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.
Brazil’s Top Historical Sites
Brazil has some fascinating places to delve into history, from the 11,000-year-old rock paintings at Monte Alegre in the Amazon to the 1960s-era futurism of Brasília. Rio is packed with heritage sites, while other top destinations lie scattered around the country.
- Museu Imperial, Petrópolis The stunning summer palace of Dom Pedro II in Petrópolis, and the cool mountain retreat of the Portuguese royal court.
- Minas de Passagem, near Ouro Prêto Descend into an early-1700s-era mine where black slaves worked and died.
- Igreja de Santa Efigênia dos Pretos, Ouro Prêto An 18th-century church built by and for slaves, who prayed to black saints that they wouldn’t die in the nearby mines.
- Museu Amazônico Manaus Fascinating collection devoted to the indigenous of the Amazon, including works from archaeological studies in the state.
- São Miguel das Missões, Rio Grando do Sul The Unesco World Heritage site is home to the mystical ruins of an 18th-century Jesuit settlement.
- Basílica do Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, Congonhas The magnificent sculptural masterpiece created in 1800 by Aleijadinho, a great artist and sufferer of leprosy.
- Forte Defensor Perpétuo, Paraty A weathered 1703 fort built to defend the town of Paraty from pirates.
- Museu Histórico da Imigração Japonesa, São Paulo A fine place to discover the early history of São Paulo’s countless Japanese immigrants.
- Vale dos Vinhedos, near Bento Gonçalves Germans and later Italians left deep roots here, in the heart of Brazil’s wine-growing region.
- Museu Afro-Brasileiro, Salvador An excellent place to connect to the centuries of Afro-Brazilian heritage that have so deeply enriched the country.
- Teatro Amazonas, Manaus The lavish 1896 opera house is a symbol of the great wealth of the Amazon’s rubber barons.
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, speaking an estimated 1000 languages, 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.
In a letter back to the Portuguese king, scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha described a group of around two dozen men who were brown-skinned, not wearing any clothes and carrying 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 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 – cultural, physical, territorial and biological – was waged on the indigenous way of life. Many indigenous fell victim to the bandeirantes – groups of roaming raiders who spent the 17th and 18th centuries exploring Brazil’s interior, pillaging indigenous 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 indigenous people already living in Brazil, in over 1000 different tribes. Five centuries later there are an estimated 700,000 indigenous left, living in a little over 200 tribes. Slavery, disease, armed conflict and loss of territory all took a savage toll on Brazil’s native peoples, to the point where in the 1980s indigenous 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 indigenous 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 indigenous (and almost all of the existing Indigenous Lands).
Most of Brazil’s indigenous 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.
Dividing the Land
Thirty years after Brazil’s ‘discovery,’ Portugal’s King João III decided it might actually be worth settling there after all. The first colonial settlement sprang up at São Vicente, in 1531, when a fleet of five ships carrying some 400 men docked near what is now the port of Santos.
In an attempt to ward off the ambitions of other European countries, the king divided the Brazilian coast into 14 captaincies, each with about 250km of coastline and also lands stretching inland to the west. These territories were awarded to donatários, minor gentry favored by the king. It was hoped that the long coastline could be secured at minimal cost.
The climate, resistance from the indigenous population and competition from the Dutch and French changed these plans, however. Four captaincies were never established and four destroyed by indigenous groups. Only Pernambuco and São Vicente were profitable.
In 1549 the king sent Tomé de Sousa to be the first governor of Brazil, to centralize authority and save the few remaining captaincies. Sousa was joined by some 1000 settlers; among them Portuguese officials, soldiers, exiled prisoners, New Christians (converted Jews) and the first six Jesuit priests. The city of Salvador was founded as Sousa’s base, and remained Brazil’s capital until 1763, when Rio de Janeiro took over.
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. But after colonization in 1531, the colonists 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.
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 indigenous people. 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 monthlong journey to Brazil.
Masters & Slaves
For those who survived the ordeal of the journey, 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.
The sexual exploitation of slaves by white colonists was so common that a large mixed-race population soon emerged. Off the plantations there was a shortage of white women, so many poorer white colonists lived with black or indigenous women.
