The history of Brazil developed out of a long and complex period of disputes over national projects marked by strong moments of instability.
Brazilian history does not have a well-defined starting point.
However, traditionally, there is a recurring date for the arrival of the Portuguese with Pedro Álvares Cabral, on April 22, 1500, in the coastal region of what is now Bahia. This was then the “discovery of Brazil”.
However, it should be noted that this was the discovery of the Portuguese. Various ethnic groups already inhabited the territory that became Brazil long before any Europeans landed there.
Brazil is the historical result of several different projects that took place within a specific geographical delimitation. First, it was a project of conquest; then, a project of colonization; in the 19th century, a project of Empire and the constitution of a nation-state; and, finally, a project of Brazil Republic, which is what we are trying to maintain to this day.
Our anthems, flags, coats of arms, emblems, slogans, and everything that reminds us of our national identity, relate to this construction.
To be patriotic is to be a supporter of a nation project, which often diverges from other projects that are also under construction.
Therefore, it would be more accurate to refer to the process of the arrival of the Portuguese as the invention of Brazil, which was followed by different projects.
Historical Periods of Brazil
1. Pre-Cabral Period (~ -1500)
Before the arrival of the Portuguese, there were various ethnic groups occupying the territory that would later be called Brazil.
The Pre-Cabral period refers, as its name suggests, to the history that precedes the contact of these peoples separated by the Atlantic.
For some time, it was common to find the name “Prehistory of Brazil”, which is no longer considered adequate by most historians and anthropologists.
History does not come into existence after the arrival of the Portuguese.
And even if there is an argument that this expression preserves the notion that history concerns written sources, from the mid-20th century to the present day, historiography has developed a great deal with a view to methodologies that analyze other types of sources.
It is estimated that the first peoples began to inhabit the territory that is now Brazil 60,000 years ago.
However, due to this enormous time frame and the absence of any attempt to preserve its beginnings, much of the integrity of this history has been lost.
In this sense, one of the pieces of evidence most worked on by archaeology on Brazilian territory are the sambaquis, which consist of deposits of organic matter and limestone formed by human action and which, over time, have undergone a process of fossilization.
They offer important information about the first populations that inhabited our territory around 2,000 to 8,000 years ago.
With the arrival of the Jesuits in the mid-16th century, a series of “grammatical works” were produced with the aim of standardizing some of the colony’s “difficult languages”.
In this endeavor, valuable knowledge about indigenous languages from the period corresponding to the arrival of the Portuguese in America was catalogued.
It was discovered that there were four main linguistic groups: the Tupi-Guarani, the Caraíba, the Macro-Jê and the Arauaque.
From these linguistic trunks, as they are also called, derive a series of ethnic groups and linguistic variations that give rise to modern indigenous languages.
2. Pre-Colonial Period (1500-1530)
After April 22, 1500, with the arrival of the Portuguese in American territory, these new unknown lands did not immediately arouse great interest in the Crown.
At the time, the Portuguese Empire was focused on trade with the Indies, which was already in decline since the Ottoman Turks seized Constantinople in 1453, putting an end to the Byzantine Empire.
The French, on the other hand, were not long in sending ships to the South Atlantic at the beginning of the 16th century, as they had their eye on these new lands and were questioning the Portuguese-Spanish division determined by the Treaty of Tordesillas.
In 1555, they established a colony in Guanabara Bay, known as Antarctic France.
Portugal, at this early stage, promoted the so-called exploratory expeditions in South American territory with the aim of recognizing and mapping the territory and establishing contact with the native Indians.
The main product extracted from these lands, until then, was a tree native to the Atlantic Forest, which came to be called brazilwood.
It’s interesting to know that the name Brazil comes before the Brazilian land itself.
Since the 14th century, European maps had attributed it, with several possible variants (Bracil, Brazille, Bersil, Braxili etc.), to one or more islands, “expressing a geographical horizon that was still mythical”, according to historian Laura de Mello e Souza. However, on May 1, 1500, in a letter, Pero Vaz de Caminha referred to this land as Vera Cruz.
Later, other names were also used, such as Terra dos Papagaios and Santa Cruz.
At the end of the Pre-Colonial Period, in 1530, when Portugal sent expeditions with the aim of establishing settlers and implementing a colonial administration, the name Estado do Brasil became official. If you want to know more about this period, read: Pre-Colonial Period.
3. Colonial Period (1530-1815)
In 1530, Portugal sent Martim Afonso de Souza as the head of a colonizing expedition. His mission was to fight the French traffickers, who were worrying the Crown, establish some settlements in the coastal region and search for precious metals.
