Historical Setting

Brazil Table of Contents

EXPORTS, SLAVERY, AND PATRIARCHY have been the three constants of Brazilian history. The export orientation of the colonial economy shaped Brazil's society. Even the name "Brazil," like the country itself, is suggestive of commerce and the pursuit of wealth. Brazil's name derives from the brazilwood trees from which Europeans sought in the sixteenth century to make valuable red dyes. However, the central fact of the country's history was the exploitation of cheap labor, first as slaves, then as wage-earners. Indeed, Brazil's history is the story not only of conquest but also of the enslavement of its native peoples and of millions of imported African slaves.

Brazil's history can be divided into five economic periods, each characterized by a dominant export product. The first period, from 1500 to 1550, involved the logging of brazilwood along the coast of the Northeast (Nordeste). Brazilwood was the source of a red dye important to the expanding textile industry of sixteenth-century northern Europe, particularly Normandy and Flanders. The trees and the ready labor of the natives, who were eager to acquire metal products in return for cutting and hauling logs to the coast, attracted Portuguese and French ships. The French were quite successful because they sent young men to reside among the natives, to learn their languages, and to get them to bring the timber to the nearest bay or estuary. By contrast, the Portuguese, in the first few decades, traded from their ships or haphazard outposts. The Portuguese attempted to use the factory system that they were then employing along the African, South Asian, and Asian coasts. This system consisted of fortified trading posts that had minimal contact with the local population. The French, with deeper roots among the native peoples and more knowledge of their cultures, filled their waiting ships more quickly. France's activity convinced the Portuguese crown to undertake sustained settlement to protect its claim.

The Europeans struggled among themselves for control of the beachheads, anchorages, and bays. The Portuguese effort to gain effective control of the coast coincided with the onset of the sugar era, which extended from 1530 to 1650. Sugarcane cultivation was carried out in widely separated tidewater enclaves from São Vicente in the South (Sul--the present-day states of Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul) to Pernambuco in the Northeast; it became most successful around the Bahian Recôncavo and in Pernambuco. Enslaved natives and increasingly, after the 1560s, imported African slaves provided the labor for the mills (engenhos ) and fields.

Sugar tied Brazil into the developing system of European capitalism, imposed a patriarchal social system on the country, and prompted Dutch attacks on Portugal's South Atlantic empire. The sugar economy's need for oxen and meat led to the accompanying growth of cattle raising in the dry interior hinterlands, known as the sertão . Cattle raising became so important to the economy and to the development of the interior as to almost constitute a phase in its own right. However, although cattle raising provided hides for export, it supplied principally local markets. The Dutch seizure of Recife in 1630 and their subsequent capture of Luanda on the Angolan coast, a principal source of slaves imported into Brazil, disrupted the Portuguese dominance over sugar. When the Hollanders (holandeses ) withdrew from Brazil in 1654, they stimulated cane growing on the Caribbean islands and used their control of distribution in Europe to reduce Portuguese access.

The third period--mining of gold and diamonds from the 1690s to the 1750s--carried Portugal's effective occupation of the land far into the interior of what are now the states of Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso. The discoveries of alluvial gold on the Rio das Velhas in about 1693, throughout central Minas Gerais in the next years, and out into Mato Grosso in 1718 and Goiás in 1725, and then the growth of diamond mining along the Rio Jequitinhonha in Minas Gerais after 1730, shifted the colonial center away from the Northeast coast into the interior. Minas Gerais became the new jewel in Portugal's crown, although one that was difficult to keep in place. As more people spread to the distant interior, many of them were living beyond the reach of royal officials. Indeed, one of Brazil's distinctive features has always been the existence of people who live within the boundaries of the country but outside the limits of the society and the controls of the state.

The Northeast and the South were tied to Minas Gerais via the livestock trade. The mineiro (Minas Gerais) towns needed beef, as well as a seemingly endless supply of mules. Without good roads, mule trains became characteristic of the region, which was soon tied together by an extensive web of trails. The cattle came south from ranches along the Rio São Francisco, thereby linking the mines to the Northeast. The mules came from the pampas of Rio Grande do Sul via the market at Sorocaba in São Paulo, tying the South to the mining region. Because Paulistas (residents of the state of São Paulo) made most of the initial gold strikes, São Paulo was connected to all the mining areas. The importance of Minas Gerais and the mines farther inland led the crown to transfer the viceregal capital from Salvador, Bahia, to Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

Gold production declined in the later decades of the eighteenth century, and from about 1820 coffee cultivation provided a fourth period that lasted to the end of the 1920s. It began in the mountains behind Rio de Janeiro, moved along the Rio Paraíba Valley to the west across São Paulo State and out into Paraná. Coffee powered the rise of São Paulo and its port of Santos, and although it gradually took a secondary position to industrialization after the late 1930s, Brazil remained the world's major coffee producer.

The Amazon had an important era of its own from the 1880s to 1919, when it was the world's major source of rubber. The rubber boom drew world attention to the region, prompted Brazil to secure its boundaries, and lured thousands of rubber tappers from the drought-plagued sertão of the Northeast to the forests of Acre. It turned into a bust when the helter-skelter collection of wild rubber lost out to the massive production methods of British, Dutch, and French plantations in Southeast Asia.

The fifth period began in the 1930s with import-substitution industrialization (see Glossary) and extended into the 1990s. Industry's initial and heaviest concentration was in the triangle of São Paulo-Rio de Janeiro-Belo Horizonte. The period was perhaps best symbolized by the steel mills of Volta Redonda, built in 1944, and São Paulo's integrated industrial zone. Industrialization and its parallel urbanization attracted rural migrants from throughout the country, but especially from the drought-plagued Northeast. In the space of a generation after 1940, Brazil leaped from the age of the bull-cart to that of the internal combustion engine, changing the national map in the process.

Before the 1930s, despite the earlier incursions into the interior, Brazil still consisted of a series of enclaves connected by sealanes rather than by railroads or paved highways. Pan American Airway's introduction of the DC-3 on its run from Belém to Rio de Janeiro in 1940 vaulted Brazil directly into the air age. By the 1970s, it had the world's third largest commercial air fleet after the United States and the Soviet Union. The 1950s push to develop an automotive industry was followed in later decades by large-scale construction of long-distance highways, which by the 1980s made it possible to travel to all regions of the country on paved roads. Symbolic of this era was the building of Brazil's third capital at Brasília (1955-60) on the plains of Goiás. The internal combustion engine and the coinciding growth of the petroleum industry also made possible the mechanization of agriculture, which changed rapidly the face of the Brazilian west and made Brazil the second largest exporter of food in the 1980s. The combination of highways and automotive transport opened up Amazônia for the first time. The construction of the highway corridors from Brasília to Belém and from Cuiabá to Porto Velho to Manaus triggered large-scale migration, mining and agricultural development, timbering, land disputes, displacement of native peoples, and massive deforestation. The latter made Brazil's Amazon policies the subject of world debate, which in turn made Brazilians worry about the security of their immense North region (Amazônia).

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress