Bocage, José Vicente Barbosa du

At a Glance:

Zoologist, politician



Bird names: 4

Region studied:

Southern Africa (Angola and Mozambique)

José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage [link]

The Birds:

Bocage’s Akalat (Sheppardia bocagei)

Bocage’s Bushshrike (Chlorophoneus bocagei)

Bocage’s Sunbird (Nectarinia bocagii)

Bocage’s Weaver (Ploceus temporalis)

Bocage’s Weaver [link]
Bocage’s Sunbird [link]

The Name:

José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage (1823-1907) never set foot in Africa. His career was back home in Portugal, where there was plenty to keep him busy without having to go collecting himself. His main legacy was in the development of the museum in Lisbon that would eventually bear his name: the zoological collections of the National Museum of Lisbon, the Museu José Vicente Barbosa du Bocage.

Bocage (sometimes referred to as Barbosa du Bocage; occasionally spelled Barboza) had a particular interest in the fauna of Portugal’s two largest African colonies: Angola and Mozambique. He employed a network of collectors that sent him vast collections of specimens, many uncatalogued by Europeans. The work of describing and naming these was how Bocage made his mark. However, this work was not undertaken only from a sense of scientific curiosity: for Bocage, the task of cataloging the biodiversity of the colonies occupied by Portugal was a key means of arguing that Portugal tighten its grip on them.

Bocage lived in a time when Portugal’s empire had long been in decline. Portugal had once been one of the two superpowers of imperialism, flourishing at the expense of its conquered lands and feuding with the other, Spain, during the first frenzy of colonialism in the 15th and 16th centuries. But while the Iberian powers were fighting between themselves, other European nations had begun to crave their own colonies to profit from. By the time Bocage was born, they occupied only a scattered handful of small enclaves in Africa and Asia.

Bocage’s Akalat [link]

This was not enough for the imperialist-minded people within Portugal. The era of Bocage’s career coincided with a rebirth of Portuguese ambitions to subjugate large portions of Africa, a planned expansion from coastal Angola and Mozambique until the two colonies met, creating a huge coast-to-coast colony in southern Africa.

Bocage’s Bushshrike [link]

Obviously other colonizers were not a fan of this (the British would ultimately nix this plan in 1890), but a lot of Portuguese were also not particularly on board. This wasn’t out of any humanitarian instinct– colonies were expensive, and even if they were eventually profitable, it was debatable how much your average resident of Lisbon would benefit. Yet the prospect of losing their remaining colonies was at the same time seen as striking at the core of their national identity. Into this political atmosphere stepped Bocage and other naturalists, who used their scientific credit to bolster colonial ambition.

Bocage jumped into this enterprise in the 1870s, by which point he had already almost single-handedly given life to zoological research, traditionally undervalued in favor of sciences that had more obvious practical applications, in the country. His book Ornithologie d’Angola (1877) wasn’t intended merely as a guide to the birds of the region– it was in part argument for increasing colonial presence in Africa. This book, along with his numerous other publications, eventually landed Bocage a position as Minister of Navy and Ultramarine Possessions and later Minister of Foreign Affairs. In a very real way, Bocage’s scientific pursuits launched his political ones, and the two reinforced each other. His scientific career was based around the mass exportation of specimens from colonial territories, establishing him as an authority on colonization, while his political position allowed him to lobby to keep access to those specimens open.

Bocage provides us with a striking illustration of how science is not a morally neutral undertaking. For him, the scientific and the political were intertwined, each informing the other. He used his ornithological interests to actively lobby for the brutal subjugation of countless people. His career is the epitome of the colonial extraction of knowledge– he never visited the places he wrote about, instead literally exporting the raw material of his studies in the form of specimens from which he built a whole career. This dynamic ripples onward even to today, in the discussions of “helicopter science” and the obligations that scientists from well-off countries have to the less-well-off ones they do their work in.

J.F. McLaughlin


Barboza du Bocage, 1877. Ornithologie d’Angola. Impr. nationale, Lisbon. In French. [link]

Gamito-Marques, Daniel. 2018. Defending metropolitan identity through colonial politics: the role of Portuguese naturalists (1870-91). History of Science 56(2). pp. 224-253. [link]

Gamito-Marques, Daniel. 2018. A space of one’s own: Barbosa du Bocage, the foundation of the National Museum of Lisbon, and the construction of a career in zoology (1851-1907). Journal of the History of Biology 51(2). pp. 223-257. [link]

Madruga, Catarina. 2017. Expert at a distance: Barbosa du Bocage and the production of scientific knowledge on Africa. HoST- Journal of History of Science and Technology 11(1). pp. 57-74. [link]

Pisani Burnay, Luis. 1992. Some bibliographical notes on Barboza du Bocage’s Ornithologie d’Angola. Archives of Natural History 19(2). pp. 181-184. [link]