It all started in 1481 in Portugal. The new king John II takes advantage of the creation of the caravel, a more maneuverable ship able to take on the oceans, to accelerate explorations along the African coasts in search of new commercial routes.
The Spanish monarchies follow suit, exploring westward and reaching the coasts of America. Portugal and Spain then agree to share the new world by drawing a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Spain can claim the new lands discovered west of this meridian, Portugal those to the east.
In 1497, Vasco da Gama crosses the Cape of Good Hope and enters the Indian Ocean, opening a new route to the rich spice trade. Two years later, Pedro Álvarez Cabral in turn goes to the Indies. After leaving the Cape Verde Islands, the expedition moves away from the coast of Africa in order to take advantage of the sea currents and discovers new lands located east of the Meridian of Tordesillas.
Initially, the Portuguese had little interest in Brazil, and their main goal was to establish trade routes to India and the East Indies. However, they soon discovered that the land was rich in natural resources, including brazilwood, gold, silver, and precious stones.
Cabral initially mistook the land for an island, but he soon realized that it was a large landmass. He named the new territory “Terra de Vera Cruz,” or “Land of the True Cross.” Later, the name was changed to “Terra do Brasil,” or “Land of Brazil,” after the brazilwood trees that were abundant in the region. The coasts are inhabited by the Tupi-Guaraní, semi-nomadic people who practice agriculture, while the interior of the land is populated by hunter-gatherer societies.
The Portuguese established several colonies along the coast of Brazil, including São Vicente and Porto Seguro. They also began to establish plantations, particularly for sugar cane, which would become the mainstay of the Brazilian economy for centuries.
The Portuguese were not the first Europeans to reach the coast of Brazil. The French and Spanish had made earlier explorations, but it was the Portuguese who claimed Brazil for their own. The fleet consisted of 13 ships carrying over 1,500 men, including soldiers, sailors, and merchants.
The discovery of Brazil by the Portuguese had a profound impact on the region and its indigenous peoples. The Portuguese brought diseases that decimated the indigenous population, and they exploited the land and its resources for their own profit. The legacy of this colonization can still be felt in Brazil today, with many of its social and economic problems rooted in this period of history.
The Portuguese quickly found trading posts to exploit brazilwood, which is used to produce dyes for the textile industry.
The indigenous peoples cut and supply this wood in exchange for weapons and European products. As the explorations continue, more and more trading posts, called feitorias, are founded. However, apart from brazilwood, no other resource interest the Portuguese colonists, who turn instead to spices from Asia, and gold and slaves from Africa. The Portuguese king then tries to accelerate the colonization of Brazil by dividing the territory into “captaincies”, and by offering land to Portuguese settlers who are called “Donatário”. At first, only Pernambuco is of interest because the climate there is ideal for growing sugar cane, sugar being an expensive and prized resource in Europe. In 1549, the Portuguese king creates the Governorate of Brazil, and appoints Tomé de Sousa as the first governor. The latter leaves to Brazil, and founds the new capital Salvador. In addition, Portugal sends Jesuits to convert the indigenous peoples to Catholicism. They move inland, but spread deadly European diseases, to which the locals are not immune. Further south, the French attempt an incursion by founding a colony called “France Antarctique”. But they are chased away by the Portuguese, who then settle in the same bay and found Rio de Janeiro. In the north of the colony, sugar cane cultivation develops rapidly, which leads to a lack of manpower. Portugal then compensates for this shortage by importing slaves from Africa.
The origins of Brazil: tracing the pre-colonial history of Brazil and its indigenous peoples
The Iberian Union
In 1580, after the death of King Henry I, King Philip II of Spain claims and then seizes the Portuguese throne, founding the Iberian Union. While Portugal retains some autonomy, it is now challenged by increasing competition from the rising powers of Western Europe, such as the United Provinces, France, and England, which take over its colonies around the world.
In 1612, French troops land in the very north of Brazil to found St. Louis, but again they are driven out. A few years later, the Dutch briefly seize Salvador. At the same time, around São Paulo, large wheat plantations are being developed. The colonists then organize expeditions into the land to capture indigenous people to exploit them on their plantations. This causes tensions with the Jesuit communities that are looted and destroyed. Further north, the Dutch succeed in settling in Pernambuco, where they found “Dutch Brazil”, whose capital Recife is renamed Mauritsstad. They extend their territory and develop sugar production.
