Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


History of Colonial Brazil

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Ana Gabriela Verotti Farah

Staff Writer
The Brazil Business


Brazilian history can be divided in three parts: when it was a colony, then, as an empire, and years after, as a republic. In this article, we try to show some historical moments of the largest Portuguese colony between the 16th and the 19th centuries.

Before Discovery (1492)

When the New World was discovered by Italian navigator Christopher Columbus in 1492, the two powerful countries of the time were Portugal and Spain. As soon as it was confirmed the existence of the New World, the two countries decided to split between themselves every piece of land that might belong to America – even though they had no idea of the continent's size.

In 1494, the Portuguese and Spaniards closed the Tordesillas Treaty, a document that established an imaginary line that would separate the lands of the New World which would belong to Portugal (on the east) and to Spain (on the west). That's what pretty much determined that the land afterwards named Brazil would become a Portuguese colony, while the rest of the continent would speak Spanish.

Discovery (1500)

Although this version is doubted by the circumstances which indicate that a navigator called Vincente Pinzón set foot in Brazil in January 1500, the land was officially discovered in April 1500 by the Portuguese navigator and nobleman Pedro Álvares Cabral. By the time he landed in Brazil, the only inhabitants of the nameless land were, according to inaccurate estimations, between 1 and 10 million indigenous people. Most of them were exterminated due to the direct or indirect interaction of the Portuguese, such as new illnesses brought from the Old World, the Portuguese killing the indigenous people, or indigenous people that sold other indigenous people to the Portuguese in exchange for spices and other products.

Settling Down in Brazil (1530s)

Portugal was different from Spain, in that it didn't have a plan to develop the lands in the new continent. For years, the Portuguese had trouble colonizing Brazil because nobody wanted to leave Europe and start a new life in a place that had nothing to offer (except the wealth that had already been taken away – such as pau-brasil, a Brazilian tree – or the ones which were to be discovered in 200 years, such as gold). It was only when other nations started to threaten Portugal's supremacy in the east side of America that the government started sending people to live in Brazil.

In 1530 the first colonizing expedition to Brazil was organized, and in 1534 the land was divided in 15 hereditary captaincies to populate the country and develop the cultivation of sugarcane, which was one of the most important products in the international market at the time. The captaincies were donated to Portuguese people, the donataries, who would go to Brazil and invest their own money in the land.

The system failed for a number of reasons, one of which was the fact that four of the donataries never even went to Brazil to explore their shares of land, and some of those who went had trouble with attacks from the natives of the lands. Also, the government never provided financial help to donataries, who, by their turns, still had to pay taxes to the Portuguese Crown, regarding their production. Only two out of 15 captaincies prospered: São Vicente and Pernambuco. Both because of sugarcane plantation.

The Sugarcane Cycle (1532 – 1700)

Spain had found silver and gold in the areas they were colonizing in America, and Portugal tried to find them as well in the land they had. Since neither silver or gold were found, the economy in the colony was based on agricultural products, which were exported to Europe. In 1532, when sugarcane was introduced in Brazil, there were already plantations in Cape Verde, the Azores and Madeira islands, all of them were Portugal possessions.

Sugarcane adapted well to the lands of the New World, soon becoming the most important product in Brazil and made the only two successful captaincies of the time prosperous. Brazil became the main sugar producer from 1580s on and, for almost a century, it was the largest producer and main character in European markets with its sugar, until the Dutch left the country, taking the sugarcane plants to their colonies in Central America. With the market competition, Brazilian sugar started to lose ground in 1660, and in 1700 it was no longer a major player in the sugarcane sales.

Governorate General of Brazil (1548)

As the captaincies system had failed, in 1548, Portugal's kings established the first centralized government in Brazil in order to manage them. Known as Governo-Geral or Governorate General, it lasted until 1808 when the Royal Family arrived in Brazil. The first general governor established Salvador as the capital of the colony. In 1720, the general governors started being called vice kings.

