From Asian Woods to American Shores: The Strange Case of Brazil’s Name and its Endangered “National Tree”

  Just like China’s English name “China” is bound to porcelain, the name of Brazil, the largest and most populous country in South America, comes from an important product in local history – Brazilian mahogany. But a map from the Ming Dynasty more than 400 years ago shows that things are not that simple…
  On the Ming Dynasty map, there is Sumu in the distance.
  In 1602 AD (the Wanli period of the Ming Dynasty), “” “The Complete Map of Kunyu and Ten Thousand Kingdoms” was completed in Beijing. This was the first world map in ancient China, showing the continents and oceans known to the West at that time, and for the first time placing China in the center of the world map.
  In the lower right corner of the map at the location of South America, there is an annotation: “Bosier, this is called Sumu. People in this country do not build houses, but dig the ground into caves to live in…” “Bosier” is the ancient word for Brazil. Transliteration, hematoxylin is a kind of plant.
  Sappan tree is mainly distributed in South Asia, Southeast Asia and southern China. It is a small tree of the Leguminosae family. Its heartwood (xylem in the center of the trunk) is used as a traditional Chinese medicine, used to promote blood circulation and relieve pain. The red dye “Sumu dye” can also be extracted from the heartwood, which has been commonly used in the silk weaving industry since the Song Dynasty. In 1498 AD, the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama arrived in India. Subsequently, the Portuguese intervened in the Indian Ocean trade with force and became aware of the existence of Sumu.
  However, what does Sumu have to do with Brazil on the other side of the world?
  The borrowed tree name was later transformed into a country name
  . The Portuguese came to India because of a treaty to “divide the world.” At the end of the 15th century, in order to stop the “fighting” between Spain and Portugal for new colonies, the Pope intervened and allowed the two countries to sign a treaty: using the “Pope Meridian” (approximately equivalent to 46°37′ West Longitude) as the boundary, The colony went to Spain and the east to Portugal. After that, the Portuguese focused on expanding to Asia, but they also made unexpected gains in the American continent assigned to Spain.
  In April 1500, the Portuguese nobleman Cabral led a fleet to India and was taken away from the waterway by the current. However, he accidentally found a piece of land in South America and named it “Place of the Holy Cross”. Since this location lies east of the “Papal Meridian”, it still belongs to Portugal.
  In the local tropical forest, the Portuguese discovered a special tree. Its heartwood is as red in color as Asian hematoxylin and can also extract red dye, but the wood is harder and the plants are taller. So they adopted the Portuguese name of hematoxylin and called it “pau-brasil” (meaning “burned wood stick”). In Chinese, it is called Brazilian rosewood or Brazilian hematoxylin.
  In the following decades, Brazilian rosewood became an important source of revenue for the colony, and people gradually became accustomed to referring to this land as “Brazil”. But the original place name was forgotten! Sumu wood from Asia has become the name of the largest country in South America by some strange combination of circumstances.
  American timber is being extensively logged, and the “national tree” is on the verge of extinction.
  Brazilian rosewood is a tree species endemic to South America, growing in the Atlantic coastal forests of Brazil and Suriname. Its wood is hard and dense, suitable for making high-end furniture and violin bows; the red dye extracted from the heartwood is even more valuable than gold. The Portuguese colonists, who had no gold or silver mines, regarded Brazilian mahogany as a cash cow.
  In just a few years, the Portuguese established a complete redwood logging and transportation system in the area, employing indigenous people (and later black slaves) as laborers at low prices. Since 1505, at least 2,000 tons of Brazilian rosewood have been shipped out of Brazil every year.
  However, like many high-quality woods, Brazilian rosewood grows slowly, and the population’s “regeneration” rate is much slower than the harvesting rate. After 200 years of predatory development, Brazilian rosewood became rare after 1700, and the rosewood logging industry also declined. When Brazil became independent in 1822, mushrooms, coffee and cotton in plantations had already replaced the economic position of mahogany. In the mid-20th century, many Brazilians had never even seen their “national tree”!
  In 1969, the Brazilian government declared this national treasure tree species to be endangered and launched a maintenance and artificial planting program. Brazilian rosewood is also listed as an endangered species internationally and trade is severely restricted. Although cases of illegal logging and smuggling of Brazilian rosewood still occur from time to time, more saplings are planted every year, and the “Sumu” that Brazilians are proud of is expected to continue to write a legend.

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