In 1549 Tomé de Souza landed on Praia Porto da Barra under Portuguese royal orders to found Brazil’s first capital, bringing city plans, a statue, 400 soldiers and 400 settlers, including priests and prostitutes. He founded the city in a defensive location: on a cliff top facing the sea. After the first year a city of mud and straw had been erected, and by 1550 the surrounding walls were in place to protect against attacks from the indigenous people that lived in the area prior to the Europeans' arrival. Salvador da Bahia remained Brazil’s most important city for the next three centuries.
During its early years, the city depended upon the export of sugarcane and later tobacco from the fertile Recôncavo region at the northern end of Baía de Todos os Santos. Later, cattle ranching was introduced, which, coupled with gold and diamonds from the Bahian interior, provided Salvador with immense wealth, as is visible in the city’s opulent baroque architecture.
African slaves were first brought to Salvador in the mid-1500s, and in 1587 historian Gabriel Soares tallied an estimated 12,000 whites, 8000 converted indigenous people and 4000 black slaves. The number of blacks eventually increased to constitute half of the city’s population, and uprisings of blacks almost upended Salvador’s slavery-reliant economy multiple times.
After Lisbon, Salvador was the most important city in the Portuguese empire. It was the glory of colonial Brazil, famed for its many gold-filled churches, beautiful mansions and numerous festivals. It was also renowned as early as the 17th century for its bawdy public life, sensuality and decadence – so much so that its bay won the nickname Baía de Todos os Santos e de Quase Todos os Pecados (Bay of All Saints and of Nearly All Sins)!
Salvador remained Brazil’s seat of colonial government until 1763, when with the decline of the sugarcane industry, the capital was moved to Rio.
In 1798, the city was the stage for the Conjuração dos Alfaiates (Conspiracy of the Tailors), the beginning of a wave of battles between Portuguese loyalists and those wanting independence. It was only on July 2, 1823, with the defeat of Portuguese troops in Cabrito and Pirajá, that the city found peace. At that time, Salvador numbered 45,000 inhabitants and was the commercial center of a vast territory.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries the city stagnated as the agricultural economy foundered on its disorganized labor and production. Today, Salvador is Brazil’s third-largest city, and it has only begun moving forward in the last few decades. New industries such as petroleum, chemicals and tourism have brought wealth to the city’s coffers, but the rapidly increasing population is still faced with major economic and social problems.