Mapping the Historical Environments of the Guanabara Basin

Author: Alida Metcalf


imagineRio has focused on the built environment of Rio de Janeiro, and it has provided exciting ways to understand, to reflect on, and to reimagine the history of this iconic city of the global south. It is, however, most complete for the built environment of the original urban center and its expansion to the west and south. To truly understand the history of this city, it should be situated into the larger, natural environment of the Guanabara Basin. Rio’s history is complex: it began as an acropolis, became a colonial capital, received annually tens of thousands of enslaved people in the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, became a national and state capital, and is the second largest city in Brazil today. At every stage of its development, the Guanabara Bay has affected life in the city, and the city has affected the Guanabara Bay. In this imagineRio Narrative, I explore how we can begin to map the historical environments of the Guanabara Bay and Basin in the colonial era.

This imagineRio Narrative was presented at the Social Science History Association Annual Conference, Chicago: November 18, 2022 by Alida C. Metcalf, Harris Masterson, Jr. Professor of History at Rice University in Houston, USA. Please send any correspondence to


Consisting of a digital atlas and an album of geolocated images (maps, plans, and views) imagineRio presents the city of Rio de Janeiro, as it was imagined, from 1500 to the present. Our imagineRio Narratives application, in which this paper is written, invites authors to write stories that are illustrated with the geographic layers from imagineRio. The digital maps that appear in this paper all come from imagineRio, but they have been positioned, oriented, labeled, and customized to illustrate my main points.

imagineRio accompanies the transformation of the tiny site founded in 1565 on the top of Morro do Castelo (Castle Hill) to the megacity of today with 6.8 million residents.1 The larger environment of the Guanabara Bay and Basin appears in imagineRio, but it is not yet mapped in detail. For example, many islands remain white, meaning that they are not yet mapped.

On the right is a map of the city of Rio and of the Guanabara Bay in 1822, the year of Brazil's independence from Portugal. Drawn from imagineRio, the map is positioned to show how the city lies on a peninsula that juts out into the bay. The relationship between the city and the bay and the mountains that rise around and behind the city is clearly conveyed by the map. Already by 1822, the landscape around the city had been modified: for example, the Passeio Publico (public garden) had been built over a filled lagoon. Behind the city extends the Mangue--shown as a light turquoise--this was a swampy area, affected by the tides.

1IBGE, "IBGE divulga estimativa da população dos municípios para 2021,"

Guanabara Bay and Rio de Janeiro, GoogleEarth, 2022
Bay & Basin

The city of Rio de Janeiro today extends back from the western shores of the Guanabara Bay, which lies at -22° 47' 25.53" S and -43° 09' 20.41" W. The bay today has a surface area of approximately 400 square kilometers.

In contrast to the Guanabara Bay, the Guanabara Basin includes the surrounding land and mountain slopes from which the rivers and streams flow into the bay. Considerably larger than the bay, it measures (today) approximately 4,200 square kilometers⁠.2 The Serra do Mar marks the northern boundary, and the Atlantic Ocean, the southern. 

Over time, the city expanded to the west and to the south, as can be seen by the color gray on the digital map, which represents the built environment of the modern city. In imagineRio we have been able to map the growth of the city, but we have not yet mapped the larger Guanabara Bay and Basin. As a result, how the city fits into its larer environment is not fully seen.

2 Telma Mendes Silva et al., “The Guanabara Bay, a Giant Body of Water Surrounded by Mountains in the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Area,” in Landscapes and Landforms of Brazil (Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands, 2015), 389–99.

imagineRio Narratives

imagineRio Narratives is our version of a Story Map, designed for imagineRio, that allows an author to write, map, and illustrate a story, reflection, or analysis of Rio de Janeiro. The author has access to imagineRio layers, and can configure the map. In this paper, I seek to demonstrate two things: how historians can write in new ways and how the landscapes and environments of the Guanabara Bay and Basin can be mapped over time.  

ESRI's Story Maps offer a similar writing environment, and I have used it to create Story Maps to present my research, to collaborate with colleagues, and to teach students. See for example my Story Map Seeking the Carioca Aqueduct.

In contrast to ESRI's Story Maps, which a user creates from scratch, imagineRio Narratives are an integral part of imagineRio. They offer any user of imagineRio the opportunity to create a Narrative using the digital map that we have already developed. As our map covers the entirely to the history of the city of Rio de Janeiro, from its founding to the present, an infinite number of possible maps can be instantly generated by a user. 

This paper will present a preliminary look at how we can begin to think about the Guanabara Bay and Basin was perceived as a landscape3 at different moments in time, and how it is possible to begin to map their geographic features.  

On the right, a late colonial map, georeferenced in imaginRio, is slotted in over imagineRio's digital map, which is set to the same date: 1791. Note how the historical cartographer has symbolized the mountains in and outside of the city.  By using the opacity slider, I can show how the Carioca Aqueduct--a geographic feature in imagineRio--flows down and around the hills mapped in 1791.


