Newly translated letters offer indigenous take on Brazil’s bloody birth

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: AGB Photo Library/Alamy</span>
Photograph: AGB Photo Library/Alamy

In 1645, a bloody war raged between Dutch settlers and the Portuguese empire over the sugar plantations of north-east Brazil.

Trapped on either side of the conflict were the Potiguara, a powerful indigenous nation whose leaders penned a series of letters in the Tupi language, enticing their relatives to defect across enemy lines.

Now, a painstaking new translation of the correspondence has been hailed as a “huge achievement” in casting new light on these unique sources written by a native people.

The forthcoming publication is the fruit of 30 years of work by Eduardo de Almeida Navarro, a specialist in classical indigenous languages at the University of São Paulo.

“It’s hugely exciting to be able to make this contribution to the history of my country,” said Navarro.

The letters were first uncovered in the Dutch archives in 1885, but the texts were blotted and jumbled. Many words were not in existing glossaries of Tupi, which gives us words like piranha and jaguar. In 1906, one frustrated translator called the letters “genuine enigmas”.

Navarro spent decades compiling a comprehensive ancient Tupi dictionary, drawing on the accounts of French traders and English buccaneers. This helped him fully translate the letters, revealing the desperate efforts of the Potiguara chiefs to save their people from destruction.

Felipe Camar&#xe3;o.
Felipe Camarão. Photograph: Alamy

“Why,” wrote Felipe Camarão, a Potiguara captain fighting for Portugal, “do I make war against people of our own blood? … Come to me and I will forgive you. I will make you one with your ancient culture again. Those that stay there will be destroyed.”

Camarão’s pleas were dismissed: his messenger was executed by Pedro Poti, a rival chief who had spent five years in the Netherlands and converted to Calvinism.

The Dutch were eventually expelled from Brazil. Camarão was knighted; Poti was tortured and died on a ship bound for Portugal. Many Potiguara were massacred, although some held out in the forest.

Navarro’s work has been applauded among the 20,000 Potiguara still living in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Paraíba.

“For us, it’s a huge achievement,” said Pedro Ka’Aguasu Potiguara, a teacher from Ibicoara. “The letters are full of details and information, and very important for our people. They show that, 400 years ago, we were one of the only indigenous peoples that could write.”

Portuguese priests banned the Potiguara from speaking Tupi in the mid-1700s, part of centuries of European “looting, domination and genocide”, he lamented.

But since 2001, with Navarro’s help, his people have been recovering their lost language.

“Before we only spoke a few words. Now, we’ve started teaching Tupi to our kids, through music, singing and writing, up to middle school. They learn really quickly,” said Ka’Aguasu Potiguara, who wants the missives to be brought to Brazil so his people can learn from them in person.

Poti and those who sided with the Dutch are often viewed in Brazil as “traitors”, while Camarão is officially recognised as a hero, said Mark Meuwese, a historian at the University of Winnipeg. The new translation could challenge this two-dimensional portrayal, he suggested.

“Each wanted the best for the Potiguara,” argued Nathália Galdino, a Potiguara student nurse and political activist from Alto do Tambá. “In Felipe Camarão’s letters I can feel his pain, at being divided as a people.

“But those ancestors tried to find a way forward, so that we present-day Potiguara could be alive today, fighting for our culture and raising our children in our own territory,” she added.

“Even if they were on opposite sides, all had the dream of rebuilding their land and continuing their traditions,” agreed Ka’Aguasu Potiguara. “Each of them was a hero.”