Roger Lee de Jesus

University of Coimbra, Centro de História da Sociedade e da Cultura

Notes on Information and Paper in Motion Across the Portuguese Empire

The voyage of Vasco da Gama between 1497–99 marked the beginning of the Portuguese Empire in Asia. After some years of apprenticeship of the Asian commercial routes and the different political realities,About this idea of apprenticeship see Jean Aubin, ‘L’apprentissage de l’Inde. Cochin 1503-1504,’ in Le Latin et l’Astrobe. Recherches sur le Portugal de la Renaissance, son expansion en Asie et les relations internationales (Lisbon: CCCB/CNCDP, 1996), 1:49–110. King Manuel I named D. Francisco de Almeida the first viceroy of the Estado da Índia in 1505. With this nomination, the monarch gave this area of the empire a certain autonomy. His successor, Afonso de Albuquerque (governor between 1509 and 1515), managed to expand the Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean with the conquest of Goa (1510), Melaka (1511) and Hormuz (1515). Commerce, warfare and diplomacy were central elements of this empire which, at its maximum extension, stretched from the eastern coast of Africa to Japan and from the Persian Gulf to Timor, and was formally known as the Estado da Índia (State of India) from the 1540s onwards.For an overview of the history of the Portuguese Empire: Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Portuguese Empire in Asia, 1500–1700: A Political and Economic History (2nd ed., Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012) and A. R. Disney, A History of Portugal and the Portuguese Empire, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

The logistical needs to administrate this imperial space were considerable but are scarcely known and studied. To understand this problem, it is necessary to recognise the difficulties caused by the dimension of this presence in Asia and by the relation between distance and time that separated Europe from the other side of the globe. For example, the annual connection between Lisbon and India called the Carreira da Índia (India Run) relied on a voyage of approximately 15 months, three of which were spent in India and the rest at sea. This reality required careful and thorough planning of the administrative, financial and military activities since news of the annual voyage would only arrive more than a year after its departure and was naturally outdated by months. With space as ‘public enemy number one’ (as Fernand Braudel put it), Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (London: Collins, 1972),  1:355; about the translation of the expression into English, see Geoffrey Parker, Emperor. A New Life of Charles V (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 653, note 25. the Portuguese kings had to overcome these problems by replicating administrative institutions throughout the empire and naming officials to manage and maintain its always outnumbered presence. This practice was nothing new, as expansion towards North Africa and the colonisation of the Atlantic archipelagos in the fifteenth century led to an increasingly bureaucratic system built to regulate the new commercial flows.

An empire built upon these conditions relied primarily on gathering knowledge and information. Not only information about its current standing, but also wider intelligence about the regions in which it operated. The process of discovery (from a European point of view) of the maritime route to Asia was only possible through intelligence gathering regarding the place of arrival. For instance, in 1488, Pêro da Covilhã and Afonso de Paiva were sent to India to gather information about the region. They used the traditional land route, passing from Egypt to the Red Sea. However, they had limited success due to the death of one of them after visiting Ethiopia, and historians still debate if their information actually arrived back in Portugal at all. Despite the information that may have been gathered by this mission, Vasco da Gama knew little about the religious world of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the fleet returned convinced that they had found Christians in India – hence the curious description regarding their arrival and prayers in a Hindu temple in Calicut, believing that they were in a Christian church, but noting that some saints had too many arms.About the preparation, voyage and period of Vasco da Gama, the best study is still his biography by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