Here I am following the definition of landscape adopted ty the European Landscape Convention: ‘“Landscape” means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors." 

Computed from Slave Voyages
The Colonial City

In its early days, Rio was a fortress on the Morro do Castelo. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the residents moved down from the acropolis and settled along the harbor. The streets extended back from the beachfront harbor and between four hills in a long, rectangular grid.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, Rio had become a major port city in the south Atlantic. The slave trade was intense, and Rio was the port of entry for hundreds of ships annually who delivered tens of thousands of enslaved men, women, and children. This pattern increased in the nineteenth century, as can be seen in the graph above, which shows the total number of enslaved people embarked in Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, according to Katherine Crosby and Daniel Domingues da Silva, in the nineteenth century "Rio de Janeiro emerged as the largest slaving port in the Americas."4

The map, configured and annontated from imagineRio, shows the city in 1735.


4 Katherine Cosby and Daniel B. Domingues da Silva, “The Interprovincial Slave Trade from Rio de Janeiro, 1809–1833: An Analysis of the Brazilian Institute of Applied Economic Research Database,” History Compass 18, no. 12 (December 2020): 1–8,



Leandro Joaquim, Pesca da baleia, Museu Historico Nacional, Brasil, Wikimedia Commons.
A vista of the bay in the colonial era

How was the landscape of the Guanabara Bay and Basin perceived during the colonial period? Some sense is captured in this oval painting by Leandro Joaquim. It shows whaling in the bay, which was not at all a beautiful sight, but the painting conveys an important environmental change: it was common for whales to enter the bay in the eighteenth century. Looking past the suffering of the whales, one can see the clear waters of the bay, the thickly-forested hills not yet planted with coffee, and the exit from the bay to the Atlantic ocean. The painter stresses the difference between the built and the unbuilt environment--the city stands out as white buildings with red roofs against a dark green, barely penetrated, nature. The bay, on contrast, is fully exploited by boats and protected by forts. The artist has created a landscape, but clues to features of the environment are visible. 

Our map from imagineRio is oriented to match the general vista captured by the artist. Villegagnon Fort is in the foreground, and in the distance are houses on the opposite side of the bay, in Niterói. The exit from the bay to the Altantic is on the right. The map date is set to 1790.


P. Capassi, Plan de la Baye de Rio de Janeiro, 1730
How can we map the Guanabara Bay over time?

Many changes in the Guanabara Bay and Basin took place as the city of Rio de Janeiro grew. As Alfred Crosby has argued, biological and ecological change began immediately after contact in the Americas. This process is poorly understood in Brazil, but without question over the course of the colonial period, the continued introduction of new plants and animals transformed the land through the expansion of agricultural and pastoral estates. The Atlantic forest in the Guanabara Bay and Basin was cut to plant sugar cane, tobacco, or to graze livestock. Although it was never a major sugar producing or ranching region, any sugar mill consumed vast amounts of wood while every ungulate--hoofed mammals--degraded the land.5

How can these changes be mapped?

Through imagineRio we have shown that it is possible to map the changing built environment of Rio over time. Changes in the built environment can be accompanied through the careful study of historical maps. As hills were razed, lagoons and marshes filled in, and landfills created, we can show these changes on our time-sensitive map. 

Changes in the environment outside the city of Rio are less easily followed. Chartmakers did map the bay, but they paid more attention to the coastlines and to the depth of the water. Mapmakers who created the maps of the city were less interested in the northern half of the bay. Moreover, historical maps of the bay are harder to georeference, for there are fewer reliable control points. Tracing features from the georeferenced maps, such as rivers, is problematic, even when working back and forth with satelite imagery. River courses change both naturally and as a result of human intervention, and therefore any map of the changing environment can only be a rough estimation of what existed in the past.  

The 1739 map of the Guanabara Bay by Fr. Capassi shown above and georeferenced in our map from imagineRio on the right, illustrates the possibilities and pitfalls of working with historical maps. The map provides data on coastlines and river mouths, and thus serves as a good reference for the bay in the early eighteenth century. On Ilha do Governador, the sugar plantations of the Benedictine Order and of Ignacia Correa are marked, suggesting changes in the land. But the larger Guanabara Basin is not mapped in any detail.  


5 Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange; Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Pub. Co,, 1972). For the effects of ungulates, see Elinor G. K. Melville, A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). On the Columbian Exchange in sixteenth-century Brazil, see my Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil: 1500-1600 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 119-155. For a detailed examination on the changes to the Atlantic forest, of which the Guanabara Basin is a part, see Warren Dean, With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

Detail, Océan Atlantique Sud-Ouest avec le Brésil, Atlas Miller Feuille 5r, Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Earliest Map

Let's begin with one of the earliest maps of the Guanabara Bay and examine how the bay was mapped and what information we can draw from such sources.

