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History of Brazil

The first people to arrive to modern day Brazil likely arrived between about 13,000-7,000 BC. These people arrived from the north as they traveled from North America via Panama then into South America. Some people also claim the earliest inhabitants may have arrived from the Pacific islands via boat, then crossed the Andes Mountains into Brazil.

Very little is known about the earliest settlers in Brazil, and even later people as they had no written language and left few artifacts behind, unlike the Incans and other people in the Andes region. The people of Brazil were likely semi-nomadic or entirely nomadic at different points in time, but the lifestyle and even settlement patterns of the people are greatly diverse due to the country's size and landscape

The people of Brazil had very different cultures as they spoke different languages and were of different ethnicities. The differences also expanded due to geography. The people along the coasts, in the highlands, and in the Amazon rainforests had different resources available and hence developed very different lifestyles.

There are some commonalities among the people though. All primarily lived off the land as hunters, fishers, gatherers, and later many also acted as farmers. Most groups of people were also semi-nomadic in nature and had very few to no handicrafts, like pottery.

Since the arrival of the Europeans in the late 1400s or early 1500s, these indigenous people have taken very different paths. Many of the groups died from European diseases, others were killed in battles, some were enslaved, some intermarried, and some remain isolated in the forests today. Brazil may be the only place in the Americas, if not the world, in which there are indigenous groups who are unaware of the world around them. The current Brazilian government has restrictions on certain regions of the rainforests to protect the environment as well as the indigenous people who live today exactly as they lived hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Of course most of the indigenous people eventually met the Europeans as their cultures and lives were forever changed.

The Portuguese arrived to and claimed Brazil in 1500 (although others may have arrived earlier). Initially the region was viewed as a potential colony and source of economic wealth, but Portugal didn't immediately begin settling or colonizing the region. By the mid-1500s settlement and colonization were further underway as the logging industry in Brazil had begun. Numerous woods were highly valued, but the famous Brazilwood became the colony's greatest source of income.

As Portuguese movement inland began they also tried to integrate the local people into Portuguese society. Due to the value of the wood and the difficulty in traversing the forests, the Portuguese sought the help of the indigenous people. This worked only to a degree as some people who united with the Portuguese did so in order to avoid death or to gain an ally against their historic enemies. The lands that the Portuguese actually settled were also so limited that most of the indigenous people had no encounters with the Europeans for years.

In the 1600s the Portuguese continued to harvest Brazilwood, but also diversified their economy. In the northeast the lands proved ideal for the growth of sugarcane so plantations arose. In order to work these massive plantations, the Portuguese turned to enslaving the indigenous people as well as Africans.

These plantations essentially failed in using the indigenous people as slaves, but they did successfully push many of the native people inland, further into the forests. They also brought in thousands of Africans as slaves to work the fields.

Many of these slaves also escaped the plantations and fled into the nearby forests. There were enough of these escaped slaves to form settlements by themselves or with the indigenous people. One of these settlements, near Palmares grew to a population of nearly 30,000 people by the late 1600s.

Also in the 1600s other European powers tried to gain control over parts of Brazil. The Spanish, French, and Dutch were the most active in this pursuit as they wanted the wealth the forests and fields could provide or just the shipments from the mainland. At the same time Jesuit missionaries swarmed the lands to convert the local people to Catholicism. These conversion efforts proved quite successful in many areas, including in the region of Sao Paulo, which was a base for the Jesuits.

From this point until the early 1800s there were two groups of people that substantially changed the region: the missionaries, and the slaves. As the economy grew it also shifted more towards sugarcane, the largest cash crop. However, since cultivating sugarcane is a very manual process, it required labor so the Portuguese landowners turned to Africa for slaves.

This change in the country's largest cash crop changed the economy and the culture in Brazil. The culture began to change as influences from African arrived with the slaves, including new foods, music, dress, and dance. It also changed the language slightly and the ethnic make-up of the population substantially.

On the financial side sugarcane made the economy very reliant on this one good so over time the economic situation fluctuated greatly depending on demand for this single good. It also relied on the rest of the sugarcane producing world and Brazil's successes were high as the Caribbean islands struggled and vice versa. Although the economy was primarily reliant on sugarcane, there was one major exception. In the late 1600s gold was discovered inland and many people sought wealth inland. The profits from the gold helped boost the economy and also increased consumerism.

Despite the changes in supply of sugarcane, another factor on the Brazilian economy was trade restrictions. Brazil could only trade legally with Portugal or Portuguese colonies, meaning much of the money and control of all of Brazil's industries remained in the hands of the ethnic Portuguese.