Also by that time, Portugal created a series of laws, defined by a Colonial Pact, which established the Brazilian dependence to Portugal. It made Brazil purchase and sell products only from and to the metropolis and to some of its economic partners if Portugal allowed it. The economic exclusivism guaranteed that most Brazilian wealth ended up with the Portuguese government.

The Jesuits

The Jesuits are also part of the colonial history of Brazil. Arriving in the country in 1549, the clergymen went to the land, dedicating themselves to preach the Christian faith to the natives and to educate them according European standards, consequently imposing European culture to indigenous people. The creation of formal education in Brazil is attributed to the Jesuits, as many schools were opened in the territory.

The Jesuits didn’t approve of enslaving indigenous people since these were considered to be people who needed guidance, but didn’t interfere in the enslavement of Africans, who were considered to have no soul. The indigenous workforce - not only of slaves, but of salaried workers, as well - was used mainly in the 16th century and in the beginning of the 17th, when the traffic of slaves from Africa intensified and became the main workforce.

In 1720 by the 1st Marquis of Pombal, who wanted to make mercantile reform and free the indigenous from religious teachings, allowing them to marry the Portuguese and have children, helping consolidate the Portuguese domination in Brazil. The Jesuits, opposed to the measure, ended up having all of their schools closed and were expelled from the Portuguese Empire in 1759. They were allowed back in the 1800s, expelled again during the Brazilian Empire, and again allowed back in 1858. Since then, they have opened colleges in Brazil and nowadays there is a centralized Jesuit institution in the country.

The Iberian Union (1580 – 1640)

In 1578, the then King of Portugal Dom Sebastião disappeared in the Alcacer-Quibir war, a conflict between Portugal and the Moors in Morocco. The king had entered the war without the support of his uncle, the King of Spain Philip II, and the necessary resources to fight properly. With his disappearance, and since he had no direct heirs, King Philip took control of the Portuguese lands, and it stayed like this until 1640, in what was called the Iberian Union. Sebastian was never found, and neither was his body, which made the Portuguese believe that one day he would come back and take Philip out of the government. He never did, and in the meantime, Brazil suffered the consequences.

Spain had, besides its own territory and Portugal’s as well, a lot of colonies to keep – their own plus Portugal's, so the large Brazilian coast remained unprotected and became a target for Spaniard enemies. Also, the new government prohibited the Netherlands from engaging in commerce with the colony, and the Dutch didn’t appreciate this measure.

From 1624 On: The Dutch Invasions

Before the Iberian Union was formed, Portugal had established commercial relations with the Dutch, who would be responsible for financing the sugarcane production in the Northeast of Brazil. Spain, however, prohibited any type of commerce between the Netherlands and Brazil in order to weaken the European nation, which was at war with the Spaniards.

As a result, the Brazilian Northeast was invaded by the Dutch. There was an attempt in 1624 in Salvador, but the Dutch were expelled from the territory one year after. The successful invasion happened in 1630, when Recife was taken and controlled by the Netherlands until 1654, after ten years of war between Brazilians and Portuguese and Dutch, in what was called the Insurreição Pernambucana.

The price for Northeast freedom, however, was the Dutch now knew all about the process of planting sugarcane, and decided to apply this knowledge in Antilles archipelago, taking some Brazilian sugarcane plants to Antilles and making Brazilian sugarcane less competitive in the market.

Officially, the Dutch only recognized the loss of the Brazilian litoral territories in 1661 when a peace treaty in Haia was signed by both countries, and then in 1669, when the Netherlands received from Portugal a large indemnification for the lost lands - 8 million florins, which is equivalent to 63 tons of gold.

In the meantime, Portugal was free from Spain’s domination in a coup in 1640, when both countries started the Restoration War. It ended in 1668 and determined the end of the Spaniards domination over Portuguese.

Slavery in Brazil

Slave workforce was always the first (and usually the only) option when it came to Colonial Brazil. It started with indigenous people, and then also happened with Africans. African people started to be enslaved years before the Europeans got into the continent, and in the New World, Africans were the main workforce used by the colonizers, in what was called the Atlantic slave trade. African slavery in Brazil started at some point around 1538 and lasted more than three centuries, officially ending in 1888.