The oldest surviving map that shows the name Rio de Janeiro dates to 1519. The map is part of a loosely organized set of maps known as the Atlas Miller. The Guanabara Bay is placed quite accurately, right above the Tropic of Capricorn. The bay has its distinctive balloon-like appearance with its narrow entrance. It appears due west of Cabo Frio, which is at 23° S on the latitude scale of the chart. Red dots inside the Guanabara Bay suggest its many islands, and two major rivers empty into its northern shore. The name Rio de Janeiro appears twice: once in black script (today faded to brown) and again in red. Above the Guanabara Bay, the chartmaker painted an illustration of Native men cutting and carrying brazilwood, the most important export of Brazil at this time.



José Correa Rangel de Bulhoens, Plano da cidade do Rio de Janeiro, 1796, Biblioteca Nacional, Brasil.
The entrance as officially mapped in 1796

Later maps are more detailed, and certainly hundreds, if not thousands, of maritime charts were used by mariners. These charts would have been discarded when they wore out or were deemed inaccurate and/or out of date. Only the maps judged to be significant for their artistic, scientific, or military information eventually made their way into libraries and archives.6 For example, the map by José Correa Rangel de Bulhões, which is based on an earlier map by the military engineer Jacques Funck (dated 1768), uptated to 1796, is likely an official map that was sent to the royal library (today the Biblioteca Nacional of Brazil). It is of interest to us because it emphasizes the mountainous terrain of Rio, although at the time, the forts that defended the entrance to the bay were considered the most important information on the map. Most of these forts were located on hills and mountains. Bulhões labeled them, and I have noted their locations on the digital map.  Fortaleza de S[anta] Cruz on the eastern side, the Fortaleza da Lajea [Laje] in the center, and the Fortaleza da Praia Vermelha on the west. The Pão de Açúucar is shaded in such a way that its steep sides and height stand out.


On the fragility of maps, and their ephemeral nature, see my Mapping an Atlantic World, circa 1500 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020), 130-142.

Jean Baptiste Debret, Côte de Rio de Janeiro, in Voyage, 2e Partie Pl. 1 (No. 4)
Approaching the port

A major feature of Rio's landscape today are the mountains of the Guanabara Basin, but some in the city have been razed over time. On maps, mountains are often symbolized, as seen in the previous map, and historical accounts by visitors often describe the steep granite peaks. These descriptions are useful sources of information on the environment, and they also hold clues to how the landscape was perceived and understood in the past.

For visitors approaching Rio by ship, the mountains rose dramatically as they approached the entrance to the bay. Experienced sailors named the shapes made by the mountains and used them to  recognized and confirm their location.  

The usual way to Rio by sea was from Cabo Frio, which lay due west at 22°52′44″S 42°01′08″W. From Cabo Frio, navigators followed the coastline until they reached the narrow entrance. 

Although thousands of ships made this approach, once the route was known, few mariners bothered to describe it in detail. First time visitors to Rio, however, noticed and anticipated arrival. Some wrote detailed describtions while others drew what they saw. These descriptions, which include sketches, printed lithographs, maps, and texts are important sources for understanding the landscape of Rio in the past.

For example, this view of the coast of Rio was created by Jean Baptiste Debret, on the 25th of March 1816, at around eight-thirty in the morning. Debret was a French painter who was coming to Rio as part of the French artistic mission. Debret later published a three-volume, heavily-illustrated account of his time in Rio.7 He arrived on the Calpé, a three-masted sailboat built in New York. The Calpé had left Le Havre, France, in January and had reached Cabo Frio two months later.


7 Jean Baptiste Debret, Voyage  pittoresque et historique au Brésil, ou, Séjour d'un artiste français au Brésil, three vols (Paris: Firmin Didot Frères,  1834-1839). 

Debret, Le Géant Couché, in Voyage, 2e Partie Pl. 2.
The Sleeping Giant

Debret gave the definition of Guanabara as meaning raw stone (pierre brute), the name came, he claimed, from the Tupi-Guarani-speaking peoples who once lived in the bay. He described the shape of the mountains, as they approached the narrow entrance, as "the Sleeping Giant," which was the name given to the formation by sailors. He drew this vista at five thirty in the afternoon on the 25th of March, 1816. Several mountains, he wrote, created the illusion of "a stout man, with an aquiline nose, lying on his back, with his legs extended, and whose feet are formed by the Sugar Loaf peak."8 


8 Debret, Voyage II: 27.

John Barrow, View of the land round the harbour of Rio de Janeiro, in Voyage, after p. 134
The entrance, as seen by Barrow

Similarly, for John Barrow, who later became the Second Secretary to the British Admiralty, and who sailed into Rio in 1792 on his way to China, the first notable sight were the mountains. He wrote that there was a “gap or rent in the verdant ridge of mountains” that appeared “from a distance, like narrow portal between two cheeks of solid stone, which being perfectly naked are the more remarkable, as every other prominent part of the ridge of mountains is clothed with luxuriant vegetation.”