In 1640 in Lisbon, an insurrection drives out the Spanish power. Portugal regains all its autonomy, and tries to regain control of its colonies.
In 1654, the last Dutch are driven out of Brazil. While Brazil is the largest sugar producer in the world, competition is rising in the Caribbean, which cause prices to fall.
The gold of Brazil
From the end of the 17th century, the colonists discover that the inland areas of southern Brazil are rich in gold, which quickly attract many workers. Gold production explodes. Annual maritime convoys are organized to bring the gold from Rio de Janeiro to Lisbon, which attracts the interest of European powers. During the War of the Spanish Succession, France organizes a military expedition against Rio de Janeiro. The city is looted, and then liberated in exchange for a huge gold ransom, which is brought back to France. Later, diamonds are also discovered inland, which further accelerate the colonization of the region and pushes the Portuguese to explore further and further inland in search of new riches, reaching the Spanish colonies. To avoid border conflicts, Spain and Portugal agree in 1750 to establish a new border.
Independence of Brazil & It’s Empire
In 1763, as Brazil reaches its peak of gold production, the center of power is moved south, and Rio de Janeiro becomes the new capital of Brazil. In addition to gold and sugar, the colony tries to diversify its income by developing cotton production, and then, gradually, coffee. A large part of the exports end up going to the British ally, which starts its industrial revolution. In France, Napoleon, who had seized power, dominates Europe. Only the United Kingdom still resists him.
Napoleon then decides to impose a continental blockade, and to invade his greatest ally, Portugal. A Franco-Spanish army enters the country, forcing Crown Prince John to flee to Brazil with his family and the government. In Rio de Janeiro, he strengthens the alliance with the United Kingdomby opening its ports to increase trade.
In 1815, after the fall of Napoleon, the prince chooses to remain in Brazil and to give the colony a status equivalent to Portugal by creating the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves. Further south, in the Eastern Bank, Spain is challenged by independence movements. Fearing that these would spread, the now King John VI decides to invade the territory. But at the same time in Portugal, revolts break out for the return of the king to the country, and for the establishment of a parliamentary monarchy. John VI is forced to return to Lisbon, but before doing so he appoints his son Peter as regent of Brazil during his absence. In Lisbon, the new congress wants the return of Prince Peter to Portugal, and the return of the status of colony for Brazil. In reaction, on September 7, 1822, Peter proclaims the independence of the Empire of Brazil and becomes its emperor.
In 1824, Portugal recognizes the independence of Brazil. The new country sets up an electoral system which is reserved for the richest, then quickly signs an alliance with the United Kingdom in order to maintain commercial privileges. In addition, the United Kingdom is called in as a mediator to settle the conflict between Brazil and the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata over control of the Cisplatine Province. In 1828, an agreement is reached, and both countries recognize the independence of a buffer state that is called Uruguay. In the following years, Brazil’s economy becomes more and more dependent on the cultivation of coffee. To increase production, the country continues to import slaves from Africa on a massive scale, despite the ban on the transatlantic slave trade imposed by the European powers. Finally, in 1850, after having imported 4 million slaves, the country abolishes the trade.
In Uruguay, since independence, many civil wars have torn the country apart. In 1864, Brazil decides to intervene militarily, officially to restore peace. The country allies itself with the camp of the Colorado Party, which opposes the Blanco Party, itself allied with Paraguay. The latter then reacts by organizing raids on Brazil and violating Argentine territory to go and fight in Uruguay. After the victory and the rise to power of the Colorado Party, the latter allies itself with Brazil and Argentina to fight Paraguay. A very deadly war follows, at the end of which Paraguay loses many territories.
In 1888, Brazil is the last country in America to abolish slavery. 700,000 slaves are freed. In the north of the country, a large part of the freed slaves continue to work in the fields for a meager salary, while in the south, many migrate to working-class areas of the big cities. Moreover, the landowners receive no compensation, which provokes their anger. The Emperor is more and more contested.
The Coffee Republic
On November 15, 1889, a military coup overthrows the Emperor, and proclaims the Republic of Brazil. A new flag is created, and Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca becomes the first president of the country. Coffee production is now so important that it accounts for more than half of the country’s exports, which supplies 3⁄4 of the world’s coffee. In addition, rubber production is expanding and drawing many workers far into Amazon lands. Finally, São Paulo becomes the economic heart of the country.