To this end, Afonso de Souza was appointed captain-major, which gave him the role of exercising civil and criminal justice, distributing sesmarias, claiming land on behalf of the king and appointing officials for the colonial administration.
In 1532, the explorer was ordered by King João III to implement the system of hereditary captaincies.
Under this system, the newly discovered territory was divided into 15 lots, which formed 14 captaincies, and the captains were appointed to be responsible for the administration of each one.
The system was implemented in 1534 (Martim Afonso de Souza himself became a grantee of the São Vicente captaincy) and lasted until 1548, when the general government was created with the aim of centralizing the colonial administration of the entire territory.
It was also in the captaincy of São Vicente that Martim Afonso de Souza established, in the middle of the 16th century, the first sugar plantation (which, until the middle of the 17th century, would be the colony’s main export product), thus inaugurating the sugar cycle.
The plantation system was the model used in this type of production.
Large swathes of land were granted to plantation owners who, with the fertility of the land, slave labor and the monoculture of sugar cane, became the main economic, social and political elite from then on.
At first, the Portuguese used indigenous slave labor.
However, with the pressure of the growing slave trade, in the middle of the 16th century, black slavery became the main source of labor, with Brazil receiving around 4.9 million African slaves until the 19th century, when the Eusébio de Queirós Law was enacted in 1850.
The end of the sugar cycle was marked by the Dutch invasion and attempted colonization.
The Dutch managed to establish themselves in 1637, and until 1644, Count Maurício de Nassau ruled the region of Pernambuco, which also began to produce sugar. However, in 1645, with the support of England, the Portuguese fought the Dutch again, in what became known as the Pernambuco insurrection, until, in 1654, they managed to re-establish the city of Olinda as a possession of the Portuguese Crown.
From then on, the Dutch settled in Central America and began to compete with their sugar production, directly damaging the foreign trade of the Portuguese Empire.
As a result, the entrances and flags began to turn their attention to the search for precious metals, until, at the end of the 17th century, significant quantities were found in the region of the captaincy of São Paulo, beginning the gold cycle.
The Colonial Period was also marked by a series of conflicts and revolts, such as nativist rebellions and separatist rebellions.
Particularly from the end of the 17th century, the interests of a growing local elite and the Portuguese began to create problems for the colonial administration.
In addition, the Portuguese Royal Family, under threat of a French invasion of Portugal, fled to Brazil which, in 1815, was designated the Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, with Rio de Janeiro as the seat of the kingdom’s administration. This movement brought the Colonial Period to an end.
From the end of the 18th century, the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese colonies began to gain independence.
The conflicts between the Brazilian Party, the name given to the political group that defended local interests, and the Portuguese became more and more intense, culminating in the process of Brazilian independence in 1822.
To find out more about this period, go to: Brazil Colony.
4. Imperial Period
The Imperial Period runs from 1822, with Brazil’s independence, to 1889, with the proclamation of the Republic, and is divided into three main phases: the
- First Reign (1822-1831)
- Regency Period (1831-1840)
- Second Reign (1840-1889)
However, Brazil had become the Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves since 1815, as a direct consequence of the transfer of the Court to Rio de Janeiro.
Other important measures were taken, such as the opening of the ports to friendly nations in 1808, the foundation of the Bank of Brazil in the same year, the treaties of 1810, the foundation of the Royal Library, the French Artistic Mission in 1816, among other things.
It is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 people set sail for Brazil between November 25 and 27, 1807.
Entire administrative structures were set up on the other side of the Atlantic.
From then on, Brazil underwent major transformations. In politics, for example, there was an emancipationist movement, inspired by Enlightenment ideals, in the captaincy of Pernambuco.
Known as the Revolução Pernambucana, or Revolution of the Fathers, this uprising was strongly repressed by the Kingdom.
These and other conflicts during this period, together with the Liberal Revolution in Porto and the return of the Court to Portugal, were decisive for the process of Brazilian independence, which Portugal only officially recognized in 1825, after receiving a large indemnity.
4.1. First Reign
The main icon of Brazilian independence was Pedro de Alcântara (the fourth son of King João VI), who, after this process, became the first emperor of Brazil, taking on the nickname Pedro I of Brazil.
Unlike his father, Pedro I admired Enlightenment ideals, defended liberal ideas, such as the abolition of slavery, and individual freedoms.
Imperial Brazilian flag
The construction of national symbols is a fundamental part of a nation-state. So it was with Brazil after it became independent.
