Brazil’s population, the fifth biggest in the world, reached its lands from Africa, Asia, Europe and other parts of the Americas – diverse origins that have created one of the planet’s most racially mixed societies. How they came, intermingled and developed the unique Brazilian identity that charms visitors today is a rough-and-tumble story of courage, greed, endurance and cruelty, eventually yielding a fitful progress toward the democracy the country now enjoys.

Before the Portuguese

It’s generally believed that the early inhabitants of the Americas arrived from Siberia in waves between about 12,000 and 8000 BC, crossing land now submerged beneath the Bering Strait, then gradually spreading southward over many millennia. Some scholars, however, believe that humans arrived much earlier (25,000 to 35,000 BC) in groups that traveled by boat across the Pacific.

Researchers in the remote Serra da Capivara in the Northeastern state of Piauí have found some of Brazil’s earliest evidence of human presence. The oldest traces of human life in the Amazon region can be seen on a detour from a river trip between Santarém and Belém: a series of rock paintings estimated to be 12,000 years old near Monte Alegre.

By the time the Portuguese arrived, there were probably between two and four million people in what’s now Brazil.

Cabral & Chums

The course of Brazilian history was changed forever in 1500, when a fleet of 12 Portuguese ships carrying nearly 1200 men rolled up near what is today Porto Seguro. When they arrived, their indigenous reception committee was ready and waiting.

‘There were 18 or 20 men,’ marveled scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha in a letter back to the Portuguese king. ‘They were brown-skinned, all of them naked, without anything at all to cover their private parts. In their hands they carried bows and arrows.’

The festivities didn’t last long. Having erected a cross and held Mass in the land they baptized Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross), the Portuguese took to the waves once again. With lucrative spice, ivory and diamond markets in Asia and Africa to exploit, Portugal had bigger fish to fry elsewhere. It wasn’t till 1531 that the first Portuguese settlers arrived in Brazil.

Brazil’s Indigenous People

For Brazil’s índios (indigenous people), April 22, 1500, marked the first chapter in their gradual extermination. Sixteenth-century European explorers along the Amazon encountered large, widespread populations; some were practicing agriculture while others were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Coastal peoples fell into three main groups: the Guarani (south of São Paulo and in the Paraguai and Paraná basins inland), the Tupi or Tupinambá (along most of the rest of the coast) and the Tapuia (peoples inhabiting shorter stretches of coast in among the Tupi and Guarani). The Tupi and Guarani had much in common in language and culture. A European adaptation of the Tupi-Guarani language later spread throughout colonial Brazil and is still spoken by some people in Amazonia.

Over the following centuries a four-front war was waged on the indigenous way of life. It was a cultural war, as well as a physical, territorial and biological one. Many índios fell victim to the bandeirantes – groups of roaming adventurers who spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploring Brazil’s interior, pillaging índio settlements as they went. Those who escaped such a fate were struck down by the illnesses shipped in from Europe, to which they had no natural resistance. Others were worked to death on sugar plantations.

Brazil’s Indigenous Today

When the Portuguese arrived in 1500, there were, by the most common estimates, between two and four million índios (indigenous people) already living in Brazil, in over 1000 different tribes. Five centuries later there are an estimated 700,000 índios left, living in a little over 200 tribes. Slavery, diseases, armed conflict and loss of territory all took a savage toll on Brazil’s native peoples, to the point where in the 1980s índio numbers were under 300,000 and it was feared they might die out completely. Since then there has been a marked recovery in the indigenous population, partly thanks to international concern about groups such as the Yanomami, who were threatened with extermination by disease and violence from an influx of gold prospectors into their lands. Government policy has become more benign and huge areas of Brazil are now Terra Indígena (Indigenous Land). Just over 1 million sq km – more than 12% of the whole country – is now either officially registered as Indigenous Land or in the process of registration

There are those who think that 12% of national territory reserved for 0.25% of the national population is too much and fail to respect índio rights to these lands. Disputes between indigenous groups and loggers, miners, homesteaders, hunters, road builders and reservoir constructors are still common, and sometimes violent.