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. Enslaved peoples also built their own churches. Places like the Igreja NS do Rosário dos Pretos in Salvador served as the epicenter for their 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.
It’s hard to picture what Brazil would have been like under French or Dutch rule. Tom Jobim might have composed a track about the Meisje from Ipanema; Brazilians might be tucking into frogs’ legs and not feijoada (bean-and-meat stew) every Sunday. For a time, such outcomes were a distinct possibility.
Technically, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World between Spain and Portugal. An imaginary line, running north–south from roughly the mouth of the Amazon to what is now Santa Catarina, was drawn on the map. Land to the east became Portuguese territory; land to the west fell under Spanish control.
But the line proved very imaginary indeed. As any traveler brave enough to venture into the further reaches of Mato Grosso will discover, enforcing such a vast border running through thick jungles and swamps was never a particularly viable idea. Brazil’s borders remained in flux until as late as 1930.
Over the years, Portugal repeatedly ignored the frontier in an attempt to squeeze more land out of its rivals. France and Holland also had their eyes on Brazil’s green and lucrative land.
In 1555 three boatloads of French colonists landed on a small island in Rio’s Baía de Guanabara. Obviously liking what they found, the French decided to try to incorporate parts of southern Brazil into their ever-growing empire. Antarctic France would be its name.
Things didn’t go to plan – a few years later the franceses were expelled by the Portuguese, who landed near Praia Vermelha, at the foot of Sugarloaf mountain. It was here that Estácio de Sá founded the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro on March 1, 1565.
The French made another brief attempt to claw Brazilian soil from the Portuguese, further north, in 1612, when they founded the city of São Luís, which took its name from France’s then king, Louis XIII. Three years later, the Portuguese sent the French packing once again.
The challenge from Holland proved harder to shake off. The Dutch West India Company (DWIC), set up in 1621, was much more than a simple trading business. Its business, in fact, was war, and its goal was to take Brazil’s Northeast from the Portuguese.
The Dutch bombardment of Salvador began on the morning of May 9, 1624. By the following day, the invading force of 3000 men from 26 ships had captured and ransacked the city. Salvador’s return to Portuguese hands was almost as quick; it was just a year before a combined force of 12,000 Spanish and Portuguese troops evicted the Dutch. But five years later the Dutch were back, storming the cities of Olinda and Recife and making Recife the capital of New Holland. In 1637 a Dutch prince, Maurice of Nassau, was brought in to govern the colony. Educated at university back home in, among other things, good manners, Nassau was a definite hit with the locals. His policy of freedom of worship, which left Brazil’s Catholics to their own devices despite the Protestant invasion, brought a definite stability to the region.
The Dutch extended their control over much of Northeastern Brazil, from the São Francisco river in Bahia to Maranhão. That Brazilians didn’t go on to become Dutch speakers is largely down to the exit of Nassau, who returned to Holland in 1644 after a series of disagreements with the boys from the DWIC. New Holland had hardly waved its ruler goodbye when violent uprisings broke out, designed to uproot the Dutch. The following decade saw a series of bloody clashes in the Northeast: two crucial battles, in which the Portuguese came out victorious even though outnumbered, took place in 1648 and 1649. The Dutch were driven back into Recife and eventually surrendered in 1654, drawing a line under Holland’s part in Brazilian history.
The Bandeirantes & the Gold Rush
The bandeirantes, too, were keen to make inroads into Brazil. These bands of raiders roamed Brazil’s interior in search of indigenous slaves, mapping out 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 marauders 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 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 indigenous people fled inland, searching for shelter from the raiders in the Jesuit missions. But there were few hiding places – it is thought the bandeirantes killed or enslaved well in excess of 500,000 people.
In 1500, Pero Vaz de Caminha wrote to his king, describing the uncertainties of wealth in the interior, and the possibility that there might be gold, silver or another type of valuable material.
Though it wasn’t discovered until nearly two centuries later, there certainly was gold in Brazil. Unsurprisingly, it was the bandeirantes who discovered it in the 1690s 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 colonists 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 — the vast majority arriving from Portugal. 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.
