A Brief History of Brazil

The Federative Republic of Brazil is the largest country in both South America and the entire Latin American region.  It is also the world’s fifth-largest country, both by population and total geographic area.  Brazil shares borders with Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana to the north; Colombia to the northwest, Bolivia and Peru to the west; Argentina and Paraguay to the southwest; and Uruguay to the south.  To the east lies the Atlantic Ocean, forming a coastline measuring 4,655 miles (7,491 km) in length.  Because of its size, Brazil borders every other South American country, except Ecuador and Chile, and occupies 47 percent of the South American continent.  In the following article we will concentrate on the history of this proud country, beginning with its early indigenous people to the modern Brazil we know today.

History of Brazil:  Early Brazil and the Indigenous People

In what are now the Amazonian towns of Santerem and Monte Alegre, archaeological sites seem to prove that the region of Brazil has been inhabited since at least 9000 B.C., perhaps even earlier.  In the Amazon lowlands, mixed congregations of farmers, fishermen and hunters developed, while in the drier savannas and highlands of the country, activity was limited to hunting and gathering.  In the early 1500s, when European voyagers first made contact with Brazil, experts believe there were between two million and six million indigenous Indians living in this diverse region.

Around 1000 B.C., some of the early Brazilians turned to large-scale farming for sustenance.  To ready the land for planting, they practiced what is known as “slash and burn” agriculture, a technique by which the vegetation is cut down and burned, leaving the ash to help fertilize the new clearing.  Indians grew a number of different crops, including maize, sweet potatoes, manioc, and, in some cases, even cotton and tobacco.  Farmers lived in crude wooden huts with thatched roofs, slept in hammocks and made baskets and pottery for gathering and cooking.

The most prominent early Brazilians were the Tupian-speaking Indians, most of whom occupied the coastal areas of the region to the east.  Explorers from Portugal first encountered the Tupian people, and dealt with them in principle for a number of years.  In fact, most historians believe that the Tupians may have been the most significant influence in Brazil’s early colonial period and in the culture that developed soon after.  However, much of the indigenous population was eventually wiped out by European diseases, leaving the surviving Indians to endure the harsh treatment levied upon them by Portuguese colonists.

History of Brazil:  The Colonial Years

Brazil’s Discovery

During the 15th century, Portugal—a small country with limited resources and a small population—was essentially cut off from the rest of Europe by a hostile Spain.  As such, the country’s leaders decided that future growth would come via the sea and colonization.

In 1494, under Pope Alexander VI, the Trado de Tordesilhas (Treaty of Tordesillas) was ratified.  Under this treaty, it was decided that the “non-Christian” world would be divided between Spain and Portugal along a North/South line that was drawn some 1,100 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. Following the treaty’s ratification, Pedro Alvares Cabral led a Portuguese expedition to the Indies in 1500, during which he was blown off course and landed (April 23, 1500) on what he thought was a new island.  Believing that the land he discovered was to the east of the Tordesillas line, Cabral claimed the land for Portugal and named it Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross).  Subsequent voyages and exploration revealed that Cabral had actually landed on the coast of South America, in what is now the town of Porto Seguro, Brazil.

The First Settlements

In the first several years following the discovery of Brazil, activity by the Portuguese was limited to trading with the indigenous people for Brazilwood (used in Europe to make red dye) and exotic birds and feathers.  Years later, after further exploration of Brazil, it was discovered that sugar could be grown in the northeastern section of the region.  However, because there were already existing trading empires in Africa, South Asia and the Far East, the Portuguese monarch at the time, D. Manuel I (1495-1521), decided not to use his resources to develop Brazil.  During this period, many other European powers, particularly the French, felt free to trade with the indigenous Amerindians tribes, as there were no permanent Portuguese settlements in the region.

Alarmed by France’s interest in Brazil, King João III (1521-1557) ordered that the first royal and permanent settlement be built in São Vicente in 1532, an area on the southern coast very near to what is now São Paulo.  The success in establishing São Vicente and later the settlement of Pernambuco on the northeast coast had demonstrated the viability of sugar production.  In fact, the Portuguese monarchy looked to extend the areas of Brazil under permanent settlements as a way to ramp up that production.  Between the years 1533 and 1535, King Dom João III divided and offered 15 grants of land, known as Donatory-Captaincies, to 12 Portuguese soldiers and administrators.  These vast tracts of land extended inland from the coast, beginning just south of what is now present-day São Paulo to the North coast of Brazil.  This model of settlement had been used by Portugal in Madeira and the Azores and reflected the Portuguese crown’s lack of resources to settle a country approximately 10 times its own size.