It’s thought there may still be more than 60 uncontacted tribes, mostly small groups in the Amazon forests – home to about 60% of Brazil’s índios (and almost all of the existing Indigenous Lands).

Most of Brazil’s índios still live traditional lifestyles, hunting (some still with blowpipes and poisoned arrows) and gathering and growing plants for food, medicine and utensils. Their homes are usually made of natural materials such as wood or grass. Ritual activity is strong, body- and face-painting is prevalent, and most indigenous people are skilled in making pottery, basketry, masks, headdresses, musical instruments and other artisanry with their hands. None of those known to the outside world are truly nomadic. Indigenous Lands generally have an exemplary record of environmental conservation because their inhabitants continue to live sustainable lifestyles.

Sugar & Slavery

Brazil didn’t boast the ivory and spices of Africa and the East Indies, and the only thing that had interested the Portuguese in the early years after they had found it was a rock-hard tree known as pau brazil (brazilwood), which yielded a valuable red dye. Merchants began sending a few ships each year to harvest brazilwood and take it back to Europe, and the colony changed its name to Brazil in tribute to the tree. Alas, the most accessible trees were rapidly depleted, and the índios soon stopped volunteering their labor. But after colonization in 1531, the settlers soon worked out that Brazil was a place where sugarcane grew well. Sugar came to Brazil in 1532 and hasn’t left since. It was coveted by a hungry European market, which used it for medicinal purposes, to flavor foods and even in wine.

Perhaps envisaging Brazil’s sugarcoated future, the colonists turned to this new industry. They lacked just one thing: a workforce.

The Slave Trade

African slaves started to pour into Brazil’s slave markets from about 1550. They were torn from a variety of tribes in Angola, Mozambique and Guinea, as well as the Sudan and Congo. Whatever their origins and cultures, their destinations were identical: slave markets such as Salvador’s Pelourinho or Belém’s Mercado Ver-o-Peso. By the time slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, around 3.6 million Africans had been shipped to Brazil – nearly 40% of the total that came to the New World.

Africans were seen as better workers and less susceptible to the European diseases that had proved the undoing of so many índios. In short, they were a better investment. Yet the Portuguese didn’t go out of their way to protect this investment. Slaves were brought to Brazil in subhuman conditions: taken from their families and packed into squalid ships for the month-long journey to Brazil.

Masters & Slaves

For those who survived such ordeals, arrival in Brazil meant only continued suffering. A slave’s existence was one of brutality and humiliation. Kind masters were the exception, not the rule, and labor on the plantations was relentless. Slaves were required to work as many as 17 hours each day, before retiring to the squalid senzala (slave quarters), and with as many as 200 slaves packed into each dwelling, hygiene was a concept as remote as the distant coasts of Africa. Dysentery, typhus, yellow fever, malaria, tuberculosis and scurvy were rife; malnutrition a fact of life. Syphilis also plagued a slave population sexually exploited by its masters.

Sexual relations between masters and slaves were so common that a large mixed-race population soon emerged. Off the plantations there was a shortage of white women, so many poorer white settlers lived with black or indigenous women. Brazil was already famous for its sexual permissiveness by the beginning of the 18th century.

Resistance & the Quilombos

Resistance to slavery took many forms. Documents of the period refer to the desperation of the slaves who starved themselves to death, killed their babies or fled. Sabotage and theft were frequent, as were work slowdowns, stoppages and revolts.

Other slaves sought solace in African religion and culture. The mix of Catholicism (made compulsory by slave masters) and African traditions spawned a syncretic religion on the sugar plantations, known today as Candomblé. The slaves masked illegal customs with a facade of Catholic saints and rituals. The martial art capoeira also grew out of the slave communities.

Many slaves escaped from their masters to form quilombos, communities of runaway slaves that quickly spread across the countryside. The most famous, the Republic of Palmares, which survived through much of the 17th century, was home to some 20,000 people before it was destroyed by federal troops.

