Brazil (or brasil) is the common name of a red substance once used for making pigments and dyeing cloth. It is produced from the wood of several trees in different genera, including distinct species in Southeast Asia and South America. The Southeast Asian species is known to science as Caesalpinia sappan L. (synonym Biancaea sappan), and it has long been used for dyeing cloth in island Southeast Asia; in Indonesian the tree and the substance are called sepang, a name also found in Sundanese and reconstructible to proto-Malayo-Polynesian *səpaŋ.

The etymology of the European words for the stuff — all of which sound a bit like ‘brazil’ and come from the same source — is a little controversial, as you might expect for a word that is also the name of a major nation-state. The theory I find most persuasive is that ‘brazil’ is derived from the Arabic wars (وَرْس), a word originally referring to a plant from Yemen in the genus Flemingia and to its yellow-red secretions. These secretions were used in dyeing cloth and making pigments just as brazilwood was. From wars we get Italian verçino ‘little wars’ and then a series of corruptions and embellishments of this term in different languages — versinum and brasilicum and so on. ‘Brazil’/‘Brasil’ just seems to have caught on as the most popular of these names.

A South American species in a different genus, Paubrasilia echinata, also produces brazilin, the same red substance found in the wood of C. sappan, and it was after this valuable tree that the land of Brazil (Pt: Brasil) was named by European invaders in early modernity.

Fig. 1 — The brazil tree in a manuscript claimed to be of Tractatus de Herbis by one Bartholomæus Mini de Senis, an Italian from Siena (c.1280–1350). The text is suspiciously similar to the text commonly known as ‘Circa Instans’ after the first words of its introduction. London, British Library, Egerton MS 747, f.18r.

Brazilwood was certainly used for dyeing and painting in medieval Europe — Cennino d’Andrea Cennini’s Libro dell’ Arte (c.1400) mentions it a couple of times, for instance — and there are even a few pictures of the trees in some European manuscripts, as you can see in Figure 1. These pictures aren’t particularly accurate (C. sappan actually has pinnate leaves rather than the oak-like ones in the image) but it is nonetheless interesting that such pictures were created. The text accompanying the picture in Figure 1 says, in any case, that ‘braçillum or berçinum’ is a tree with ‘twisted and intensely red wood’ that resembles that of red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus); it is said that it is found overseas and is used in dyeing (Figure 2).

Fig. 2 — The text under the image in Figure 1 from London, British Library, Egerton MS 747, f.18r.

This is all interesting in itself, of course, but my main subject today is instead a story in the accounts of Marco Polo’s travels. It is said that Polo took some brazil seeds from northern Sumatra and tried to plant them in Venice. They failed to sprout, a circumstance Polo attributed to the colder climate of his native city.

I’ve put the story below followed by my translation and a few notes. The text I’ve used here is taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1116, the oldest surviving manuscript of Polo’s Divisiment dou Monde. The manuscript was copied at the beginning of the fourteenth century, not long after Polo’s return, and the text is closest in language and style to the other known works of Rustichello da Pisa, the man who put Polo’s words into writing. In spite of this, and in spite of its completeness, it isn’t usually used as the basis of editions of the text because it’s so Italianate and relatively difficult to read. It’s my preferred text, however, because of its age and quirkiness.

Anyway, here’s the story:


<L>anbri e᷉ un roia-
me qe a roi por soi e se reclaume por
le grant kaan il sunt ydres. il hi a
berçi en gra᷉t habonda᷉ce il ont en-
core canfora ⁊ autres chieres especes (5)
en grant qua᷉tite ⁊ de be᷈ci uoç di
qe il le semme᷉t e qua᷉t il e᷉ nes en
petites uerge il le caue᷉t e le plante᷉t
en autre leu. ⁊ iluec le laisent por
trois anz ⁊ puis les caue᷉t co᷉ toutes (10)
les rais. Et si uoç di tout uoírema᷉t
qe nos en aportames de celle seme-
se a uenese ⁊ le semínames sor la ter-
re si uoç di quil ní nasquí noiant
e ce auint por leu froit. (15)


‘Lanbri (1) is a kingdom that has a king of its own but professes allegiance to the Great Khan [i.e. Khubilai]. They are idolaters. There is brazil in great abundance (2); they have camphor, too, and other precious spices in great quantity; and of brazil I tell you that they [first] sow the seed and, when it sprouts in small shoots, they dig them up and replant them elsewhere. And there they leave them for three years and then dig them up with all their roots. And I tell you wholly truthfully that we brought some of this seed to Venice and sowed it in the earth. Indeed I tell you that nothing ever grew [from it], and this was due to the cold.’


(1) This is Lamuri in northern Sumatra, in what is now the Indonesian province of Aceh. Odoric of Pordenone called it Lamori, closer to the local name, and this is also the form found in the text written by fourteenth-century hoaxer ‘John Mandeville’ (so-called). Lamuri was rather famous in the medieval world, cropping up in Persian, Arabic, Chinese, and European texts in addition to Indo-Malaysian ones. It is mentioned in canto 13.2 of the Old Javanese kakawin Deśawarṇana, written in 1365, as one of the ‘Malay lands’ (bhūmi malayu), all of which were apparently ‘subject and obedient’ (satanaḥ kapwāmatĕh anūt) to the Javanese (in Stuart Robson’s translation) at the time.

Zhao Rukuo, a thirteenth-century Chinese commentator (about whom I have written elsewhere), gives us only a very brief description of 藍無里國 ‘ the country of Lamuri/Lánwúlǐ’ (Middle Chinese: lam-mju-liX; ’Phags-pa pronunciation: lam-ʋu-li) in his ‘Record of All Barbarians’ (諸蕃志 (Zhū Fān Zhì — written c.1225):


‘The land produces brazilwood, elephant ivory, [and] white rattan. The country’s people like warring [and] often use poisoned arrows.’

The last part seems to me to be a reference to the use of blowguns with poison darts rather than arrows shot from bows. Brazilwood makes an appearance here too; the name for it in the text, 蘇木 (sūmù), is a truncated form of 蘇枋木 (sūfāngmù, Middle Chinese: su-pjang-muwk), which is a Malay loan (cf. sepang above; 木 means simply ‘wood’).

(2) The word used for ‘brasil’ in Français 1116 is berçi (line 4) or, in abbreviated form, <be᷈ci> (line 6 — the backwards tilde means <-r>), but in different manuscripts you find all manner of different versions: verzin in London, British Library, Royal MS 19 D I, for instance, and bresil in Stockholm, Kungliga biblioteket, M 304 (copied c.1350).

An interesting story, I hope you’ll agree, and probably the earliest documented example of European bio-piracy in Southeast Asia.

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A. J. West, December 2019

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.