A Country Is Born

A Country
      Is Born

By Brazzil Magazine

Only four countries in the world—Canada, Russia, the People’s Republic of China,
and the United States (if Alaska is included)—are larger than Brazil. This chapter
tells the story of how Portugal, a country far smaller than almost all of its competitors
in the race for colonial territory, imposed its authority and culture on a country that
spans more than half of South America.

The focus of this chapter is on key themes that dominate Brazilian colonial history and
help explain Brazil today:

· Portuguese origins

· Contact and clash with indigenous peoples

· Forced importation of millions of African slaves

· Creation of a multiracial society

· Consolidation and expansion of Portuguese-ruled territory

· Establishment of an export-based economy

· Beginnings of an independent Brazilian cultural and political consciousness

A brief overview of Brazil’s current scale, climate, and geography provides the context
for the story.

The Country the Portuguese

Created in the New World

Present-day Brazil covers 3,286,488 square miles. It extends for almost 2,700 miles
from north to south, and roughly the same distance from east to west. By the 1991 census
it numbered 146.8 million inhabitants, 52 percent white, 42 percent mulatto, 5 percent
black, 0.4 percent Asian, and 0.2 percent Indian. As we shall see, these racial
categorizations are much less rigid than in the United States. And Brazil boasts virtually
every mineral needed for a modern industrial economy, with the conspicuous exceptions of
coal and petroleum (although offshore wells are now helping to produce 60 percent of
domestic needs).

Brazil’s climate has been much maligned. "Insalubrious" has been used
historically to describe it, though public health precautions were all it took to subdue
the hideous tropical diseases that so frightened chroniclers in the past. Although many
areas are typically humid, the extreme cold temperatures afflicting North America and
Europe are unknown, and the high temperature extremes are certainly no worse than those of
the United States. Hurricanes and earthquakes are also unknown, although floods and
drought are relatively common threats.

Present-day Brazil covers five major regions. The following description focuses on the
twentieth-century features of these regions. Their characteristics in the colonial era
will be discussed later in this chapter.

The North includes the states of Rondônia, Acre, Amazonas, Roraima, Pará, and Amapá.
It also includes the Amazon Basin and is by far the largest region, accounting for 42
percent of the national territory. Enthusiasts, both Brazilian and foreign, have nourished
illusions through the years about the agricultural potential of the greater Amazon
Basin—from Henry Ford’s disastrous effort to grow rubber in the 1930s, to the
Brazilian military dictatorship’s decision to build the Trans-Amazon highway and offer a
variety of tax incentives in the 1970s. The facts of the region contradict them. The great
barrier to agricultural development of the Amazon Basin is and has always been the vast
tropical rain forest. It makes overland travel impossible, leaving the rivers as the only
mode of transportation in earlier eras (which air travel is added today). More
fundamentally, because rain leaches the soil if the vegetable cover is cut down, these
lands cannot be used for conventional agriculture, leaving the area with insufficient
carrying capacity for intense human settlement.

The Northeast includes the states of Maranhão, Piauí, Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte,
Paraíba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Sergipe, and Bahia. This region, which covers 18 percent of
the national territory, was the heart of the colonial settlement. Since the nineteenth
century, however, it has been in economic decline, with its once-flourishing export
agriculture no longer competitive in world markets. The result has been continuing poverty
for the population, which now constitutes the largest pocket of misery in the Americas.
Much of the coast is a humid strip (zona de mata) that has lent itself to
plantation agriculture, especially cane sugar and cotton. Behind this relatively narrow
humid zone lie two other zones that are less hospitable to agriculture: the zona de
agreste, a semiarid region, and the sertão, a larger region subject to
periodic drought These latter two regions were famous in the twentieth century for the
Brazilian bandits, such as Lampião, immortalized in verse, song, and film. The Northeast
is also notable for the effectiveness with which its politicians have represented the
region’s interests (historically synonymous with the landowners’ interests).

