Epidemics helped build Amazonia’s colonial society

The 17th and 18th centuries saw various epidemic outbreaks in the north of Portuguese America, a region roughly corresponding to modern Brazilian Amazonia. In the 1660s, 1690s, 1720s and 1740s, its population was devastated by bexigas, the name by which smallpox was known at the time, and also measles. Their heaviest impact was on the indigenous population working for the Portuguese colonists and their descendants.

Historians working at the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) tried to understand the impact of these epidemics on the region. Their research has revealed the relation between the irruption of diseases and the interest in augmenting the trade in African slaves to the region, intensified search for indigenous workers in the extensive depths of the Amazonian forest and the recruitment of soldiers to rebuild the debilitated troops responsible for defending that vast frontier region.Based on archival material that includes colonial chronicles and documents exchanged between the region’s authorities and the Crown and its advisors in Lisbon, the historical work done in Pará highlights the role of epidemics in shaping the diverse groups making up colonial society. They helped shape its demographic composition and the way in which that society treated indigenous labour, essential to the functioning of its economy, not only by force of the high death toll, but also of the population’s recomposition with the arrival of new contingents of Indians from the interior, African slaves and soldiers recruited from the Madeira Islands, notably at the end of the 17th century.Rafael Chambouleyron (professor of the Faculty of History), Benedito Barbosa (MA from UFPA and professor of the Pará State Education Department), Fernanda Bombardi (graduate in History from UFPA and today MA candidate at the University of São Paulo) and Claudia Sousa (graduate in History from UFPA) had the support of CNPq and Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado do Pará.

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