As if the French and the Dutch hadn’t been enough to deal with, Brazil’s Portuguese rulers also faced threats from within their own Portuguese population. During the 18th century calls for independence grew ever stronger and in 1789 the first organized movement came to life.
In charge was Joaquim José da Silva Xavier – a dentist from Ouro Prêto known as Tiradentes (Tooth Puller). With 11 other conspirators – all outraged by attempts to collect taxes – Tiradentes began talks about how best to uproot the Portuguese.
Though the plotters earned themselves a grand name – the Inconfidência Mineira – their plans were quickly foiled. All 12 were arrested and sentenced to death and, although a royal pardon was eventually issued, exiling the rebels to Angola and Mozambique, it came too late for Tiradentes, who was hanged in Rio de Janeiro in 1792. As a warning to other would-be rebels the authorities sliced up his body and displayed the parts across Minas Gerais. His head was put on show in Ouro Prêto, his house destroyed and salt scattered on the ground outside so that nothing would grow there. According to one version of events, soldiers formally recorded the event on a manuscript – using Tiradentes’ blood as ink.
Tiradentes became a national martyr – a symbol of resistance – and during the later Vargas era, a museum in his honor was opened in Ouro Prêto’s old town hall. The violent punishment meted out to Tiradentes and fellow conspirators instilled fear in the population, and quelled any further attempts at rebellion in the subsequent decades.
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 (the first organized movement toward independence, organised by Tiradentes and 11 other conspirators to overthrow the Portuguese). 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 (so began the so-called 'Império Brasil', aka 'Brazilian Empire'), 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 of about half a million 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. In 1880, the noted abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco wrote about the grave injustices woven into Brazilian society.
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. Such laws repeatedly 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, the black community overall experiences higher poverty and lack of access to educational resources.
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.
Full of Beans
The first coffee bean found its way into Brazil in the 18th century. The responsible party was, they say, an army officer called Francisco de Mello Palheta, who had journeyed to French Guiana and came back brandishing a handful of coffee beans – a gift from a lover he had left behind. On arrival back in Brazil, the beans were swiftly planted, thus beginning another Brazilian love-hate affair – with café.
Whatever the truth, the coffee industry eventually grew into a huge success. By 1889 coffee accounted for two-thirds of Brazil’s exports.
Coffee growers filled the gap left in Brazil’s export market by the decline of its sugar industry since the 1820s. Unable to compete with the newly mechanized sugar mills in the West Indies, sugar exports plummeted. Coffee, meanwhile, flourished, and coffee plantations soon took up vast tracts of land in São Paulo and Minas Gerais states.
Although coffee was the making of many millionaires in the southern states, it was also the cause of great suffering. The coffee fazendas (ranches) in many ways replicated the Northeastern sugar plantations: slaves worked inhuman hours in cramped and fetid conditions. In Rio many such estates have now opened their doors to the public, and provide a chilling insight into Brazilian escravidão (slavery). After abolition in 1888, the workforce changed, but the conditions did not.
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 (farms), 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.
Toward the end of the 19th century the Amazon region was the scene of another Brazilian economic boom: that of the Hevea brasiliensis, the rubber tree.
Demand for rubber rocketed in 1890 with the invention of the pneumatic tire and the start of the automobile industry in the US. The rubber price shot up, bringing huge wealth to the main Amazonian cities of Belém and Manaus. Manaus’ spectacular opera house, the Teatro Amazonas, opened in 1896, was one fruit of the rubber boom. Rubber production reached its peak in 1912, when latex exports made up nearly 40% of Brazil’s export revenue.
As with all booms, the bust had to come. The British may have given Brazil one of its greatest gifts in football, but they also stole one of Brazil’s greatest assets. In 1876 Englishman Henry Wickham had smuggled 70,000 rubber-tree seeds out of Amazonia on a chartered freighter to Kew Gardens in London. Seedlings quickly found their way to the British colonies in Southeast Asia, where large rubber plantations were established. When the plantations started to yield in 1910, the price of latex plummeted on the world market. The Brazilian rubber boom blew out in spectacular fashion.
