Brazil country overview

History of Brazil

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

Brazil information index

Early period of Brazil

Exploration and initial settlement

The exploration of the Brazilian coastline by Europeans commenced subsequent to their cartographic endeavors in the Caribbean Sea and the northeastern segment of South America. This intensive exploration of Brazil was a byproduct of Portugal’s strategic initiatives to augment its territorial holdings in Africa and Asia. In the year 1498, the esteemed Portuguese mariner Vasco da Gama achieved a monumental milestone by identifying a maritime passage to the Indies and the Spice Islands, navigating around the southern tip of Africa known as the Cape of Good Hope. Seizing the opportunity presented by this breakthrough, the monarch of Portugal equipped and dispatched a formidable naval fleet to India, commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, with navigational plans prepared by da Gama himself.

In an effort to circumvent the stagnant winds near the Gulf of Guinea, Cabral’s course deviated significantly to the west, leading to the unexpected sighting of the South American mainland on April 22, 1500. The previously ratified Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), an agreement between Spain and Portugal, demarcated a longitudinal boundary at approximately 46° 30′ W, delineating the territorial claims of Spain to the west and Portugal to the east in the New World. The land encountered by Cabral fell squarely within the Portuguese domain, prompting an immediate assertion of sovereignty by the Portuguese crown. Initially christened Vera Cruz, meaning “True Cross,” the territory was swiftly rebranded as Brazil, a name inspired by the abundant brazilwood (pau-brasil) in the region, which was a source of a highly prized red dye.

The news of Cabral’s landfall was met with considerable excitement in Portugal, catalyzing the crown to underwrite significant transatlantic voyages, including those led by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci’s modest armada navigated the Brazilian coast, providing the first assessments of the land’s vastness. During his expeditions, Vespucci meticulously named various coastal locations after the saints whose feast days coincided with their discovery, maintaining a precise record of the dates. 

Over the course of the following twenty years, interest in Brazil significantly diminished. The Portuguese initiated an intermittent exchange with the indigenous populations for brazilwood, yet their efforts to locate valuable minerals within Brazil proved fruitless, leading them to concentrate on the more rewarding commerce with Asia. Consequently, Brazil was relegated to a neglected territory under minimal Portuguese sovereignty, a situation swiftly exploited by European competitors. Notably, the French encroached upon Portuguese territories in South America, exporting dyewood to the European market.

This period of Portuguese indifference was brought to a close during the reign of John III (1521–57), who progressively redirected colonial priorities from Asia to the Americas.

In 1533, the Portuguese monarchy undertook a concerted effort to establish a formal governance structure in Brazil, creating 15 hereditary captaincies, or fiefs. Each captaincy spanned 50 leagues (approximately 160 miles or 260 kilometers) along the coastline and extended indefinitely inland. These territories were allocated to individuals who found favor with the court, known as donatários, who were granted considerable rights and privileges. However, of these captaincies, only São Vicente (in the current state of São Paulo) and Pernambuco achieved any measure of success. São Vicente encompassed the town of the same name, the burgeoning port of Santos, and the village of São Paulo, situated on the fertile Piratininga Plateau of the Serra do Mar, with a collective mid-16th-century population of around 5,000. The captaincy of Pernambuco, located in northeastern Brazil and centered around the town of Olinda, flourished under the stewardship of its donatário, Duarte Coelho Pereira. Pernambuco became a prominent sugar-producing area, marking the first instance of a lucrative agricultural export from the New World to Europe.

Royal governors, Jesuits, and slaves

In an effort to consolidate his power within Brazil, His Majesty King John III of Portugal took decisive measures to centralize the fragmented administration of the donatários by instituting a unified government structure. To this end, he appointed the esteemed Portuguese nobleman Tomé de Sousa as the first Governor-General, recognizing Sousa’s distinguished service in Africa and India as a testament to his capability. Upon his arrival in Brazil in 1549, Governor-General Sousa established the city of Salvador in Bahia, which served as the administrative seat for the next 214 years. He implemented a system of governance by placing appointed officials in charge of the various captaincies and fortified key coastal positions for enhanced security. Furthermore, Sousa introduced municipal frameworks within urban centers that mirrored those found in Portugal, thereby fostering an environment conducive to increased settlement. By the turn of the 17th century, the European populations of Bahia and Pernambuco had reached approximately 2,000 individuals each, with the number of African slaves and indigenous peoples surpassing double those figures.

