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Production, Communication, and Comprehension of Knowledge of the New World: Ethnographic Descriptions in Caspar Barlaeus’ Rerum per Octennium

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This article deals with the textual legacy of Dutch Brazil, in particular the ethnographic descriptions in one of the most popular works about the colony: Barlaeus’ Rerum per Octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum. Barlaeus never set foot in Brazil, but was an important Dutch intellectual authority in the seventeenth century. To compose the Rerum per Octennium, he relied on a wide variety of available sources, not only firsthand observations, but also classical, biblical and other contemporary sources. From these, he made a careful selection to produce his descriptions. Recent research shows that the Dutch participated in networks of knowledge and imagination as well as in a more familiar early modern trading network. This article reveals that Barlaeus’ descriptions not only circulated as knowledge, but also produced new knowledge. The Rerum soon became one of the standard works about the colony due to the importance of its author and its composition. Furthermore, the article discusses the rhetorical techniques used in some selected descriptions in order to shed light upon the strategies Barlaeus used in his discourse on the strange reality of the New World. For example, his ethnographic descriptions employed parallel customs or events from the classical Antiquity or the Bible. In these comparisons he displays both his intellectual capacities and shows his desire to comprehend this exotic reality.

Affiliations: 1: Ghent University, E-mail:


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