The Portuguese Crown never ceased to collect information. For example, in the first viceroy’s instructions, in 1505, the monarch reminded him that he should ‘send out men on discovery not only in Melaka but also in those regions that are not so well known, and send them with some merchandise by the ships of the land that go to such parts, but only if this can be done in safety, and those whom you send shall be men well versed in business.’ Antonio da Silva Rego, Documentos sobre os Portugueses em Moçambique e na África Central. Documents on the Portuguese in Mozambique and Central Africa (1497–1840) (Lisbon: Centro de Estudos Históricos Ultramarinos/ National Archives of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, 1962), 1:247. This interest can also be seen in the works of Tomé Pires and Duarte Barbosa, both royal officials, who wrote extensive descriptions of the Asian realms, populations and way of life in the 1510s. In Europe, this kind of information was highly sought after, leading to the formation of a new image of India and Asia, outside the classical canon, at the same time as the exploration of North and South America was contributing to a new idea of the world.  On this interest and curiosity about Asia see Luís Filipe Barreto, ‘Apre(e)nder a Ásia (séculos XVI e XVII),’
in O Orientalismo em Portugal: séculos XVI-XX (Lisbon: Comissão Nacional para as Comemorações dos Descobrimentos Portugueses, 1999), 59–70; Joan-Pau Rubies, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Ângela Barreto Xavier and Ines G. Županov, Catholic Orientalism. Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th-18th Centuries) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3–44. The classic work of Donald Lach is still very useful: Asia in the Making of Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965–70), vols I (books 1 and 2) and II (books 1 to 3).
The publication of Giovanni Battista Ramusio’s work in 1550, the first volume of Delle Navigationi, brought together more than 20 texts, including many of Portuguese origin. George B. Parks, ‘The Contents and Sources of Ramusio’s Navigationi,’ in Navigationi et Viaggi (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum ltd, 1970), 3:1–37.

It should be noted that the Portuguese gathered intelligence locally, by interviewing and questioning pilots, sailors, merchants and other agents circulating in these regions. The first voyage of Vasco da Gama is, again, full of references to these contacts. Arriving in Malindi (Kenya), the Portuguese got a local pilot, probably from Gujarat (North India), to guide them from the eastern coast of Africa to Calicut. During the journey, he told them that ‘in this bay (the Arabic Sea) there are many cities of Christians and Moors, including one called Cambay, and six hundred known islands, and within it the Red Sea and the house of Mecca.’Glenn J. Ames, Em nome de Deus: The Journal of the First Voyage of Vasco da Gama to India, 1497–1499 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 69. This new data would help them sketch a broad idea of the commercial world of the Indian Ocean. During the return voyage to Portugal, the anonymous author of the journal got to collect information, probably from the hostages taken from Kerala (South India). He collected a broad vocabulary of Malayalam words, titled This is the Language of Calicut (doc. 45). The list was compiled through personal interaction, translating single words of common use during the voyage, probably by signalling objects and ideas.The most complete study of this text is by Franz Hümmerich, published in Portuguese in Diário da viagem de Vasco da Gama (Porto: Livraria Civilização, 1945), 2:191–230. This is why the text has words from standard gestures (such as to drink, to go away, to throw, to fall), body parts (head, nose, hand, etc.) and everyday words (man, woman, sun, moon, sky, boat, house, etc.). Nautical data was also collected during this period to understand trade routes and their geographical conditions. The best example is the cartographical depiction of the Indian Ocean in the so-called Cantino planisphere, dating from 1502, where part of the information was obtained from local pilots.Luís de Albuquerque and José Lopes Tavares, ‘Algumas observações sobre o planisfério “Cantino” (1502),’ Agrupamento de Estudos de Cartografia Antiga, Separata 2 (Coimbra: Junta de Investigações do Ultramar, 1967); Joaquim Alves Gaspar, ‘Blunders, Errors and Entanglements: Scrutinizing the Cantino Planisphere with a Cartometric Eye,’ Imago Mundi: The International Journal for the History of Cartography 64:2 (2012): 181–200.

This local information was sometimes directly recorded by these agents, without any filter. For instance, during the 1530s and 40s, the Persian merchant Khwâjè Pir Qoli (Coje Percolim, in the Portuguese sources) was an active intermediary in Goa, representing the Portuguese next to local rulers on several occasions.Luís Filipe F. R. Thomaz, ‘Hwaje Pir Qoli et sa brève relation de la Perse,’ Eurasian Studies V, 1–2 (2006): 357–69. Around 1548 he wrote a brief description of Persia (doc. 47) where he indicates routes and distances between cities and gives a short overview of the conflicts between the Persian ruler and his neighbours. The description is part of a collection of 25 texts, collected during the government of D. João de Castro (1545–48), to assist his rule and military operations.The collection was published by Adelino de Almeida Calado, ‘Livro que trata das cousas da India e do Japão,’ Boletim da Biblioteca da Universidade de Coimbra XXIV (1960): 1–138. In a certain sense, this preparation and commands were similar to what would later be called guerre du cabinet. This type of information was valuable in the Estado da Índia since it was used to better understand the political, cultural and economic situation in the region.