The Southeast comprises the states of Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro,
and São Paulo. This is the heartland of Brazilian industrialization, occupying 11 percent
of the national territory. The state of Minas Gerais is growing rapidly, having recently
succeeded in combining agriculture with industry. Present-day Espírito Santo relies
primarily on agriculture, especially coffee and cacao. Rio de Janeiro was the political
capital of Brazil until the 1960s. In 1960 it lost its premier status when the national
capital was shifted to Brasília, a modernistic new city built from scratch in the
interior. Since then it has been losing industry to surrounding states. São Paulo was an
economic backwater until the second half of the nineteenth century, when it became the
world’s primary coffee-producing area. In the twentieth century, for reasons still not
perfectly understood, it has become the industrial giant of Brazil, as well as the
champion producer of non-coffee foodstuffs.

The South consists of Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. A temperate
region, it was and remains a cattle and grain-growing area with only modest
industrialization. It is the smallest of the regions, occupying only 7 percent of the
national territory. Historically, the most important state in the region has been Rio
Grande do Sul, primarily because it borders both Argentina and Uruguay. The residents
(known as gaúchos) flirted with separatism in the 1840s and 1890s, but have since
become known as among the most nationalistic of Brazilians. Like Espírito Santo in the
Southeast, Rio Grande do Sul experienced a heavy inflow of German immigrants after 1890.
Paraná was a marginal state until the 1950s, when the coffee culture moved south from
São Paulo and touched off an agricultural boom. Paraná was also a prime destination for
immigrants from Japan, Germany, and East Europe.

The final region, the Center-West, includes the states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do
Sul, Goiás, and the Federal District (greater Brasília). Traditionally underpopulated,
this has become one of Brazil’s fastest growing areas. It covers 22 percent of the
national territory, including much of the cerrado, or interior farmland, which has
become highly productive since the 1970s, especially of soybeans. The building of
Brasília (inaugurated in 1960) was a great stimulus to growth in this region, bringing
modern transportation for the first time, and thus the capacity to market products to the
rest of Brazil.


Any explanation of Portugal’s historic role in the Americas must begin with the link
between the crown and overseas exploration. The discovery of Brazil fits squarely into
that relationship. The series of events leading directly to the discovery of Brazil began
in early March 1500, when King Manuel of Portugal attended a solemn mass in his capital
city of Lisbon to celebrate the launching of a new ocean fleet. Larger than any of its
predecessors, it was to include thirteen ships carrying a total of 1,200 crew and
passengers. Barely a year earlier, the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama had
returned to Lisbon from the epic voyage (149799) that opened the sea route to India. His
success, with its promise of future trading riches, stimulated the Portuguese court to
sponsor and organize this new voyage. The commander of the new expedition was Pedro
Álvares Cabral, a distinguished nobleman who gave it a social distinction the earlier
voyage had lacked.

The stated intent of this expedition was the same as the earlier one: to head for the
southern tip of Africa, sail around the Cape of Good Hope, and head north toward India
through the Indian Ocean. Almost as soon as the fleet had set out to sea, however,
disaster appeared to strike. The lead ship, commanded by Cabral, swung off course into the
Atlantic, sailing due west. Cabral and his crew eventually reached the coast of what is
now the Brazilian state of Bahia, arriving on April 23, 1500.

They had stumbled on what turned out to be a vast continent. Or was it more than
stumbling? There has been considerable speculation over the years that the Portuguese
navigators knew exactly what they were doing, that they had in fact planned this
"accident" to outflank the Spanish, who had already claimed so much of the new
world, and that they were really following the route of previous secret voyages to Brazil.
Historians have failed to uncover any evidence in the Portuguese archives or elsewhere to
support this version of events. If there were, indeed, previous secret voyages to the new
continent, they are still secret. Nor, of course, was the continent new to the several
million indigenous Indian people who already lived there.

