by Felipe Honorato*

Reviewed  by Matheus Lucas Hebling

Introduction: a brief explanation of colonialism

Marc Ferro (2017) defined colonialism as a political doctrine born in the 16th century, based on the occupation of foreign lands by other nations. This political doctrine lasted for almost five hundred years and began to decline along with the end of the Second World War, with the long and heterogeneous Afro-Asian decolonization process. It is possible to divide this long-term phenomenon into four phases, and the first phase is mercantile colonialism. 

Mercantile colonialism brought to life a colonial economy based upon slavery and the exploitation of resources of the occupied territories (FERRO, 2017). During the first phase of colonialism, which lasted from the 16th century until the 18th century, the occupied areas were mostly comprehended within the so-called “new world”: the Americas. 

At the time, Portugal and Spain were the greatest world powers and had under their control most of the foreign-occupied lands. The justifications for the subjection of non-white peoples, the exploitation, and the pillage of oversea lands had a religious basis (FERRO, 2017). For example, it was believed that black people did not have a soul.

The “rush for Oceania” was a transitional phase of colonialism.

The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years’ War in 1763 (GASCOIGNE, 2015). The conflict between France, England, and their allies (GASCOIGNE, 2015) can be seen as the accommodation of forces in Europe, at a moment when England and France were consolidating themselves as hegemonic world powers: Portugal and Spain, pioneers of the “conquest and exploration of new worlds” (M’BOKOLO, 2011, p. 367)[1] remained at the margin of the industrial revolutions (M’BOKOLO, 2011). In the 18th century, as a result of the sugar production in Santo Domingo (currently Haiti) (McCLELLAN III; REGOURD, 2001), France started a rivalry against England as the greatest colonial world power (McCLELLAN III; REGOURD, 2001). 

Once defeated, France turned its attention to the Pacific, to find a way of exploring, exploiting, occupying, and pillaging new lands and peoples, counterbalancing once more the game of forces against the English (GASCOIGNE, 2015). During the period, the vastness of the Pacific Ocean was practically unknown to Europeans, and it represented a major technical challenge: it required developing a methodology to determine with precision the positioning and longitude to navigate in it (GASCOIGNE, 2015).

During the aforementioned historical period, exploring Oceania and developing techniques to determine positioning and longitude were not exclusive interests of the French: England was also interested in the subject. Curiously, the rival nations cooperated in this process (GASCOIGNE, 2015).

The exploration of Oceania can be comprehended as a transitional phase between mercantile colonialism and colonial imperialist capitalism, the subsequent phase of colonialism. Firstly, because it enabled the production of an array of data and information (GASCOIGNE, 2015): during their expeditions, researchers and navigators were not only concerned with position and longitude in their expeditions but also collected meteorological, geographical, geological, economic, historic, and cartographic information from wherever they traveled (McCLELLAN III; REGOURD, 2001).

The gathering of information was essential to further the interests of Western Europe in the interior of the African continent and the Southeast region of Asia, areas exploited by colonial imperialist capitalism. The effort to measure latitude and longitude was an essential vector of the exploration of the Pacific, and it unveiled the importance science has to an expansionist State (GASCOIGNE, 2015). Science occupied a central role in justifying the occupation, exploration, and pillage of lands and foreign peoples during the imperial phase of colonialism. Lastly, as explained by Pereira (2019, p. 193):

“[…] It is in this context that Oceania was disassembled as a ‘region’, especially at the beginning of the 19th century, according to racial principles, opposing two great physical and moral complexes: Melanesia and Polynesia. Furthermore, concerning the Polynesian universe and the French racial debate, the ‘good savage’ and the ‘evil savage’ were conceived as opposites. This division was about the Tahitians and the Maori, respectively. The former would be ‘peaceful and welcoming’; the latter would be ‘hostile’, even though ‘robust and energetic’” (TCHERKEZOFF, 2007). The debate continues through the 19th century, originating what Tcherkezoff (2007) classified as the ‘first historical model of opposition’ among racialized regions”[2] 

The excerpt brings to light how biopower[3], in the context of Oceania, was an essential practice of colonial imperialist capitalism, and how it was introduced during colonialism – until then, it had as its main premise to subjugate foreign peoples’ religious allegations.

Brazil in the route of scientific expeditions and artifact collection.

The expeditions for Oceania required several stop points: to resupply, due to the long distances traveled; to repair the ships; to elaborate scientific observations as well as adjustment measuring equipment (PEREIRA, 2019). With the growing European presence in the south of the Pacific, a few cities, harbors, and rural areas were established as stopping points (PEREIRA, 2019). 