The Jesuit Order played an instrumental role in the development of the colony, offering both labor and expertise at the behest of King John III. Father Manuel da Nóbrega, along with other Jesuit missionaries, accompanied Sousa to Salvador, initiating a legacy of Jesuit commitment to the welfare and conversion of the indigenous population and the moral elevation of the settlers. The Jesuits established indigenous communities, known as aldeias, which paralleled the mission settlements in Spanish territories. These efforts, however, were met with resistance from other colonists who relied on indigenous enslavement and thus opposed the Jesuits’ influence over such a critical workforce. Tensions between the two factions escalated, prompting appeals to the Portuguese crown. The Jesuits achieved a measure of success with the royal decree of 1574, which granted them authority over the aldeias while allowing colonists to enslave indigenous people taken in sanctioned military conflicts.

In the Amazon River basin, Father António Vieira was a prominent figure in a similar dispute during the 17th century, as he founded a series of missions that shielded the indigenous population from enslavement but inadvertently facilitated the spread of European diseases. As Brazil grappled with a growing labor deficit by the mid-16th century, the importation of African slaves surged to meet the escalating demands of the colonists.

Dutch and French incursions

Prior to the consolidation of Brazil under the direct control of the Portuguese crown, France made a concerted attempt to establish a lasting settlement in the region. In 1555, French forces occupied the picturesque bay of Rio de Janeiro, which had been overlooked by the Portuguese for reasons that remain unclear. A substantial Portuguese contingent, led by Governor-General Mem de Sá, imposed a blockade on the harbor’s entrance. This action ultimately led to the capitulation of the French stronghold and the establishment of the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1567, intended as a bulwark against further incursions.

During the period of Iberian Union from 1580 to 1640, when Portugal was annexed to Spain, Brazil became vulnerable to assaults by the adversaries of Spain, including the nascent Dutch Republic. The Dutch briefly captured Salvador in 1624–25, and in 1630, the Dutch West India Company sent a fleet that took control of Pernambuco. This territory remained under Dutch dominion for twenty-five years. The company appointed John Maurice of Nassau-Siegen, a noble from the House of Orange and one of the most competent administrators from the Netherlands, as the governor of their new Brazilian territories.

The Dutch encouraged eminent artists and scientists to document and publicize the natural wealth and splendor of Brazil to the European audience. Nonetheless, the company’s directors, focused on financial returns, declined to back John Maurice’s progressive social initiatives, leading to his resignation in 1644. In the aftermath, João Fernandes Vieira, an affluent local plantation owner, spearheaded an insurrection that gradually overpowered the less capable successors of John Maurice. The Brazilians, without assistance from Portugal, successfully overthrew and banished the Dutch by 1654. This victory played a significant role in igniting a sense of national pride among the Brazilian people.

Expansion and unification

The westward expansion of Brazil represents a pivotal chapter in the history of colonial Latin America. Despite the demarcation established by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which prohibited Portuguese exploration beyond 46° 30′ W longitude, Brazilian settlers ventured well past this boundary, driven by three distinct cohorts: missionaries, cattle ranchers, and the bandeirantes, a group comprised of adventurers and slave hunters.

Missionary efforts persisted in propagating their influence along the Amazon River and throughout the southern and southeastern regions. Concurrently, ranchers from the northeastern territories, spurred by the quest for new grazing lands, advanced from the sugar cane belts of Pernambuco and Bahia into what are now the states of Piauí, Maranhão, and Goiás.

The settlers originating from São Paulo, known as Paulistas, were particularly instrumental in the westward push. They organized extensive incursions, termed bandeiras, with the dual objectives of enslaving indigenous populations and prospecting for gold and precious stones. Some of these bandeirantes ventured as far as the silver mines of Alto Peru, present-day Bolivia, and reached areas as remote as Bogotá in Colombia.

During the 17th century, these explorers penetrated the uncharted territories of Mato Grosso and launched assaults on the reducciones, the Spanish-established Indian missions, in the regions of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers. The indigenous populations, alongside Jesuit missionaries, mounted resistance against the bandeirantes’ incursions. Notably, Spanish settlers near the Río de la Plata, in the area now known as Uruguay, successfully repelled invasions by the Paulistas.

Despite the often violent and oppressive nature of their expeditions, the bandeirantes played a crucial role in the territorial consolidation of the vast Brazilian subcontinent. Their actions, while controversial, were instrumental in shaping the geopolitical landscape of the region.

