In 1872, an unusual letter was sent to Cândido José de Araújo Viana (1793-1875), the Visconde (later Marqués) de Sapucahy, President of the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico Brasiliero in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil) in 1872. It read (my translation from French):
As I was having stones carried in my property of Pouso Alto, near the Parahyba, my slaves brought me one that they had already broken into four pieces; this stone presented numerous characters that no-one understood, I had them copied by my son who knows a little about draftsmanship and I was resolved to send this copy to Your Excellency, as President of the Historical and Geographical Institute of Brazil, to see if Your Excellency or some other person could determine what these letters mean. And as I have arrived in this capital city and have not had the time to give them personally to Your Excellency, I have sent them to him through the post.
I am with all consideration and respect,
for Your Excellency,
Attentive, devoted and obliged servant
Joaquim Alves da Costa
Rio, 11 September 1872
The President passed the letter and drawing to Ladislau de Souza Mello Netto (1838-94), a botanist who was then the interim director of the Museu Nacional; he had a knowledge of Punic archaeology and the Hebrew language, and recognised the script as Phoenician. He therefore sent a partial copy to his former tutor Joseph Ernest Renan (1823-1892), one of the foremost authorities on Semitic languages of his day (although probably now best remembered for his pioneering Vie de Jésus). Renan had no hesitation in pronouncing the supposed inscription a fake.
The inscription was the subject of a critical paper by the epigrapher Konstantin (Christoph Wilhelm Constantin) Schlottmann (1819-1887), Die sogenannte Inschrift von Parahyba (‘The so-called Parahyba Inscription’), in Zeitschriften der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft (28, 481-7). The orientalist Julius Euting (1839-1913) was similarly unimpressed and Netto, who had originally believed the inscription to be genuine, was convinced that it was a forgery.
Nevertheless, Netto provided a translation for it, which reads (in my translation from Netto’s French):
This stone monument has been set up by Sidonian Canaanites who, to establish trade in distant, mountainous and arid lands, under the protection of the powerful gods and goddesses, were sent on this journey in the nineteenth year of the reign of Hiram, our powerful king. They left from Ezion-Geber in the Sea of Reeds, having embarked the settlers on ten ships and they sailed together the length of the African coast for two years. They were then separated from the commander of the fleet and taken far from their companions. They arrived here, twelve men and three women, on this unknown coast, of which I, the unfortunate servant of the powerful Astarte, have taken possession. May the gods and goddesses have pity on me!
In the meantime, Netto had tried to locate the original inscription and its alleged discoverer. The letter writer was one Joaquim Alves da Costa, who appeared to be a plantation owner from a place named Pouso Alto, near Paraíba; several places called Pouso Alto exist, while two places named Paraíba are known (one in the province of the same name, the other near Rio de Janeiro). Alves da Costa and his estate proved impossible to locate and Netto concluded that the whole affair was nothing more than a hoax, publishing a report as Lettre à Monsieur Ernest Renan à propos de l’Inscription Phénicienne Apocryphe soumise en 1872 à l’Institut historique, géographiqe et ethnographique du Brésil (“Letter to M Ernest Renan concerning the fake Phoenician inscription submitted in 1872 to the Historical, Geographical and Ethnographic Institute of Brasil”) in 1885. Netto blamed the hoax on foreigners who were trying to discredit Brazilian scientists.
Nevertheless, there does seem to have been a real Joachim Alves da Costa Freitas, who lived close to Pouso Alto in Minas Gerais province during the 1870s. Little appears to be known about him, but he was plausibly the person from whom the letter was supposed to have been sent (whether he sent it himself or it was sent by a third party in an attempt to implicate him in a hoax will probably never be known).
However, the story was revived more than eighty years after Netto’s debunking work was published in 1885, when Jules Piccus (1920-1997), professor of Romance languages at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst, USA), bought a scrapbook at a jumble sale in Providence (Rhode Island, USA) in 1967. It contained correspondence sent by Netto to Wilberforce Eames (1855-1937), a librarian at New York Public Library, which included a copy of the alleged inscription and the translation made in 1874.
There the story might have rested, had Piccus not sent a copy to Cyrus Herzl Gordon (1909-2001), head of the Department of Mediterranean Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham (Massachusetts, USA) and an expert in ancient Semitic languages. Unlike Renan, he thought the Paraíba inscription contained elements of Phoenician style that were unknown in the nineteenth century and concluded that it was genuine. His translation of the stone, which differs from Netto’s in a number of places, runs:
We are Sidonian Canaanites from the city of the Mercantile King. We were cast up on this distant shore, a land of mountains. We sacrificed a youth to the celestial gods and goddesses in the nineteenth year of our mighty King Hiram and embarked from Ezion-geber into the Red Sea. We voyaged with ten ships and were at sea together for two years around Africa. Then we were separated by the hand of Baal and were no longer with our companions. So we have come here, twelve men and three women, into New Shore. Am I, the Admiral, a man who would flee? Nay! May the celestial gods and goddesses favour us well!
Despite Gordon’s certainty about the genuineness of the inscription, he failed to find support from colleagues and, notably, entered into a bitter dispute with Frank Moore Cross Jr (born 1921), Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard. Cross pointed to problems with the script, vocabulary and spelling (just about every aspect of the inscription, in fact) demonstrating conclusively that the text was a modern forgery. Gordon continued to assert the genuineness of this and other supposed Semitic inscriptions in the New World, against the consensus of other scholars, being a supporter of numerous supposed transaltantic contacts in Antiquity. He descended into seeing cryptograms in the text, a highly dubious activity similar to seeking coded hints that Francis Bacon was the “real’ author of Shakespeare!
Attempts have been made to link the text with Brazilian freemasonry, but they are perhaps a little vague. Nevertheless, with no trace of the stone, its alleged discoverer or the place of discovery, it is difficult to accept this as anything other than a hoax. When the linguistic problems are taken into account, the inscription is quite clearly fraudulent. In a paper published in 1972, L’Inscription Phénicienne de Parahyba (Zeitschriften der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 122, 22-36), Geraldo Irenêo Joffily accused Ladislau Netto of the forgery, claiming that his motive was to further his own career and to ingratiate himself with Emperor Dom Pedro II (1825-1891, Emperor 1831-89). Although Joffily makes an interesting case and cites a seventeenth-century text speculating that Phoenicians had reach the Rio Paraíba, it is unconvincing: the identity and purpose of the hoaxer remain unknown.
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