Considering its obvious importance, it is lamentable that the maritime history of colonial Brazil has never received the systematic attention that it merits. In an effort to throw new light on one aspect of that topic, José Roberto do Amaral Lapa has reinvestigated the old question of whether colonial Brazil really served as a way station for ships plying between Portugal and India, the carreira da Índia. Nearly thirty years ago Alexander Marchant concluded on the basis of printed sources that between 1500 and 1730 only “about twenty single ships, broken off from the main fleets by some extraordinary circumstances,” actually tarried in Brazilian ports (Geographical Review, XXXI [July 1941], 454-465). Amaral Lapa has diligently examined archival sources in Brazil, Portugal, and Spain for his dissertation (University of Marília, 1966) and finds that Marchant considerably underestimated the number of such emergency stops. According to his calculations, there were twenty-four between 1503 and 1600, seventy-one between 1608 and 1699, and 158 between 1700 and 1799. Indeed, with rare exceptions, the Crown did not favor such calls. For one thing, they inevitably led to costly delays in the ships’ arrivals at Peninsular or Indian destinations. Also it cost more to repair and refit them in Brazilian yards than at Lisbon or Goa, and the king’s officers always suspected that the naus’ crews used their opportunities in Brazilian harbors for illicit trade. For their part, skippers on the India run justified their visits to Brazilian ports on the usual grounds—shortages of fresh water and provisions, outbreaks of scurvy, or serious structural damage caused by storms.
Amaral Lapa estimates that ninety percent of such emergency calls were made at Bahia, colonial Brazil’s long-time administrative capital, its most active port, and the locus of its oldest and most fully engaged shipbuilding and repair facilities (the others being at Belem and Rio de Janeiro). He discusses in detail all aspects of maritime conditions in and about Bahia, devoting particular attention to the abundance of certain raw materials essential for ship construction, notably fibers and hardwoods, and stressing the perennial shortage of skilled ship artisans, a major factor in the slowness and costliness of repairs at Bahia.
The informative text is fully documented and is accompanied by numerous tables, several appendices, a useful glossary of technical terms, an extensive bibliography, and two indexes. Though the book is addressed to specialists, readers of Bahia e a carreira da Índia will find it a well-organized, enlightening study.