Whales Lost and Found

Rescuing a history of biodiversity loss in early modern Brazil





whaling, southern right whale, humpback whale, Portuguese Empire, marine environmental history


Worldwide, whales have been hunted to the brink of extinction. In Brazil, whaling was a royal monopoly between 1614 and 1801. Within the dynamics of the Portuguese Empire, it was a stimulus that promoted wealth and the circulation of knowledge, practices, and products. The development of whaling stations in four coastal sites fostered the construction of littoral spaces, shaped the ways people perceived and used the ocean and marine animals, and left an impact on whale populations in a truly entangled history between humans and the non-human world. In this article, we aim to identify the main target species and number of animals caught through the analysis of historical sources from the 17th and 18th centuries. Southern Right Whale and Humpback Whale were the main target species, to a different extent, between the north-eastern and south-eastern whaling sites, but occasionally hunted simultaneously. We accounted for a total of 9080 animals captured in 41 years, between 1627 and 1801, and addressed hunting loss and calf-securing practices. In discussing biodiversity loss in the era of the Anthropocene, we expect to contribute to a better understanding of early impacts on marine life in the 1600-1800 period.


This paper had the support of CHAM (NOVA FCSH / UAc), through the strategic project sponsored by FCT (UIDB/04666/2020). The author was sponsored by a PhD scholarship by FCT (SFRH/BD/104932/2014). This study has received funding from the European project CONCHA (EU H2020-MSCA-RISE-2017 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 777998) and the European Research Council (ERC) Synergy Grant 4-Oceans (European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement Nº 951649). It has also received support from the UNESCO Chair ‘The Oceans’ Cultural Heritage’, OPI-Oceans Past Initiative, and APCM-Associação Para as Ciências do Mar.


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A whale leaps out of the ocean