The Portuguese in Brazil Part 2 (1500-1650)

Lynne Booker


THE PORTUGUESE IN BRAZIL - PART 2:  HOLDING ON (1500 – 1650) - Cabral´s discovery of ´The Land of the True Cross´on 21 April, 1500 provided his king, D Manuel I of Portugal (1495 – 1521), with a dilemma. Portugal had more pressing matters than a new land that appeared to promise no more than brazilwood, parrots, monkeys and stark naked savages.


D Manuel was keen to make as much money as he could out of the spice trade in the East and the gold from West Africa and he wanted to pursue Portugal´s crusade in Morocco.  Brazil, as it was soon renamed after the profitable red dyewood, could wait.


Early days

The expedition of 1501-02 led by André Gonçalves (which included Amerigo Vespucci, who gave his name to America) mapped 2 500 miles of coastline from Cabo São Roque (the most easterly point of mainland Brazil) to the present Rio Grande do Sul, but the Portuguese used Brazil at this time mainly as a staging post for ships of the India fleets which became easy targets for French raiders.


The French disobey the Pope

Francis I of France did not uphold the Treaty of Tordesilhas (1494), saying he would like to see where in Adam´s will it was decreed that the world should be split between the Spanish and the Portuguese.  An embassy to France from D Manuel I to protest at French incursions in Brazil left Francis unmoved and he dubbed D Manuel the ´Grocer King´. D Manuel leased rights to his own subjects to cut brazilwood in exchange for undertakings to build forts and to explore the coastline further.  Europe´s textile industry was clamouring for brazilwood dye and French traders sailed to Brazil to fetch it. The strength of the French attacks in the South Atlantic (against returning ships from India and on Brazil itself) led D João III to address the problem of establishing his sovereignty over Brazil.


Royal policy

Under D João I, Portugal had been the first country in Europe to venture upon maritime exploration as an act of state;  D João II had furnished  strong leadership in promoting the voyages of discovery; and in creating by settlement an empire in the tropics, D João III set a worldwide precedent.  Unlike the intentional discovery of the eastern sea route and its the rich trade opportunities, Brazil, the accidental discovery, offered scant resources and no comparable opportunties for wealth and glory. In common with his two namesakes, D João III  (1521 – 1557) had to unite his people and motivate their interests and ambitions, but this time in Brazil.


The capitanias

Using the Portuguese precedent of settlement in previously uninhabited Atlantic islands, D João III in 1534 treated Brazil as if it were uninhabited, and divided up the known coastline of Brazil into capitanias, each of which was granted to a donatório who agreed to settle and populate it at his own expense.  The inland extent of each capitania was unlimited.  The king offered the donatórios of the capitanias in Brazil what amounted to sovereign power.  Of the 13 original donatórios, 5  either never went to Brazil or never returned after one visit; another 5 were dislodged from their holdings and 3 met with mortal disaster. In the longer term the capitanias established the outlines of Brazil´s present coastal states.


The first Governor General 

To create an effective administration, to found a sound defence against Spanish South America and French aggression and to establish a viable economic base, D João decided to appoint a Governor General and sent Tomé de Sousa with the  biggest expeditionary force yet - 400 soldiers,  600 degredados and 6 Jesuits.  He reached the Bay of All Saints on 28 March 1549 and started construction of the new capital, São Salvador de Bahia de Todos os Santos, which remained capital of Brazil until 1763. Sousa´s treasurer, who was possibly his son,  Garcia d´Ávila, built the only medieval castle in Brazil at Praia do Forte, some 50 km north of São Salvador, which is now a very popular holiday destination for Bahians and other Brazilians.


The Amerindians

At first the Portuguese treated the aboriginal inhabitants of Brazil as “Noble Savages” but their attitude soon changed. The popular Portguese conviction was that the Tupí-Guaraní Amerindians of Brazil were irredemable savages sem fé, sem rei, sem lei (without faith, or king or law). The word índios (Indians) was by then established to designate the peoples of the New World and stuck, while the people of India are called indianos.



