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Notes on Periods in Colonial Brazilian History

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry


    Brazil and Spanish America were similar in regards to the class system, having an oligarchic government, Roman Catholicism, slavery, anti-Indian sentiments, dependence on European goods and imports, the great estate (fazenda), and the lack of economic incentives for the vast majority of the population. Brazilians found few precious metals until the 1690s, unlike Spanish America where precious metals almost immediately played the major in Spanish exploitation of the people and the land.

    Urban life was much more common and important in Spanish America. In Brazil, the elites tended to stay on their great estates.

    Because there may have been no more than one million Indians in what is now Brazil and most of them were not sedentary as were the Inca or the Aztec, Africans and people of African descent quickly outnumbered the Indians. Whereas Spaniards sired a huge mestizo population, the Portuguese sired a huge mulatto population. By independence, at least, Brazil became a "black" nation, depending upon how one defines "black."


1. Discovery and first settlements

    Pedro Alvares Cabral's fleet touched Brazil in April, 1500. Soon afterward Cabral returned to Portugal, Fernando do Noronha began shipping brazilwood, used as a textile dye. Others followed suit and the territory came to be called Brazil. The first settlements were feitorias (factories, the name for trading posts in those days). The Crown paid little attention to Brazil; its limited resources were focused on its more lucrative colonies in Africa and Asia. Other Europeans began to enter the dyewood trade.

    The size of the Portuguese settlement in Brazil would be determined by what they found to exploit and by climate and terrain. Besides dyewood, they found that the land of northeast Brazil was suitable to sugar cultivation. They tended to hug the coast but overcame geographical barriers (such as the coastal escarpment) when it was to their economic advantage.

2. By 1530, Crown sent out a fleet to attach French settlements, strengthen feitorias, and explore inland. In 1532, the expedition founded Sâo Vicente about 200 miles southwest of Guanabara Bay. This expedition brought European animals and seeds, erected forts, set up town governments, and issued private land grants (sesmarias).

    In 1534-1536, the crown granted 15 hereditary captaincies (capitanías) to 12 persons (donátorios) . The captaincies extended, on average, 250 miles along the coast and into the interior for an indefinite distance. The donátorios were relatively important for some time. They set up ways of exploiting Brazil that more or less worked. However, only Pernambuco and Sâo Vicente succeeded economically. By 1548, Brazil had sixteen settlements but they were far apart.

3. In 1549, the Crown created the governor-general system (in Spanish America it was the viceroy system). This was the beginning of the centralized administration system with a treasurer, chief justice, and other bureaucrats. Formal Crown government was created in part as a defense against foreign intruders, who had begun to come. The governor-general drove the French and other foreigners out.

    The Crown gave away sesmarias, fostered the growth of Christianity and the Church, imported workers, and provided some government. By 1572, the Crown split Brazil into two jurisdictions, the northern one had Bahía as its capital, the south had Río de Janeiro. Fiddled off and on with this arrangement and eventually allowed a chief justice in the south.

4. Most of the early workers were Indians, who taught the Portuguese to live in the tropics. There were never enough Portuguese to exploit the land and they were disinclined to do manual labor when there was an alternative--Indian labor. Indian slaves became commonplace. From the Indians, the Portuguese learned to eat such foods as casava, use hammocks, and dress more appropriately.

    As in Spanish America, European men took Indian women, free persons or slaves, as lovers, mixing their DNA with that of the existing population. Many mamelucos were born. Few women came to Brazil from Portugal. Given the dominance of these men, however, Indian women probably would have become lovers to Portuguese men regardless.

    The regular clergy and the Crown, to some extent, opposed slavery and the mistreatment of Indians but to little effect. Greed could not be overcome by such weak institutions. Even the Jesuits were unable to protect their charges whom they had gathered together into settlements for that purpose.

5. Africans and their offspring became the predominant DNA strain in Brazil's population. The Portuguese knew African slavery in Europe and had traded slaves from their African feitorias. By 1585, black slaves represented about 25% of the settled population of 57,00 persons in Brazil. By 1700, they represented more than 30% of the settled population. In the 18th century, some 1.3 million arrived in Brazil and another 1.6 million in the nineteenth. Although slaves were short-lived because of working conditions, abuse, the effects of dislocation, and such, their offspring soon were more numerous than that of the Indians and the Portuguese. Brazil became a black colony and then a black nation, depending upon how one counts blackness.