The Brazilian Sugar Industry and Troubles with the French and Dutch

While only two of these Captaincies flourished in Brazil, the division helped to establish that sugar could be grown and processed in commercial quantities, particularly in the Northeast.  To gain more direct control of this burgeoning sugar operation, the Portuguese government sent Tomé de Souza to the region and, in 1549, named him the first Governor General of the colony.  For the seat of the new government, the Portuguese monarchy named Salvador de Bahia as the new capital of the colony, a region featuring one of the largest natural harbors on Brazil’s eastern Atlantic coast.

By the late 16th and early 17th century, Brazilian sugar production was flourishing and supplied the entire European market.  Brazil would remain the world’s dominant supplier of sugar until the French, Dutch and English Caribbean islands were developed later in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Rio de Janeiro Cristo Redentor Statue As it became clear that Brazil’s sugar operation offered opportunity and wealth, other European countries, particularly the French and the Dutch, also tried to lay claim to the country.  In 1555, French troops took possession of the picturesque harbor of Rio de Janeiro, which, unexplainably, the Portuguese had neglected to occupy.  To stop this incursion, a Portuguese force, led by Mem de Sá, the new governor-general, blockaded the entrance to the harbor, ultimately forcing the French garrison to surrender.  In 1567, Portugal founded the city of Rio de Janeiro in an effort to fend off any future attacks.

From 1580 to 1640, Portugal was united with Spain.  Consequently, the country’s holdings were exposed to attacks by Spain’s many enemies, including the newly independent Netherlands.  In 1624-25, Dutch forces seized the settlement at Salvador, and in 1630 the Dutch West India Company dispatched a fleet that captured the Pernambuco settlement, which would remain under Dutch control for 25 years.  The Dutch West India Company chose John Maurice to serve as governor of its new possession.  After many successful years at the helm, however, the profit-driven directors of the Dutch West India Company refused to support John Maurice’s enlightened social policies, forcing Maurice to resign in 1644.  Following his resignation, João Fernandes Vieira, a wealthy plantation owner originally from Portugal, launched a rebellion against the Dutch and steadily gained ground against John Maurice’s incompetent successors. The Brazilians, acting without Portuguese assistance, defeated and expelled the Dutch in 1654, an achievement that helped ignite Brazilian nationalistic pride.

As the Portuguese expanded their settlements in Brazil, and as the people became more unified in terms of language and culture, the country flourished.  Its society and economy were based primarily on agriculture and mining, especially the exportation of sugar and gold.  The sugar industry in Brazil, confined mainly to the Northeast, was the chief source of Brazilian wealth from the 16th to the 18th century, also providing the Portuguese crown most of its revenue through the time of Brazilian independence.  To facilitate sugar production, major investments in land, machinery and labor were called for.  As a result, a relatively small segment of the population—the wealthy plantation-owning families—controlled the lion share of the industry.  Small landholders focused on growing cotton and producing coffee, both of which became major exports in the 18th century.

The Gold Rush

From the time the Portuguese arrived in Brazil, colonists had been seeking gold, mostly in vain.  In 1695, however, prospectors discovered large deposits of the precious mineral in what is now the state of Minas Gerais.  The gold rush that followed quickly altered the course of Brazilian settlement.  Small mining towns sprang up virtually overnight in the once untouched wilderness of Brazil, while large sections of prime coastline were essentially depopulated for a time. The gold mines had an enormously positive effect on the Brazilian economy and brought so much money into the country’s Southeast that the Portuguese government decided to move the colonial capital from Salvador, in the Northeast, to Rio de Janeiro in 1763.  Eventually the mining boom slowed to a crawl once the original deposits had been depleted, though smaller quantities of gold and diamonds continued to be mined with minor success in the regions of Minas Gerais, Bahia and Mato Grosso.

History of Brazil:  The Path to Independence

If you compare Brazil’s path to nationhood with that of the Spanish-speaking nations of the New World, you’ll see there was much less strife and bloodshed involved.  That does not mean that the transition was entirely peaceful.  In 1789, Joaquim da Silva Xavier, popularly known as Tiradentes or “Tooth Puller,” instigated the first rebellion against the Portuguese, who quickly defeated his forces, executed him, and unwittingly made him a national hero for his martyrdom.

The Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution had a profound effect on Brazil, despite the fact that these events were being carried out on the other side of the Atlantic.  In 1807, Napoleon’s forces invaded Portugal, a British ally, mostly to tighten the European blockade of Great Britain.  The Portuguese prince regent, Dom João (later King John VI) decided to take refuge in Brazil, making it the only colony to serve as the seat of government for its mother country.The prince, the royal family, and a mass of nobles and functionaries left Portugal on November 29, 1807, under the protection of the British fleet. After several delays, they arrived at Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 1808.

The colonists welcomed Dom João, who almost immediately instituted a number of reforms:  the Portuguese monopoly on Brazilian trade was abolished, all harbors were opened up to the commerce of friendly nations, and laws were repealed that had once prohibited Brazilian manufacturing.  Dom João established his ministry and Council of State in Rio de Janeiro, as well as a Supreme Court, exchequer and royal treasury, Royal Mint, printing office and the Bank of Brazil. On December 16, 1815, Dom João designated the Portuguese dominions the “United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves,” a move that essentially made Brazil coequal with Portugal, albeit not yet independent.

Following the French withdrawal from Portugal, most of the Portuguese people wanted Dom João to return to the mother country, but he remained away for several years as Iberian troubles mounted.  Ultimately, the king became obsessed with the situation overseas, culminating with the radical revolts that broke out threatening Lisbon and Oporto.  Thus, on April 24, 1861, Dom João set sail for Lisbon and appointed his son Dom Pedro as regent of the country.

Upon his ascension to the regency, Dom Pedro faced a complicated political situation: opposition was growing between the Portuguese and Brazilians, republican propagandists were gaining more influence, and the Cortes (parliament) of Lisbon passed a series of shortsighted policies in Brazil that further angered the people. The majority of people in the Cortes favored restoring Brazil to its formerly dependent colonial status, and the parliament began repealing most of the reforms introduced by Dom Pedro’s father, Dom João. The Cortes then ordered Dom Pedro to return to Europe, fearing that he might head an independence movement.

In defiance of the Cortes’ order to return, Dom Pedro responded with a speech known as “Fiço” (I am Staying),and most Brazilians supported his decision.  In January of 1822, Pedro instituted a ministry under the direction of his closest advisor, José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva.  On June 3 he formed a legislative assembly, and on September 7, 1822, on the plain of Ipiranga, near the city of São Paulo, he proclaimed the independence of Brazil.Pedro was crowned emperor on December 1 of that same year.  As stability and prosperity proved to be the rule in the newly independent Brazil, the country gained respect from the world community.  Brazil was officially recognized as a country by the United States in 1824, and the Portuguese acknowledged Brazilian independence the following year.  Once this happened, many European monarchies began to establish diplomatic relations with Brazil.

History of Brazil:  The Brazilian Empire

The Early Years and Pedro I

Pedro I Once Brazil achieved independence from Portugal, the first couple of decades proved to be difficult, though not as muddled as in South America’s Spanish-speaking republics.  A series of regional revolts erupted throughout Brazil, causing thousands of deaths, but through it all the national economy remained strong and the central government largely intact.  Many thought Dom Pedro (Pedro I) was too arbitrary and impulsive in his decision making.  He dissolved the national assembly in 1823, and sent Andrade e Silva and his two brothers into exile.  Pedro did, however, manage to write a liberal and quite advanced Brazilian Constitution, and even though it added to the emperor’s power, the municipal councils, after much debate, decided to ratify it.  The constitution’s content helped to centralize the government by granting the emperor power to dissolve the Chamber of Deputies, select members of the Senate, and appoint and dismiss ministers of state.


Dom Pedro’s popularity gradually waned in Brazil, largely because he lost Brazil’s Cisplatine province, which is today the Republic of Uruguay, following a costly war with Argentina (1825-1828). He was also overly preoccupied with Portugal’s affairs, failed to get along with the legislature, and signed unpopular treaties with Great Britain that included an (unpopular) promise to abolish slavery in Brazil.  Under pressure, Pedro I ultimately abdicated the throne on April 17, 1831, in favor of his five-year old son, Dom Pedro de Alcantara, who would later become Pedro II.

