Carl von Martius, the German who explored the bowels of Brazil and ‘baptized’ our nature

By | January 31, 2019

In the novel Cem Anos de Solitude , the writer Gabriel García Márquez describes Macondo as such a new place that things even lacked name and needed to be pointed with the finger. For in Brazil at the beginning of the 19th century, the situation was not very different, at least in relation to the exuberant nature, hitherto practically unexplored.

In this scenario, two Bavarian naturalists, the botanist Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius (1794-1868) and the zoologist Johann Baptist von Spix (1781-1826) disembarked at the port of Rio de Janeiro in 1817, precisely with this mission: to study and to give name to things. In the case, the Brazilian nature, whose inventory was practically whole to do. And they did it. For three years, between 1817 and 1820, they traveled more than 14,000 kilometers in the interior of what is considered the largest scientific expedition to explore the Brazilian fauna until today.

More than 22 thousand species of plants were collected, studied and cataloged. According to experts, it is almost half of all species of Brazilian flora known to date. The studies of von Martius and von Spix were so complete that we owe them the natural division of Brazilian territory into five biomes as we know it today: Atlantic Forest, Amazon, Caatinga, Cerrado and Pampa.

Geographical TabletRight of imageDISSEMINATION / EDITORA CAPIVARA
Image captionDupla collected 22,000 species of plants in the 19th century, almost half of all Brazilian species known to date

“Von Martius was decisive for the Brazilian botany. In addition to the greater classification of the flora of our history, he was responsible for the first phytogeographic organization of the country, which we now call biomes and are used, for example, in IBGE studies”, explains the historian Pablo Diener, who, along with the historian and wife, Maria de Fátima Costa, recently released the album Martius (Editora Capivara, 376 pages, R $ 195).

In the book the authors detail the preparations for the expedition of von Martius and Spix in Munich in the then Bavarian kingdom in 1815, where they lived and were attached to institutions dedicated to the natural sciences, such as the Royal Academy of Sciences Bavaria and the Royal Botanic Gardens of Munich. At the time, European rulers were interested in sending expeditions to Brazil, then United Kingdom of Portugal and Algarves, for scientific and political reasons.

“It was a project with which the Bavarian state sought to show itself to the world as a cultured and strengthened nation, through a great scientific achievement: an expedition,” says a passage from the book. “It was sought to know and to explore a country with famous natural riches, but still surrounded in mysterious auras, and on which the information was coveted by the great European institutions.”

But such a project was neither easy to execute nor cheap. Although they had the support of the Bavarian king Maximilian Joseph I, the trip was only completed in 1817, but Maximilian, who had good relations with Austria, obtained a ride for the two scientists in the retinue that would take the archduchess to Brazil Maria Leopoldina of Austria, to marry with Prince Pedro I, future emperor of Brazil.

In Brazil, they set foot on the road, or rather the rivers, roads and open roads in the middle of the dense forest, on an expedition that would last for the next three years, collecting, studying and recording everything they saw ahead. They left Rio de Janeiro and passed through states such as São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Bahia, Piauí, Maranhão, Pará and Amazonas.

These stories would later become the book Viaje pela Brasil , where both tell the story, which for most of the journey can be considered an adventure. If today it is not easy to travel by land more than 14,000 kilometers inland Brazil, imagine at that time when little was known of the interior, with precarious instruments of orientation and survival and without much notion of what they would find ahead.

In the northeastern sertao, for example, von Martius describes his affliction as he crossed the dry caatinga, which he said was only a poor region of water and sparse forests: “Cactaceans of strange shapes defend their last breaths of life with poisonous thorns , bromeliads whose tapered leaves sometimes conceal a miserable sip of turbid water. ” He does not hide his affliction by crossing “hideous caatingas” between the Paraguaçu and San Francisco rivers, in the beginning of 1818, besieged by the lack of water day and night.

