BARROS, João de (1496-1570)
Historian, geographer, author of an important collection of writings on moral, pedagogical and grammatical topics, and a highly placed public official in the Portuguese court of Dom João III. Probably born in Viseu in an aristocratic family, he moved into the royal court at a very early age, where he learned Latin, mathematics and Humanities with other young noblemen.
His Crónica do Imperador Clarimundo (Chronicle of Emperor Clarimundo, 1522), a chivalric novel praising the imaginary origins of the Portuguese Royal House, marks his first appearance as a writer. The hero, Fanimor, foretells in an epic-like prose the forthcoming glories of the Kings of Portugal. The novel is basically a ?rehearsal? for the author?s most cherished undertaking. In fact, having been born two years before Vasco da Gama arrived in India, João de Barros was, at the time, already nurturing the wish to narrate the deeds of the Portuguese in the East.
King Manuel was so pleased with the Chronicle that assigned to its author the mission of writing about the East, since the purpose of glorifying the deeds of the Portuguese had ?never hitherto met a suitable person to be entrusted with the task? (Decade I, Prologue). The King?s death stopped the project, since the succeeding monarch, King João III, charged Barros with the command of the Elmina Castle, a post he probably never held, though he might have travelled to Saint George.
In 1525, Barros was appointed treasurer of the Houses of India, Mina and Ceuta, and was thus occupied until 1528; in 1533, he was made factor of the House of India, a more prestigious post, which he held for thirty five years. In 1535, in the ambit of the Portuguese royal policy of attracting settlers to Brazil, he received the captaincy of the extensive coastal territory from Rio Grande to Maranhão, with Aires da Cunha, also a nobleman, with seafaring experience, and Fernão Álvares de Andrade, High Treasurer of the Kingdom of Portugal. The three governors prepared in Lisbon a sumptuous expedition with the purpose of taking office. The armada set sail by the end of 1535, but suffered shipwreck while approaching Maranhão. Besides the tragedy it entailed, the shipwreck also brought a serious financial loss on João de Barros, a blow he would never recover from. It was after this disastrous episode that Barros volunteered to ?write about the things of India?.
Besides being a highly considered Royal official for more than thirty years, João de Barros also kept an intense activity as a writer. Possessing a solid humanistic education as well as an ample erudition, Barros produced a remarkable historiographical work, while simultaneously publishing writings of a diversified nature: in 1532, Ropicapnefma (meaning ?Spiritual Merchandise?), shows the influence of Erasmus; between 1539 and 1540, a set of outstanding grammatical, pedagogical e didactic volumes, such as a Grammar of the Portuguese Language, were published, among others that were lost; circa 1543 he wrote the unpublished, by Inquisition?s order, Evangelical Dialogue about the Articles of Faith, against the Talmud of the Jews. In 1567, he retired from the post of factor of the House of India, and withdrew to his country house at Ribeira de Litém, near Pombal. He died in 1570.
João de Barros is best known as an historian. His lifelong project, Asia, is the ?crown of glory? of his activity as a writer, a massive work, written after the model introduced by the Roman historian Titus Livy, divided in three parts: the Conquest is about the feats of the Portuguese in the four continents: Europe starts with the Romans, Africa begins with the taking of Ceuta, Asia with Infante Dom Henrique (Prince Henry, the Navigator), and Brazil with the year of its discovery, in 1500; the Navigation section was conceived in order to describe the ?universal geography of all that was discovered?, and in Trade the author aimed at describing all natural and ?artificial?, products ?used by mankind?, weights and measures, prices and exchanges. This was an ambitious project, planned on a world scale, of which only a very small part is known, namely the one associated with the ?militia? of Asia. It is common knowledge that most of the Geography and Trade sections were written, though they didn?t survive the test of time. Barros eventually gave up writing the parts concerning Europe and Africa. Unlike other historians, like Gaspar Correia, Fernão Lopes de Castanheda or Diogo do Couto, João de Barros never left the kingdom, except for the trips to Mina and Brazil. Although he never travelled to the East, he enjoyed, as factor of the House of India, a direct and privileged access to all information concerning political, military and naval matters, often hearing first-hand reports from the very protagonists of the events. He had also direct access to regulations, itineraries, reports, letters and commercial documents regarding both Africa and the East. His historiographical work is therefore closely tied to his career. The author of Asia didn?t confine his sources within the Portuguese sphere, nor limited the influences received to his well-known Greek and Latin writers, or to the many Christian authors who had taken Marco Polo?s example with regard to the interest concerning Eastern matters. He sought to ground the history of the East on his own sources, which he recurrently quotes in the Decades. For example, he was acquainted with the chronicles of the kings of Quiloa, Ormuz, Guzarate or Bisnaga, he mentions the Lorigh or Tarigh, a kind of summary about the kings of Persia, ?which we have in our power, in Persian language? (I, book 1, chapter 1). The pages on China belonging to the lost Geography were based on a cosmography book ?which was brought to us from there and interpreted by a Chinese? especially engaged to perform that task (I, book. 9, chapters 1,2,3).
The Decades of Asia were published on a discontinuous rhythm. Decade I was printed in 1552, and II in 1553, but III wouldn?t come out until 1563, and IV would only be published in 1615, in a revised and updated version by João Baptista Lavanha, long after the historian?s notes went through a period of turbulent wanderings following the author?s death. Diogo do Couto, chief keeper of Goa?s archives, who was at the time the Royal Chronicler, carried on the work started by Barros in the Decades. His Soldado Prático (Practical Soldier, ed. 1790), portrays the decay of the Portuguese Empire, describing the gloomy side of an expansion whose glorious dimension was historically recorded by Barros?s Decades, and fully conveyed by Luís de Camões?s epic poem, The Lusiads, published in 1572.
