The Santas Casas da Misericórdia in Asia, Africa and Brazil

  • A. J. R. Russell-Wood


Portuguese chroniclers went to great lengths to stress the divine nature of the expansion. But even they became confused by the increasing presence of Mammon. The crusading zeal, not to say obsession, which had led to the capture of Ceuta in 1415, became blended with the realisation of the profits in gold and slaves to be gained from the regions of the Niger and Senegal rivers. Although the sixteenth-century chronicler, João de Barros, affirmed that the fort of S. Jorge da Mina (started in 1482) was the ‘foundation stone of the Church in the Orient’, in reality it was never more than a trading post.1 Exploratory probings along the west African coast and the psychological as well as physical passage beyond Cape Nun, culminated in the rounding of the Cape of Good Hope by Bartholomeu Dias in 1488. This maritime achievement had its terrestrial counterpart. Pero de Covilhã left Lisbon in 1487 and travelled overland to the coast of Malabar, returning via the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the east coast of Africa where he was possibly the first European to visit Sofala. While in Cairo he managed to send to Dom João II a report containing details of the spice trade. He then went on to Abyssinia where he was held by the legendary Prester John. It is not certain if Dom João II ever saw this report; if he did the details of the spice trade must have weighed as heavily on the mind of the king, if not more so, as the physical achievement of the rounding of the Cape.


Seventeenth Century Royal Decree Trading Post Divine Nature West African Coast 
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  1. 1.
    João de Barros squared his conscience by saying that the Negroes found most alert in trade would be most suitable for conversion, Asia. Dos feitos que os portugueses fizeram no descobrimento e conquista dos mares e terras do Oriente. 4 Décadas (4 vols., 6th ed., Lisboa, 1945–6), primeira década, livro 3, capítulo I. For a description of this fort see A. W. Lawrence, Trade Castles and Forts of West Africa (London, 1963), pp. 103–15.Google Scholar
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    Travels in India by Jean Baptiste Tavernier (2 vols., London, 1889; trans. by V. Ball), vol. 1, p. 198. In 1675 John Fryer praised the treatment of the sick in the Royal Hospital, but observed that ‘ The Physicians here are great Bleeders, insomuch that they exceed often Galen’s advice, ad deliquium, in Fevers; hardly leaving enough to feed the Currents for Circulation; of which Cruelty some complain invidiously after Recovery’, John Fryer, A new account of East India and Persia being nine years’ travels 1672–1681 (3 vols., Hakluyt Society, London, 1909–15) vol. 2, p. 14.Google Scholar
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    José Caetano Soares, op. cit., p. 12. This contrasts with the praise of Galeote Pereira and Gaspar da Cruz for the hospitals of mainland China about the same time, C. R. Boxer, South China in the Sixteenth Century (London, 1953), pp. 30–1 and p. 123.Google Scholar
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    This Regimento is published in I. Accioli-B. Amaral, Memorias historicas e politicas da provincia da Bahia (6 vols., Bahia, 1919–40), vol. r, pp. 263–74.Google Scholar
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    F. A. de Varnhagen, História geral do Brasil (2 vols., Rio de Janeiro, 1854–7), vol. 1, p. 303Google Scholar
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    Lycurgo Santos Filho, História da medicina no Brasil (2 vols., São Paulo, 1947), vol. 1, p. 350.Google Scholar
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    The staunch defender of the primacy of the Misericórdia of Olinda was F. A. Pereira da Costa, Anais pernambucanos (7 vols., Recife, 1951–8), vol. 1, pp. 213–15, but this is doubtful.Google Scholar
  17. 3.
    In addition to Felix Ferreira, A Santa Casa da Misericórdia Fluminense (Rio de Janeiro, 1898), see Duarte Nunes, ‘Notícia da fundacão da Santa Casa da Misericórdia’ in Revista do Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasileiro, tomo 21 (Rio de Janeiro, 1858), pp. 158–60 for a 1567 foundation. Jozé Vieira Fazenda, ‘A Santa Casa da Misericórdia do Rio de Janeiro’, idem, tomo 69 (1908), pp. 7–51, attributes the foundation to Anchieta. For a review of the evidence and the publication of a letter of Anchieta of 1584 which clarifies his rôle, see Serafim Leite, op. cit., vol. 2, pp. 577–8; his assertion that the Misericórdia existed since the foundation of the city, based on the dubious premise that this was the case else-where, must be qualified (op. cit., vol. 2, p. 578, n. 2).Google Scholar
  18. 4.
    Ernesto de Sousa Campos, ‘Santa Casa da Misericórdia de São Paulo’ in Revista do Instituto Histórico e Geográfico de São Paulo, vol. 64, 2a parte (São Paulo, 1949), p. 25.Google Scholar
  19. 5.
    The only evidence for an earlier foundation is a letter from Dom João V dated 17 March 1718 granting financial aid towards the cost of finishing the church and hospital of the Misericórdia, ‘a primeira e mais antiga que houve, e há naquelle Brazil’, cited by Carlos Ott, A Santa Casa de Misericórdia da cidade do Salvador (Rio de Janeiro, 1960), p. 124, n. 14.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© A. J. R. Russell-Wood 1968

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. J. R. Russell-Wood
    • 1
  1. 1.St Antony’s CollegeOxfordUK

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