Doing historical research in Brazilian archives on the three centuries of colonial rule—extending from the Portuguese discovery in 1500 to formal independence in 1822—has always been a major challenge. Due to a variety of factors—some bureaucratic, others climatic—Brazilian archives have not traditionally been the most apt place to store the historical sources for this period. In 1838, Emperor Dom Pedro II (known for his patronage and his eagerness to construct an identity for the young Brazilian nation) founded the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasileiro (IHGB) and sent research missions to Europe in search of sources for the writing of Brazil’s colonial history. In other words, shortly after the end of colonial rule, the government already lamented the dearth of colonial-era source documents under its own administrative authority.

It soon became evident that those missions to European archives—which included some of the most renowned officials of the Brazilian empire, such as...

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