The integration of the region was significantly influenced by shared cultural characteristics and economic elements. The widespread use of the Portuguese language served as a unifying factor among various societal groups, including inhabitants of plantations, ranchers, miners, enslaved individuals of both Indian and African descent, slave traders, and urban populations. This linguistic commonality set them apart from the Spanish-speaking populations in other parts of South America. The Brazilian populace largely inherited from Portugal a traditional, extended family structure characterized by patriarchy. A small number of influential families held dominion over the vast majority of land, enslaved people, livestock, and mineral resources that constituted the colony’s wealth. During the colonial era, only a handful of significant urban centers emerged in Brazil, namely Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Recife, and Ouro Prêto. Additionally, Portugal managed to sustain, albeit sporadically, connections with all regions of Brazil. In contrast, there was minimal trade or consistent interaction between Brazil and the neighboring Spanish colonies. Despite pronounced regional disparities, these shared attributes contributed to the cohesion of Brazil as a territory.

Agriculture and prospecting

The economic and societal structure of Brazil was historically rooted in the sectors of agriculture and mining, with a particular emphasis on the exportation of sugar and gold. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, the sugar industry, predominantly situated in the Northeastern region, constituted the primary source of wealth for Brazil, significantly contributing to the fiscal resources of the crown up until the nation’s independence. The cultivation of sugar necessitated substantial capital investments in terms of land, labor, which included the use of slave labor, and equipment. This led to the concentration of the sugar industry in the hands of a limited number of affluent families who owned large plantations. Meanwhile, smaller landholders engaged in the production of cotton and coffee, both of which emerged as significant export commodities in the 18th century. Additionally, independent freemen residing in proximity to the sugar plantations cultivated tobacco and reared cattle, with both commodities gaining economic prominence by the conclusion of the colonial era.

The quest for gold in Brazil, which began with the initial settlements, finally met with success in 1695 when substantial deposits were unearthed in the region now known as the state of Minas Gerais. This discovery precipitated a gold rush that transformed the patterns of Brazilian settlement, leading to the rapid establishment of towns within previously untouched wilderness areas, while simultaneously causing a decline in population along certain coastal regions. The introduction of mining techniques by slaves, relocated from Brazil’s sugar estates and Africa’s gold-mining areas, played a pivotal role in the development of the mining industry. The influx of wealth generated by the gold mines was so significant that it prompted the Portuguese colonial administration to relocate the capital from Salvador in the Northeast to Rio de Janeiro in 1763. Furthermore, the pursuit of gold also led to the discovery of diamond deposits in the early 18th century within Minas Gerais, Bahia, and Mato Grosso. Although the initial fervor of the mining boom diminished as the principal deposits were exhausted, gold and diamonds continued to be extracted in smaller quantities.

Colonial reforms

The diplomatic agreements with Spain, namely the Treaty of Madrid (1750), the Treaty of El Pardo (1761), and the Treaty of San Ildefonso (1777), acknowledged a number of Portuguese territorial entitlements, including those acquired through the endeavors of the bandeirantes. Concurrently, His Majesty King Joseph I’s esteemed minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, Marquis of Pombal, implemented a series of transformative reforms within Brazil that had far-reaching implications on its societal structures, governance, and ecclesiastical practices. The Marquis of Pombal dismantled the hereditary captaincy system, conferred legal protections upon the Indigenous populations, promoted settlement from the Azores and Madeira, instituted two exclusive trading companies to manage Brazilian commerce, and secured a state monopoly on the extraction of diamonds.

In a decisive move in 1759, Pombal orchestrated the expulsion of the Jesuits from both Brazil and Portugal, a measure that garnered support among the Brazilian upper classes who perceived the Jesuits as economic adversaries due to their opposition to the enslavement of Indigenous peoples and their involvement in trade activities. Throughout the latter part of the 18th century, Pombal’s governance saw a progressive centralization of the Brazilian administration, which marked a significant shift in the colonial management under Portuguese dominion.

Independence of Brazil

Brazil’s emergence as a nation was marked by a relatively moderate level of conflict and upheaval compared to its Spanish-speaking counterparts in the Americas. Nevertheless, the process was not without its moments of turbulence. In 1789, José Joaquim da Silva Xavier, widely known as Tiradentes, led the inaugural insurrection against Portuguese colonial rule. Although his revolt was ultimately quashed, and he was executed, his sacrifice posthumously elevated him to the status of a national icon.

The geopolitical turmoil of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had a significant ripple effect on Brazil, despite the physical distance from the epicenter of these conflicts. When Napoleon I invaded Portugal in 1807, which was then allied with Britain, the Portuguese Prince Regent Dom João (who would later become King John VI) sought sanctuary in Brazil. This decision was unprecedented, as it resulted in Brazil becoming the temporary seat of power for its colonial sovereign. Accompanied by the royal family and a retinue of nobility and officials, Dom João departed Portugal on November 29, 1807, escorted by the British navy. Following a series of delays, they reached Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 1808.

