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Bernardino Gomes' quest for 'local knowledge': ipecacuanha in Brazil around 1800

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In the 18th and 19th centuries, dried ipecacuanha root was highly sought after in Europe because of its medicinal effectiveness as an emetic, but little was known about its geographic origin and the plant itself. Bernardino Gomes (1768–1823), a Portuguese physician, was the first to describe in detail how the roots were collected and traded in Brazil while participating in a military expedition along the Atlantic coast between 1797 and 1801. His treatise (1801) also provided a comprehensive botanical description that was later translated into Latin and published in the Transactions of the Linnean Society by his colleague, Félix de Avelar Brotero (1744–1828). Gomes’ observations can be analyzed in the context of Portugal’s efforts to gain ‘local knowledge’ on the Brazilian territory and its resources. This entanglement of scholarly and economic interests is particularly visible in Gomes’ concern about the plant’s increasing rarity. Ipecacuanha was not systematically cultivated, but collected in the Atlantic Forest by predominantly indigenous collectors. The demand for the roots had grown significantly during the 18th century and already, the plant had become extinct in some regions. This talk examines where and by which methods Gomes acquired knowledge on ipecacuanha as well as the applications he envisioned for his findings. It is part of a larger ongoing project in which I aim to contribute to critical examinations of colonial science and commerce, especially regarding Europe’s appropriation of plant resources and indigenous knowledge.

This talk is part of the Cabinet of Natural History series.

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