There is no record of what the Indian residents thought as they were
"discovered" by a band of strange sailors with odd clothes and a bad smell, but
their reaction can well be imagined. The reaction of Cabral and his men is known:
They were fascinated by what they saw. Their thoughts were captured in an official account
written for King Manuel by Pero Vaz de Caminha, the fleet’s scribe. His "Carta"
(letter) demonstrated a typical late-Renaissance perception of the new land, naturally
emphasizing what was exotic to European eyes. Vaz de Caminha depicted a realm where the
resources—human and environmental—were there for the taking. The native women
were described as comely, naked, and without shame, and the soil as endlessly fertile. The
image of endless fertility was to capture the imagination of the Portuguese and later the
Brazilians, a romanticization that has led to a variety of overoptimistic estimates of
Brazil’s potential. This description of Brazil sounded seductively different from the
hardscrabble life facing most Portuguese at home. It was also designed to encourage the
monarch to send follow-up expeditions.

Cabral’s feat, though dramatic, was in fact part of the continuing success of the
Portuguese at overseas exploration. Despite their relatively meager resources (the
Portuguese population was about 1 million, compared with England’s 3 million, Spain’s 7
million, and France’s 15 million; Holland was closest with 1.5 million), the Portuguese
were, during these years, in the process of creating a trading empire reaching all the way
to Asia. Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India in 1498 marked the creation of the Estado de
India, a network of coastal enclaves running along the Indian Ocean, from Mozambique,
around the Malabar coast of India, and all the way to Macao on the coast of China. The
resulting wealth had made their kingdom a major international power in fifteenth-century

Such success was made possible by a combination of factors: early consolidation of the
monarchy, and a social structure that respected trade, along with leadership in
navigational technology, longstanding involvement in oceanic trading networks, an instinct
for trade rather than colonization, and a collective thirst for adventure.

Like Spain, Portugal had to fight a long war against the Muslims, who had occupied the
Iberian peninsula since the eighth century. But the Portuguese had liberated their kingdom
from its Arabic-speaking occupiers by the thirteenth century, two hundred years earlier
than the Spanish. In addition, they were able to resist repeated attempts by the kingdom
of Castile (the bureaucratic and military core of modern Spain), to manipulate the
succession to the Portuguese throne. To strengthen its position against Castile, Portugal
forged an alliance with the English crown in 1386. This alliance, which remained the
bedrock of Portuguese foreign policy for the following five centuries, was to lay the
basis for England’s involvement—especially its economic involvement—in modern
Brazil. The marriage of Portuguese King João I to the granddaughter of England’s Edward
III consolidated the Portuguese dynasty (known as the house of Avis, 13851578) and created
the stable monarchical base that facilitated the country’s foray into world exploration
and trade.

In addition to early political stability, Portugal was helped by a social structure in
which the merchant class played a major role. Portugal’s economy in the fifteenth century
combined commercial agriculture, subsistence agriculture, and trade. The merchants were
the key to trade and were respected by the crown. Thus, they had the support of their
sovereign as they maneuvered on the world stage, pursuing exploration and trade and
gaining the cooperation of foreign merchants, especially the Genoese in what is modern-day

The power of the merchants and the interest of the crown combined to produce the
resources necessary to make Portugal a leader in perfecting the technology necessary for
traveling long distances by sea. One of her relative advantages in maritime skills was in
shipbuilding, about which the Portuguese had learned much from their Basque neighbors in
northern Spain. For example, they produced the caravel, the first sailing ship that
was reliable on the high seas. Previous European ships were designed for coastal sailing
or for use in the relatively calm inland sea of the Mediterranean. When sailed on the open
ocean, they were apt to be swamped by ocean waves and often capsized. The Portuguese also
excelled at navigation. In particular, they pioneered development of the astrolabe, the
first instrument capable of using the sun and stars to determine position at sea. Finally,
the Portuguese were skilled at drawing maps, which were based on the increasingly detailed
geographical knowledge accumulated on their voyages. Such maps made possible systematic
repeat trips. (The astrolabe and the mapmaking skills give some credence to the
speculation that Cabral "discovered" Brazil by design.)

Portugal had yet another asset: a longstanding involvement in the trade routes that
linked the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. Over the preceding centuries Lisbon had been
a regular stop for Genoese traders traveling from the Mediterranean to European Atlantic
ports. By 1450, as a consequence, Portugal was already integrated into the most advanced
trading network of the time. Portugal’s location on the Atlantic also stimulated a natural
focus west, as compared with fleets that had set out from ports inside the Mediterranean.

