An unwelcome reception

As Andrea Wulf wrote in her November 14 post, captain James Cook wasn’t well received by the viceroy Antonio Rolim de Moura of Rio de Janeiro when his ship the Endeavour made a stop at that city in November 1768. The Portuguese just couldn’t believe that he was on a scientific mission to observe the transit of Venus from the South Seas. Only the commander and sufficient men for organising supplies were allowed to come ashore, while the rest of the crew had to remain on the ship, rigidly guarded by a Portuguese vessel. Joseph Banks, one of the scientists of the expedition, wasn’t therefore able to study the largely unexplored flora and fauna of the country, much to his displeasure. In an attempt to be allowed ashore, he wrote a letter to the viceroy on November 17:

I ask, therefore, leave to go on shore, taking with me proper People who may assist me in collecting and examining such Trees, Shrubs, Plants, Birds, Beasts, Fishes and Insects as I may meet with. The Collection and examination of such things being the sole business I have undertaken in this Voyage, this is the only indulgence which I ask.

And, if the viceroy was still not convinced of the scientific nature of the mission, Banks proposed that

To prevent any suspicion of my acting otherwise, it is also my desire that I may in the execution of this be attended by any Person or persons whome Your Excellency shall chuse, who may be eye-witnesses of every thing which I do, and may serve to convince You that nothing was meant in the fitting out of this Ship but the promotion of Learning in general.

An exchange of letters between Banks and Rolim de Maura followed, but no no avail. His letter to the viceroy is in a temperate language, but in another letter to his friend William Philip Perrin dated December 1, he speaks freely about his frustration, which he experiences as a Tantalus punishment. Everything he wished to examine was in sight, could almost but not quite be touched.

Before you receive this you will have traveld over Alps & Appenines, & seen the customs of many nations & peoples, but never, I will venture to say, met with so illiterate, unhumanizd and, I may say, Barbarous a set of people as I am now in the Possession of. Three weeks have I been laying at an anchor in this river, the banks of which are crowded with plants, animals &c. such as I have never seen before. All this time have I not been permitted to set my foot upon the land because forsooth the Gentry here think it impossible that the King of England could be such a fool as to fitt out a ship merely to observe the transit of Venus, from hence they Conclude that we are Come upon some other Errand, which they think to disapoint.

James Cook, in a November 30 letter to Charles Morton, Secretary of the Royal Society, also complains about the unheard treatment by the viceroy:

The account we gave of our Selves, of being bound to the Southward to observe the Transit of Venus / a phenomenon they had not the least Idea of / appeared so very strange to these narrow minded Portuguese that they thought it only an invented Story to cover some other design we must be upon, this I believe to be the reason for the unpresidential reception we met with here.

Banks, in another letter to Morton, illustrates the ignorance of the people by giving an account of Rolim de Maura who, after being told that the ship was fitted out to observe the transit of Venus, asked whether that was the passing of the North Star to the South Pole. At the end of his letter to Perrin, after describing the deplorable state of the city’s defence as seen through his spying glass from the ship, Banks suggests:

Surely, if the Portuguese continue to treat us as they have for some time done, a fleet of ships sent here would be a medecine very easily administerd, & very likely to make a complete Cure. But this is a measure so contrary to the present politicks of our country that, much as I should from revenge wish it, I cannot hope to See it.

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