The historical maps show the evolution and territorial expansion of Brazil and the Western Hemisphere from the discovery to the independence of Brazil.
Learn about the historical facts that made Brazil emerge from a continental archipelago.
When Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on the coast of the land that would become Brazil, on 22 April 1500, his goal was not to conquer new lands – the essential goal of the Portuguese Crown was then the control of the eastern spice route.
In order to consolidate the Portuguese settlement in this colony, it was necessary to face the threat of new rivals, the French adventurers, navigators mainly from Normandy, who established trading posts and concluded alliances with the indigenous people.
This rivalry led the Crown to undertake a policy of systematic colonisation and was one of the reasons for the creation of the “hereditary captaincies” in 1532.
By assigning vast portions of the new colony to Portuguese nobles, the king hoped that they would be able to confirm by 1559 his sovereignty, the scope of which was limited, over a few points of coastal settlement between Itamaracá (north of the present-day city of Recife) and São Vicente (São Paulo).
It was in this context that risky attempts at colonisation by France and the Netherlands took place, until the latter turned to the Antilles and transformed them into the “sugar islands”, thus largely causing the crisis of the Brazilian sugar economy.
The continent was then much less interesting, and the new colonial powers, France, Holland and England, were satisfied with the Guianas.
It was therefore thanks more to the disinterest of its rivals than to its own energy that Portugal was able to consolidate a vast continental empire.
One cannot underestimate a famous period in colonial history, the bandeiras, those expeditions launched across the continent, with the distant blessing of the Crown, which contributed greatly to extending Portuguese rule.
Their main focus was a settlement born around a college founded by the Jesuits. São Paulo.
From this village, where more Tupi than Portuguese was spoken, expeditions set out, made up of a handful of whites grouped around a flag, a few dozen mestizos and, above all, allied Indians, who knew the old trails and the natural resources that could be used along the way better than the Portuguese.
Favoured by the topography, since the tributaries of the Paraná led them inland, these expeditions lasted for years, during which the bandeirantes travelled hundreds of kilometres, sometimes stopping to plant corn or manioc… and wait for the harvest.
From the tributaries of the left bank of the Paraná, these long-distance expeditions travelled south to the Rio de la Plata, west up the tributaries of the right bank, or north via the Amazon network.
The reason for these adventures was obviously the hope of profit, because they wanted to capture Indians for the sugar cane plantations on the coast. The bandeirantes soon came into conflict with Portuguese Jesuits and, above all, the Spanish, because the mission villages where they tried to gather and catechise the Indians were tempting prey.
Later, they turned to prospecting for precious metals and stones, discovering the gold deposits of Minas Gerais at the end of the 18th century, followed by those of Goiás in 1718 and Mato Grosso in 1725.
However, other reasons must be considered, such as the taste for war and violence. So much so that in the conflicts against the Indians in the interior of the Northeast, as well as in the war against the Dutch, the Paulistas were present, volunteers or summoned. Finally, there was the taste for adventure and exploration.
How can we understand without it these endless and dangerous wanderings in totally unknown territories?
The bandeiras played a fundamental role in the expansion of Portuguese rule and contributed greatly to giving the country, which was born in 1822, an extension close to that of today.
Without them, the successes of the Portuguese diplomats who obtained de jure et facto recognition of the occupation would obviously not have been possible.
The battle, however, was not yet fully won, for this immense country remained fragile and was at risk if royal authority weakened. Napoleon I was one of the – unwitting – artisans of Brazilian unity at a time when the Spanish empire was breaking up.
The decision taken by the Portuguese Court to take refuge in Brazil to escape the threat of Napoleonic armies is one of the great “bifurcations” between the fate of Brazil and that of Latin America.
At the same time, the King of Spain chose to remain, which contributed to the division of his empire.
Had Dom João VI decided differently, one can imagine, given the natural diversity of Brazilian territory and the great variety of economic cells created between 1500 and 1808, that this space could have given rise to a series of Lusophone countries of a size and originality largely comparable to the old subdivisions of the Spanish empire.