Barrow remarked that the Pão de Açúcar, which lay to port as they sailed into the entrance, rose as "a single solid stone of a conical shape" that was "not quite perpendicular, but leaning a little" while on the opposite side of the entrance was another "naked mountain" with a less steep slope "from the water's edge to the summit." Barrow also noted the "forts, lines, and batteries" that protected the entrance.9

All of these can be seen in the View of Rio, shown above, which is included in the published account of his voyage to Cochinchina. The Pão de Açúcar juts up on the left, while the less steep peak rises on the right. Between are the forts that defended the narrow entrance.

Behind is the Bulhões map, discussed above, positioned to match Barrow's vista.


John Barrow, A Voyage to Cochinchina in the Years 1792 and 1793: Containing a General View of the Valuable Productions and the Political Importance of This Flourishing Kingdom (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies in the Strand, 1806), 75-77. 

John Barrow, View of the land round the harbour of Rio de Janeiro, in Voyage, after p. 134
First sights of the bay

Once past this narrow, fortified entrance Barrow raved that “one of the most magnificent scenes in nature bursts upon the enraptured eye.”

He described the Guanabara Bay as a "beautiful  sheet  of  water . . . with  its  numerous  islands . . .  encompassed  on  every  side  by  hills  of  a  moderate  height,  rising in  gradual  succession  above  each  other,  all  profusely  clad in  lively  green,  and  crowned  with  groupes  [sic] of  the  noblest  trees, while  their  shores  are  indented  with  numberless  inlets,  shooting  their  arms  across  the  most  delightful  vallies,  to  meet  the murmuring  rills,  and  bear  their  waters  into  the  vast  and  common reservoir  of  all."10

Barrow's enthusiastic text captures important elements of the natural environment: the bay, the forested mountains, the tall trees of the Atlantic forest, and the great number of streams and rivers that emptied into the bay. The bay itself is its own ecosystem, united by its beautiful waters and numerous islands.

A view of the city of Rio, with its harbor, accompanies Barrow's words. It captures how he saw the landscape. A small city of white houses with red roofs caps the summit of the Morro do Castelo and hugs the shoreline along the harbor. Behind stands a dramatic backdrop of mountains. The deep blue waters of the bay are the foreground and the entrance to the city.

Our map from imagineRio is set at 1792, and I have annotated it to show the approximate geographic vista that Barrow rendered in his view of Rio. 


10 Barrow, Voyage to Cochinchina, 76.

John Barrow, Sketch of the Town and Harbour of Rio de Janeiro, Voyage to Cochinchina, after p. 134.
A sketch of the bay

Barrow created a sketch-like map of the Guanabara Bay On the map, he wrote:

"This noble harbour extends to the northward near thirty miles and is terminated by a screen of lofty mountains The surface is studded with innumerable islands."11

He also made several annotations that speak to the landscape and environment: the height of the Sugar Loaf, the location of the Santa Cruz fort on a granite rock, and the warehouse for the whaling station  station in Niterói. These are transferred onto our map from imagineRio, right.


11 Barrow, Voyage to Cochinchina, after p. 134.

Detail, Martin Waldseemüller Universalis Cosmographia, 1507.
Early contact

The depth of Debret and Barrow's accounts points the value of the impressions of visitors. Despite the biases that all visitors carry, which affects what they see, what they write, and how they understand the landscape and the city, everything is new to a visitor. Their thick descriptions offer historians important details that might never be recorded by residents, to whom the landscape is familiar and taken for granted. Visitors notice many things that the inhabitants of a city would likely never write about nor paint, because the city and its environment are comfortably close and known. Only later, with rise of the great photographers of Brazil, do we have rich collections of views of the landscapes that can be used to reconstruct the historical environment of Rio. These photographs, geolocated in imagineRio, can be used to accompany environmental changes from the late nineteenth century on.

Returning to the methodology that we used in imagineRio to map the built domain of the city, to map the Guanabara Basin from the era of contact into the colonial period, we must look first for historical maps. In addition, we must work closely with the the textual and visual descriptions. For the colonial period, most of these were produced by visitors. From these sources, we can begin to piece together an idea of the changing environment of the Guanabara Basin. 

The first known contact between the Tupi-Guarani-speaking peoples living in the bay most likely occurred in 1501. In that year, the Portuguese king sent at least one ship to Brazil to follow up on Pedro Álvares Cabral's landing at Porto Seguro the year before. On the expedition was Amerigo Vespucci, who claimed they sailed for nine months and twenty-seven days, over a distance of 800 leagues, always on a southwest course. This course would have taken them well south of the entrance of the Guanabara Bay, and if they indeed entered the bay, it may have been the place where Vespucci claims to have lived for a month.12

12 Amerigo Vespucci to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de' Medici, Lisbon, 1502, in Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci's Discovery of America, ed. Luciano Formisano (New York: Marcilio, 1992).




