Joao de Barros (1496 - October 20, 1570), called the Portuguese Livy, may be said to have been the first great historian of his country.
Educated in the palace of King Manoel, he early conceived the idea of writing history, and to prove his powers, composed, at the age of twenty, a romance of chivalry, the Chronicle of the Emperor Clarimundo, in which he is said to have had the assistance of Prince John, afterwards King John III. The latter, on ascending the throne, gave Barros the captaincy of the fortress of St George of Elmina, whither he proceeded in 1522, and he obtained in 1525 the post of treasurer of the India House, which he held until 1528.
The pest of 1530 drove him from Lisbon to his country house near Pombal, and there he finished a moral dialogue, Rho pica Pneuma, which met with the applause of the learned Juan Luis Vives. On his return to Lisbon in 1532 the king appointed Barros factor of the India and Mina House—positions of great responsibility and importance at a time when Lisbon was the European emporium for the trade of the East. Barros proved a good administrator, displaying great industry and a disinterestedness rare in that age, with the result that he made but little money where his predecessors had amassed fortunes. At this time, John III, wishful to attract settlers to Brazil, divided it up into captaincies and gave that of Maranhao to Barros, who, associating two partners in the enterprise with himself, prepared an armada of ten vessels, carrying nine hundred men, which set sail in 1539. Owing to the ignorance of the pilots, the whole fleet suffered shipwreck, which entailed serious financial loss on Barros, yet not content with meeting his own obligations, he paid the debts of those who had perished in the expedition.
During all these busy years he had continued his studies in his leisure hours, and shortly after the Brazilian disaster he offered to write a history of the Portuguese in India, which the king accepted. He began work forthwith, but, before printing the first part, he again proved his pen by publishing a Portuguese grammar (1540) and some more moral Dialogues. The first of the Decades of his Asia appeared in 1552, and its reception was such that the king straightway charged Barros to write a chronicle of King Manoel. His many occupations, however, prevented him from undertaking this book, which was finally composed by Damião de Goes. The Second Decade came out in 1553 and the Third in 1563, but the Fourth and final one was not published until 1615, long after the author’s death.
In January 1568 Barros retired from his remunerative appointment at the India House, receiving the rank of fidalgo together with a pension and other pecuniary emoluments from King Sebastian, and died on the 20th of October 1570. A man of lofty character, he preferred leaving his children an example of good morals and learning to bequeathing them a large inheritance, and, though he received many royal benefactions, they were volunteered, never asked for. As an historian and a stylist Barros deserves the high fame he has always enjoyed. His Decades contain the early history of the Portuguese in Asia and reveal careful study of Eastern historians and geographers, as well as of the records of his own country. They are distinguished by clearness of exposition and orderly arrangement.
Diogo de Couto continued the Decades, adding nine more, and a modern edition of the whole appeared in Lisbon in 14 vols. in 1778—1788. The title of Barros’s work is Da Asia de Joao de Burros, dos feitos que as Portuguezes fizeram nu descubrimento e con quista dos mares e lerras do Orienie, and the edition is accompanied by a volume containing a life of Barros by the historian Manoel Severim de Faria and a copious index of all the Decades. Barros died on October 20, 1570.