The arrival of Dom João was met with enthusiasm by the Brazilian populace, who anticipated a transformative period for their land. The Prince Regent enacted several progressive measures that would reshape Brazil’s economic landscape. He dismantled the longstanding Portuguese monopoly over Brazilian commerce, opened Brazilian ports to the trade of allied nations—primarily to the benefit of Great Britain—and lifted restrictions on local manufacturing, thereby fostering a more liberal and dynamic economic environment.

His Majesty Dom João VI, during his tenure in Rio de Janeiro, established a comprehensive suite of governmental institutions, including the Ministry and Council of State, the Supreme Court, the Exchequer and Royal Treasury, the Royal Mint, the Royal Printing Office, and the Bank of Brazil. Furthermore, he was instrumental in the founding of a Royal Library, a Military Academy, and schools for the study of medicine and law. By his decree on December 16, 1815, he elevated the status of the Portuguese territories to form the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves, thereby granting Brazil parity with Portugal. Following the death of his mother in 1816, Dom João VI ascended to the throne.

Upon the retreat of the French forces, a significant portion of the Portuguese populace expressed a desire for King John VI’s return. However, he prolonged his stay in Brazil as the Iberian Peninsula was beset by increasing turmoil. The King’s attention was decisively drawn back to the region when radical uprisings broke out in Lisbon and Oporto in 1820. On April 22, 1821, he designated his son, Dom Pedro, as regent, and subsequently embarked for Lisbon two days later.

Dom Pedro was confronted with a challenging political landscape. Tensions were escalating between the Portuguese and Brazilians, republican advocates were gaining momentum, and the Cortes (the Portuguese parliament) implemented a series of myopic policies. The majority of the Cortes advocated for the reversion of Brazil to its previous status as a dependent colony, and proceeded to revoke the majority of reforms enacted by King John VI. In a bid to preempt any potential independence movement, the Cortes issued an order for Dom Pedro to return to Europe.

The actions in question elicited considerable consternation within Brazil. In response, Dom Pedro boldly challenged the Cortes with an address that came to be known as the “Fico” (“I Am Staying”), garnering widespread support from the Brazilian populace for his stance. In January 1822, he established a cabinet led by José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, an esteemed scholar from São Paulo, who subsequently earned the title of the Patriarch of Independence for his steadfast support of the young regent during the initial, tentative period following independence.

On the 3rd of June, Dom Pedro summoned a legislative and constituent assembly. A few months later, on the 7th of September, he declared Brazil’s independence at the plain of Ipiranga, in the vicinity of São Paulo. His coronation as emperor took place on the 1st of December. The United States extended formal recognition to the nascent country in 1824, and Portugal conceded to Brazilian independence in the succeeding year, leading to the establishment of diplomatic ties with other European monarchies.

The collapse of the empire

Under the astute leadership of Emperor Pedro II, Brazil experienced significant advancements. The nation’s population expanded from approximately 4 million to 14 million individuals, while its public revenues saw a fourteenfold increase. Additionally, the value of Brazil’s exports experienced a tenfold surge, and the country witnessed the construction of an extensive railway network exceeding 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers). The period also saw a notable rise in immigration, with over 100,000 individuals arriving in Brazil in the year 1889 alone. Despite these developments, there was a prevailing sense of public discontent.

Scholars often attribute the demise of the Brazilian monarchy to the growing discontent among key societal groups, including the military, the landed gentry, and the clergy, all of whom harbored increasing criticism towards the emperor. A critical factor, however, may have been the strain on the traditional social hierarchy in the late 19th century, which was exacerbated by the growing divide between the rural elite and the more progressive urban populace and coffee plantation owners. The urban middle class, military leaders, and coffee plantation owners perceived the monarchy as an anachronism, overly aligned with the rural aristocracy. They contended that a republican form of government would be more conducive to the aspirations of Brazil’s burgeoning capitalist economy, which was becoming more reliant on coffee exports and industrialization.

A coalition of civil and military forces orchestrated a coup d’état on November 15, 1889, leading to Emperor Pedro II’s abdication and subsequent exile in Europe. The abolition of slavery in 1888, followed by the monarchy’s overthrow in 1889, marked the end of two foundational institutions that had long influenced Brazil’s trajectory. These events heralded a new era characterized by rapid social, economic, and political transformations, propelling the nation towards modernization. Consequently, the period from 1888 to 1922 is often regarded as the genesis of a “new Brazil.”

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