Léry, Histoire (1578). 121.
Indigenous Peoples

Nomadic groups had lived in the Guanabara Bay basin at least as far back as 4,000 years ago. By the time Europeans first entered the bay, Tupi-Guarani-speaking peoples, known as the Tupinambá, lived in villages that moved periodically from place to place on the mainland.  The largest island in the bay, known today as Ilha do Governador, was also well settled by a group known as the Margaia.  Natives located their villages near rivers and streams and land suitable for their gardens. The bay was critical to their lifeways. Expert swimmers and fisherfolk, they relied on the bay for sustenance, for it supplied vast amounts of protein in the form of fish, turtles, sharks, dolphins, mollusks, and crustaceans.13


13 Warren Dean, “Indigenous populations of the São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro coast: trade, aldeamento, slavery and extinction,” Revista de História 117 (December 7, 1984): 3–5, A. Soares-Gomes et al., “An Environmental Overview of Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro,” Regional Studies in Marine Science 8 (November 2016): 319–30.

Detail, Océan Atlantique Sud-Ouest avec le Brésil, Atlas Miller Feuille 5r, BNF.
The Earliest Visitors

Ships piloted by crews from Portugal, Spain, France, and possibly other European kingdoms continued to enter the Guanabara Bay, but we have few surviving accounts of these ships and their interactions with the Tupi-Guarani-speaking peoples living around the bay. Whether or not early contact was peaceful is uncertain, but trade was already well established by 1519. 

In that year, Magellan sailed into the Guanabara Bay. Magellan's five ships arrived on December 13th. As recorded in one ship's log, first they sighted Cabo Frio, then they headed west for the Guanabara Bay. A log kept by the pilot Francisco Albo, presents this description: 

“there is a large bay, and at its mouth there is a low island, and inside the bay is very large with many harbours, and it it extends two leagues from the mouth and it is called Bay of Santa Lucía, and if you wish to enter, you leave the island on your left hand, and it is narrow, however there is depth of 7 brazas and [the bottom] is muddy, but outside the depth is from 20 to 25 brazas, and inside there are places where it reaches 18 brazas .  . . . and this bay is at 23 degrees."14

The low island is today known as Ilha da Laje, and according to Albo, it must be left to port when entering the bay. At this time the Pão de Açúcar was also an island, which also had to be left to port to safely enter the bay. 

Magellan spent thirteen days in the Guanabara Bay. During that time, the crew lived on shore in a longhouse built for them by indigenous residents. Magellan's men traded extensively for food--yams, pinapples, fish, fowl, and manioc cakes. Magellan loaded a few Brazilwood logs while the crew traded for parrots. The five ships left for their next stage of the journey--south towards Cape Horn--well provisioned with water and food.15

14 Diario ó derrotero del viage de Magallanes desde el cabo de San Agustin en el Brasil, hasta el regresso á España, escrito por Francisco Albo, in  Navarrete, Colección de los viages y descubrimientos que hicieron por mar los españoles  vol. 4: Expediciones al Maluco. == Viage de Magallanes e de Elcano, 210.

15 Pigafetta, Antonio, “Journal of Magellan’s Voyage” [circa 1525] Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, MS 351, Yale University,




Portrail of Hans Staden, in H. J. Winkelmann, Der americanischen Neuen Welt Beschreibung (Oldenburg: 1664) in
Landscapes and environments at contact

We can reconstruct more of the environment from the accounts of later visitors. Three Europeans (two Frenchmen and one German) lived in the Guanabara Bay several decades later, in the 1550s, and after they returned to Europe, they published accounts. These detailed descriptions, all of which included images and two of which included maps, are the best surviving known sources for reconstructing the environment and how Europeans saw the landscape during the conact era.16

Hans Staden, a prisoner of the Tupinambá, arrived in the Guanabara Bay in 1554 and remained in the bay briefly before returning to Europe on a French trading vessel. Staden published  Warhaftige Historia (True History) in Marburg in 1557.

André Thevet, a member of the Cordeliers—the Franciscan order in France—arrived in November 1555 with Chevalier Nicolas de Villegagnon, who was charged with establishing a French colony. This French colony came to be known as France Antarctique, and it existed on one island in the Guanabara Bay. There Villegagnon built a fort.

Thevet was in the bay for ten weeks, and after returning to France, he published Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique (The Peculiarities of Antarctic France) in 1557, with a second edition in 1558. Thevet, who was the cosmographer to the French king, also made several maps.

Jéan de Léry arrived with a group of Calvinist missionaries in 1557, and remained for ten months. Léry first lived on Villegagnon Island, but later after breaking with Villegagnon over a religious dispute, he and other Calvinists moved to the mainland. His Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil (History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil), was published in Geneva in 1578. 


16 See my ESRI Story Map Jean de Léry in the Guanabara Bay on how the accounts of these three, especially that of Jean de Léry, can be used to reconstruct the era of contact in the Guanabara Bay.