These restrictions also meant any political debate the Portuguese government had got transferred to Brazil. In the late 1500s the Dutch and Portuguese began arguments and this led to the banning of all trade with the Netherlands. As numerous Dutch merchants had lands and trade routes with Brazil, this argument in Europe got transferred to Brazil, leading to battles and wars between these two ethnic groups throughout much of the 1600s.

Through most of the 1600s and 1700s Brazil continued to develop on the same path they had begun in the late 1500s. Sugarcane remained the focus as slaves were brought in from Africa in greater numbers as many of the indigenous people shifted inland, where few Europeans moved, other than the missionaries. Over time, this growing slave population led to escaped slaves and growing communities called mocambos or quilombos. These communities were often further inland, generally in the forests and grew over time as both African as well as indigenous people settled these communities.

In 1808 France invaded Portugal during the Napoleonic Wars. During this time of takeover most of the American colonies began declaring independence from Spain, which was also taken over by France at the time, but Portugal's government actually went into exile in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In addition to the government's move to Brazil, the government then remained in the country for 15 years, long after France had left Portugal. During this time Brazil and Portugal grew closer as they were united as one kingdom and Portuguese institutions and culture were further incorporated in Brazil.

Rio de Janeiro was only the seat of Portuguese power until 1821 when the king of Portugal returned to Europe. However, his son, Pedro remained behind to govern Brazil, however at this time, in 1822, Brazil gained independence. Despite Pedro's move to separate Brazil from Portugal, he remained in Brazil as he became king of the country in a constitutional monarchy. However he proved incapable to rule and left the following year, abdicating in 1831 as he left his son, Pedro II to rule the country at the age of five.

Newly independent Brazil faced a number of challenges in nearly every realm. There were political issues and instability, international conflicts, economic struggles, and internal changes and demands. Politically, this new government was controlled tightly by the elite as the military and a few groups of social elites alternated power. During this time the government seemed more concerned about maintaining power and control than they were with social or economic progress. It was a time with decent stability, but isolation as the country put itself on an island from its neighboring Spanish-speaking countries and with a fairly closed economy there was little contact with other countries either. The country also got into armed battles with both Uruguay and Paraguay regarding their borders.

The struggles in international relations, the economy, and internal social demands were all centered on slavery and the sugarcane industry. It was also in the early 1800s that most of the world banned the slave trade, but this was not the case with Brazil as their economy was heavily reliant on slave labor and the powerful land owners had no interest in losing their wealth. This led to internal resistance and external demands, primarily originating with the British who fought slavery from an ethical and economic perspective (slavery in Brazil meant Brazilian sugarcane prices were significantly lower than sugarcane British colonies could produce without slaves).

Eventually Brazil ended the domestic slave trade, but not international slave trade. This only encouraged more slaves to be brought in from Africa itself. This magnified the international political conflicts Brazil had with the United Kingdom.

This time period also created a social wedge between the rich and poor in Brazil. The landowners and elite held almost all of the money and power, while many plantation workers, including the rapidly expanding slave population, had little to no money. There became a very rich upper class and a very poor working class, which divided the people and continues to divide the people today. Over time this gap has widened, although a middle class has also developed more recently.

The widening gap was best seen between the landowners and slaves. However, the growing middle class throughout the 1800s joined in the fight to end slavery and by 1888 slavery ended in Brazil, making them the last country in the Americas to end this practice. However, this expanded time period when slavery did exist also created a more ethnic African-heavy society. Today this population continues to comprise a huge percentage of the population.

The changes in slavery and the economy, plus international conflicts also led to a slowly collapsing economy, which led to a military coup in 1889. This coup established the country as a republic, although over the next couple decades it was little more than a military dictatorship.

In 1930 the government changed its focus due to another military coup, which led to a shift in focus to economic growth and progress. This increased trade and opened the country, as harvesting trees and other valuable resources from the rainforests became a focus. This growth continued into the 1950s as elected rulers were chosen over the military.

This time of slow, but regular growth ended in 1964 with another military coup. The new government expedited economic reforms, but also refused numerous rights to the people as censorship and political prisoners were on the rise. The economic policies also later failed, leading to substantial government debt and a stagnant economy at the best of times.

The military rulers were overthrown in 1985 with a democratically elected government. This new government, and its successors, faced the same economic troubles that the country faced in the previous decade. To try to remedy this, Brazil privatized many sectors and created many free trade agreements to spark their economy.

In the 1990s and 2000s the focus of political campaigns has been on social programs and getting the country out of poverty. This process has moved slowly, but does seem to be helping.

Today, the divide between rich and poor in Brazil continues to widen. Many people live in slums, while just a few miles away are mansions on the ocean. The government is trying to address these concerns, but little progress has been made. There is also the middle class, which makes up about a third to half the population, and the indigenous people who live primarily in the rainforests, fairly isolated from the people, making Brazil incredibly diverse.

This page was last updated: February, 2013