As chronicler of the Portuguese deeds in the East, in addition to being a friend and panegyrist of Dom João III, João de Barros was a notable spokesman of the Crown?s expansionistic ideology. In return, he was distinguished by the monarch with several favours and important administrative posts. Notwithstanding this emotional proximity with the King, his idea of History led him to write with unquestionable accurateness, vast erudition and on a grave and lofty language. We find in his narratives not only the cautious style of the courtier attending to his sovereign, but also the Humanist undisputed notion that a hero should have his share of glory. Hence the praise of some of the Empire?s protagonists, like Vasco da Gama, Francisco de Almeida, or Afonso de Albuquerque, with the omission of episodes that might shake these heroes? dignity. For instance, Barros leaves out of his narratives the attempted upheaval that blemished the first voyage of Vasco da Gama; says nothing about Afonso de Albuquerque?s cruel acts towards the vanquished populations; omits the differences opposing the latter and the Viceroy, Francisco de Almeida, with the confessed purpose of ?not staining the writing of such illustrious deeds with hatred, envy, greed, and similar names of bad consequence? (II, Book 3, Chapter 9). At the same time, the war against the Muslims and the plea for expanding the Christian faith in remote Eastern lands were viewed as the continuation of past campaigns, formerly set in Spain and Africa, and now staged on a different geographical location. It was still widely held that the ?holy war? was the only fair and legitimate kind of armed conflict. Moved by this conviction, Barros incited Dom João III to wage ?war against the infidels and African moors; and, stirred by the most holy zeal, turn Ethiopia, Arabia, Persia, and India into the true faith of Christ [?] because this [war], being fair, brings great reward and honour upon the Christian king.?
On the other hand, we find in this author a remarkable anthropological awareness leading the way towards a new historiographical style. His writings exhibit a comprehensive description of Eastern geography and civilizations, parallel to the ability to portray other cultures and social systems in all their specific traits. An example of this pioneering sensibility towards the Other may be found in the description of Diogo de Azambuja?s arrival in Guinea and his meeting with the native ruler Caramansa , or of the encounters between Vasco da Gama and the Catual and the Zamorin of Calicut, or even in the description of China. The attention to details and the ability to contemplate foreign ways guide the historian to the disturbing awareness of the relative value of civilizations. The case of China provides a good example. The historian stands before the colossal empire in admiration. The enormous effort spent in describing the geographical, economical, political and administrative aspects of that country reveals the historian?s respect for a refined and, in some aspects, superior culture to the one he was born into. His description is detailed and passionate. Above all, the grace and refinement of the customs earn his favour. A supreme compliment is addressed to the Chinese people when Barros perceives in it ?all the things that brought praise upon Greeks and Latins? (III, Book 2, chapter 7).
Barros?s historiography presents, therefore, some remarkably modern traces. The role played by geography in interaction with history, the emphasis placed on economical and commercial matters, the attention bestowed upon the diversity of cultures, institutions and social systems, beside what is commonly regarded as his Eurocentric tendency and ideological commitment, raise João de Barros to an important position among Renaissance Portuguese and European historiographers.
 Translated from the Portuguese.
 The name of the ruler may derive from a corrupted form of Kwamin Ansa (King Ansa) or from the Portuguese ?cara mansa? (meek face).
 Indian word used to name the chief minister of the Zamorin.
 Ancient sovereign of India.
BAIÃO, António, "Documentos inéditos sobre João de Barros, sobre o escritor seu homonimo contemporaneo, sobre a familia do historiador e sobre os continuadores das suas 'Decadas'", Boletim da Segunda Classe da Academia das Sciencias de Lisboa, vol. XL, 1917, pp.202-355. BARROS, João de, Ásia de Joam de Barros. Dos Feitos que os Portugueses fizeram no Descobrimento e Conquista dos Mares e Terras do Oriente. Primeira Decada, 4ª edição revista e prefaciada por António Baião conforme a edição princeps, Coimbra, Imprensa da Universidade, 1932. BARROS, João de, Gramática da Língua Portuguesa. Cartinha, Gramática, Diálogo em Louvor da Nossa Linguagem e Diálogo da Viciosa Vergonha, reprodução facsimilada, leitura, introdução e anotações por Maria Leonor Carvalhão Buescu, Lisboa, 1971. BUESCU, Ana Isabel, ?A Asia de João de Barros. Um projecto de celebração imperial?, D. João III e o Império. Actas do Congresso Internacional Comemorativo do seu Nascimento (Lisboa e Tomar, 4 a 8 de Junho de 2002), ed. dirigida por Roberto Carneiro e Artur Teodoro de Matos, Lisboa, CHAM e CEPCEP, 2004, pp. 57-74. FARIA, Manuel Severim de, "Vida de João de Barros", Discursos Varios Politicos, Évora, Manuel Carvalho, 1624. SARAIVA, António José, "Uma concepção planetária da história em João de Barros", in Para a História da Cultural em Portugal, 5ª edição, vol. II, Lisboa, Livraria Bertrand, 1982, pp.263-283.
Author: Ana Isabel Buescu
Translated by: Leonor Sampaio da Silva