Brazil - South American History
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Brazil after 1500

Native men and women dancing outside naked with spears
Tapuia people, ca. 1650
(by Albert Eckhout)

November 2016 - In the late 1400s AD, the Tupi people had just won a big war with the Tapuia people, and gotten control of the Atlantic coast of South America (modern Brazil), forcing most of the Tapuia people inland. So the Tupi were living near the beaches, fishing. Different Tupi groups had different rulers, but they all lived more or less the same way and spoke the same language. There were probably about a million of them, mostly fishermen or farmers growing a variety of South American plants: corn, yucca root, sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts, tobacco, squash, and cotton.

In April, 1500 AD, the first trading ship unexpectedly arrived from Portugal, with Pedro Álvares Cabral. The Tupi people could not defend themselves against European weapons, and the Europeans (many of them Jesuit priests) enslaved many Native men and women and forced them to mine silver, dive for pearls, or grow sugar cane, cattle, or tobacco to export to Europe. Most of the Tupi soon caught European diseases - smallpox and measles and malaria - and died. Others died of starvation and overwork.

globe shows strong current flowing from west africa to brazil
Ocean currents went right
from West Africa to Brazil

In the early 1500s, Spain became part of the Holy Roman Empire, and so did Brazil. The Europeans began to bring over thousands of Africans who were enslaved to work in Brazil. Most of the Africans who were enslaved were sold in Brazil - millions of them. All together, more than four million people came to Brazil as slaves. Most of them died of overwork in a few years. They brought yellow fever with them, and many native Tupi and Tapuia people died of yellow fever in 1685. Meanwhile many Europeans got rich selling Brazilian sugar, silver, pearls, and coffee. Portuguese soldiers fought French soldiers to extend Brazil further north and south along the Atlantic coast.

In the late 1600s AD, with Queen Mariana ruling Spain, Portugal seized its independence, and so Brazil became part of the Kingdom of Portugal rather than Spain. When Angola's Queen Jinga Mbandi stopped selling enslaved people to them, Brazil's settlers sent an army in 1661 and defeated her so they could get more slaves.

Brazil couldn't sell as much sugar or silver by the late 1600s, but then explorers found gold mines, and Brazil got rich again selling gold. Many people came from Portugal to Brazil to get gold. Jesuits owned more and more of the wealth in Brazil: farms, mines, ranches, everything. They started to grow coffee in Brazil too.

white man with brown beard and fancy military outfit
Pedro II of Brazil (1851)

In the 1750s, Portugal's kings threw out the Jesuits and took over the huge plantations and ranches that the Jesuits controlled. Then in 1808 the King of Portugal moved to Brazil for years, running away from Napoleon. The British defeated Napoleon in 1815, and the King of Portugal moved back to Portugal in 1821. He left his son, Pedro, in charge in Brazil. Prince Pedro then fought a war against his father for independence and became Emperor Pedro of Brazil.

To build up the population, Emperor Pedro encouraged people to move to Brazil from Germany, and many did, especially after the European revolutions of 1848. But a lot of Brazilians hated Emperor Pedro, and he quit in 1831, leaving regents to rule in the name of his 5 year old son, Pedro II. When he grew up Pedro II built clean water systems, sewage systems, and railroads.

But even after independence, and even after the American Civil War freed African-Americans in the United States, Brazil's government still insisted that slavery was the way to go. Many American slave-holders moved to Brazil after they lost the war, so they could keep on owning and abusing people. Slavery didn't officially end in Brazil until more than twenty years later, in 1888, and even after that (as in the United States) many people of color still worked under terrible conditions, as sharecroppers or laborers. But because Brazil couldn't force any more Africans to come to Brazil, they encouraged lots of free people to come from Italy (where Pedro II's wife came from) to work on the coffee plantations.

A year after slavery ended, in 1889, the army threw Pedro II out and started the Republic of Brazil. By the early 1900s, people were coming to Brazil from Japan, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as from all over Europe. More recently, many people have been moving to Brazil from China.

South American History

Bibliography and further reading about the history of Brazil:

Brazil before 1500
Arawak before 1500 home

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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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  • Carr, K.E. . Study Guides, . Web. 28 April, 2017