About Brazil - History

American Indians

Hunter-gatherers, who followed their animals across the Bering Strait, gradually spread southwards into warmer climates, reaching the Amazon Basin in Brazil. Unlike the Incas or Mayas, Brazilian Indians did not develop an advanced civilisation, leaving little for archaeologists to discover. The population consisted of numerous tribes, the largest of which was the Tupi. Today, many mountains and rivers have Tupi names. The population, however, has decreased from an estimated 2 million to 200 thousand, and most live deep in the jungle.

Early Colonization

Following Vasco da Gama's directions, Pedro Cabral sailed from Lisbon in the year 1500. He landed in Porto Seguro, South of Bahia, on 22nd April. Disappointed by what they saw, the expedition sailed on. Cabral, little interested in colonisation, compared the Indian stone age culture of Brazil, which offered no riches for exportation to Europe, with the riches of spices and ivory in India and Africa. The land itself was heavily forested, barely passable and for the first half of the 16th century, the only commodity exported was wood.

In 1531, King João III sent five ships and a crew of 400 to settle in Brazil. Portugal, fearing the colonial ambitions of other European countries, quickly sent further convoys with the aim of securing the vast coastline for the crown at a minimal cost. This proved difficult due to the climate, hostility from the indians and competition from the Dutch and French.

The first Governor was sent in 1549 to centralise authority. With him arrived 1000 settlers, soldiers, exiled prisoners and six Jesuit priests. They soon discovered sugar cane as a profitable export crop. Growing and processing the cane, however, was hard work and, so as not to do it themselves, the Portuguese attempted to enslave the indians.

Throughout the country, the indians' response to the Portuguese was the same; having welcomed the new settlers warmly at first, they became wary as the whites took their best lands and abused their customs. Finally, as numbers forced into slavery increased, the indians started to fight back.

This resistance had minimal success; the "Bandeirantes" expeditions, sent to explore and claim vast lands for the Portuguese, hunted the indians in the Brazilian interior and supplied the sugar estates with indian slaves. The Jesuit priests did their best to save the indians from the slaughter and set up missions to protect and convert the indians.

Many Indians died, if not by guns or brutal slave work, by diseases brought from Europe. The Jesuits perhaps delayed the process, but they couldn't protect the Brazilian Indians from destruction.

Sugar and Slaves

Sugar plantations were booming and the Sugar Barons needed more workers. Vast numbers of slaves began to be imported from Africa, since they were better workers and more immune to European diseases. From 1550 to 1850 about 3 and a half million African slaves were shipped to Brazil.

The slaves, if they survived the long voyage, worked 15 to 17 hour days in the fields. The inhuman conditions and the splitting up of families, supposedly to prevent rebellions, caused many slaves to flee, commit suicide, or even kill their own babies. The typical Brazilian settler emigrated, not to escape over-population, but in the hope of gaining untold riches.

These settlers were notoriously indisposed to work. Even poor whites held one or two slaves. Sexual relations between the owners and their slaves were so common that the mulatta population soon emerged. White women married young and often died young. With the consequent shortage, many settlers mixed with indians and blacks. Many of the free mixed-race women could only survive as prostitutes and, by the beginning of the 18th century, Brazil was famous for its sexual permissiveness. It was known as the land of syphilis, with even monasteries devasted by sexual diseases. The church was tolerant of any coupling that helped populate the colony.

17th Century

Portugal and Spain had divided the New World between them in the Treaty of Tordesillas, but the other European powers, such as France and Holland, were still interested in gaining territories in the region. The French set up base in the bay of Guanabara, where, with the help of the indians, who hated the Portuguese, succeeded in spreading southwards. They were expelled in 1567 in a series of bloody battles against troops led by Mem de Sá. The French made a repeat attempt some 50 years later in São Luiz, but again suffered defeat. The Portuguese repelled the Dutch from Bahia in 1627, but encountered difficulties with them in the North East. The local population was against the Portuguese as the Dutch had created orphanages and hospitals. The locally organized troops were frustrated by lack of support from Holland and driven back.