In this context, two informal political groups emerged in the dispute for spaces of power: the Portuguese Party, which concentrated supporters of absolutism, a centralized and strong government, Portuguese merchants and, often, the restoration of Brazil as a colony of Portugal; and the Brazilian Party, made up of Brazilian merchants, landowners and slave masters, whose main objectives were to defend and expand the rights and privileges they had won.
In 1823, the National Constituent Assembly was installed, which gave rise to the Political Constitution of the Empire of Brazil of 1824.
Although, at first, its role was to limit the powers of the monarch, in line with Enlightenment ideals, the 1824 Constitution had a strong authoritarian and centralizing character, especially through the institution of the moderating power.
Still with remnants of the Pernambuco Revolution in the air, after the promulgation of the 1824 Constitution and its expressly authoritarian character, the Pernambucans once again revolted and, in July 1824, the separatist and republican Confederation of Ecuador broke out. Shortly afterwards, the Empire became involved in the Cisplatine War, making Dom Pedro I even more unpopular.
In 1826, with the death of João VI, the emperor’s father, there was a problem of succession in the Lusitanian monarchy.
Faced with this and the inability to calm tempers in Brazil, Pedro I abdicated the throne and left his son, Pedro II, who was only five years old, as his successor.
However, the 1824 Constitution itself stipulated that the emperor had to be at least 21 years old to take office.
It was therefore necessary to establish a regency government, inaugurating a new phase of the Imperial Period.
4.2. Regency Period
The Regency Period was marked by a series of constant conflicts with the central government, creating successive periods of political instability, aggravated by the serious economic situation.
The political forces were basically divided into two strands: the liberals and the conservatives, the latter with a greater political presence.
In an attempt to contain these rebellions, an additional act was enacted in 1834 that revised important points of the 1824 Constitution, providing, among other things, greater autonomy for the provinces.
However, this was not enough. Among these regency revolts, the following stand out: Revolt of the Males (1835), Cabanagem (1835-1840), Sabinada (1837-1838), Balaiada (1838-1841) and Revolt of the Farrapos (1835-1845).
In July 1840, on the initiative of the liberals, who were putting pressure on the Regency, the Majority Coup was carried out, appointing Pedro II, who was only 14 years old, emperor of Brazil.
It was an attempt by the liberals to occupy more space in political decisions, as well as providing a way of containing the political unrest that was spreading throughout the country. Thus began the Second Reign (1840-1889).
4.3. Second Reign
During this period, profound transformations took place.
The Empire’s economy, which had been in serious difficulties since the gold cycle, found in the increase in coffee consumption abroad the possibility of increasing its exports, thus reducing its trade deficit.
This started the coffee cycle. This activity, which had already been taking place even before the arrival of the Portuguese Court, therefore accelerated.
Economic power shifted from the Northeast to the Southeast, where coffee plantations were concentrated.
At the same time, the agricultural production system itself, the plantation, began to come under strong pressure, especially from the British, who demanded an end to the slave trade and, consequently, the abolition of slavery.
However, it was only with the enactment of abolitionist laws, starting in 1850 with the Eusébio de Queirós Law, that the fight against slavery began to be put into practice in Brazil.
Another important event, both for abolition and for the socio-political formation that gave rise to the movement to overthrow the Brazilian monarchy, was the Paraguayan War (1864-1870).
Slaves were sent to the battlefield, many of them even forced, under the promise of freedom after the end of the conflict.
After Brazil’s victory, and its high level of debt to finance the war, Pedro II was politically weakened, while the military began to occupy more space in the political debate.
They even spearheaded the proclamation of the Republic in 1889. If you want to delve deeper into this period of Brazilian history.
5. Republican period
The Brazilian Republic, the period under which the country is still in force, can be divided as follows:
- First Republic/Old Republic (1889-1930)
- Provisional Government (1930-1934)
- Vargas Constitution (1934-1937)
- New State (1937-1945)
- Fourth Republic (1945-1964)
- Military Dictatorship (1964-1985)
- New Republic (1985-to the present day)
It is important to note that, even in the face of the republican system, Brazil has historically had serious difficulties in maintaining a democratic regime.
During this period, six other constitutions were promulgated, two of which (the 1937 constitution of the Estado Novo and the 1967 constitution of the Military Dictatorship) were strongly authoritarian in nature.
5.1. First Republic
At the very beginning of the Republic, during the presidency of Prudente de Morais, the first civilian to be elected by popular vote, one of the biggest armed conflicts of the period broke out, the motives for which are still uncertain and imprecise: the Canudos War (1896-1897).
This period of the First Republic was also marked by the alternation of power between the oligarchies of São Paulo and Minas Gerais, which became known as the café com leite policy.
