São Luís is the only city in Brazil that was founded by the French. In 1612 three French ships sailed for Maranhão to try to commandeer a piece of South America. Once established at São Luís, the French used the local Indian population, the Tupinambá, to attack tribes around the mouth of the Amazon to try to expand their foothold in the region. But the French colony could not hold off the imminent Portuguese attack, which came in 1614. Within a year, the French fled and before long the Portuguese had ‘pacified’ the Tupinambá.
After a brief Dutch occupation between 1641 and 1644, São Luís developed slowly as a port for the export of sugar, and later cotton. Despite relatively poor land, the plantation owners prospered and by the early 19th century São Luís was one of the wealthiest cities in Brazil. All this was achieved through the labor of African slaves and today the city has the third highest Afro-Brazilian population in the country (after Rio and Salvador).
When demand for São Luís’ crops slackened later in the 19th century, the city went into a long decline, but the economy has been stimulated by several megaprojects in the past two decades. In the 1980s a big port complex was constructed at Itaqui, just west of São Luís, to export the mineral riches of the Carajás in neighboring Pará state, and Alcoa built an enormous aluminum-processing plant on the highway south of the city. A missile station was established in Alcântara, and oil was discovered in the bay. And thanks to the restoration of many of São Luís’ beautiful old buildings, domestic and international tourism are now important to the city’s economy.