The next decade in Brazil was one of the most troublesome periods in the nation’s long history.  As Pedro II was too young to be crowned, a regency was formed that tried in vain to end the civil war in the provinces and to control lawlessness and insubordinate soldiers.  Many Brazilians were impatient with the regency and believed that the entire nation would rally behind the young ruler once he was crowned. On July 23, 1840, both houses of parliament agreed that Pedro II had attained his majority, even though he was only 14 years of age.

Pedro II The reign of Pedro II spanned roughly half a century and represented perhaps the most diverse and profitable period in Brazilian history.  As he aged and matured, Pedro II proved to be a tactful and enlightened statesman, one who was modest, simple and democratic.  He was generous and magnanimous to a fault, and his love of learning could be seen in the many trips he made to visit the children in Brazil’s burgeoning schools.

Under Pedro II, a type of parliamentary government effectively functioned.  The emperor was assisted by Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, one of Brazil’s most outstanding military leaders, and the son of General Francisco de Lima e Silva, who headed the first regency following Pedro I’s abdication.

During the reign of Pedro II, Brazil assisted Argentina in overthrowing the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852.  In 1864, Brazil invaded Uruguay to help quell a civil war there.  Believing that Brazil was dangerously expanding its power in the region, the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez declared war, first on Brazil, and then on Argentina.  The result was a costly and bloody war known as the War of the Triple Alliance, the bloodiest in South American history.  Brazil, after allying with Argentina and Uruguay, destroyed the Paraguayan forces and decimated the Paraguayan population.  The war also provided an opportunity to free a significant number of Brazilian slaves, led to the army’s unwillingness to hunt down runaway slaves, and greatly weakened each state’s ability to recapture them.

Slavery was a major issue during the middle of Pedro II’s reign.  The Brazilian emperor had agreed in 1831 to phase out the slave trade, but that promise was made under pressure from Great Britain.  In Brazil, agitation over the idea of freeing slaves began in the 1860s. Pedro II was opposed to slavery, but he did not want to risk antagonizing slave owners; accordingly, he felt that the nation should abolish it by degrees. In 1871 Brazil enacted the Law of the Free Womb, which granted freedom to all children born to slaves and effectively condemned slavery to eventual extinction. Slavery was officially abolished in Brazil on May 13, 1888, freeing the country’s 700,000 slaves and offering no economic compensation to their “owners.”

History of Brazil:  Early 20th Century

Beginning in the mid 1870s, many Europeans began to emigrate from their home countries to Brazil.  Some came for the promise of economic opportunity, while others came to escape religious and other types of persecution.  From the 1890s to the mid 1920s, Brazil saw a huge surge of immigration, mostly people of Portuguese, Italian and German descent, but also from other eastern and western European countries, as well as from Asia and even the Middle East.

During the first three decades of the 20th century, Brazil continued to prosper.  The country remained one of the largest producers of sugar in the world, but the main focus of the economy switched to coffee—an industry that even today is an integral part of that nation’s economy. 

Towards the end of the 1920s, specifically in 1929, Brazil—like the rest of the world—was hit hard by the Great Depression.  Demand for Brazilian coffee had all but ceased, and the government tried to help the plantation owners by buying up the coffee they could not sell, although for a much lower price than they were accustomed to getting in the open market.  Discontent over the crumbling Brazilian economy eventually led to revolution in the country, and after months of violence the army intervened and installed Getulio Vargas as the leader of Brazil.  Vargas served first as dictator (1930-34), then as congressionally elected president (1934-37) and again became a dictator from 1937-45, with the backing of his revolutionary coalition.

The final regime of Vargas was called the Estado Novo, meaning “New State.”  Under his rule many of the country’s industries became nationalized, including oil, steel and electricity.  State autonomy ended, appointed federal officials replaced governors, and patronage flowed from the president downward.  All political parties were dissolved until 1944, thus limiting opportunities for an opposition to organize. In the process, Vargas eliminated threats from the left and the right. The Vargas years had their greatest impact on national politics and economics and their least impact at the local level where the older forms of power continued well into the 1950s.