As abolitionist sentiment grew in the 19th century, many (unsuccessful) slave rebellions were staged, the quilombos received more support and ever-greater numbers of slaves fled the plantations. Only abolition itself, in 1888, stopped the growth of quilombos.

Colonial Rivals

The Bandeirantes & the Gold Rush

The bandeirantes, too, were keen to make inroads into Brazil. These bands of explorers roamed Brazil’s interior in search of indigenous slaves, mapping out undiscovered territory and bumping off the odd indigenous community along the way.

The bandeirantes took their name from the trademark flag-bearer who would front their expeditions. During the 17th and 18th centuries, group after group of bandeirantes set out from São Paulo. The majority were bilingual in Portuguese and Tupi-Guarani, born of Portuguese fathers and indigenous mothers. They benefited from both indigenous survival techniques and European weaponry.

By the mid-17th century they had journeyed as far as the peaks of the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon lowlands. It was the exploits of these discoverers that stretched Brazil’s borders to their current extent. In 1750, after four years of negotiations with the Spanish, their conquests were secured. The Treaty of Madrid handed more than 6 million sq km to the Portuguese and put Brazil’s western borders more or less where they are today.

The bandeirantes were known for more than just their colorful flags. Protected from índio arrows by heavily padded cotton jackets, they waged an all-out war on Brazil’s indigenous people, despite the fact that many of them had indigenous mothers. Huge numbers of índios fled inland, searching for shelter in the Jesuit missions. But there were few hiding places – it is thought the bandeirantes killed or enslaved well in excess of 500,000 índios.


‘As yet we have no way of knowing whether there might be gold, or silver or any kind of metal or iron [here],’ reported Pero Vaz de Caminha to his king in 1500.

Though it wasn’t discovered until nearly two centuries later, there certainly was gold in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, it was the bandeirantes who, in between decapitating índios, discovered it in the Serra do Espinhaço in Minas Gerais.

For part of the 18th century Brazil became the world’s greatest gold ‘producer,’ unearthing wealth that helped build many of Minas Gerais’ historic cities. The full title of Ouro Prêto, one of the principal beneficiaries of the gold boom, is actually Vila Rica de Ouro Prêto (Rich Town of Black Gold).

Other wild boom towns such as Sabará, Mariana and São João del Rei sprang up in the mountain valleys. Wealthy merchants built opulent mansions and bankrolled stunning baroque churches, many of which remain to this day.

Gold produced a major shift in Brazil’s population from the Northeast to the Southeast. When gold was first discovered, there were no white settlers in the territory of Minas Gerais. By 1710 the population had reached 30,000, and by the end of the 18th century it was 500,000. An estimated one-third of the two million slaves brought to Brazil in the 18th century were sent to the goldfields, where their lives were often worse than in the sugar fields.

But the gold boom didn’t last. By 1750 the mining regions were in decline and coastal Brazil was returning to center stage. Many of the gold hunters ended up in Rio de Janeiro, which grew rapidly.

Dom João Vi

Brazil became a temporary sanctuary to the Portuguese royal family in 1807. Running scared from Napoleon, whose army was at that moment advancing on Lisbon, some 15,000 court members fled to Rio de Janeiro, led by the prince regent, Dom João.

Like so many estrangeiros (foreigners) arriving in Brazil, the regent fell in love with the place and granted himself the privilege of becoming the country’s ruler. He opened Rio’s Jardim Botânico (Botanical Gardens) to the public in 1822, and they remain there to this day in the upmarket Jardim Botânico neighborhood.

Even after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, Dom João showed no sign of abandoning Brazil. When his mother, Dona Maria I, died the following year, he became king and declared Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. Brazil became the only New World colony ever to have a European monarch ruling on its soil.


Independence eventually came in 1822, 30 years after the Inconfidência Mineira. Legend has it that on the banks of São Paulo’s Ipiranga river, Brazil’s then regent, Dom João’s son Pedro, pulled out his sword, bellowing, ‘Independência ou morte!’ (Independence or death!). With the same breath he declared himself Emperor Dom Pedro I.