Woodcut in Staden, Warhaftige historia (Marburg: 1557), chap. 53.
A view of the Guanabara Bay in 1554

One of the earliest maps of the Guanabara Bay was not made by a mapmaker, but by the soldier, Hans Staden. A Hessian gunner, Staden made two trips to Brazil in the sixteenth century (1547-1548 and 1549-1555). On returning to Hesse, he published an account of his travels that is most famous for its descriptions of cannibalism. While dismissed as excessively sensationalized by some, Staden has been read by anthropologists and historians for critical insights into life in Brazil during the contact era.17

Hans Staden's account of his two voyages to Brazil appeared with over fifty woodcut illustrations that depict Staden's journey. Staden included one woodcut of the Guanabara Bay that presents a scene that occurred after he had joined the crew of the Catherine, a ship hailing from Watteville, France. The captain of the Catherine, having finished his trade with the Tupinambá and having paid a small sum for the release of Staden, was preparing for the return voyage.

Staden's map tells a complicated story. Within the map he places a battle scene. At that moment, a Portuguese ship from São Vicente, the Portuguese colony farther south, had sailed past the Catherine. This Portuguese ship, owned by Peter Rösel, had been trading with the  Margaia, who lived on Ilha do Governador. As the Margaia were fierce enemies of the Tupinambá who controlled most of the Guanabara Bay, they had become the allies of the Tupinikin, who lived farther south and who had become the allies of the Portuguese. Because Rösel's ship was smaller, the captain of the Catherine thought he could take it easily. Because Staden had formerly lived in São Vicente, he was dispatched in a smaller vessel to urge surrender. However, Rösel's ship opened fire, wounding several of the French crew including Staden. The battle pitted the not only the Portuguese against the French but the Tupinambá against the Margaia. 

In Staden's woodcut, the ships are wildly exaggerated in size in order to convey Staden's message of a sea battle between the Portuguese and the French ships. Staden also includes several war canoes with indigenous warriors who join in the battle.

Note the elliptical shapes with circles in them, which are the cannon balls that have been fired from the ships. Tupinambá and Margaia warriors join the fray in canoes--note  their bows and the flights of their arrows.


17 For the vast bibliograghy on Staden, as well as an account of his travels, text, and images, see Eve M. Duffy and Alida C. Metcalf, The Return of Hans Staden: A Go-between in the Atlantic World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

Staden, Rio de Ienero, in Warhaftige historia (Marburg: 1557), chap. 53.
Can we do anything with this map?

How can we interpret the geographic information in Staden's image of the Guanabara Bay? This image is not unique in Staden's account, for many of Staden's woodcuts in his book can be read as simple maps.18 The woodcut images often include coastlines, islands, river mouths, and mountains. In this woodcut, Staden presents the bay, its coastline, two villages surrounded by palisades, and trees to suggest the surrounding forest. The place is clearly named: Rio de Ienero.


18 Alida C. Metcalf, “Mapping the Traveled Space: Hans Staden’s Maps in Warhaftige Historia,” E-JPH 7:1, no. Summer (2009): 1–15.


Thevet, Isle et fort des Frãçois, in Cosmographie Universelle (Paris: 1575)
André Thevet

André Thevet became the Royal Cosmographer to the king of France and was experienced in making maps. Arriving in the Guanabara Bay with Villegagnon in November, 1555, he immediately fell ill and remained only until January 31, 1556. He would have had little time to survey the Guanabara Bay, and his maps are therefore impressions, as can be seen in one of his surviving maps of the Guanabara Bay, titled "Isle et fort des Frãçois." It later appeared his massive work Cosmographie Universelle.

As with Staden's map, Thevet's tells a story, and it is also about a battle. This battles again between the French and the Portuguese but this time over the French fort built by Villegagnon.19 Apart from the battle, there are interesting details that characterize the environment. One is the label Carioba R. (Carioca River), which appears across from the southwest edge of Villegagnon island. Thevet labels a second river La grande riviere, which marks the mouth of a river on the northeastern shores of the bay. The landscape is shown to be mountainous in parts, dense with trees, and settled by Natives.

On the western edge, he inserted a built European settlement on the mainland, which he labeled "Ville-Henry." Later Jean de Léry, who arrived in the Guanabara bay soon after Thevet left, claimed that this place was a fantasy and that Thevet placed it on the map just to please the king.


19 See the analysis of this map and of Thevet's narrative of the French colony by Tom Conley in “Thevet Revisits Guanabara,” Hispanic American Historical Review 80, no. 4 (2000): 753–81. 




Thevet, Gouffre de la riviere de Ganabara ou Janaire
Gouffre de la riviere de Ganabara ou Janaire

After Thevet's death, several more maps of the Guanabara Bay surfaced, perhaps intended for "Le grand insulaire et pilotage," a work that Thevet never finished. Gouffre de la riviere de Ganabara ou Janaire, which I have rotated to place North at the top, shows the Guanabara Bay with environmental features. Several rivers empty into the bay, and the mainland is shown as both mountainous and forested. The label Abres de toutes pars (trees everywhere) further reinforces Thevet's message that the landscape was thickly forested. Small canoes are shown throughout the bay,  and the mainland, as well as L'Isle des margaiatz (Island of the Margaia--today Ilha do Governador) are populated.