In Salvador and Recife, in the cities of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, groups were ready to do as their counterparts in Lima, Mexico City, Quito and Bogotá had done.
However, the established imperial power had diplomatic power vis-à-vis England and military power vis-à-vis the separatist and abolitionist movements that broke out to maintain slavery in the unity of the new country for longer.
The “slavery weld” was of interest to the regional oligarchies who, alone and in the formation of new countries, possibly republican, would not be able to maintain the lucrative and repugnant practice of enslaving people.
The Brazil that was born with Independence, proclaimed on 7 September 1822, had everything to surprise an outside observer; indeed, foreign travellers expressed their admiration for this paradox: an immense country with marked economic and human diversity, but which at the same time maintained a profound political unity.
Yet despite this unity, and as massive and immense as it is, Brazil has long functioned (and still does, in many ways) as an archipelago.
Its economic history, for more than four centuries, has consisted, as Celso Furtado has shown, of a series of economic cycles, a succession of major productions that successively formed the bulk of its exports: sugar in the 17th century, gold at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, coffee in the 19th and 20th centuries, rubber at the beginning of the 20th century.
The formation of the Brazilian archipelago is due to this succession of speculations, because each of them affected a different region of the country: sugar, the Northeast; gold, Minas Gerais; coffee, the Southeast; rubber, the Amazon.
Each one left its mark, allowing the settlement of regions that had hitherto been almost empty, giving a style to social relations and the organisation of space in these regions.
The consequences of the formation by cycles do not end with this heterogeneity, but imply a certain functioning of the entire national territory. Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, independent Brazil remained a collection of juxtaposed agro-export cells, a mosaic of quasi-autonomous regions formed at the height of these cycles.
Each cell centred on the production of one type of export, drained by a network of transport routes to a seaport, was in turn made up of smaller productive cells formed by large farms or plantations.
One can literally speak of a Brazilian archipelago economy, since these cells communicated only by cabotage along the coast.
This was proven when Brazil joined the Allies in the Second World War: a few German submarines were enough to cut off any link between Rio de Janeiro and Salvador, and therefore between the north and south of the country, since there was no internal route, apart from the precarious São Francisco waterway.
However, the history of the formation of the territory is not limited to these cycles. Understanding it presupposes taking into account several other factors, such as the dynamism of the bandeirantes, the efforts of the missionaries, the patient expansion of the cattle ranchers and the tenacious political and administrative will of the Portuguese Crown.
The foundations – the 16th and 17th centuries The country’s first serious economic base was sugar production. The climate and soils proved to be excellent, and the Portuguese thus found the great export product that justified and allowed a solid occupation.
The demand for this rare, light and easily stored product was intense. In fact, in the first half of the 17th century, Brazil became the world’s leading sugar producer.
The consequences of this expansion were manifold. Firstly, it was necessary to import enslaved Africans in order to cultivate sugar cane: the first arrived in 1532, and the trade continued for three centuries, until Britain enforced its ban in 1842. Starting in the Gulf of Guinea, and then Angola and Mozambique, millions of Africans were moved to work on Brazil’s plantations.
On another scale, the sugar cycle generated secondary cycles that marked other spaces. In order to pay for slaves, the Portuguese settlers in Brazil needed a commodity of exchange.
This was not the classic “triangular trade” with products from the metropolis, but direct exchange, with payment in tobacco: the Recôncavo Baiano, a region near Salvador, specialised in this production.
It was also necessary to produce food for the slaves. In the sugar region, no one wanted to waste time or space for food production and also raise oxen to drive the mills that crushed the cane.
These needs led to the creation of specialised zones: food crops in the agreste (the transition zone to the dry interior) and extensive cattle breeding in the sertão.
In this vast semi-arid zone, agricultural production was impossible, and cattle breeding made it possible to conquer it by travelling up the rivers, notably the São Francisco.