Most of these explorers were born of an indian mother and Portuguese father. They knew both how to survive and how to use weapons. With these skills they crossed the immense country plundering Indian villages. By the mid-1600s they had traversed the interior as far as the peaks of the Peruvian Andes and the lowlands of the Amazon forest. More than any treaty, these exploits secured the huge country for the Portuguese Crown.


Despite legends coming from South America, such as the magical city of El Dorado, even the most persistent searching failed to suggest the existence of gold until the 1690s. All of a sudden, when Bandeirantes discovered a magical lustre in the rivers of the Serra do Espinhaço, the gold rush was on. The south central part of Minas Gerais, whose population by 1710 was 30 thousand, had a population of half a million inhabitants by the end of the 18th century. Wild boom towns arose in this Region: Ouro Preto, Mariana and São João del Rey built opulent mansions and churches. Talented artisans created stunning baroque church architecture. A minority became very rich, many slaves dug and died in the mines, but Brazil's economy failed to develop much. Most of the wealth went to the Portuguese crown, and, after booming for half a century, the mining regions went into decline. Apart from some public works and many beautiful churches, the only important legacy of Brazil's gold rush was the shift in population from the Northeast to the Southeast. Rio de Janeiro, with its ports and consequently a growing population and economy, became the destination for many settlers.

19th Century

Forced to flee from Napoleon in 1807, the Portuguese Prince Regent, together with his entire court of 1500 sailed to Brazil under the protection of British warships. His arrival was wildly celebrated. Like most foreigners, Dom João fell in love with Brazil. After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1815, he was expected to return to Portugal but decided to stay. When one year later his mother, mad Queen Dona Maria I, died, he became King and declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. After 5 years of political pressure, the emperor returned to Portugal, leaving his son Pedro as Prince Regent. Pedro declared himself independent from the Portuguese crown in 1822, thus creating the Brazilian Empire. He ruled for 9 years and was forced, after a particularly incompetent government, to pass the power on to his five-year-old son Dom Pedro II. Dom Pedro's 50-year reign is regarded as the most prosperous period in Brazilian history. He nurtured an increasingly powerful parliamentary system, went to war wth Paraguay, encouraged mass immigration and abolished slavery. In 1889 a military coup toppled the antiquated Brazilian Empire. Dom Pedro went into exile and died in Paris a couple of years later. Four years later Brazil had its first elections, but with only 2% of the adult population voting, little changed.

Coffee and Rubber

Brazilian sugar barons had failed to modernise and were unable to compete with the newly mechanised sugar mills in the West Indies. At the same time, however, coffee production was growing rapidly. The southeastern states of Rio, São Paulo and Minas Gerais offered an ideal climate for this crop which, was increasingly in demand. Coffee brought tremendous riches and by the end of the 19th century, was responsible for two thirds of the country's exports. Coffee production was very labour intensive and the abolition of slavery in 1888 center a great shortage of field workers on the plantations.

Poverty in their own countries urged many millions of Italians, Germans, Japanese, Portuguese and Spanish to immigrate during the next decade. Most of them found agricultural work in Rio and São Paulo.

Rubber provided another incredible economic boom, this time in the Amazon region. In 1912 Manaus had electric lights, trams and a magnificent opera house. The latex industry ranked second after coffee. Unfortunately for Brazil, seeds from the rubber tree had been smuggled out of the Amazon and found their way quickly to the British colonies in South-East Asia, where large and extremely efficient plantations started production around 1910. Consequently the price of the latex on the world market dropped and Manaus faced serious problems.

The Vargas Era The Brazilian economy, based largely on coffee, was severely hit by the crisis of 1929. The coffee planters of São Paulo, who controlled the governement, were badly weakened. Despite losing the 1930 elections, Getulio Vargas was handed over the reins by a liberal alliance formed around the elites of Minas Gerais and the South and military officers, who had taken power by force. Vargas dominated the political scene for the next 20 years, skilfully playing off one sector of the elite against the other, without ever alienating the military.