6. Brazil was much like the rest of the European world in being both class conscious and caste conscious. Blacks were considered inferior and there were many racial discrimination laws. However, one could change status more easily in Brazil than in the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Mulattos (European and African mixes) could become white in Brazil if they could find a high status occupation or marry up. Class, after all, is very important to humans and class consciousness, in varying degrees, seems to exist in all human societies. People in Brazil knew their social class (or "place") and deferred to the wishes of their "betters".

7. The growth of sugar culture in northeast Brazil led to creation of fazendas (large plantations) and the importation of Africans as slaves. Sugar planters enjoyed much autonomy from the Crown because they enjoyed wealth, power, and retainers and because they were geographically distant from the authorities.

8. Philip II of Spain managed to get himself recognized as the king of Portugal in 1560 and the Spanish crown retained control of the throne until 1640. This was important in Brazilian history, for it allowed for unfettered Brazilian expansion into lands claimed by Spaniards When the monarchies separated, Brazil kept the territory.

9. The Dutch conquered and occupied part of northeast Brazil around Pernambuco in the 1624-54 period. Created very efficient sugar plantations and developed an export trade.. Brazilians, not the Portuguese, expelled them. This expulsion had two important consequences. (1) The Dutch went to the Caribbean to produce sugar and dislocated the Brazilian export trade. (2) That Brazilians ejected the intruders gave rise to a sense of Brazilianism.

10. Sugar production declined in the late 17th century partly because of inefficient production, partly because attention came to be focused much father south.

11. The discovery and exploitation of gold, then diamonds, in Minas Gerais beginning in 1690s and continuing into the 18th century, shifted the locus of power to the south. Brazil became one of the world's largest sources of gold. Population shifts from the coast to the interior to supply the labor to produce gold. Brazil didn't profit as much as it could have, however; gold was smuggled out of Brazil in large quantities.

12. Much of interior Brazil was explored and settled by the bandeirantes, as the Paulistas from Sâo Paulo were called. In the 17th and first half of the 18th centuries, bandeirantes made many epic penetrations of the hinterlands. Although they sought gold and Indian slaves, they were also laying the Brazilian claim to this territory.

13. Portugal disputed with Spain over its southern boundaries. In the 17th century, substantial trade occurred between Río de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, the very important Spanish outpost on the Río de la Plata estuary. In 1680, Portugal established Colônia do Sacramento in present-day Uruguay. Spain destroyed the colony that same year but then allowed it to re-established in 1683. The Portuguese or Brazilian presence was a constant thorn in the side if the Spanish Empire and constant conflicts occurred until the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1777.

14. In the second half of the 18th century, there was a rise in non-mineral exports, such as cotton.

15. In the late colonial period, Portugal tightened the governmental and mercantilist systems. The Jesuits were expelled and the Crown took control of the Indians. Military organizations were strengthened. In 1763, the seat of the viceroy was moved from Bahía to Río de Janeiro. Trade regulations were strengthened in an effort to keep wealth in Portuguese hands.

16. In the late, late 18th century, one begins to see some colonial disaffection with Portugal in the upper class. Part of this was the growth of nativism, which, of course, is bigotry based on the accident of place of birth but which is often a strong motivator among humans. Part of it was growing self-confidence among the colonial elite who saw the Portuguese as no better than them. This attitude increased after the arrival of the Portuguese court in 1808. Familiarity bred contempt among some colonials.

17. Between 1808 and 1815, the royal family, the Braganças lived in Brazil, having been brought there at British insistence in order to escape being captured by Napoleon's armies. Brazil became the capital of the Portuguese empire. Although the king moved the capital back to Lisbon in 1815, Brazilians never forgot their importance or how much they had come to dislike the haughty Portuguese. Effects: Influenced coming of independence

    Some items cannot be periodized for they were constant throughout the colonial period. These include slavery, latifundia, miscegenation, and the importance of the aristocracy.


General comments

1. agriculture chiefly
2. dependent upon European markets for its agricultural, pastoral, and mineral produce.
3. used largely domestic manufactures
4. non-innovative
5. organization of capital almost nonexistent
6 same kind of competitive lag here as in Spanish America
7. marketing structure poor
8 transportation dreadful
9. low purchasing power
10 meant more to Portugal than Spanish America did to Spain (by 1730, Brazil paid 30% of taxes of the empire)
The boom-bust theory of Brazilian economic history is overstated.

You can read about colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.