Metcalf, Mountains and Rivers of the Guanabara Bay at Contact, 2020
The Guanabara Bay and Basin and its Rivers at contact

Thevet's maps stress the rivers, mountains, and forests of the bay.  How can we depict this landscape during this sixteenth-century era of contact? Since modern rivers have had their courses changed, often dramatically, one adopt a certain artistic license. Using many historical maps but consulting satelite imagery, I traced the major rivers flowing from the basin into the bay. Every effort was taken to try and approximate the original course of the rivers. My map is not meant to achieve geographic accuracy but to convey the importance of the rivers during the era of contact. Using imagineRio's topographic hillshade layer offers a way to approximate the elevations of the landscape. The color green symbolizes the Atlantic forest.

This map suggests, imagines even, the rivers and forests at contact. The lands were densely forested, and the bay was a massive feature that figured greatly in the lives of the indigenous peoples who lived around it. The obvious and visible lifeways of those whom Léry, Staden, and Thevet came into contact with were recorded in their accounts.




Metcalf, Léry's Route in 1557, 2020
Jean de Léry

Jean de Léry did not have maps created to illustrate his account, but he offers the most detailed descriptions of the Guanabara Bay and the lifeways of the indigenous peoples living in the Guanabara Basin.  Léry offers the oldest surviving detailed account of entering the Guanabara Bay. Léry arrived in a small convoy of three ships that had left Honfleur in 1556 or 1557. These ships carried supplies for France Antarctique, the colony founded by the Chevalier Nicolas de Villegagnon in the Guanabara Bay.  Believing it intended to be a haven for Huguenots (French Protestants), fourteen Calvinist missionaries, one of whom was Léry, had accepted an invitation from Villegagnon to join the colony. The three ships outfitted by the French king were the Petite Roberge which carried 80; the Grande Roberge 120, and the Rosée 90.

In March, 1557, the three ships entered the bay. Léry characterized the route in as difficult, for "as you leave the open sea, you must sail alongside three small uninhabitable islands, against which the ships, if they are not, indeed, well handled, will dash and be shattered."20

The actual entrance was tight: "you must pass through a strait that is barely an eight of a league wide, bounded on the left side as you enter by a mountain, or pyraminal rock; not only is this of an amazing and extraordinary height out also, seeing it from a distance, one would say that it is artificial. And indeed, because it is round, and like a big tower, we French hyperbolically named it 'Butter Pot'."21

As for the Guanabara Bay, he described it as: "about twelve leagues long,, and in some places seven or eight leagues wide" with "mountains that surround it on all sides."22


20 Jean de Léry,  History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, otherwise called America trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 51.

21The Sugar Loaf, or Pão de Áçúcar; quotation from Léry, History, 51-52. 

22 Léry, History, 51.

Thevet, Isle et fort des Frãçois, in Cosmographie Universelle (Paris: 1575)
L'Isle Henrii / Villegagnon Island

Léry and the nearly two hundred men went to live on Coligny Island, where Villegagnon was building his fort. This island was like many of the  smaller islands in the bay in that it was not settled by the Natives and that there was no source of fresh water.

Thevet mapped this island ten years after his return, calling it L’Isle Henrii (today Villegagnon Island). Thevet’s map shows the fort, the tall rocky outcroppings that made it a natural stronghold, and the tents and houses where the men lived. Thevet's map also creates a detailed shoreline, with inlets that made landing difficult, but were likely good places to fish. Léry also commented on their defensive role when he described "little rocks that just break the surface of the water and whick keap the ships from coming closer than a cannon shot."23

Although Léry’s point was to emphasize how well the rocks protected Villegagnon’s fort, the rocky shores around the bay were an important part of the ecosystem, as becomes clear in Léry’s descriptions of Tupinambá fishing.



23 Léry, History, 52.



Staden, Fishing, in Warhaftige.
Descriptions of fishing gives clues to the ecosystem

The rocks along the shores of the islands were places where oysters lived. Léry explains that in the Guanabara Bay "there are many other little uninhabited islands in this arm of the sea, where, among other things, good big oysters are to be found." Diving from the shore, Natives surfaced with big stones, around which there are innumerable little oysters of another kind that they name leripés, which are so firmly attached--you would think they were glued--that they have to be turn off by main force.."24

Léry reports that the Natives called fresh water uh-ete, salt water uh-een, and stagnant water uh-eenbuhc.25 Each had a distinct ecosystem with different kinds of marine life. Léry described how men and boys speared fresh and salt water fish using bows and arrows, and how swimming and diving were necessary, as depicted in Staden's woodcut.

