Jean de Léry



"Its fruit, which the savages call paco, is more than half a foot long; when it is ripe, it is yellow and rather resembles a cucumber.  Twenty or twenty-five of them grow close together on a single branch" (trans. Janet Whatley, 105*).  To a reader who sees bananas every day, this description seems curious, but when Jean de Léry set out to describe them for sixteenth-century French readers, he knew that few of them would ever see a real banana.  His Histoire d'un voyage faict en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique attempted to provide French readers with an accurate description of exotic plants and animals and a sympathetic but shocking cannibalistic people.

Born in 1534 in Margelle (Bourgogne), Jean de Léry's life changed radically when he decided in 1556 to accompany a group of Protestant ministers and faithful to Brazil.  We know little of Léry's life before this choice, but it seems unlikely that he was from an important family or that he received an extensive education.  In Geneva, he was possibly working as a shoemaker and studying theology.  Léry left for Brazil with thirteen others in Novermber 1556, headed for the colony founded the year before by Nicolas Durand, Chevalier de Villegagnon.  Although Villegagnon had promised the Protestants religious freedom, he quickly began to contest their beliefs and persecute them.  After eight months, the Protestants left the colony (located on an island in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro) and spent two months living on the mainland in close proximity to the Tupinamba Indians (Tupi) of the region.  Their return home, in an unseaworthy vessel, became a harrowing voyage.  These experiences were the origin of Léry's Histoire d'un voyage.

After returning to France, Léry married, apparently unhappily, became a Protestant minister, and joined with Protestant troops in France's religious wars.  One of his most difficult experiences, the siege of Sancerre, became the subject of his first published work, the Histoire mémorable de la ville de Sancerre.  Léry recounted that his Brazilian experience served him well, as he taught his fellow soldiers to make hammocks and eat anything, even the soles of their shoes.  However, he remained shocked by cannibalism, especially when committed by supposedly civilized members of his own culture.

Léry did not publish an account of his experiences in Brazil until 1578.  He explained that this was due to a combination of circumstances: the wars and the loss of his orgiginal manuscript.  However, he felt forced to publish his version of events in response to the 1575 publication of the Cosmographie universelle of André Thevet, a Catholic observer who had left Brazil before Léry's arrival.  Thevet had blamed the Protestants for the failure of Villegagnon's colony, conquered by the Portuguese in 1560.  Léry's Histoire d'un voyage defended the Protestants and blamed Villegagnon and his aides for the colony's failure.

While religious polemic was the underlying pretext of the book, another of its most fascinating aspects is its description of the flora and fauna of Brazil as well as the life of the Tupi.  Léry's descriptions of the Tupi were so detailed that anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss would later refer to the Histoire d'un voyage as "the breviary of the ethnographer."  Léry also served a source for sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne's famed "Des cannibales."

Léry reedited and added to his Histoire d'un voyage multiple times, with editions in 1580, 1585, 1600 and 1611.  Many of his additions took the form of religious polemic; others found parallels between the Brazilian culture and those of other American tribes.

---Elsa Conrad



*Translation cited:

Léry, Jean de.  History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil.  Trans. Janet Whatley.  Berkeley: University of Californina Press, 1992.
To learn more about Jean de Léry:
Biography and bibliographical references provided by Elsa Conrad

For more bibliographical references, see the following site at the Université de Poitiers:
Jean de Léry: bibliograpie sélective (pour l'agrégation 2000)

Gordon 1578.L47

Léry, Jean de

Histoire d'un voyage fait en la terre du Bresil, autrement dite Amerique....

A La Rochelle:  Pour Antoine Chuppin, 1578

[47], 424, [13] p.: ill.; 16cm. (8vo)

Note: This is a very rare first edition.


Woodcut figures illustrating a Tupi family and ceremonial dance:

Chapitre XV (p. 237-258)

"Comment les Ameriquains traittent leurs prisoniers prins en guerre, & les ceremonies qu'ils observent tant à les tuer qu'à les manger"

Digital images of Chapter XV:

p. 237

p. 243

p. 249

p. 255

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p. 250

p. 256

p. 239

p. 245

p. 251

p. 257

p. 240

p. 246

p. 252

p. 258

p. 241

p. 247

p. 253


p. 242

p. 248

p. 254


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