Further south, expeditions were making their way inland to look for minerals and slaves. Around São Paulo, Portuguese  settlers had intermarried with the índios and lived beyond the border of royal authority.  Their offspring, the half caste Paulistas, set out on expeditions of bandeirantes (so called because their leaders bore bandeiras, or flags) intent on capturing índios for slavery.  Almost every Paulista was either an active or passive participant in these ferocious expeditions, and they also attacked Jesuit mission centres where native Indians had been converted to Christianity and were living under Jesuit protection.


Sugar and Slaves

The establishment of a central government in São Salvador de Bahia attracted thousands of Portuguese settlers to the Brazilian littoral.  They began to clear the forest for sugar plantations.  The Portuguese immigrants had no intention of consuming their lives in backbreaking agricultural labour, and began to force the índios to work.  Not only were these índios reluctant to be enslaved, but they also began to die of European diseases and another supply of workers had to be found.  Copying the successful sugar plantations of São Tomé, the Brazilians decided to import African slaves.  The trade in slaves quickly became official policy. By the end of the century slaves were being imported to Pernambuco, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro at a rate of about 8 400 per year and during the Dutch occupation, the Netherlanders also imported thousands of slaves.  Slavery was legal in Brazil until 1888.


Slave numbers

Slaves were first drawn from Senegal and the Gambia and later from Guinea.  Later, the Bantu tribes of the Congo and Angola became one of the largest sources  of slaves and, according to a Portuguese comment in 1591, Angola was a source of slaves ´which would not be exhausted until the end of the world´.  It is estimated that by 1600 there were between 13 000 and 15 000 African slaves working the 130 sugar plantations.  There were an estimated 25 000 white settlers (mostly from northern Portugal).


The success of sugar

Sugar plantations were established mainly on the coast and further inland there were cattle ranches.  Indigenous tobacco and cotton were grown on land not suitable for sugar.  Other crops and animals were introduced but it was sugar that required the highest capital and labour investment and it was sugar that provided the biggest income. The resilient expansion of the Brazilian sugar industry was a major world development at the end of the sixteenth century, when a Brazilian planter boasted that Brazil provided a greater profit to the dual monarchy than all of the pepper, spices jewels and luxury goods from Golden Goa.


Portugal in decline

Portugal´s fortunes had reached a climax after the voyage of da Gama, and continued downwards throughout the 16th century.  The expulsion of the Jews in 1506 had deprived the country of its ablest artisans, farmers and traders and more than 2 500 young men left the country to seek their fortunes elsewhere. The cost of maintaining a string of forts and factories through Morocco, West Africa, and India was proving a costly liability to the crown.  Finally D Sebastião´s insane dream of conquering Morocco led to the utter defeat of his army at Alcácer Quibir in 1578, to his own death and to the end of his dynasty.  By December 1580 Philip II of Spain had resolved the constitutional crisis by assuming the Portuguese crown and the style of Felipe I of Portugal (1580 – 98).  The national independence won by João I at Aljubarrota in 1385 had been lost to the old enemy 195 years later.  Spain´s enemies – including England and the Netherlands - now became enemies of Portugal.


Dutch occupation

Over the years 1625 to 1654 parts of Brazil were occupied by the Dutch, and it took heroic efforts on the part of the Portuguese to expel them.  Portugal´s trading relationship with Flanders dates from the Middle Ages and many Flemish went to colonise the Azores in the time of the Navigator. Flemish bankers had financed  Portugal´s African and Eastern trade in the early sixteenth century and were later closely involved in the sugar trade from Brazil and Portugal´s Atlantic Islands.  When Spain and Portugal were united under Philip II of Spain in 1580, the Dutch who had been at war with Spain since 1568 became overnight the enemy of Portugal.  No longer able to trade legitimately at the entrepôt of Lisbon, they sought merchandise at its colonial source.


The Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621 to capture the sugar trade.  Their successes in developing trading posts led them to believe that if they established a base in Brazil they could easily intercept shipping on the Portuguese Carreira da Índia and capture Spanish treasure ships on their way from Central America to Spain.  The Dutch thought they could rely on the support of New Christians and the slaves in Brazil.  Their plan was to take the main sugar areas around Salvador and Recife and take control of both the slave and the sugar trades. On 8 May 1625 the Dutch attacked and took Salvador for the loss of only 50 men.  The new king Felipe III (1621 - 40) determined to appeal to his people to help recapture the capital of Brazil.