The woodcut above appears in Staden's Warhaftige and depicts Native fishing skills, which included swimming, as well as the use of the bow and arrow. The scene in Staden's woodcut is of the bank of a river, or bay, or even possibly a mangrove. 


24 Léry, History, 54.

25 Léry, History, 77.

Diretoria do Serviço Geográfico, Nictheroy, 1933, detail.
Mapping mangroves

Staden and Léry's descriptions of fishing point to many natural features in the Guanabara Bay during the contact era. These seem impossible to reproduce using Thevet or Staden's maps. Where were the mangroves, lagoons, beaches, floodzones in the sixteenth century?

Following the approach that we used in imagineRio to map roads, it is possible to begin to reconstruct them. With roads, beginning with present day maps and satelite imagery, we worked our way back in time, subtracting roads when they no longer appeared on maps. This does not necessarily yield an accurate map, but that is not our goal. Rather, because all maps are representations of geography, not the actual geography, in imagineRio we too seek to recreate an imagined view of the built environment. Using the same methodology for environmental features, we can work backwards from recent maps to earlier maps, and in the process gradually reconstruct the features of the environment, such as the mangroves, as they existed through time.

In the case of environmental features, however, the process will be the reverse of what we did with roads in imagineRio. We will need to add to what exists in the present, rather than to subtract. This is because many environmental features that once existed no longer do, or they exist today in much smaller footprints. Thus, as we move from later maps to earlier maps, we will expand the size of the mangroves, which have been drained, filled, and paved over time.

The first detailed topographic maps produced by the Brazilian army in the 1930s are very useful sources for reconstructing water features, such as mangroves. Although centuries had passed, the northern reaches of the bay had been less affected by the growth of the cities of Rio and Niterói, each of which had undergone great changes since contact. In the early twentieth century, clues to the environment in early times are visible. In the example above, which is a detail from the eastern side of the bay, now part of the city of Niterói, we can see how the Army cartographers mapped lagoons (lagoas), flooded areas, and other features in 1933.





Extracto das convenções cartographicas do Serviço Geográfico Militar
The value of the legend and symbology

The Army cartographers used a detailed legend, that included labels, abbreviations, and symbology for mapping environmental features. As evident in the legend, above, they were interested in many features, which are identified by letters, patterns, and symbols.

Mm stands for  (Matta maritima), which most likely refers to mangroves.





Metcalf, Guanabara Bay, 2022.
Mapping the mangroves

This is the result of my reconstruction of the environment of the Guanabara Basin in the sixteenth century. It is a simple, first attempt to add the rivers, mangroves, lagoons, swamps and other water features based on tracings from the Army maps of the 1930s. It is a conservative representation. The Atlantic forest is assumed to occupy what was not a water feature. The water features of the landscape, such as mangroves, lagoons, swamps, and floodplains of the northern bay had been affected but the mangroves can be seen in the northeast corner of the bay, as shown on the georeferenced map on the right. Some of these mangroves continue to exist to this day, and therefore, we can assume they they were at least this extensive during the contact era. The resulting map is not intended to be accurate, but rather to convey a better view of the different water environments--rivers, mangroves, floodplains, and lagoons in the contact era. It is an imagining of the landscape in the sixteenth century. To be sure, it is a beginning, but one that can be built on with further work with historical maps, views by artists, and textual descriptions.

Marc Ferrez, Entrada da Baía de Guanabara, ao fundo o Pão de Açúcar, circa 1885. Instituto Moreira Salles.

imagineRio has accomplished an incredible representation of the built environment of Rio de Janeiro over time. A future step must be the mapping of the broader environment--the Guanabara Bay and Guanabara Basin. This paper has shown that using the visual and textual accounts of travelers, as well as the surviving maps and sketches, we can capture clear vistas of the Guanabara Bay from the moments of first contact through the colonial period. From this an idea of the landscape can be mapped for the sixteenth century. Careful study of historical maps, texts, and images can allow the environmental features to be mapped, or at least sketched, for later centuries. By the late nineteenth century, the more detailed views of the landscape are available through photographs, such as those by Marc Ferrez, and a significant number have been geolocated in imagineRio. Using maps from the Army Geographic Service created in the 1930s, which was a time before major developments unfolded in the Guanabara Bay and basin north of Rio, it is possible to reconstruct other features of the landscape, such as land use, and to project them backwards in time, too.

Using imagineRio Narratives App to write this paper has not only shown how imagineRio captures the past in space and time, but how the process of writing with maps and images offers new ways to communicate how the city and its environment were linked through the past. i

Integrating the city with the bay and its larger basin is crucial for planning for the future. Great challenges lie ahead for all cities of the global south, and solving problems of water access, flooding, pollution, and habitat during the coming years of climate change will require understanding not only the built environment of  the city, but the broader history of the lands and waters  around the city. How the Guanabara Bay and Basin changed over time is a fundamental part of the history of the city of Rio.  


Please send any corrections and suggestions to