The Portuguese quickly gave in to the idea of a Brazilian empire. Without a single shot being fired, Dom Pedro I became the first emperor of an independent Brazil. The povo brasileiro (Brazilian people), however, were not as keen on Pedro as he was about their newly born nation. From all accounts he was a blundering incompetent, whose sexual exploits (and resulting string of children) horrified even the most permissive of Brazilians. After nine years of womanizing he was forced to abdicate, leaving his five-year-old son, Dom Pedro II, to take over.

A period of crisis followed: the heir to the throne was, after all, just a child. Between 1831 and 1840 Brazil was governed by so-called regências (regencies), a time of political turmoil and widespread rebellions. The only solution was the return of the monarchy and a law was passed to declare Dom Pedro II an adult, well before his 18th birthday.

Aged just 15, Dom Pedro II received the title of Emperor and Perpetual Defender of Brazil, precipitating one of the most prosperous spells in the country’s history, barring the war with Paraguay in 1865. Invaded by its neighbor, Brazil teamed up with Argentina and Uruguay and thrashed the Paraguayans back across the border.

Paraguay was left crippled – its population slashed to just 200,000, of whom around 180,000 were women. Brazil, too, suffered heavily: around 100,000 men died, many of them slaves sent to war in the place of wealthier Brazilians.

Abolition & the Republic

Since the 16th century, slavery had formed the backbone of a brutally unequal society in Brazil. ‘Every dimension of our social existence is contaminated,’ lamented abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco in 1880.

To undo something so deeply ingrained into the Brazilian way of life was never likely to be easy. Brazil prevaricated for nearly 60 years before any sort of resolution was reached. The 19th century was punctuated by a series of halfhearted legislative attempts to lay the slave industry to rest. Repeatedly, such laws failed.

Slave trafficking to Brazil was banned in 1850, but continued clandestinely. Another law, in 1885, freed all slaves over the age of 65. The lawmakers had obviously forgotten that the average life expectancy for a slave at this time was 45. Not until May 13, 1888 – 80 years after Britain had freed its slaves – was slavery itself officially banned in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make a huge immediate difference to the welfare of the 800,000 freed slaves, who were largely illiterate and unskilled. Thousands were cast onto the streets without any kind of infrastructure to support them. Many died, while others flooded to Brazil’s urban centers, adding to the cities’ first slums. Still today, blacks overall remain among the poorest and worst-educated groups in the country.

Not far out of the door behind slavery was the Império Brasileiro. In 1889 a military coup, supported by Brazil’s wealthy coffee farmers, decapitated the old Brazilian empire and the republic was born. The emperor went into exile, where he died a couple of years later.

A military clique ruled Brazil for the next four years until elections were held, but because of ignorance, corruption, and land and literacy requirements, only about 2% of the adult population voted. Little changed, except that the power of the military and the now-influential coffee growers increased, while it diminished for the sugar barons.

Open Borders

In the final decade of the 19th century, Brazil opened its borders. Millions of immigrants – from Italy, Japan, Spain, Germany, Portugal and elsewhere – streamed into Brazil to work on the coffee fazendas, and to make new lives in the rapidly growing cities, especially Rio and São Paulo, adding further textures to Brazil’s ethnic mixture and confirming the shift of Brazil’s economic center of gravity from the Northeast to the Southeast.

Over the next century, immigrants continued to flood into Brazil. The country became a haven for Jews fleeing persecution at the hands of the Nazis, as well as Nazis looking to avoid being put on trial for war crimes. Arabs, universally known as turcos by the Brazilians, also joined the influx of newcomers. Many of the traders you’ll meet at Rio de Janeiro’s Rua Uruguaiana flea market hail from the Middle East.

Getúlio Vargas, Populist Dictator

The Vargas era began in 1930 when members of the newly formed Liberal Alliance party decided to fight back after the defeat of their candidate, Getúlio Vargas, in the presidential elections. The revolution kicked off on October 3 in Rio Grande do Sul and spread rapidly through other states. Twenty-one days later President Júlio Prestes was deposed and on November 3 Vargas became Brazil’s new ‘provisional’ president.