Language was obviously a natural barrier to this exchange of information, so the use of interpreters, called línguas, was vital. See, for instance, Geneviève Bouchon, ‘Pionniers oubliés. Les interprètes portugais en Asia dans les premières années du XVIe siècle,’ in Inde découverte, Inde retrouvée, 1498-1630. Études d’histoire indo-portugaise (Lisbon/Paris: CCCG/CNCDP, 1999), 303–10; Dejanirah Couto, ‘The Role of Interpreters, or Linguas, in the Portuguese Empire During the 16th Century,’ e-Journal of Portuguese History 1.2 (Winter 2003). From the arrival of the Portuguese in Asia, their role was essential for an effective European presence since it was the only way to communicate with rulers, merchants or any other community. As a result, dozens of them were on the payroll, as seen on a budget of the Estado for the year 1581. Twenty línguas are identified there, serving captains or other administrative services, the highest paid of whom was the one in the direct service of the viceroy (doc. 46).

Written records were overwhelmingly the work of scribes, whom historiography tends to forget. However, their effort was the backbone of any record-keeping institution.See for instance Alexandra Pelúcia, ‘Funcionários Administrativos do Estado da Índia na Época de D. Manuel I – Notas sobre os Escrivães,’ in O Reino, as Ilhas e o Mar Oceano: Estudos de Homenagem a Artur Teodoro de Matos, ed. Avelino de Freitas de Meneses and João Paulo Oliveira e Costa (Lisbon: Centro de História de Além-Mar, 2007), 2:657–67; Isabel Cid, ‘O ofício de escrivão no Estado da Índia na 1.ª metade do século XVII,’ in Encontro sobre Portugal e a Índia (Lisbon: Fundação Oriente, 2000), 67–83. As Paul M. Dover put it, ‘more and more time was dedicated to what we would call “paperwork,” which moved to the center of European life: in the everyday rhythms of commerce, in the working of the state, in the lives of scholars and virtuoso naturalists, in distance-busting communication services, even in the quotidian rhythms of burghers and artisans.’Paul M. Dover, The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), 2. The register shown in this catalogue is a single example of a payment made in 1515 to one of these men, Belchior Carvalho, acting as a scribe at the factory of Calicut (doc. 36). He arrived in India in 1512, in the armada captained by Jorge de Melo, and was later appointed the scribe of the new fortress-factory of Calicut, built in 1513.Henrique Lopes de Mendonça, Cartas de Afonso de Albuquerque (Lisbon: Academia das Sciências de Lisboa, 1915), 6:245. Like other officials in Asia, his career extended over various fortresses, and we find him, for instance, as a scribe at the factory of Cochin in 1518Geneviève Bouchon, Navires et cargaisons retour de l’Inde en 1518 (Paris: Société d’Histoire de l’Orient, 1977), 5, 21 and 43.. In the sixteenth-century Estado da Índia, it is possible to count the nomination of around 540 scribes during the reign of King João III (1521–57), 134 for King Sebastião (1557–78) and King Henrique (1578–80), and 120 for King Philip II (1580–98)Luis Fernando de Carvalho Dias, ’O Ultramar Português nas Chancelarias Régias,’ Anais da Junta das Investigações do Ultramar XI, no. 1 (1956)., which shows the dimension and importance of these men in the administration of the empire. 

