct from those of Europe, that both reinforced hierarchies within the empire, and the lack of hierarchies within colonial society. The function of colonies also meant there was no need for educational institutions in them. A lack of education, and of other forms of training would keep down the costs of labor, according to Sanches, and therefore the price of what was produced, as well as the number of men seeking to enter the priesthood and other sorts of honorific status and idleness. As Sanches explained, apart from the hierarchy of sovereign and subject, forms of distinction were not befitting colonies; nor were colonies places for the manufacturing of goods. While Brazil, with its overwhelming dependence on slavery, warranted an exception for the production of course cotton clothing for enslaved people, the fabrication of goods, including textiles, arms, paper, and books, should be prohibited. The logic of these metropolitan-colonial arrangements could be captured in the image of a capital city, where artisans and men of learning lived, and the surrounding villages, whose inhabitants produced “raw materials”1 to be sent to the city for fabrication and consumption. Such an arrangement, Sanches explained, ensured the circulation of goods and, as a consequence, the maintenance of the state. 

When it came to Brazil, some of Sanches’ recommendations amounted to a codification of the status quo; the mid-century expulsion of the Jesuits had left institutional education in disarray and, in contrast to Spanish America, Brazil did not have a printing press until 1808. Yet Sanches recognized that some settlers, especially those who had served the crown in its endeavor to take possession of American lands, would regard other aspects of his guidance as unjustly reducing their status. In this case, he explained, mercantilist logic would dismantle the conflict. Those in Brazil with resources could send their children to Portugal for their education. As the Brazilian-born stayed on and sent for their assets, the wealth of the colony would circulate to the metropole. Education in Portugal would also inculcate a patriotic love for Portugal and, for some, lead to royal service in the monarchy’s territories other than Brazil. Brazil would be left with a laboring population less likely to rebel, Sanches concluded, and more dedicated to the production of raw materials.  In short, although neither imperial hierarchies nor the extraction of wealth from Portuguese America were new, with the “Discursos,” Sanches sought to reinvigorate Portuguese power by elucidating the premise and practice of empire in Brazil through the lens of contemporary mercantilist ideas.  

I came across “Discursos” over a decade ago on a visit to the Oliveira Lima Library at Catholic University in Washington D.C. to research the eighteenth-century Portuguese empire. While the observations, arguments, and tropes Sanches offered in the manuscript, including his disdain for “Gothic” governance, resonated in his other writings, I was struck by the extent to which Sanches had inquired into the Portuguese empire and the question of colonies. “Discursos” was “bibliographic curiosity” for me too, because it seemed that, since Oliveira Lima, few, if any, scholars had examined or written on the manuscript. Although the work was noted by the great nineteenth-century bibliographer Innocencio, who had seen it, the author of an early twentieth-century biography reported that he was unable to locate it, and a lengthy study of Ribeiro Sanches published in 1998 did not include a reference.  

Written in his Sanches’ hand, and dated December 3, 1763, the “Discursos” was initially 124 numbered leaves, but in the current binding, as Oliveira Lima purchased it, almost fifty leaves are missing. The manuscript also includes a letter to an unidentified addressee dated October of the same year. Oliveira Lima described the work as addressed to Luís da Cunha. Since Da Cunha had died in 1749, this may be a reference to his nephew Luís da Cunha Manuel, at the time the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs and War. Innocencio, in turn, claimed that the work was written at the request of Marquis of Pombal, prime minister during the reign of José I (1750-1777), while an early twentieth-century biographer cited Sanches’ connections to the Portuguese representative in Paris. Whether a version of the manuscript, which bears the editorial markings of a draft, reached the reader Sanches intended remains unclear. Yet “Discursos” undoubtedly represents his commitment to an exchange of ideas with people who could influence Portuguese imperial policy as well as recognition by those in power that Sanches had something to offer. As his notebooks and correspondence reveal, he read widely and critically on imperial history and law as well the work of French and British economic writers including the recently, and anonymously published, Elements of Commerce (1754) by Forbonnais. Already in the 1750s, he had prepared a report on colonial governance. Around the time he wrote “Discursos” he also signed a report on the commercial and medicinal potential of American natural resources. And while 1763, and the end of the Seven Years’ War, was an especially crucial time for scrutinizing imperial policy, Sanches continued to think and write about colonial governance in the years before his death in 1783. Thus, while a bibliographic curiosity, “Discursos” is also an important artifact of the intellectual inquiries that animated the eighteenth-century Portuguese empire. 

  1. “Discursos,” f17.

Kirsten Schultz teaches Latin American history at Seton Hall University. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University, and other organizations.

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