In 1937, on the eve of a new election, Vargas sent in the military to shut down congress. Inspired by Mussolini, he banned political parties, and censored the press. Vargas was forced by the military to resign, but remained popular. In 1951 he was legally elected to the presidency and he profited from the post-war opportunities. Brazil was on its way towards industrialisation, with multinational companies accelerating the boom. The first minimum wage was set and peasants migrated en masse into the cities, seeking a better life.

The Vargas administration was however, totally corrupt. Following a scathing attack by a young journalist, Carlos Lacerda, Vargas lost a lot of support. Vargas' bodyguards made an attempt to murder Lacerda, but failed. The resulting scandal forced him to resign. He responded melodramatically by shooting himself in the heart. Today, Brazilians are still extremely sympathetic to the dead president.

Late 20th Century

Juscelino Kubitschek, popularly known as JK, was elected president in 1956. He declared that he would bring '50 years progress in five' but brought 40 years inflation in four. A big spender, he created roads and hydroelectric plants. Brasilia, supposed to be the catalyst for development of Brazil's huge interior, was built.

Janio Quadros became the next president in 1961 on a wave of public euphoria. Political reforms were planned, but prohibiting bikinis at beauty contests and on the beach, and trying to moralise carnival were uphill battles. When he decorated Che Guevara in a public ceremony he upset the rightwing military, who started to plot. A few days later Quadros resigned after only six months in office, claiming that 'occult forces' were at work.

João Goulart, his vice-president took over. His centerist policies led to his overthrow by the military in 1964. This was followed by 20 years ofa single political party and censored press.

Brazil's military regime was not as brutal as those of Chile or Argentina, but at its height, around 1968 and 1969, the use of torture was widespread. The generals benefited from the Brazilian economic miracle in the late '60s and '70s when the economy was growing more than 10 % every year. Brazil became one of the biggest industrial nations in the world, but uncoordinated growth made bureaucracy, corruption and inflation explode.

In 1980 a militant working-class movement sprung up with the charismatic leadership of a worker called Lula. The popular opposition, together with economical problems, slowly forced the military to announce the so-called "abertura" (opening): a slow process of returning the government to democracy.

Tancredo Neves surprised his military opponents by winning the 1985 elections, but tragically died shortly before assuming power. The country was completely shocked by his death.

José Sarney, his vice-president, took over. With a new finance minister every three months, the country drifted into economical chaos and foreign debt reached 115 billion US$.

In 1989, Fernando Collor de Mello, karate champion and governor of a minor state in the Northeast, won a hard-fought victory over the Labour Party candidate, Lula. Strong backing by Brazilian television, on Collor's side, had made the difference. One of the main promises of the incoming governement was to cut inflation and attack corruption. When he assumed control in March 1990, Collor took drastic measures; in an attempt to reduce inflation caused by excess liquidity in the market, he confiscated 80 % of every bank account worth more than US$ 1200, promising to release it 18 months later with interest. He also announced the privatisation of state-owned companies and the opening of Brazilian markets to foreign competition and capital.

By 1992 few promises had been met, most of the popular goodwill was gone and Collor found his governement shaken by scandals and corruption linked directly to his family, and inflation was heading again into astronomical figures. The parliament, under public pressure, forced an impeachment.

Itamar Franco, Collor's Vice President, took office for 3 years. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former finance minister responsible for the "Plano Real", the economic plan to end inflation, was elected president at the end of 1994. He is considered to be the best president in Brazil's recent history. Thanks to his reform program, which included privatization, the country experienced a period of optimism and economic stability and all this led to his reelection in 1998.

In 2002 Lula, ( Luis  Ignacio Lula da Silva) was elected president of two terms. Considered one of the most popular politician in the history of Brazil, of the time of his mandate, one of the most popular in the world.  He was succeeded by his former Chief of Staff, Madam Dilma Roussef.

Dilma Roussef is the first women to become president in Brazil.