Portugal was also helped because its small population made it impossible to settle
nationals in the colonies on the scale soon to be launched by the English and the Spanish.
Rather than subjugate the indigenous population politically, the Portuguese established a
network of trading posts—militarily fortified and minimally staffed—in order to
exchange goods with the local population. They negotiated in order to obtain the local
products (spices, gold, rare textiles, etc.), which would be produced for export by local
labor, with minimal Portuguese involvement. Such trading was established in Africa and
Asia in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to obtain spices (black pepper, ginger,
cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg) and other foods. The Portuguese also hoped to find gold or other
precious metals.

Between 1450 and 1600, the Portuguese established the most viable network of European
trading forts. Greatest competition came from the English, the Dutch, the French, and
especially the Spanish—competition that soon made soldiers and naval gunners as vital
to the Portuguese kingdom as its navigators and traders.

The catalyst that brought all these factors together was a combination of individual
characteristics that led the Portuguese people to excel in exploration and trade. First,
they believed in the religious mission to convert the heathen. The sails of their ships
bore a cross to announce their commitment to evangelize for the Holy Faith. But their zeal
was more pragmatic than that of the Puritans who settled New England. Unlike the Puritans,
for example, they did not stress their theological mission in the reports of success they
sent back to their homeland. Second, they preferred to solidify trade rather than to
impose formal political authority over the indigenous peoples they encountered. This
contrasted with the Spanish, whose first order of business in the Valley of Mexico for
example, was to claim legal dominion over the millions of Indian inhabitants of the
region. Finally, and perhaps most important, they had a collective thirst to discover the
new and the exotic, which drove them to travel the high seas in spite of the obvious and
frequently confirmed dangers. Of Cabral’s original fleet of thirteen, for example, six
went down at sea. This drive to succeed in spite of the odds was captured by the fifteenth
century Portuguese poet Camões in his epic poem The Lusiads, which remains the
literary document of Portugal: "We must sail!" (Navegar é preciso!)


Running through the story of colonial Brazil is Portugal’s continuing struggle to
expand its hold on the continent, even as it warded off the efforts by other countries to
encroach on the land it had already settled. The likelihood of competition between the
Spanish and the Portuguese in the New World had been foreseen by both sides almost from
the beginning. As early as 1493, only a year after Columbus’s first voyage and seven years
before Cabral had reached Bahia, Pope Alexander VI issued a series of papal bulls dividing
up the New World between the two crowns. Everything to the west of the dividing line was
to be Spanish, everything to the east was to be Portuguese. The Portuguese resisted the
Pope’s demarcation (was it because that Pope was Spanish?) and a year later reached an
independent agreement with Spain, the Treaty of Tordesilhas. This treaty moved the line of
demarcation between what was to be Spanish and what was to be Portuguese 270 leagues to
the west—not very much of a difference.

On today’s map, that imaginary line goes from the mouth of the Amazon through the coast
of the present-day state of Santa Catarina, giving the Portuguese dramatically less
territory than is occupied by present-day Brazil. No one could see that, of course,
because the area was almost completely unknown. In any event, the Portuguese were to
exploit the vagueness over the centuries to come, pushing farther and farther west.

The Treaty of Tordesilhas did not hold. The French, though Catholic, refused to honor
the papal bulls or the treaty. They began their own exploration of the Brazilian coast as
early as 1504 and continued their incursions throughout the sixteenth century. In the
1550s, led by Nicolas de Villegaignon, a naval officer, they controlled the area of Rio de
Janeiro, which was to be the base of what the French saw as "Antarctic France,"
a future refuge for French Protestants. The French were driven out of Rio by a column of
Portuguese and Indian troops in 1565, the year of Rio’s official founding by the
Portuguese. This did not end the French incursions, however, which continued throughout
the sixteenth century. One of the most contested regions was the Amazon Basin. Here the
French settled at São Luiz, located on the Atlantic coast. The Portuguese finally drove
them out in 1615.

