The manuscript above was born of epidemic disease and profound uncertainty. Penned in 1513 on the Lower Guinea Coast, its author was a little-known Portuguese officer newly arrived from Lisbon. In this letter he posed four simple questions: How does bodily illness manifest itself beneath the equatorial sun? Who can survive there? How? And why was this so? For some three centuries, his questions united the otherwise disparate medical investigations and the contentious evidentiary disputes of colonial medical communities scattered from South Asia to South America.
These communities were linked by the same commercial and epistolary traffic that sustained Portugal’s empire. Each included Portuguese physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. But each also included a number of the Indian, African, and Amerindian medical specialists among whom the Portuguese settled. The constitution of these communities, together with the techniques they devised in their efforts to articulate and verify truth claims about disease, are the subject of my current research.