“They learned to travel traveling, without a definite route and traversing spaces that had no idea of ​​existence,” explains Diener. But the sensitivity of the naturalist knew how to differentiate, by climate and vegetation type, when they entered different regions, which helped in the later composition of the “kingdoms of the flora” of the country, as von Martius called the Brazilian biomes. While the Atlantic Forest was “luxuriant and luxurious,” the Amazon rainforest, by its grandeur, looked “intimidating”. In Minas Novas, in Minas Gerais, they entered a region of “low trees, with twisted branches and wide foliage”, that later would be known as Brazilian Cerrado.

The route was traced empirically and according to what they encountered along the way where, in addition to flora and fauna, they also made contact with travelers, merchants, local populations and, of course, Indians who were also studied.

A curious passage of the entourage is the district of Bento Rodrigues, Mariana (MG), stage of the environmental tragedy that occurred after the rupture of a mineral waste dam in 2015. “We went to the camp of Bento Rodrigues and spent the night in a ranch, where, once again, we enjoy the beauty of the landscape of the Caraça mountains, “von Martius described.

Back in Munich in 1820, one of the great concerns of the Bavarian naturalists was to catalog and publish the results of the trip to Brazil as soon as possible. The hurry was justified: if they delayed, other European naturalists, who also traveled to Brazil at the same time, such as the French Auguste de Saint-Hilaire, could compromise the pioneering Bavarians.

In 1823, the duo released the first volume of Viaje by Brazil . Another two volumes would be released in 1828 and 1831, but without the collaboration of Spix, who had already died. Through their work in South America, the two naturalists were honored on their return with titles of nobility and incorporated “von” to their names. Martius then became von Martius.

The most important work of von Martius came later with Flora Brasiliensis (Flora Brasileira), a monumental work divided in 15 volumes and 40 parts published after 1840 and dedicated to the Brazilian flora. Part of the edition became only viable with the financial help of the emperor Dom Pedro II, with whom von Martius exchanged correspondence and was a well-known enthusiast of the natural sciences. In total, 22,767 species of plants are collected, described and analyzed.

During the years in which he studied Brazil, Martius counted on the help of 65 scientists from various countries to elaborate the volumes of Flora , whose last part was published well after his death in 1906. The exchange of information and correspondence with botanists and scholars, including Brazil, helped him to compose the map of the “kingdoms of flora”, the Brazilian biomes.

“The scientists helped him with information about places he knew little or maybe even knew, like the pampas,” explains Diener. “He had an immense capacity to gather and associate information about flora, fauna, climate, hydrography and other elements of nature for a natural classification of the spaces, which are the biomes”, completes the coauthor of von Martius.

“His interest was encyclopedic and resounding at the time. Nearly half of the Brazilian plants we know today in Brazil were classified by von Martius,” explains Diener. In the inventory prepared by the naturalist and the scientists who helped him in the elaboration of Flora , Diener highlights the most diverse types of palm trees. “The palm tree is the plant that defines the landscape of what it calls tropical America,” the historian adds.

The greatness of the work of von Martius and von Spix did not relieve him of controversy, especially in relation to what they considered “superiority” of the European people, especially in comparison with the Indians and Africans. This alleged superiority, in their view, was due to the backwardness of these populations in places such as remote America and Africa. In various letters sent to Europe they expose this Eurocentrism, something common among travelers at the time, according to experts.

Throughout the decades of studies and reports on Brazil, von Martius, according to the scholars of his work, gradually lost this Eurocentric feeling, leaving great contributions to the study of the Brazilian Indians, including native language classifications. “The first classification and organization of the indigenous language groups in Brazil was done by Martius,” says Diener.

“It is necessary to understand the context of the time when they lived to believe in this supposed European superiority. It was very common for scientists in Europe at the time to do this classification of races, something that of course is not accepted today,” explains the doctor in History of Science Waldir Stéfano, professor of the Biological Sciences course at the Mackenzie Presbyterian University.

He compares von Martius’ legacy to that of another famous naturalist, the British Charles Darwin (1809-1882), father of the theory of evolution and author of the book The Origin of Species . “The importance of Martius for botany is the same as that of Darwin for the origin of species,” Stéfano says.

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