25 April 2007

Cracking the Code

It’s 10 pm. The electricity is out in the Coop neighborhood, so I am writing this armed with a 3-hour laptop battery and Petzl headlamp. Despite the darkness, I’ve finally cracked a code that has been teasing me for almost 2 years. A code that with some better language skills, I might not have had to figure out on my own. This "code" of Portuguese weights and measures was used by alfândega (customs) record keepers in Mozambique in the 19th century. Not terribly exciting for most people, but it means that I can now analyze some of the effects of historic wildlife trade on the landscape surrounding Delagoa Bay.

This symbol (above), as well as the @ symbol cover the pages of a notebook I carried daily during my visit to Lisbon, Portugal in the summer of 2005. I was there on a small research grant collecting data on historic wildlife exports from Delagoa Bay and its hinterland. Delagoa Bay is the old name for Maputo Bay.

Tonight, I finally figured out that the symbol is shorthand for libra (pound). Now that I know what the symbol stands for, it seems so obvious. The @ symbol refers to arrobas. What are libras and arrobas? And all the rest of the archaic weights I found?

1 bar/baar/bare = 229 kg
1 arroba = 14.9 kg = 32.41 lb
1 faraçola = 12.4 kg
1 mane = 0.95665 kg
1 arrátel = 0.459375 kg
1 libra = 0.4536 kg
1 marco = 0.2368 kg
1 onça = 0.02835 kg
1 matical = 0.00441346 kg
1 oitava = 0.0037 kg
1 panja = 5.175 to 5.52 L
1 panella = 8.4 L

These values varied depending on the port. A bar in Sofala was not the exact same weight as a bar in Ilha de Moçambique. I translated everything into kilograms because commie units, I mean SI metrics, are used for science. (BTW in doing all these weight and measure searches I learned that only 3 countries in the world do not use metrics – Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States. Interesting). I'm posting them in case someone else ever needs to track this all down. I've done many searches on the web but found nothing.

These values came from the following 2 major sources (again, just in case you ever need to cite them):

Alpers, Edward A.. 1975. Ivory and Slaves: Changing Pattern of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Nunez, Antonio. 1868 [1554]. O livro dos peços, medidas e moedas. In de Lima Felner, Roderigo J., ed. Collecção de Monumentos Ineditos Para a Historia das Conquistas dos Portuguezes em Africa, Asia e America. Tomo V. Serie 1. Historia da Asia. Typographia da Academia Real das Sciencias: Lisboa.

A big thanks go to Dr. Antonio Sopa of the UEM Archivo Histórico de Moçambique for directing me to the Nunez document.

Now, anyone know what species of southern African cat was called a "tigre" in the late 1800s in Portuguese East Africa?

5/9/07 - I discovered this morning that a "tigre" is a Large spotted genet (Genetta tigrina). The tails and skins were used as part of Tsonga and Zulu soldiers (impis) uniforms.

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