The Spanish also proved a threat to Portuguese America. In the 1520s and 1530s, in
spite of the Treaty of 1494, they settled on the coast south of São Paulo. Between 1540
and 1560, they established settlements on the coast of modern Santa Catarina. These
settlements did not survive, however. Spanish settlements thereafter were mostly in the
Rio de la Plata basin, where the Spanish and Portuguese collided head on. The Portuguese
originally claimed sovereignty all the way to the Plata River (including the area of
present-day Uruguay, which eventually was ceded to Spanish control). The modern boundaries
between Brazil and Spanish America in the south emerged only in 1828, when Britain forced
recognition of an independent Uruguay.

Portuguese expansion to the west did not encounter resistance from other colonial
powers. Exploration of the interior lay in the hands of armed Portuguese bands, which went
west to capture Indians and look for precious metals. These bandeirantes, whose
expeditions originated primarily in the coastal region of present-day São Paulo, were the
prime explorers of inland Brazil and became the heroes of much folklore and mythification
by the São Paulo elite of the twentieth century.

In all their efforts to secure the frontiers of Brazil, the Portuguese were helped
immeasurably by the Portuguese Jesuits. This aggressive religious order established
mission networks in many parts of Brazil, particularly in the Amazon valley, harnessing
vast supplies of Indian labor to work the Jesuit-run ranches and vineyards. In so doing,
they helped "pacify" (read: subjugate) the local Indian peoples and establish
the Christian religion. They also played an important role as cultural brokers. Jesuit
linguists, for example, were the persons who established a standard form of Tupi, the
principal native language. As late as the end of the seventeenth century, this lingua
franca was more widely spoken than Portuguese, and its standardization eventually
facilitated the spread of the Portuguese language.


In the first three decades after Cabral’s voyage, Portugal treated Brazil as merely
another set of trading posts, established on the model of the feitorias (trading
stations) set up earlier in Africa and Asia. Asian exploration and trade was its primary
interest, where it had a commanding lead over its European rivals and reaped rich profits.
By the early 1530s, however, the incursions by the French and Spanish, and the need for
more trade to replace declining activity in the Indian Ocean, forced the Portuguese crown
to reconsider its position. Since it lacked the resources to strengthen its foothold in
America, it resorted to a semifeudal system of hereditary land grants, or captaincies.
These were given to rich nobles, in the hope that they would exploit the Brazil wood and
other resources, gaining personal profit while also serving the crown. Fourteen
captaincies were granted between 1534 and 1536.

Unfortunately for the crown, the risks were too great and the rewards too uncertain to
persuade the grantees to make the required investment. Only two captaincies were
successful: São Vicente and Pernambuco. The former was south of the present-day city of
São Paulo, and the latter was in the northeast.

In 1550, in a new sign of royal commitment, the Portuguese crown created a
governor-generalship. Governor Tomé de Souza arrived in 1549. He founded the city of
Salvador, which was to remain the capital of the colony for more than two centuries.

In 1572, the threats of French and Spanish penetration near Rio and the South persuaded
the government to divide its administration between Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, a dual
governorship that was ended in 1578. Two years later, Portugal entered a sixty-year
"union" with Spain, as lack of a royal heir in Portugal led to Spain’s formal
takeover of the Portuguese crown. The Spanish control of Brazil lasted until 1640, when a
suitable successor to the Portuguese throne was again found.

Interestingly, the Spanish did not use their formal authority to take over the
Portuguese colony in earnest. Their one major activity in Brazil was the constructive one
of regularizing administrative and judicial procedures, including development of new civil
and penal codes in 1603. Otherwise, Spain’s energies were engaged in fighting to retain
its possessions elsewhere in the New World.

Brazil was not entirely free of those struggles. The Dutch, in particular, took the
occasion to attack this new outpost of "Spanish" imperialism by invading
Brazil’s northeastern coast in 1624. These Dutch invaders (who were sponsored by the Dutch
West India Company) managed to maintain control for thirty years, occupying Recife and
taking over the lucrative sugar trade. During the occupation of Recife by the Dutch, under
Governor Maurice of Nassau (163744), scores of distinguished and mostly Dutch scientists
and artists—such as the naturalist Jorge Marcgrave and the painter Frans
Post—descended on the area to document its flora and fauna. In 1654, a coalition of
Brazilians of all social classes, supported by the local planters’ desire to escape their
debts to the Dutch, finally drove the Dutch off the coast. Brazilian patriots often point
to this resistance campaign as the birth of Brazilian nationalism.