This type of policy contributed even more to the isolation of the other states of the federation and consolidated the hegemony of the Southeast of the country.
5.2. Flag of the Brazilian Republic
The flag of the Brazilian Republic uses the colors of the flag of the Empire: green represents the Braganza dynasty, yellow the Habsburg dynasty.
It was only in 1930, with the civil-military movement led by Getúlio Vargas, after Washington Luís’ victory in the national executive was challenged by the Liberal Alliance, that the 1930 Revolution began.
Brazil then began a new phase of the Republic.
5.3. Vargas era
During the Vargas era (1930-1945), there was a rearrangement of political forces, which were concentrated in the middle sectors of urban centers.
This was also the period of greatest industrial growth in Brazil’s history. It was also when the Consolidation of Labor Laws (CLT) was created on May 1, 1943, unifying and expanding workers’ rights, among other things.
However, it is important to note that the Estado Novo was a dictatorship that persecuted political leaders, especially those linked to the Communist Party of Brazil, as well as having formed alliances, at times, with the fascist-inspired Brazilian Integralist Action, with Lusitanian Integralism and with the Catholic Church’s Social Doctrine.
At the same time, Vargas had a strong influence on the workers’ movements and was even able to closely control the activities of the unions. For these reasons, Vargas is often called a populist.
However, a well-established historiography on the subject identifies problems with this type of attribution, since it treats the mass of voters who supported him not because they were easily manipulated around a power project, but because a considerable part of their demands were met by the Executive.
In fact, Getúlio Vargas is a personality with many nuances.
The entire era that bears his name in the history of the Brazilian Republic is divided into very distinct moments, with him on different sides of the political spectrum and meeting apparently contradictory demands.
Even today, he is the main political and historical reference for Brazilian laborism.
However, the tradition of laborism left by Vargas became a major political threat, according to the military and the forces of the National Democratic Unity (UDN), who wanted him to resign.
In the second half of the 1940s, a series of pressures followed, seeking to interfere in the already fragile democracy that had recently been established after the end of the Estado Novo.
Vargas was elected in 1950 by direct vote, assumed the presidency in 1951 and, under pressure from the military, who were already threatening a coup in the country, committed suicide in the early hours of August 24, 1954.
Despite this act “delaying the coup”, the climate of political instability grew ever more intense. In 1961, when Vargas’ former labor minister, João Goulart, at the time vice-president of Brazil, was due to take over the presidency of the Republic following the resignation of Jânio Quadros, the military tried to stop him.
That’s when Leonel Brizola, governor of Rio Grande do Sul at the time, promoted the legality campaign, even taking up arms to guarantee the new president’s inauguration.
Nevertheless, in April 1964, a military coup was launched in Brazil, with the support of the United States of America, establishing a dictatorship that lasted 21 years.
5.4. Military Dictatorship
During the Military Dictatorship, a series of achievements obtained with the 1946 Constitution, during the brief period of the Fourth Republic, were suspended with the promulgation of institutional acts.
In 1968, AI-5, considered the coup within the coup, banned political meetings, imposed prior censorship on films, books, plays and television programs, suspended habeas corpus, gave the president the right to close the National Congress, among other things. This document institutionalized repression in the country.
During this period, important artistic movements also emerged that sided with the resistance to the regime, such as Cinema Nouveau and Tropicalism, which revolutionized their respective fields in Brazil, reverberating to this day.
In 1974, the regime began a slow and gradual process of political opening with the aim of handing over political power to civilians.
In 1985, the military handed over executive power.
Tancredo Neves was elected president of Brazil indirectly, but before taking office he died of a generalized infection.
José Sarney, the vice-president, finally took over the presidency of Brazil in March 1985, ending the period of the Military Dictatorship.
5.5. New Republic
Thus began the period of the New Republic.
To date, this is the longest democratic period in our history, and its beginning was marked by the fight against hyperinflation, as well as an external debt that, during the military governments, grew 30-fold.
To date, eight presidents have succeeded each other, the first elected being Fernando Collor de Mello in 1989.
In 1988, a new Constitution was also promulgated which, due to its broad guarantee of access to public services, was nicknamed the Citizen Constitution.
Despite being the longest democratic period in Brazilian history, the New Republic has already gone through two impeachment processes.
In a presidential regime, as has been the case in Brazil since it became a republic, the impeachment process must be undertaken with many caveats, since the dynamics of the office of president give it more powers than the office of prime minister, as is the case in parliamentarianism.
Otherwise, the very credibility of the democratic regime is put at risk, pointing out that this is a political-legal process, which minimizes the power of the vote.