Friday, 19 February 2016 — 12:00 noon — WAG 316

Seth Garfield, UT

“Major Silva Coutinho’s Plant: Guarana and Louis Agassiz’s Amazon Expedition of 1865–66”

The history of guarana, a caffeine rich plant native to the Amazon and the namesake of Brazil’s “national” soda, is one of the least chronicled among those of the world’s major stimulants. To date, we have yet to understand the plant’s journey from obscure regional indigenous cultivar to high-profile ingredient in a multibillion dollar industry. This paper explores the role of scientists in orchestrating guarana’s broader dissemination in global research and commercial networks.

João Martins da Silva Coutinho was a Brazilian military engineer who served as the Amazonian guide for Harvard’s Thayer Expedition of 1865-66, led by zoologist Louis Agassiz. The latter’s creationist and racist objectives in surveying the natural history of the Amazon have been amply documented, but scholars have not focused on Silva Coutinho’s agenda to advance Brazil’s export diversification and regional integration. An analysis of Silva Coutinho’s promotion of the guarana trade reveals not only how the Brazilian engineer’s instrumentalization of science placed him both in line and at odds with foreign scientists and native peoples. It also demonstrates how the focus on foodways can offer new angles to understand questions of race, geopolitics, and national identity in (Latin American) history.


Seth Garfield received his Ph.D. in Latin American history from Yale University in 1996 and has taught at the University of Texas since 2001. He currently serves as undergraduate faculty adviser at the Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and as the director of the Institute for Historical Studies in the Department of History.

He is the author of Indigenous Struggle at the Heart of Brazil: State Policy, Frontier Expansion, and the Xavante Indians, 1937–1988, and In Search of the Amazon: Brazil, the United States, and the Nature of a Region, both published by Duke University Press. His research has been funded by the Fulbright Commission, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Mellon Foundation.