Collecting intelligence and running an empire required one important item: paper. Paper sheets voyaged across the Portuguese empire in every armada. When the Portuguese led by Pedro Álvares Cabral landed in Brazil in 1500, scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha recorded that some natives exchanged bows for sheets of paper since they did not know the material.Charles David Ley, Portuguese Voyages, 1498-1663 (London: Phoenix Press, 1947), 52

In Portugal, as in Europe, paper gained particular importance in the royal administration from the fifteenth century onwards. However, at the end of that century, King Manuel I ordered a reform of the central records, copying and updating the old charts but still using parchment, due undoubtedly to its preservation qualities. All the same, at the time, ‘paper became a good and steadily selling product in Europe, as paper was increasingly used in more and more individual and public contexts including education, administration, correspondence, arts, transport, and of course within the burgeoning printing industries in Europe.Daniel Bellingradt, ‘The Paper Trade in Early Modern Europe, an Introduction,’ in The Paper Trade in Early Modern Europe. Practices, Materials, Networks, ed. Daniel Bellingradt and Anna Reynolds (Leiden: Brill, 2021), 2.’ Without a doubt ‘early modern Europe became a culture of paper.’Dover, The Information Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 40.

The need for paper brought a new logistical problem since Portuguese production was insufficient for the empire’s high consumption rates. Not surprisingly, the old Mediterranean routes provided the solution. Several sources show that Bartolomeo Marchionni, one of the most active Florentine agents in Lisbon in the second half of the fifteenth century, imported paper from Tuscany, selling it to the Portuguese royal institutions. In 1476 he imported 124 bales of paper (620,000 sheets) to LisbonFrancesco Guidi Bruscoli, Bartolomeo Marchionni, ‘homem de grossa fazenda’ (ca. 1450-1530). Un mercante fiorentino a Lisbona e l’impero portoghese (Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2014), 84–85.. The register of 1505 (doc. 40) refers to D. Martinho de Castelo Branco, comptroller of the royal treasury, buying from him 50 bales of paper, that is, 250,000 sheets of paperThe purchase was worth 100,000 reais, that is, 2,000 reais for each bale, or 200 for each ream, and 0.40 per sheet; the price per ream is close to the registers of 1506 (at 180 reais, data from the project Prices, Wages and Rents in Portugal 1300–1910, data files: Miscellaneous Prices Lisbon,, 1521 and 1534–35 (Paulo Drumond Braga, ‘Fornecimentos de pergaminhos, papel e tinta a diversos serviços da administração (Fevereiro de 1521),’ Revista Portuguesa de História XXIX (1994): 215); however, the lack of studies about the paper price in Portugal prevents any further considerations about these values., to be used in the Casa da Índia (the royal counting house for all imperial commerce, in Lisbon) and also to be sent to Cantor (in present-day Gambia), Sofala (in Mozambique) and all factories in the Indian Ocean. In 1552, a description of Lisbon noted that this paper trade was also connected to France and Venice and was worth 20,000 cruzadosGold currency that weighs 3.5 grams with around 23 carats (almost pure gold), equivalent to the Venetian ducats. each year.João Brandão (de Buarcos), Grandeza e abastança de Lisboa em 1552 (Lisbon: Livros Horizonte, 1990), 63; see also María del Carmen Hidalgo Brinquis, ‘El uso del papel en los asentamientos civiles y religiosos ibéricos de la Índia: confrontación de dos culturas,’ in Encontro sobre Portugal e a Índia (Lisbon: Fundação Oriente, 2000), 127–36. At the same time, Portuguese and foreign printers were also allowed to import paper to their press, as some scarce records show.Venâncio Deslandes, Documentos para a historia da typographia portugueza nos seculos XVI e XVII (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional, 1888), 42–45 and 72–73; also mentioned by Sousa Viterbo, ‘Artes industriaes e industrias portuguezas: o papel,’ O Instituto 50 (1903): 562.

As mentioned in the above document, paper was distributed to the empire through Lisbon. Four selected documents show this transoceanic flow. In 1513, the auditor of the fortress of Tangier ordered the local purchase of one ream (500 sheets, for 320 reais) to be used in the contos (exchequer) of the city (doc. 41). A similar record is the one of 1535, still in North Africa, in which the auditor of Azamor orders the purchase of one ream of paper and one canada (around 1.5 litres) of good ink (doc. 42).Despite the very notable watermark on this document, we were unable to identify its provenance by finding a match in the well-known watermark database (Bernstein, Briquet, Picard and Filigranas Hispánicas). Crossing to the other side of the globe, on 30 October in Sofala, the tax officer responsible for provisions, Afonso Ribeiro, signed a receipt confirming that he had received one ream of paper and half a canada of ink, delivered by the fortress’s factor (doc. 40).