The seventeenth century saw the dramatic expansion of territorial control (north, west,
and south) by the Portuguese. The Portuguese administration accommodated this expansion
though a codification and extension of the existing authority to newly secured locations,
rather than changing the administrative structure. There were two exceptions to this
continuity. The first was creation of the position of juiz de fora, a regional
judgeship, which was intended to reduce the power of the rural landowners. The second was
creation in 1620 of a new state, Maranhão, which included the Upper Northeast and the
entire Amazon Basin. Maranhão was divided into six hereditary captaincies, following the
precedent set in Bahia and Pernambuco. Unlike those other states, however, Maranhão
existed as a separate unit until 1774, reporting directly to Lisbon even though the
official administrative center of Brazil remained in Salvador. The impetus for the
establishment of Maranhão was Portugal’s need to consolidate its control of the North
after the expulsion of the French. The action was also explicit recognition of the
geographical separateness of Maranhão—a consequence of the prevailing southeasterly
winds, which often made travel up the coast from Salvador impossible. Land travel was not
a realistic alternative, given hostile Indians and jungle terrain. It was common at that
time for overland journeys in Brazil to take months. Rivers were used where possible, but
the Amazon flows from west to east, and the most important river in the northeast, the San
Francisco, is broken by falls so vast as to be impassable

The eighteenth century was dominated by the rise and decline of the mining industry,
following the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais and Mato Grosso in the early 1690s. The
resulting shift in population southward to those regions did have an effect on the
administrative structure of the colony. In 1709 the crown created the new captaincy of
São Paulo and Minas de Ouro. Then, in 1721, the separate captaincy of Minas was created
and in 1748 separate captaincies were established for Mato Grosso and Goiás. Inevitably,
as discussed further in chapter 2, the capital was finally moved from Salvador to Rio de
Janeiro in 1763 to keep closer administrative control over the lucrative mining area.


One of the best-known facts about Brazil is the multiracial nature of its
population—a mixture of indigenous Indian, Portuguese, and African, with the later
addition of Japanese, Middle Easterners, and non-Portuguese Europeans. This section gives
a brief overview of the Indians and African in colonial Brazil.

When Cabral arrived in 1500, a far-flung and complex network of indigenous peoples was
already there. The Indians numbered more than one hundred separate language groups, from
the Charrua in the far south to the Macuxi in the far north. These "Indians" (índios,
the term used by the Portuguese and later the Brazilians) differed significantly from
the best-known native peoples of Meso-America and the Andes. In both of those regions, at
least some of the indigenous civilizations had reached a high level of complexity, as in
the ceremonial city-building of the Aztecs (more properly known as the Nahua) in the
Valley of Mexico and the Inca in the Peruvian highlands.

The city-building societies were highly disciplined. They mounted armies to resist the
Europeans, fighting set battles involving thousands of Indians under strictly organized
command. Once defeated, however, as their leaders were disgraced or died, they became
leaderless. This dissolution of the Nahua and Inca societies facilitated the Spanish
creation of an economy manned by an Indian labor force that was forced to do what it was

From the beginning, Portuguese colonists also saw the Indian as an indispensable source
of labor. However, the Brazilian indigenous peoples were hunters and gatherers. The
Indians inhabiting Brazil did not form set armies and were not inclined to stand and
fight. Nor did they have a Nahua or Inca-style social hierarchy that the Portuguese could
take over to enforce work discipline.

Scholars disagree on the number of Native Americans living, when the Portuguese
arrived, in the area that is now Brazil. Plausible estimates range anywhere from 500,000
to 2 million, with one going as high as 8 million. However large this population may have
been in 1500, it shrank drastically after the Europeans arrived. Epidemic disease was a
major cause. The Europeans brought such infectious diseases as smallpox and measles to an
American environment lacking any previous exposure—and therefore immunity—to
them. Harsh treatment by the Portuguese, who met native resistance with brute force,
further decimated indigenous populations.