The formation of the Estado Novo (New State) in November 1937 made Vargas the first Brazilian president to wield absolute power. Inspired by the fascist governments of Salazar in Portugal and Mussolini in Italy, Vargas banned political parties, imprisoned political opponents and censored artists and the press.

Despite this, many liked Vargas. The ‘father’ of Brazil’s workers, he introduced new labor laws and remained popular throughout his tenure. In 1951 he was elected president, this time democratically. But Vargas’ new administration was plagued by the hallmark of Brazilian politics – corruption. Amid calls from the military for his resignation, Vargas responded dramatically. He penned a note saying, ‘I leave this life to enter into history,’ and on the following morning, August 24, 1954, fired a single bullet through his own heart.

The Generals Take Over

In 1964 the left-leaning president João Goulart was overthrown in a so-called revolução (revolution) – really a military coup, which many Brazilians believed was backed by the US government. President Lyndon Johnson did nothing to dampen such theories when he immediately cabled his warmest wishes to the new Brazilian administration.

Brazil’s military regime was not as brutal as those of Chile or Argentina – a reality that led to the somewhat unkind saying, ‘Brazil couldn’t even organize a dictatorship properly.’ Yet for the best part of 20 years, freedom of speech was an unknown concept and political parties were banned.

The Brazilian economy flourished. Year after year in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the economy grew by over 10% as Brazil’s rulers borrowed heavily from international banks. But in the absence of rural land reform, millions moved to the cities, where favelas filled up the open spaces.

During this time, Brazil’s obsession with ‘megaprojects’ was born. Under the quick-spending regime, construction began on numerous colossal (and mostly ill-fated) plans, including the Transamazônica highway, the Rio-Niterói Bridge and the Ilha do Fundão, which was to house Rio’s Federal University.

The Origins of the Favela

In the 1870s and ’80s, terrible droughts coupled with the decline of the sugar industry brought economic devastation. Offering a vision of hope, messianic movements became popular among Brazil’s poor. The most famous was that of Canudos, led by an itinerant preacher Antônio Conselheiro (Antônio the Counselor), who wandered for years through the backlands preaching and prophesying the appearance of the Antichrist and the end of the world. He railed against the new republican government and in 1893 eventually settled with his followers at Canudos, in the interior of northern Bahia. Within 1½ years Canudos had grown to a city of 35,000.

The republican government sensed plots in Canudos to return Brazil to the monarchy. It took them several attempts, however, before a federal force of 8000 well-supplied soldiers – many of whom hailed from Rio – took Canudos after vicious, hand-to-hand, house-to-house fighting. It was a war of extermination that nearly wiped out every man, woman and child from Canudos; the settlement was then burned to the ground to erase it from the nation’s memory.

The surviving soldiers and their wives returned to Rio, where they were promised land in exchange for their victory. The government, however, reneged on the promise, and the soldiers occupied the nearby hillside of Morro da Providência. Oddly enough, as the first tenants put up makeshift shelter and settled in, they came across the same hardy shrub they found in the arid lands surrounding Canudos. Called favela, this plant caused skin irritations to all who came in contact with it – according to some accounts, the protective shrub even helped repel the army’s initial invasions. Hillside residents began calling their new home the Morro da Favela, and the name caught on. Soon the word favela was used to describe the ever-increasing number of informal communities appearing around Rio, which quickly gathered a mix of former slaves and poverty-stricken inhabitants from the interior, who came to the city seeking a better life.

The Workers Organize

By the late 1970s, the economic boom was dying and opposition to the regime began to spread from the educated middle class to the working class. A series of strikes in the São Paulo car industry signaled the intent of the militant new workers’ movement. At the helm was Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who famously lost one dedo (finger) in a factory accident but made up in charisma for what he lacked in the finger department.

The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT; Workers’ Party), Brazil’s first-ever mass political party to speak for the poor, grew out of these strikes, and helped pave the way toward abertura (opening), a cautious return to civilian rule between 1979 and 1985. With popular opposition gathering force, the military announced gradual moves toward a democratic Brazil.