Furthermore, passing to India, an interesting reference arises from the inventory of the factory of Cochin, when Lourenço Moreno started as a factor in 1511 (doc. 44). Beyond the existence of 9 reams of different-sized paper, the document mentions one and a half reams of local paper (papel da terra) and 21 blank notebooks (livros de papel limpo), 16 from Portugal and 5 made locally (‘que se fizeram na terra’). Did the Portuguese produce this local paper? Or was it brought there as part of the Indian paper trade? About the paper trade in medieval India see S. A. K. Ghori and A. Rahman, ‘Paper Technology in Medieval India,’ Indian Journal of History of Science 1, no. 2 (1966): 133–49; Sita Ramaseshan, ‘The History of Paper in India up to 1948,’ Indian Journal of History of Science 24, no. 2 (1989): 103–21; Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, ‘Paper Manufacture in Medieval India,’ Studies in People’s History 1 (2014): 43–48.These are questions that cannot be answered now since no reference has been found to the paper production or trade in the Estado da Índia, at this time. However, this subject should be looked at in order to understand the empire’s administrative efforts.

Finally, the symbolic importance of the written word and its supporting material cannot be forgotten. As Pérez Fernandez put it, ‘paper is nothing without the semiotic performance that it serves to materialise or the formal protocols that facilitate the communication of the information recorded on it.’José María Pérez Fernández, ‘Paper in Motion: Communication, Knowledge and Power. Case Studies for an Interdisciplinary Approach,’ Cromohs 23 (2020): 83. The succession patents (vias de sucessão), created in 1524 to secure the succession of governors or viceroys of the Estado, are a clear example of the power and authority of a document that had the king’s signature and royal seal on it. These documents were kept in a vault, guarded by the comptroller-general of the royal treasury, only to be opened in case of the death of the governor or viceroy.On this system of sucession see Ana Cláudia Joaquim, As vias de sucessão no estado português da Índia (1524-1581) (MA thesis, New University of Lisbon, 2014). They were opened in front of noblemen and officials in Goa, in a ceremony that effectively appointed the highest representative of the Portuguese CrownAbout this source see: Aida Freudenthal and Selma Pantoja (eds), Livro dos Baculamentos que os Sobas deste Reino de Angola pagam a Sua Majestade: 1630 (Luanda: Ministério da Cultura, Arquivo Nacional de Angola, 2013), 15–23. in the whole of Asia. The symbolic significance of these paper sheets was proportional to the authority from which they came (the monarch) and their importance in regulating the political structure and military command. Therefore, these patents were the representation of the king’s voice in Asia and a validation of his power.

On another level, the Portuguese conducted their day-to-day affairs with local rulers through the written word and paper, be it for trade or political dealings. Their diplomatic activity was always fragile, conditioned by their scarce presence but partially supported by their military power. Nevertheless, diplomatic treaties and alliances were central to maintaining an empire in a region where other authorities jostled for power. The last selected document sends us to a different location to exemplify this issue: seventeenth-century Angola (doc. 85). The subjugation of local populations and their transformation into vassals of the king was recorded in dozens of different types of documentation. This document contains two registers of tributes (baculamentos) paid by local landlords (sobas) to the Portuguese Crown. In January 1621, two of these men went to the fortress of Cambambe (North Angola), and made a written oath that they and their descendants would offer several tributes each year (such as cereals, goats and slaves). These sources show us the symbolic dominance of paper and the written word, even in places where its use was not so widespread.

Part of the history of the Portuguese Empire can only be analysed and known thanks to an administration that kept a record of all areas of its governance, as shown by this small but representative selection of documents, held in various Portuguese archives, from the Torre do Tombo State Archive in Lisbon to the municipal libraries of Porto and Elvas, and the public library of Évora. Despite the lack of studies about the logistics and organisation of the everyday administration of the Portuguese Empire, it is important to note that paper, alongside information gathering, played a crucial role in it.