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GEORG MARKGRAF (1610-1644)

The Dutch West India Company was chartered in 1621 for the purpose of “colonization and commerce through conquest” (Boxer 1973, 7). Its first target was the northeast Atlantic coast of the Portuguese colony of Brazil, an area rich in sugar production. The company wrested control of the area around Recife but was forced to wage a nearly constant campaign against insurgent Portuguese and Indian elements for the twenty-four years (1630-54) that the occupation lasted. Such success as the Dutch enjoyed was largely the result of the leadership of Johan Maurits, the aristocrat engaged as governor-general of the colony.  Maurits, although the product of a strict Calvinist culture, tolerated the religious practices of Jews and Catholics, tried to protect the interests of the local Portuguese planters, and treated most every class of people, slaves included, with an even hand. He “fell in love with Brazil from the moment he stepped ashore” (ibid., 70), and, when not concerned with administrative and military duties, he devoted his energies to the natural world, constructing gardens and zoos and bringing to Brazil scientists and artists to explore and describe the new Dutch possession.  One of the scientists he engaged was Georg Markgraf, twenty-eight years old when he arrived in Brazil in 1638. He was a “trained and professional scientist” (Whitehead 1979, 424), among the first to engage with the New World, and though he spent only six years in Brazil, his accomplishments were many.  He devoted two years to astronomy, while also compiling the first detailed meteorological records from South America; as a cartographer, he helped create some of the best early large-scale maps of Brazil, published in 1647.

But it is as a naturalist that Markgraf is chiefly remembered. He was an advocate for the new empiricism being taught in Europe, and regarding his explorations in and around the Dutch colony, he declared, “I will not write about anything I have not actually seen and observed” (ibid., 154). He collected all kinds of plants, mammals, insects, reptiles, and, of course, birds. Of his work on birds, Elliott Coues remarks, “We have here the first description and primary basis of many species,” after which he lists the many scientific and vernacular names for bird families that are derived from Markgraf (jacana, ani, jacamar, toucan, aracari, etc.) (Coues 1878-79, 239-40).  The Dutch period in Brazilian history ended with a whimper. Maurits was recalled in 1644; relations with the local population soured; guerilla bands harassed the Dutch in the interior; and the little colony was often near starvation. Maurits’s splendid houses were torn down to build fortifications, but all was for naught, and the Portuguese retook Recife in 1654.  By then Markgraf had been dead for ten years. He had left Brazil in 1644, heading to West Africa, where he died only a few weeks after landing. The cause of his death remains a mystery, as do most of the details of his brief life. Even the spelling of his name is uncertain – it can be found rendered in a half dozen different ways.