Belém was one of the first Portuguese settlements on the Amazon, founded in 1616. It prospered for over two centuries, relying on enslaved Indians (and later enslaved Africans) for finding and harvesting Amazonian treasures like cacao, indigo and animal skins, all for export to Europe. It was a fragile success, though, and an economic downturn in the early 19th century helped spark a popular uprising and bloody civil war.
The rubber boom at the turn of the century sent Belém’s population rocketing, from 40, 000 in 1875 to more than 100, 000 in 1900. The city suddenly had electricity, telephones, streetcars and a distinctly European feel. Officials erected a few grand monuments such as the Teatro da Paz, earning the city the nickname ‘the tropical Paris.’
By 1910 rubber constituted 39% of Brazil’s total exports and new ports and wharfs were commissioned and built in Belém to handle the flow. Rubber eventually crashed, but the ports have remained active ever since. Today some 800, 000 tons of cargo pass through Belém, mostly timber, but also soy, fish, shrimp, Brazil nuts and palm hearts.