In this context, Brazil became a part of the “rush for Oceania”: Rio de Janeiro was a part of the circuit, and became one of the nodular stops to the vessels (PEREIRA, 2019). For example, the ship the Expedition Uranie docked at the city. The voyage was promoted by Louis Freycinet, and it was the first great expedition of the French Restoration period (GASCOIGNE, 2015).

In addition to the previously mentioned reasons, depending on the context the stops were also used to feed artifact collection: Pereira (2019) addresses the organization of the production of embalmed tattooed heads, crafted by the Maori people, to boost the trade of souvenirs in (nowadays) New Zealand. During the expansion in the Pacific, the collection of curiosities anda the accumulation of exotic objects linked to non-white peoples became a professionalized anthropological activity: “especially through zoology and anatomy, the museums of natural sciences emerged as proper places to archive and exhibit them” (PEREIRA, 2019, p. 192).  Beyond exhibiting the exotic, the aim became to affirm the superiority of a few peoples over others. Especially from the decade of 1810 onwards, the daily life of Rio de Janeiro began to articulate with the presence of expeditions, originating a “scientific museum project [that] is defined and articulated with diplomatic, cultural and educational life” (PEREIRA, 2019, p. 194). As a result of that interaction, from the decade of 1820 onwards, there is an accumulation of artifacts brought from the Pacific, thus originating the collections addressing the Pacific of the National Museum, including two embalmed tattooed heads of New Zealand Maori kings (PEREIRA, 2019).

Final thoughts

Although Brazil was never a colonial power, the country had a relevant role during the two initial phases of colonialism. During the first phase, mercantile colonialism, it was the main Portuguese colony and main destination of enslaved black Africans. The case presented in this article, concerning the “rush for Oceania”, illustrates the second phase of colonialism, when Rio de Janeiro became an important stopping point for expeditions that aimed to reach the aforementioned continent, thus shaping a museum project in the city. 


[1] Translated by the author. Original version: “conquista e exploração de novos mundos”.

[2] Translated by the author. Original version: “[…] É nesse contexto que se decompõe a Oceania como “região”, em especial, no início do século XIX, por princípios raciais, opondo dois grandes complexos físicos e morais: a Melanésia e a Polinésia. Além disso, dentro do universo polinésio, para o caso do debate racial francês, opunha o bom ao mal selvagem, referentes ocupados pelos Tahitianos e pelos Maori, respectivamente. Aqueles seriam “pacíficos e hospitaleiros”; estes, “hostis”, ainda que “robustos e energéticos” (TCHERKEZOFF, 2007). O debate atravessará o século XIX gerando o que Tcherkezoff (2007) classifica como um “primeiro modelo histórico de oposição” entre regiões raciais”.

[3] In the book “Necropolítica: biopoder, soberania, estado de exceção, política da morte”, the author Achille Mbembe used the Foucauldian concept of biopower. According to this concept, humanity is divided into two categories: who may live and who must die. The basis to determine who may live and who must die is biological: the subdivision of the human species into groups according to certain specific biological characteristics, which is comprehended as racism (MBEMBE, 2018).

Felipe Honorato is PhD student in the Social Change and Political Participation graduate programme at the University of São Paulo (USP). Felipe is also a researcher in the Study and Research Group in Oral History and Memory (GEPHOM / EACH-USP). Main topics of interest: colonialism, congolese migrations, history of Africa.

* The article presents the partial results of the final essay written for the discipline “Special topics of History of Sciences in the maritime empires 16th-19th centuries” taught by Daniel Dutra Coelho Braga and Iris Kantor at The Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP).


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M ́Bokolo, Elikia. África negra: história e civilizações (Tomo II). Salvador: EDUFBA, 2011.

Mbembe, Achille. Necropolítica: biopoder, soberania, estado de exceção, política da morte. São Paulo: n-1 edições, 2018.

Mccllellan III, James; REGOURD, François. The Colonial Machine: French Science and Colonization in the Ancien Régime. Osiris, v. 15 (Nature and Empire: Science and the colonial Enterprise), University of Chicago Press, p. 31-50, 2001.

Pereira, Edmundo. Dois reis neozelandeses: notas sobre objetificação museal, remanescentes humanos e formação do Império (Brasil-Mares do Sul, século XIX). In: SANTOS, Rita de Cássia Melo; OLIVEIRA, João Pacheco de (Orgs.). De acervos coloniais aos museus indígenas: formas de protagonismo e de construção da ilusão museal. João Pessoa: Editora UFPB, 2019, p. 191-218.

Felipe Honorato (2022) "Colonialism and Brazil: a brief analysis of the country’s involvement in the rush for Oceania". Brazilian Research and Studies Blog. ISSN 2701-4924. ISSN 2701-4924nameVol. 3 Num. 1. available at:, accessed on: May 19, 2024.