The formation of a northeastern complex, whose features have survived unchanged by any subsequent cycle, dates from this period and this economic cycle.
The first basis of the economy was therefore sugar, and the unity of Brazil owed much to the political control of the territory exercised by the Crown. However, its expansion was thanks to its explorers and its cattle ranchers.
The task of actually extending the territory, of occupying it, of tracing certain and lasting routes, was the task of the cattle ranchers. There was a fulminant conquest, a veritable territorial explosion, whose consolidation and valorisation came thanks to their patient efforts to establish roads, farms and inns. Present since the sugar era, the cattle ranchers had occupied the semi-arid forest of the sertão, raising oxen to supply the plantations of the coast with dried meat, leather and the animals needed to turn the mills of the mills.
The gold mines also needed them, and the expansion of cattle breeding continued inland, to the north and south.
Cattle ranchers, who had already occupied the upper São Francisco before the discovery of gold, strengthened their presence because the mines were new markets. This cattle breeding, supported by the established roads and markets, gave a decisive impetus to the extension of Portuguese rule to the south against the Spanish.
It was therefore livestock farming, rather than gold, that helped expand the Brazilian territory, so much so that it lasted after the collapse of the gold rush, creating roads and stable support points: the ranches were fixed, lasting establishments, useful supports in these immense expanses.
From there, cattle travelled to the coast along fixed paths from river to river, the “boiadeiras” (cattle roads), comparable to the trails of the American West.
Along these tracks, which laid down the layout of today’s roads, villages offered stages, pastures for resting or fattening and periodic fairs.
Many of them became large cities, such as Feira de Santana (Bahia) or Campina Grande (Paraíba). A world without slaves, violent but more egalitarian than the world of plantations and mines, the world of cattle breeding extended the sugar and gold zones – a mobile but organised frontier where the pioneering spirit of the bandeirantes was maintained, consolidating and homogenising the space they had conquered.
Expansion and consolidation – 18th and 19th centuries
However, the immense Amazon basin had yet to be conquered to give the country its current size, and this was done from the end of the 18th century onwards. The Portuguese Crown had taken possession of the mouth of the Amazon in response to the threat of foreign corsairs.
Then there was a double movement, that of the military and the Jesuits, both of whom set up their establishments, forts or missions further and further upriver.
They were both anxious to advance as quickly as possible, because at the same time other soldiers and other missionaries were also making progress in the Amazon basin – the emissaries of the King of Spain.
Thanks to this dispute, which continued even when the crowns of Spain and Portugal had united (Iberian Union: 1580 -1640), progress was rapid, despite meagre resources.
The fort of Manaus was founded in 1669, and missions spread along the entire river from the mid-17th century onwards. When the Jesuits were expelled in 1661, the conquest was practically complete.
In the 18th century, the movement expanded, progressing along the tributaries.
Economic exploitation was limited to hunting and the extraction of certain plants, roots, rubber and resins, and dreams of wealth, fuelled by recurring myths (Lake Pari-ma, the Eldorado), never materialised.
The driving force behind the conquest was the desire of the Portuguese, agents of the Crown and the Church, to extend their dominion.
Two factors favoured this ambition. On the one hand, it was easier to advance upstream, benefiting from the free navigation of the Amazon basin, while in Spanish domains the Andes mountain range constituted a formidable obstacle.
On the other hand, Spanish resistance was weak and discontinuous, because the Amazon had little weight in an empire based mainly on the populations and mines of Peru and Mexico, whose lines of communication passed more through the Caribbean and the River Plate than through this remote and uncomfortable river.
In 1750, in the Treaty of Madrid, which defined and delimited the Spanish and Portuguese empires in certain areas. The territorial expansion since Tordesillas is notorious.
The 19th and early 20th centuries were marked by the latest “cycles”, which undoubtedly contributed most to shaping the territory.
The shortest was the rubber boom. World demand for tyres grew very quickly with the development of the motor car, and a whole system was set up to satisfy it.
