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Articles Blog

Brazil's History

Karyn Planett

“Hospitality is the greatest delay in Brazilian travel. It is the old style of Colonial greeting; you may do what you like, you may stay for a month, but not for a day.”

So wrote Sir Richard Francis Burton, the famous English explorer, in 1869. Sir Richard was, of course, spot on with his cunning observation for the Brazilians are hospitable, warm and welcoming. Their smiles are infectious and their kindness legendary. This kindness is, in fact, surpassed only by their striking, blended beauty written in their skintones, a rainbow of colors from honey to caramel to chocolate. This, the phenomenon of history’s destiny. It’s a story to be told. 

Portugal Eyes Brazil 

Brazil’s very early history played out, of course, with the native Indians, the Tupi-Guarani. Some seven million lived a very basic lifestyle prior to the arrival at the dawn of the 16th century by the Portuguese navigator Admiral Pedro Alvares Cabral. He had sailed from Europe toward India and landed, instead, on the muddy banks of what is now Brazil. The early attention was focused on Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia. Cabral proudly claimed the land for Portugal. Note, for the record, some historians believe Cabral was not blown wildly off course, as reported, but instead was possibly in Brazil as planned. Or, he may have even been preceded there by other explorers. History is yours for the making and the choosing, it seems. 

Anyway, while all this was going on Amerigo Vespucci sailed into Todos os Santos Bay (home of today’s Salvador da Bahia), and claimed it for Portugal, as well. Within a half century, King João II declared Salvador the capital of Brazil.

Pau do Brasil 

That’s the Portuguese name for the brazilwood tree that was the sought after hot commodity driving the exploration and exploitation of Brazil. From this wood came a valuable red dye that was lusted after in the far reaches of Europe. In time, a more lucrative product came to those with opportunity in their souls … sugarcane. Ultimately, the world’s largest supply of sugar came from Brazil. For the following 150 years, African slaves made up the human cargo that was transported in an armada of ships crossing the Atlantic. Their destiny, their plight was to toil long days in the tropical sun harvesting the cane fields. Meanwhile, sugar barons swooned under the weight of untold wealth multiplying their fortunes through the unfortunate. Heat and hardship took a staggering toll on these slaves who’d already been uprooted from their homelands. 

Then the discovery of gold in the Minas Gerais region of Brazil at the close of the 17th century brought a new product for export. Boatloads of Europeans arrived in a steady stream to play their role in the gold rush. São Paulo flourished. The French, then the Dutch arrived to establish their influence over the city of Recife. Rio came under the control of the French Huguenots from 1555 to 1565 until the Portuguese gained control of the city in 1567. In fact, the country was growing at such a rate that, in 1572, the Portuguese-appointed viceroy actually created two national capitals – the one in Salvador, the other in Rio. 

Some Coffee For Your Sugar? 

Plantation owners in the Caribbean literally cut the heart of out Brazil’s cane sugar success at about the time the country’s gold rush began. Northeastern Brazil was hit hardest by the sugar decline. Rio, on the other hand, grew at an even faster rate because of the gold export that passed through its city. In 1793, Rio became the solitary capital of the Brazilian nation.

But coffee cultivation and production created a new economic chapter. In approximately 1825, migrant workers traveled here in droves to work the coffee fields. In fact, it’s said that one million European immigrants, most of them Italians, came for this very crop. 

More history played out in 1807 when Dom João VI, Portugal’s ruler at the time, journeyed with 15,000 members of nobility to Brazil from Portugal. They’d literally been driven into exile by Napoleon. Ultimately it was Dom Pedro I, Dom João’s son, who became the country’s emperor, granting it independence in 1822. Eventually, his five-year-old son Dom Pedro II took over the throne. Many years later, his daughter Isabel granted the slaves their freedom. And, in 1889, Brazil officially severed it ties with Portugal to become a free and independent nation.

Today’s Brazilians 

They are beautiful, reflecting the uniquely rich blend of Europeans (mostly Portuguese), with the descendents of African slaves and the local indigenous people. Thrown into this genetic potpourri was a massive influx of Japanese people making São Paulo one of the world’s largest Japanese populations outside their country. 

Adding more interest was the Jewish people who fled to Brazil prior to the outbreak of World War II. Thousands of them took refuge here, especially in the southern regions of the country. African descendents settled mainly in the North, around Bahia, where their ancestry is visible on their faces to this day. 

It is this whirlwind of cultures that makes Brazilians seemingly in love with everything. They like their music and their food hot and spicy. Their sun-loved bodies are toned and tuned like a fine symphony, as is visible at any praia, or beach. When it relates to bathing suits, in their opinion… less is more. Copacabana Beach, on any day of the week, will be an eye-popper. And every night of the week, there’s samba blaring out of every doorway. Dine at a barbecue restaurant, a churrascario, or toast the good life with a caiparinha. It’s nice to enjoy Brazilian culture.