In Colonial Brazil, the African slaves that managed to escape from their owners started to constitute hidden communities in the woods, known as quilombos. There were many quilombos in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the main one was the Palmares quilombo, or Quilombo dos Palmares. Counting with over 50,000 slaves in 1670, Quilombo dos Palmares was suppressed in 1695 by the bandeirantes and its last leader, Zumbi, was killed.

Indigenous slaves were used since the beginning of the colonization, especially in the extraction and transportation of wood to ships that headed to Portugal. African slaves were used mainly in sugar production, mining, and some women worked with domestic services as well.


The bandeirantes were people who went on expeditions (named bandeiras, which in English means “flags”), first in order to capture and slave natives, and second, to find mines of gold and silver in inner Brazil, exploring the lands farther. Bandeirantes were considered to be heroes for a long time, especially in São Paulo, since they were the pioneer explorers of Brazil and usually started their trips from São Paulo city. After some time, however, they started to be considered as “villains," since their expeditions also served to enslave indigenous people, to search for African slaves and to destroy quilombos, and they also ransacked villages, killed people and raped women. Good or bad guys, they are an important part of the Brazilian history.

Changes in the Territory Division

In 1621, when Brazil was still under the power of Spain, the colony was divided into two pieces of land in an attempt to increase the domination: the Estado do Brasil or State of Brazil, in the center-south, and the Estado do Maranhão or State of Maranhão, in the north, encompassing parts of the Amazon forest.

The State of Maranhão was extinguished in 1652 and in 1654 reconstituted as the State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará, or Estado do Maranhão e Grão-Pará. In 1751, the State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará had its name changed to State of Grão-Pará and Maranhão, and its capital was moved from São Luís to Belém.

In 1680 the colony of Sacramento was founded, which was disputed by the Portuguese and the Spanish for many years and now is an Uruguayan city named Colonia del Sacramento. In 1763, the capital of the colony was changed from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro, which was closer to the mines of gold in Minas Gerais than the previous capital.

In 1772, there were created two autonomous governments, the Grão-Pará e Rio Negro and the Maranhão e Piauí. In 1789, Brazil was divided in more territories, starting to look like the current territory configuration.

The Gold Cycle (1700s)

By the time sugarcane wasn’t exported from Brazil as it used to be, the main products of the colony were silver and gold. They were finally found in the central region of Minas Gerais in 1697 by the bandeirantes.

Over 2 million km2 of Brazil were populated due to the discovery of gold and silver. Portugal kept a large part of the Brazilian wealth, charging high tributes and contributions over the amounts discovered, such as the quinto and the derrama. Brazil was the largest gold producer, with 40% of the total volume produced between 1701 and 1800. As years went by, however, the contributions only decreased, since the gold and silver from mines were ending. The gold cycle ended in the end of the 1700s.

There are records showing that further south regions such as São Paulo, Curitiba and even Rio Grande do Sul had amounts of gold and silver even before the minerals were discovered in Minas Gerais.


In the beginning of the 18th century, diamonds were also found in some regions of the state of Minas Gerais. The official discovery year is 1729, but there are records showing that the stone had already been found in 1714.


The paths that took to mineral deposits soon started to be agriculturally explored, and some products started to be cultivated. Cotton, tobacco and cocoa became important export items until coffee put Brazil back in the international market.