Democracy & Debt

In 1985 a presidential election took place, though the only voters were members of the national congress. Unexpectedly, Tancredo Neves, opposing the military candidate, came out on top, and millions of Brazilians took to the streets to celebrate the end of military rule.

Immediately a spanner was thrown in the works: Neves died from heart failure before he could assume the presidency. His vice-presidential candidate, the whiskered José Sarney, took over. Sarney – who had supported the military until 1984 – held office until 1989, a period in which runaway inflation helped Brazil rack up a gargantuan foreign debt.

In the 1989 direct presidential election, the first ever that could be called democratic, it was a Northeastern political climber by the name of Collor who was victorious, beating Lula, the PT’s candidate, by the smallest of margins.

A Troubled Administration

Fernando Collor de Mello, former governor of the small state of Alagoas, revolutionized consumer laws. Sell-by dates, however, couldn’t save him from disgrace. An ever-lengthening list of scandals involving Collor and his intimate associate PC Farias – alleged corruption on a vast scale, alleged drug deals, family feuds – led to a congressional inquiry, huge student protests and eventually the president’s impeachment.

Though out of office, ‘Fernandinho’ managed to avoid a prison sentence, receiving little more than an eight-year ban from politics. Found not guilty of ‘passive corruption’ by the Supreme Court in 1994, he moved to Miami, where he remained for five years. In 1998 Collor returned to Brazil, and after several unsuccessful attempts to re-enter Brazilian politics was elected to congress as a senator for Alagoas. In August 2015, he was charged for corruption linked to the Petrobras scandal, and is currently under investigation.

Brazil’s Boom Days

Following Collor’s impeachment, Vice President Itamar Franco found himself in the hot seat. Despite his reputation as an eccentric, his administration was credited with competence and integrity. Franco’s greatest achievement was to stabilize Brazil’s violently erratic economy, introducing a new currency, the real. Pegged to the US dollar, the real caused inflation to plummet from a rate of over 5000% in late 1993 to under 10% in 1994.

The Plano Real sparked an economic boom that lasted two decades, though it was his successor, former finance minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who presided through the mid-1990s over a growing economy and record foreign investment. He is often credited with laying the groundwork that put Brazil’s hyperinflation to bed, though often at the neglect of social problems.

Come the 2002 election, Lula, at the fourth time of asking, toned down his socialist rhetoric, and promised to repay Brazil’s international debts. This propelled Lula to a convincing victory over the center-right candidate Jose Serra. For the first time ever, Brazil had a government on the left of the political spectrum and a president who really knew what poverty was like. One of 22 children born to a dirt-poor illiterate farm-worker from Brazil’s stricken Northeast, Lula had worked as a shoeshine boy, then a mechanic, then a trade-union leader.

His accession initially alarmed investors, who had envisioned a left-leaning renegade running the economy amok. In fact, he surprised friends and foes alike with one of the most financially prudent administrations in years, while still addressing Brazil’s egregious social problems.

When Lula left office in 2010, Brazil’s economic prosperity was clear. Brazil became a net foreign creditor for the first time in 2008 and the country weathered the economic recession at the end of the decade better than any other developing country. He also helped achieved notable success in anti-poverty measures, and helped millions enter the middle class – all of which helps explain why Lula was rated Brazil's most popular president in history; in his final months in office his approval rating was above 80%.

World Cup Dreams

Bringing the World Cup back to Brazil has long been a dream of the football-crazed nation. In 2007, the dream became reality when FIFA announced that Brazil had won the rights to host the World Cup in 2014. The South American giant last staged the big sporting event in 1950, when Brazil lost in the dramatic final against Uruguay before 200,000 fans in Rio’s Maracanã Stadium (which has since been modified to hold smaller crowds). The unforgettable day of infamy was later called ‘maracanazo’ and is still in common parlance.