Disease and harsh treatment took a heavy toll on the indigenous peoples of Spanish
America also, but those who survived were often relatively easy to track down and organize
into work crews. The Indians who survived in Brazil retreated into the rain forest or the
temperate interior, where the Portuguese had trouble pursuing them. These indigenous
peoples were scattered into more than a hundred separate language groups, almost all
unintelligible to one another. The language group that proved most important was the
Tupi-Guarani, found especially in coastal Brazil. Theirs was the language standardized by
Jesuit missionaries under the label of Lingua Geral that became so widely spoken
throughout Brazil. But there were other Indian peoples scattered to the west and south who
were slowly encountered by the Portuguese in the course of their sixteenth and
seventeenth-century explorations. And there were many language groups in the rain forest
of the Amazon Basin whom the Portuguese had no contact with in the colonial era.

The Indians in Brazil were a revelation to the Portuguese. Even before Columbus,
Europeans had developed a lively fantasy world to describe the humans, animals, and plants
they expected to find beyond the Atlantic horizon. Vaz de Caminha’s report reinforced the
European prejudice that Portugal had discovered an idyllic world where evil was unknown.
As Portuguese King Manuel wrote to his fellow monarch in Spain, "My captain reached a
land… where he found humans as if in their first innocence, mild and peace-loving."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau later based his optimistic theory of human nature at least in part
on these early descriptions of the Brazilian Indian.

In his letter describing Cabral’s voyage in 1500, Vaz de Caminha described the Indians
as "tough, healthy, and innocent." Another alleged Indian trait, bestiality,
became the stuff of legend in Europe. A particularly famous example was Hans Staden’s 1557
chronicle, The True History and Description of a Land of Savage, Naked, Fierce,
Man-Eating People Found in the New World. Staden, a German, was shipwrecked on the
Brazilian coast and survived imprisonment by Indians. His bloodcurdling narrative
described natives who delighted in cooking and devouring their captives in a form of
ritual cannibalism. The woodblock illustrations of the book showed human limbs being
readied for the boiling pots. The pictures confirmed what Staden’s European readers were
ready to believe. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, European
illustrations of Brazil fixed on cannibalism (about whose extent present-day
anthropologists disagree). The existence of this "barbarism” gave the Portuguese
further legitimacy for their claim that they were bringing civilization to
"savages." It also made easier the theological and legal arguments for
subjugating the Indians. As with the Nahuas of Mexico, the image of flesh torn from
helpless (especially white) bodies served to justify seizing the land and exploiting
native labor, a rationale the Church was eager to support.

The colonists who actually lived in Brazil had a less fanciful and more arrogant
attitude towards the Indians, as they coexisted, cohabited, and clashed with them. Their
arrogance is epitomized in the words of a chronicler writing in 1570 that the language of
all the coastal Indians "lacked the three letters F, L and R, which is startling
because it means they have neither Fé [faith], nor Lei [law], nor Rei [king]
and live, thus, without justice or order."

The Indians who remained under Portuguese control in the sugar-growing area of the
Northeast dwindled as they died from contagious disease and maltreatment, obliging the
Portuguese to seize fresh Indians to maintain a labor force. By the end of the eighteenth
century, Indians were hardly visible in the Northeastern coastal sugar society. Indians
survived in any numbers only in the interior, where they lived relatively free from
contact with the Portuguese colonists. This scattering reinforced the fact that, unlike
Mexico or Peru, Brazil does not have the glories of an indigenous civilization hovering
over its modern existence. There are no massive pyramids such as at Teotiohucán or hidden
cities such as Macchu Picchu. This does not mean, however, that the Indian left absolutely
no trace on modern Brazil. In language (the place names), diet (the ever-present manioc
root), and medicine (innumerable herbal cures), links can still be found.