The city attracts many migrants, mainly European, but also from the Ottoman Empire and Japan. Meanwhile, Rio de Janeiro is modernized on the model of European cities. The inhabitants of the working class neighborhoods are driven out and take refuge in the favelas on the hillsides.
In 1903, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, who is nicknamed the Baron of Rio Branco, obtains, in a diplomatic and peaceful manner, a Bolivian territory in the Amazon. The following year he comes to another agreement with Ecuador, and finally, in 1907, a third agreement is signed with Colombia. In the years that follow, Brazil’s economy encounters trouble, particularly because of competition from Asian rubber, which has been organized by the British, who succeed in taking Hevea brasiliensis seeds from Brazil to develop plantations in Asia.
In 1929, the Wall Street Crash causes a worldwide depression, which further depresses the Brazilian economy. The price of coffee falls by 30% worldwide, forcing Brazil to destroy a large part of its reserves in order to try to maintain a decent price on the international market.
Birth of modern Brazil
In 1930, the powerful regions of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, which had previously been allied, clash in the elections. After the victory of the candidate from São Paulo, Getulio Vargas, who was defended by Minas Gerais, does not recognize his defeat, and after a revolution and a military coup, seizes power. On the one hand, he exercises an authoritarian and repressive power towards his opponents. On the other hand, he launches reforms to modernize and industrialize the country. His mandate marks the end of the white Brazil of the so-called “Coffee Republic”, and the beginning of a popular and mixed race culture.
In 1931, the Christ the Redeemer statue is inaugurated in Rio de Janeiro. The following year, voting becomes compulsory, including for women, but not yet for the illiterates. In the following years, the country develops the aeronautical sector and begins to exploit oil on its territory.
During World War II, Brazilian merchant ships are attacked by German submarines. In response, in 1942, Brazil declares war on Germany and Italy. Approximately 25,000 Brazilian soldiers are sent to the fronts in Italy, while 55,000 others are sent to the Amazon to harvest rubber to be supplied to the Allies. After the Allied victory, in the context of the Cold War, Brazil moves closer to the American camp.
The military dictatorship in Brazil
In 1960, President Kubitschek founds Brasília, a brand-new capital in the heart of the country. The following year, Joao Goulart becomes president, after narrowly avoiding a military coup. He reforms education to combat illiteracy, taxes multinationals whose headquarters are abroad, and expropriates huge estates to redistribute land to farmers. But in the midst of the Cold War, his policies do not please the United States, which secretly supports a military coup. General Castelo Branco becomes president, and is directly recognized by the United States. The new regime establishes a military dictatorship. The country opens up to foreign investment, which boosts the economy. The Amazonian forest is more and more threatened, on the one hand with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian road, which is intended to facilitate the exploitation of the lands in the heart of the forest, and on the other hand, in the south, with the development of immense plantations of soy, which nibble at the Amazonian lands.
In the 1980s, Brazil begins a peaceful democratic transition.
In 1985, elections are held, and in 1988, a new constitution puts an end to the military regime. Illiterate people now have the right to vote, and the ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation is recognized. Quickly, the country undergoes an important inflation.
In 1994, after 38 different currencies in 2 centuries, the Real becomes the new official currency of the country. The following year, the country signs a free trade treaty with Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay.
In 2002, Lula becomes the first president from the left-wing “Worker’s Party”. He launches a series of reforms and programs designed to end poverty and hunger. He also finances infrastructure in the favelas to improve the living conditions of the 12 million Brazilians living there. In two mandates, he brings roughly 20 million Brazilians out of poverty. Dilma Rousseff takes over, and continues the policy of her predecessor. However, she is undermined by suspicions of corruption, and by the enormous expenses incurred for the organization of the World Cup and the Olympic Games, while the country’s economy is deteriorating.
During her second term, the situation worsens, and she is impeached in 2016. Two years later, Jair Bolsonaro, ultra conservative and nostalgic for the military dictatorship, comes to power.
In October 2022, after close elections, he is defeated by Lula, who wins a third mandate as president.
Today, Brazil is a mixed nation, the result of migrations mainly from Europe, slaves imported from Africa, and people present before the arrival of the Europeans.
The history of the country, which is now one of the world’s leading democracies, has always been closely linked to global developments and the need for natural resources.