Brazil, the most successful football nation in the history of the games (with five World Cup victories), becomes the fifth country to host the event twice. Unlike in 1950, when games were largely held in the South and Southeast, the 2014 World Cup event will be staged all across the country in 12 different cities: Belo Horizonte, Brasília, Cuiabá, Curitiba, Fortaleza, Manaus, Natal, Porto Alegre, Recife, Rio de Janeiro, Salvador and São Paulo. Normally host nations hold the event in only eight to 10 cities, but because of Brazil’s great size and its number of significant cities, FIFA granted an exemption.

To prepare for the event, Brazil has invested more than US$12 billion in the event. Huge sums were earmarked for stadium construction and remodeling, along infrastructure projects, including upgrading ports, highways and 10 of the host cities’ airports (most importantly Rio’s and São Paulo’s) to cope with the huge influx of fans – an estimated 500,000 visitors.

Rio for its part will play a starring role in the 2014 World Cup, hosting both the opening match and the final; it will play an even bigger role two years later when it hosts the Summer Olympics.

Princesa Isabel: Liberator of Slaves

Princesa Isabel's parents didn't leave much space on their daughter's birth certificate. Born at the Palácio de São Cristóvão to Pedro II and Teresina Cristina on July 29, 1846, she found herself the proud owner of no less than 10 names. Isabel Cristina Leopoldina Augusta Micaela Gabriela Rafaela Gonzaga de Bragança e Bourbon. She's better known today, however, by this memorable title: the liberator of slaves.

For over 300 years Brazilian society had been defined by the slave trade. Keen to cover their tracks, slave traders destroyed many documents relating to their line of work. But it is believed that around 3.6 million slaves were shipped from Africa to Brazil between 1550 and 1888, used as free labor for the sugar (and later coffee) plantations.

The first real steps toward abolition came in 1826 when the English, having themselves banned slavery in 1807, forced Brazil to outlaw slave-trafficking. Yet over the following decades the numbers of slaves entering Brazil only rose. A series of equally ineffective laws proceeded, of which – as is often the case in Brazil – not a single one 'pegou' (caught on).

On May 13, 1888, after nearly 80 years of prevarication and crossed words with the pro-abolition English, Isabel put pen to paper on the document that would define her life – the Lei Aurea. The document contained less than 200 words but its implications were huge. 'Slavery,' it pointed out, 'is now extinct in Brazil.'

Increasingly, however, historians look at her actions with cynicism. Abolition eradicated an unquestionable evil from Brazilian society, yet in many ways it posed more questions than it answered. What, for example, would Brazil's 800,000 freed slaves, largely illiterate, unskilled and unemployed, now do to support themselves?

Isabel seems not to have anticipated this particular question. Thousands of ex-slaves were cast out onto the streets without any kind of infrastructure to support them. Many died, while others flooded to Brazil's urban centers, adding to the city's first favelas.

Rio's world-famous Mangueira samba school marked the centenary year of the Lei Aurea with a scathing critique of the law, entitled '100 years of freedom, reality or illusion?' 'Could it be that the Lei Aurea so dreamt about, signed so long ago, was not the end of slavery?' it asked.

A visit to the impoverished Mangueira favela in Rio's North Zone, in which many of the inhabitants are paid miserable wages to work as porters and maids for the city's better off, shows the answer is a resounding yes. As the samba points out, Princesa Isabel freed Brazil's blacks from 'the whips of the senzala' but left them stranded 'in the misery of the favela'.

Trouble Ahead

Riding Lula’s coattails, fellow party member Dilma Rousseff was elected Brazil’s first ever female president in 2010. A former Marxist guerilla, Dilma came down on hard on corruption – at least initially. During her first year in office, six of her government ministers lost their positions due to their involvement in corruption scandals. Her second term however, imploded, when high-ranking members of her own party were linked to a massive corruption scandal. Yet even before this came to light, Rousseff's popularity was tanking, owing in part to anger over the obscene amount of money being spent on the 2014 World Cup – money that protestors said would be better spent on health, education and poverty reduction. To make matters worse, the burgeoning Brazilian economy had stalled, with GDP growth averaging a mere 2% per year during her first term, and outright shrinking one year into her second term in 2015.