The reproductive labour of Indigenous women: Jessica O’Leary, ‘The Uprooting of Indigenous Women’s Horticultural Practices in Brazil, 1500–1650’, Past & Present, 2023


Abstract: In the land now known as Brazil, Indigenous women were responsible for cultivating and preparing a tuberous root called mandioca (cassava). Following the arrival of Europeans in 1500, mandioca replaced wheat bread to become the staple carbohydrate in settlers’ diets. Travellers’ accounts between 1500 and 1550 describe how Indigenous women taught settlers to prepare the tubers for consumption through the use of special tools and processes of soaking, drying and pulverizing. However, with the arrival of the Jesuits, European sources began to elide or problematize knowledge among Indigenous women that did not cohere with Christian normative values. By the mid seventeenth century, naturalists were no longer acknowledging the original female informants who had taught Europeans how to identify and cultivate the plant. In line with recent scholarship on the history of science and medicine in colonial contexts, a close reading of the sources reflects the importance of Indigenous knowledges to imperial expansion, on the one hand, and the interactive nature of cross-cultural knowledge sharing that became hidden by early modern European epistemological practices. Drawing on a broad body of colonial documentation, this article examines how European representations of the cultivation of mandioca identified, exploited, assimilated, suppressed and, finally, alienated Indigenous women’s knowledges from their original holders between 1500 and 1650.

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