Jornada dos Vassalhos

Monetary donations for an expedition were sent from all over Spain and Portugal and so many of the nobility from the peninsula joined that it was called the Expedition of the Vassals.  On 26 March, 1626 it triumphantly ousted the Dutch invader from Salvador.  But Dutch maritime raids continued and stole and seized enough money to finance a further invasion of Brazil, but this time in the capitania of Pernambuco.  With little loss, in early 1630 the Dutch took Olinda, Recife and the island of Antônio Vaz.  They renamed their conquest New Holland and Recife became their capital under the name of Mauritstad. The Dutch Governor, Maurice of Nassau, was effective and enlightened as well as popular. The Dutch invaders came to control the greatest and richest part of the sugar producing north-east for a period of 25 years.



In December 1640 the Portuguese Duke of Braganza took back the Portuguese crown and became D João IV.  He hoped to negotiate with the Netherlanders and return to their once amicable trading relationship.  But a further Dutch expedition to Brazil finally convinced D João  that unless he gave effective support to Pernambuco, Portugal´s empire in America would be at risk of permanent loss. When in 1644 the West India Company sacked Maurice for economic reasons, resistence to the Dutch swiftly followed.  There was a decade of bitter warfare before Recife and the last Dutch strongholds capitulated in January 1654 but it was not until 6 August, 1661 that a peace treaty was signed and Portugal agreed to pay reparations of 4 million cruzados to the Dutch for the loss of Brazil.


The Dutch defeated

The Portuguese won the war againt the Dutch because they were better acclimatised to Brazil, they produced better leaders at the Battles of Guararapes and their language and their religion were more attractive to the local populations.  This was an important war for Portugal to win because the East Asia trade had all but dried up. For the first time, but certainly not for the last time, Portugal´s prosperity depended on Brazil, which D João IV was pleased to call his vaca de leite (milch cow).  Portugal had only just managed to hold on to Brazil and Brazil was  about to enter its Golden Age.




The French, attracted by the brazilwood trade, made four attempts to settle in Brazil. The first of many trading voyages took place in 1503-1504 and in 1531, Jean Dupéret with two French ships and 120 men, landed on the island of Santo Aleixo (near Recife), and built a fort. The Portuguese captured the French ships on their return voyage to Europe and in December 1531 besieged the fort and forced it to surrender.


La France Antarctique

With the support of the French king Henry IV, Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon set sail from Normandy for Brazil in July 1555.  Although 520 of his 600 potential settlers remained in Dieppe following storms in the English Channel, Villegagnon bravely continued to Brazil and built a fort in the bay of Rio de Janeiro.  More French settlers followed in 1556 and, with the help of the friendly Tupinambá Indians, the grandiosely named La France Antarctique was born. The Calvinist Villegagnon was oppressive and unpopular with the French settlers and a large number of his colonists returned to France, and dissuaded potential colonists from making the journey. The new Portuguese Governor General, Mem de Sá, was sent to Brazil in 1558 specifically to break up the alliance between the French and the índios and to expel the French from Brazil. De Sá took an expedition of 120 Portuguese and 1 000 índios and on 16 March 1560, after two days and two nights of savage engagement, the French settlement was destroyed. The surviving 70 Frenchmen and their 800 Indian allies abandoned the fort for the forest.



The third attempt in 1590 saw a French expedition settle in Ibiapaba (Viçosa-Ceará), where they established a fort, and they traded in brazilwood with the índios. The French traded peaceably for about 14 years, but in 1604 a Portuguese expedition under Pero Coelho attacked the settlement and, after a fierce battle, forced it to surrender.



Finally, in March 1612, three French ships left Brittany for Maranhão where they built the convent and Fort Saint-Louis. The Portuguese built several forts in this area in an attempt to prevent the French from trading, and in October 1614, a Portuguese force of 500 men arrived with the intent of driving the French out. The French, being superior in number, decided to take the initiative and a force of 200 Frenchmen and 1 500 índios attacked the Portuguese and were soundly defeated. In November 1614, a one-year armistice was signed to allow time for a diplomatic settlement but reinforcements never arrived and a year later the French quietly left.

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