Vargas was eventually deposed by the Brazilian army in 1945, and democracy returned to Brazil, at least for awhile.  Many people agreed with the manner in which Vargas had run the country.  This became evident when the deposed dictator ran for president of the country in 1950, and won by a sizable majority vote.  During his presidency, Vargas’ attempts to base his elected government firmly on populism induced fears of nationalism.  The bitterly fought, emotional debate over the creation of Petrobrás, a Brazilian National Petroleum Corporation, poisoned his political life and contributed to the subsequent military interventions that attempted to remove him from office. The Vargas administration dissolved, and faced with charges of corruption by the Brazilian military, the leader shot himself to death on August 24, 1954. 

Brasilia, Capital of Brazil Vargas was succeeded by Juscelion Kubitschek, who in 1960 moved the capital of Brazil to Brasilia.  He was followed by Janio Quadros, who resigned after only 7 months in office.  He in turn was succeeded by Jao Goulart.  None of these leaders were able to stem the tide of Brazil’s worsening economic problems of the 1960s, and in 1964 the army staged a coup.

History of Brazil: The Military Regime of Brazil

Following the Brazilian army’s successful coup in 1964, all political parties except for two were banned and trade unions were heavily suppressed.  The media was strictly controlled by the new military government and unrest among the people was beginning to boil over. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, military rule in Brazil became even more oppressive, leading to a wave of urban guerilla warfare on Brazil’s streets and in its communities.

Despite the harshness associated with military rule, the country’s economy experienced a period of rapid economic growth, known as the “Brazilian Economic Miracle.”  From 1964-74, the economy grew at more than 10 percent a year and some of its prime industries had returned to their former glory.  The uptick in the economy did not benefit everyone in Brazil, however, as many people remained very poor.  Towards the mid 1970s, inflation in the country also began to climb steeply and unemployment rose.  Fearing a potential revolution, the military rule of Brazil in the late 1970s became a little less repressive.  Following a major strike/walk-out in Sao Paulo over wages and working conditions, trade unions were once again permitted to form and operate within the country.  In the early 1980s, the army ended censorship in Brazil and allowed for the formation of political parties.

Elections were scheduled in Brazil for 1985; the year the army would relinquish control and allow Brazil to move to a more democratic and representative government and society.  However, they decided the next president of the country would not be elected directly by the people, but rather by an electoral college made up of congressman and senators.  The army hoped the Electoral College would choose a president that would be pro-military and favorable to them, but that is not how it turned out.  Instead the Electoral College elected a man who had consistently been critical of the military regime, a man by the name of the Tancredo Neves, a former Prime Minister of Brazil from 1961-1962.  Following his victory, Neves announced the beginning of a “Nova Republica,” or “New Republic.”

History of Brazil:  Recent History

Tancredo Neves took office on March 15, 1985, but he would not realize his dream of transforming Brazil into the Nova Republica he had dreamed about.  Only 37 days after he took office, on April 21, 1985, Neves died at the age of 75.

Tancredo Neves was succeeded by Jose Samey, the Vice President under Neves.  Samey served for five (long) years in which he was unable to solve the deep-seated economic problems of Brazil.  Inflation soared and unemployment rose to levels not seen since the Great Depression era. 

In 1990, the people of Brazil elected Fernando Collor de Melo as their new president.  Approximately one year into his term, Collor was accused of corruption and ultimately resigned in 1992.  His Vice President, Itamar Franco replaced him as president of the country.

During Franco’s term, the man he had appointed as his finance minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, formulated and introduced a plan to curb the nation’s spiraling inflation and bring economic stability to the country.  These policies were very effective and gradually turned around the economy for the better.  In October of 1994, the people of Brazil gave a vote of confidence to Cardoso by electing him as the country’s next president.

Cardoso served the maximum-allowed two terms as Brazil’s president, from January 1, 1995 to January 1, 2003.  An accomplished sociologist, professor and politician, Cardoso was awarded in 2000 with the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation.

Today Brazil is not only the largest country in South America, but also the most economically stable.  While the country is still known for its enormous production and exportation of coffee and sugar, it has also branched out quite successfully in other economic areas as well.  Brazil is a major producer of beef, and its mining industry is rich in minerals such as gold and other gemstones.  Other major industries in the country include automobile manufacturing, ironworks, chemical production, aviation, textiles and cement.  In 2011, Brazil surpassed the United Kingdom as the world’s 6th largest economy.

The current estimated population of Brazil is 201 million, making it the 5th largest country in the world by population.  The current president of Brazil is Dilma Rousseff, who assumed the presidency in January of 2011.  Rousseff is the first woman to ever hold the office of president in Brazil’s history.

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