As the Indian labor force dwindled, the Portuguese turned to Africa. Even before
reaching the New World, the Portuguese had used Africans as slaves. As they explored the
West African coast in the fifteenth century, they brought back slaves to work on the
plantations of the Azores and Madeira islands. By the 1450s, Africans were being brought
into Portugal itself at the rate of 700 to 800 a year. It has been argued—most
notably by Gilberto Freyre, 190087, the Brazilian anthropologist-writer who became the
most influential twentieth-century interpreter of Brazilian character and
society—that the Portuguese were less prejudiced than other Europeans against
Africans, partly because of Portugal’s long exposure to the darker skinned Moors, who
represented a high culture. But the picture that emerges from the archives does not
altogether support Freyre’s view. Portuguese writers at times expressed extreme distaste
of the physical characteristics of Africans they saw. In 1505, Duarte Pacheco, for
example, a Portuguese who traveled extensively, dismissed West Africans as
"dog-faced, dog-toothed people, satyrs, wild men and cannibals." In fact, both
private and public discourse in Portugal was rife with such concepts as "clean
blood," "purity of blood," and "infected races." Yet this trait
of prejudice, traceable to such different roots as an aesthetic reaction to Africans and a
dogmatic reaction to non-Christians (especially Jews and Muslims), was to play itself out,
as we shall see, in unpredictable ways in Brazilian history.

As the Portuguese realized, as early as the 1530s, that the Indians could not provide
sufficient labor for the harvesting of Brazil wood and the cultivation of sugar cane, they
turned to obtaining slaves from West Africa, where Portuguese slave traders were well
established. By 1580, the Portuguese were importing more than 2,000 African slaves a year
to work the sugar plantations of Northeastern Brazil. Thus began the slave trade in
Brazil, which continued until 1850 at a human cost that was staggering. Shipboard
conditions were indescribably bad and disease rampant. More than half the slave cargoes
typically died en route. It was a tragic story repeated throughout the Atlantic slave
trade. In 1695, the noted Jesuit missionary Padre Antônio Vieira, for example, gave this
evaluation of the South Atlantic slave trade: "The kingdom of Angola on the opposite
Ethiopian shore, by whose sad blood, and black but fortunate souls, Brazil is nurtured,
animated, sustained, served and preserved." Brazil received more African slaves (at
least 3.65 million, and some estimates are considerably higher) in total than any other
region in the Americas. Present-day Brazil, as a result, has the largest population of
African descent of any country outside those of Africa itself.

Excerpted from the first chapter of Brazil: Five Centuries of Change
by Thomas E. Skidmore, Oxford University Press, Inc. (http://www.oup-usa.org), 1999, 254

comments to

Buy it at

Five Centuries
of Change
272 pp

You May Also Like

Brazil’s Lula: “From Head to Toe’ Committed to Poverty and Education

Speaking at a meeting on educational policy, president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva declared ...

Equatorial Guinea Opens Embassy in Brazil

Brazil’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Celso Amorim, met with the Foreign Minister of Equatorial ...

Brazil to Enlist Doctors in Fight Against Child Abuse

In Brazil, approximately 81% of the childbeating cases that arrive in hospitals are caused ...

Honda Introduces This Year in Brazil New Flexible Fuel Vehicle

Honda announced today that it has developed a new flexible fuel vehicle (FFV) system ...

For Brazil Justice Caving In to FIFA’s Demands Means to Issue a Banana Republic Certificate

Brazil’s Supreme Court (STF) is against the proposals made by Soccer’s International Federation, FIFA, ...

Accusations Are Pure Fantasy Says Brazil’s Finance Minister

"There was no money from Cuba in President Lula’s campaign," the Brazilian Minister of ...

Tongue Twister

Despite all the shortcomings — unprepared instructors, and lack of labs and multimedia equipment, ...


Although this year’s Carnaval that took place in June in San Francisco is just ...

43% of Brazil’s GDP Represented in Business Gathering in Portugal

Telecom, a telecommunication company from Portugal with a big presence in Brazil, is organizing ...

Brazil Bullish on Mercosur

Special Presidential Advisor for Foreign Relations, Marco Aurélio Garcia, rebutted criticism by business leaders ...