Colonial Conflicts

The Colonial Brazil had other conflicts apart from the Dutch invasions. The British occupied the cities of São Vicente and Santos in 1591, under the command of a corsair. The French also invaded the northeast of Brazil: between 1554 and 1555 they occupied an island in Rio de Janeiro, and between 1612 and 1615 it was established a French colony in Maranhão captaincy, called Equinoctial France. The other main conflicts in this period are the following:

  • Revolta dos Beckman/Beckman Revolt (1684) - a conflict started by the Beckman brothers (one of whom was a landowner), demanding that commercial relations between Maranhão and Portugal were improved.
  • Guerra dos Emboabas/War of the Emboabas (1707 - 1709) - a conflict between the Portuguese and São Paulo inhabitants, for the control of the gold region in Minas Gerais.
  • Guerra dos Mascates/Marcate War (1710 - 1711) - in the state of Pernambuco, Recife was a part of the city of Olinda, which was in an economic downturn. Once the government made Recife an independent village, Olinda’s landowners became dissatisfied and the conflict between them and the traders of Recife started. Portugal had to interfere in the war, and while Recife was chosen as the capital of Pernambuco.
  • Revolta de Vila Rica/Rebellion of Vila Rica (1720) - it was the first movement against the taxes, punishments and the fiscalization of Portugal regarding the gold found in Minas Gerais, more specifically in Vila Rica, which nowadays is the city of Ouro Preto.
  • Inconfidência Mineira (1789) - one of the most important separatist movements, which happened in the state of Minas Gerais and is considered an attempt to free Brazil from Portugal’s domination. It has as symbol and martyr a man named Tiradentes, who was the leader of the movement.
  • Conjuração Baiana or Revolta dos Alfaiates/Revolt of the Tailors (1798) - another important separatist movement which happened in Bahia. It also defended social and political changes in society.

The Royal Family Arrives and the Ports are Opened (1808)

In the beginning of the 19th century, Portugal found itself in a dead end alley when France determined that any European country which commercialized with England would suffer a Napoleonic invasion – in an attempt to jeopardize the British. England and Portugal were allied ever since the crusades in the 12th century, but Napoleon wasn't joking when he said he was going to invade countries (Italy, Spain and Switzerland, just to name a few, were there to prove it). While all other European countries stopped having commercial relations with the British, Portugal kept on trading with them, and France invaded the capital Lisbon to take the power.

By the time of the invasion in the end of 1807, Dom João, prince regent of Portugal, was followed by other royal members, was already in the ship escaping from Portugal to Brazil. Once the Royal Family got to Brazilian lands, it was established the Reino Unido de Portugal, Brasil e Algarves, an united kingdom of Portugal and Brazil which was commanded straight from the colony.

Historians say that this was the first step to Brazil's independence in 1822. Considering that the governors were in Brazil, the economic block favoring Portugal products was over, in an episode known as the opening of the ports to friendly nations - which practically ended the colonial pact and made the colony an independent nation until 1821, when Dom João returned to Portugal.

Changes in the Colony

The arrival of the Portuguese Crown in Brazil increased the colony’s development, as improvements started being made there. Banco do Brasil, the bank of Brazil, was founded in 1808, the year when the Brazilian press was created and the publication of newspapers was allowed. Universities were introduced in the country, including Medicine courses; iron industries were opened, as well as a gunpowder factory. The first library and museum were established in the colony, with the Royal Library in 1810 and the Royal Museum in 1818. Also, the captaincies became provinces.

Portugal and Spain fought France's invasion from 1807 to 1814 in the Peninsular War, and Napoleon was finally defeated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. One year later prince regent João became King Dom João VI after his mother D. Maria I, known as Maria the Mad, died - but in practice, he was already the king since she was deemed as mentally insane in 1792. Dom João only returned to Portugal because the country was facing an economic crisis which had resulted in the Revolução Liberal do Porto, the Liberal Revolution of 1820. In 1821, he went to Portugal and left his son, Pedro, to be the prince regent of Brazil.

The independence of Brazil was undeniable. The colony had gained a lot of autonomy since the Royal family established itself in Rio de Janeiro and wouldn’t continue submitting to Portugal for too long. However, Dom João VI still dreamed of having Pedro as his successor, so Brazil and Portugal would remain the same kingdom. Pedro, however, didn't agree with the measures taken by Portuguese politicians and, in the end, he was the one who declared Brazil’s independence from Portugal.