Milk & Coffee Politics
On November 15, 1894, Prudente de Morais became Brazil’s first directly elected civil president. At this time Brazil was dominated by land-owning families from two states: Minas Gerais and São Paulo. These groups controlled national politics, and Brazil’s presidents came almost without exception from these states of milk and coffee respectively. Each state was dominated by a series of rural landowners known as coronéis (colonels), who controlled the local political, judicial and police systems through friends and family in all the important public posts.
Such political bias was reflected in the electoral system. Ballots were not secret and those who voted against the ruling powers suffered reprisals. Fraud was common: many people would vote more than once and, from time to time, even the dead found the power to vote.
Disillusioned with the dominance of this wealthy few, a new movement among the military, known as tenentismo, began to form in opposition to the small oligarchies of Minas and São Paulo.
The world-famous Copacabana Beach was the scene of the first rebellion. On July 5, 1922, 18 tenants set out from the fort of Copacabana and clashed with government troops. Just two of the tenentes – Eduardo Gomes and Siqueira Campos – survived, the latter giving his name to the metro station a few blocks from the beach.
For another eight years Brazil’s coffee farmers continued to enjoy the status of political untouchables, but the Wall St bust of 1929 changed everything. The coffee market all but dried up, prices plummeted and many of Brazil’s powerful coffee farmers were left ruined. The economic and political upheaval soon translated into revolution.
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.
Hey Big Spender!
Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira was elected president in 1956. ‘Fifty years’ progress in five’ had been his election promise. His critics responded with ‘Forty years’ inflation in four.’ Sadly for JK, the second assessment came closer to the mark, despite an 80% increase in industrial production during his term.
Kubitschek’s lasting legacy was the building of Brasília, Brazil’s love-it-or-hate-it capital, located slap bang in the center of the country as a symbol of national unity and a catalyst for the development of the interior. Though the construction of such a city was written into the 1891 constitution, it was Kubitschek who, quite literally, made the idea concrete. The windswept, shadeless streets of Brasília were inaugurated with much fanfare on April 21, 1960.
As if Kubitschek hadn’t made enough enemies by taking the honor of capital city from the ‘Marvelous City’ of Rio de Janeiro, his successor, Jânio Quadros, went one step further. He tried to outlaw bikinis on Brazil’s beaches, a serious affront to Brazilian popular culture. Quadros also made the even worse mistake of irritating the military by decorating Che Guevara in a public ceremony in Brasília. This triggered plots among the right-wing military and after seven months in office Quadros resigned, claiming ‘occult forces’ were at work.
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 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 a year and a half 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 charismatic Luíz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva, who famously lost one dedo (finger) in a factory accident.
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; that didn't stop him from running for president again in an unsuccessful bid in 2018.
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 Franco's 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 standing, 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 farmworker 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 antipoverty measures, and helped millions to 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 had long been a dream of the football-crazed nation, when in 2007 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), became 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 was 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.
To prepare for the event, Brazil spent more than US$15 billion. Huge sums were earmarked for stadium construction and remodeling, along with 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. Protests broke out across Brazil in anger over the excessive sums of money being spent – money that could be better use on jobs, education on healthcare services.
Riding Lula’s coattails, fellow party member Dilma Rousseff was elected Brazil’s first female president in 2010. A former Marxist guerilla, Dilma came down 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 FIFA World Cup – money that protestors said would be better spent on health, education and poverty reduction. To make matters worse, the burgeoning Brazilian economy stalled, with GDP growth averaging a mere 2% per year during her first term, and outright shrinking in her second term (by a staggering 3.6% in 2016).
With huge protests rocking the country, and the country in the grip of its largest recession in history, Rousseff was headed for a fall, and in 2016 she was impeached and removed from office for budgetary violations. Her vice-president, Michel Temer, took over. He too, however, proved unable to curb Brazil's grave problems: its surging unemployment, weakening currency and high crime rates rocking cities across the country – not to mention the endless scourge of corruption (Temer was also under investigation for accepting bribes and money laundering). Presidential elections were held in 2018, bringing a host of unlikely candidates to the fore.
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, but what 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 black Brazilians from 'the whips of the senzala' but left them stranded 'in the misery of the favela'.