At the top were the import-export houses of Belém and Manaus, and at the bottom were the rubber tappers.
Most of them came from the north-east, less attracted by rubber than driven out by the terrible drought that devastated the sertão from 1877 onwards.
More than a million northeasterners thus came to settle in the Amazon, and many stayed after the collapse of the rubber system. This was proof that the Brazilian population had reached its critical mass and was already large enough to feed internal currents from the more consolidated regions to the new lands, without relying entirely on immigration.
From 1910 onwards – when the Amazon was producing 80% of the world’s rubber – the English and Dutch plantations of South-East Asia reached maturity, and their production was more regular and less expensive than Amazonian extraction.
During this short period, the Brazilian Amazon was explored and expanded, and the pioneering advances were made official by treaties with most of the neighbouring countries, such as the one of 1903, which allowed the annexation of Acre.
It was also populated: its population rose from 300,000 to 1,500,000 between 1872 and 1920. Deprived of rubber resources, it fell into lethargy, which it only emerged from in the early 1970s.
In the same period, the coffee boom transformed the south of the country and ensured its economic take-off.
Introduced to Brazil in the 18th century, coffee developed magnificently.
At a time when world demand for the new beverage was increasing, the country could offer climates and soils well suited to the requirements of this delicate plant, thus finding the new resource it lacked to boost the economy again.
This new crop could also utilise the old systems, those of sugar cane, and initially did not cause any change in structure. The coffee plantations, originally near Rio de Janeiro, gradually spread to Minas Gerais and, especially through the Paraíba do Sul valley, to São Paulo.
Coffee found its favourite land in the western highlands, where, under intact forests, fertile soils, the famous terra roxa, the earth reddened by the decomposition of basalt, extended.
However, the coffee cycle was not a late, southern replica of the sugar cycle.
The plantation slave system, dominated by the casa-grande, was already an unbearable anachronism in the 19th century.
Externally, Britain, for various reasons, some noble and others not so noble, was leading the campaign for the abolition of slavery and imposing a ban on trafficking on all seas.
It was also unbearable internally, for the intellectual elites, whose point of view, supported by humanitarian and practical considerations, ended up influencing the emperor’s decision.
The fall of the Empire followed the abolition of slavery, proclaimed in 1888, and this not fortuitous conjunction marked Brazil’s entry into a new era on all levels.
Coffee growing was initially disrupted by the end of slavery, but the answer was quickly found: the poorly qualified and obviously unmotivated slave labour force was replaced by a salaried or contract labour force made up essentially of Europeans, whose immigration was organised and partly funded by the farmers and the São Paulo government.
This sudden influx of population made it possible to extend the plantations and, in a short time, the whole system was organised around the railway, which made it possible to advance the deforestation front and export coffee.
A network of regularly spaced towns was built on the spikes of the western plateaus.
This new economic cycle profoundly altered the country’s structures. Like the previous cycles, it dominated the national economy almost exclusively, shaped a new region, and then began to decline.
However, new factors had been introduced which would allow the development process to continue on other bases, and the former coffee region is now notable for many other activities which ensure it an overwhelming supremacy in the Brazilian economy.
This long succession of cycles has left the country deeply marked in its regional structure and in its style of development.
Traces of the cycles are still clearly visible in the Brazilian archipelago, as the shift in the centre of gravity has left behind three types of regions. Those that are just ruins of previous cycles, those that were able to survive their end and, finally, those in which dynamic activities, resources and power are accumulated.
The regional imbalances that are so evident in Brazil are largely products of this contrasted history.
The current organisation of Brazilian space therefore incorporates the legacies of its economic history, the genesis of its economy and society.
After the coffee cycle, the Southeast benefited from the accumulated conditions that were fundamental for the industrial development that changed the rhythm of Brazilian economic history.
Historical maps showing the territorial evolution of the Western Hemisphere and Brazil from 1550 to 1888.