Historical maps show the evolution and expansion territory of Brazil and the Western Hemisphere from discovery to Brazil's independence.
Learn about the historical facts that made Brazil emerge from a continental archipelago.
When Pedro Alvares Cabral landed on the coast of the land that would become Brazil, on April 22, 1500, its objective was not to conquer new lands – the essential goal of the Portuguese Crown was, then, the control of the eastern spice route.
For there to be a certain consolidation of Portuguese implantation in this colony, the threat of new rivals was necessary, the French adventurers, navigators coming mainly from Normandy, who established trading posts and concluded alliances with the natives.
This rivalry led the Crown to undertake a systematic colonization policy and was one of the reasons for the creation of the “hereditary captaincies“In 1532.
Attributing vast portions of the new colony to Portuguese nobles, the king hoped that they would be able to confirm until 1559 his sovereignty, whose reach was limited, over some coastal settlement points, between Itamaracá (north of the current city of Recife) and São Vicente (São Paul).
It is in this context that the risky attempts at colonization by France and the Netherlands took place, until the latter turned to the Antilles and transformed them into the “sugar islands”, thus provoking, to a large extent, 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.
And, therefore, thanks more to the disinterest of its rivals than to its own energy that Portugal was able to consolidate a vast continental empire.
A famous period of colonial history cannot be overlooked, the bandeiras, those expeditions launched across the continent, with the distant blessing of the Crown, which strongly contributed to extending Portuguese rule.
Its main focus was a village born around a college founded by the Jesuits. São Paulo.
From this village, where more Tupi was spoken than Portuguese, expeditions departed consisting of a handful of whites grouped around a flag, a few dozen mestizos and, mainly, allied Indians, who knew better than the Portuguese the ancient trails and natural resources. that could be used along the way.
Favored by the topography, since the tributaries of the Paraná led them inland, these expeditions lasted for years, during which the bandeirantes covered hundreds of kilometers, stopping, sometimes, to plant corn or cassava... and wait for the harvest.
From the tributaries of the left bank of Paraná, these long-distance expeditions headed south, down to the Rio de la Plata, westwards, ascending the tributaries of the right bank, or northwards, via the Amazon network.
The motive for these adventures was evidently the hope of profit, as they intended to capture Indians for the sugar cane plantations on the coast. The bandeirantes soon came into conflict with the Portuguese Jesuits and, above all, the Spaniards, because the mission villages, where they tried to group and catechize the Indians, were tempting prey.
Later, they turned to prospecting for metals and precious stones, discovering, at the end of the 1718th century, the gold deposits of Minas Gerais, and then those of Goiás, in 1725, and those of Mato Grosso, in XNUMX. .
Other reasons must, however, 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, the taste for adventure and exploration.
How to understand these endless and dangerous wanderings in totally unknown territories without him?
Bandeiras played a fundamental role in the expansion of Portuguese rule and strongly contributed to giving the country, which was born in 1822, an extension close to the current one.
Without them, the successes of the Portuguese diplomats who obtained de jure et facto recognition of the occupation obviously would not have been possible.
The battle, however, was not yet fully won, as this huge country continued to be fragile and at risk if royal authority weakened. Napoleon I was one of the – involuntary – artisans of Brazilian unity, at the moment when the Spanish empire was disintegrating.
The decision taken by the Portuguese Court to take refuge in Brazil to escape the threat of the Napoleonic armies is one of the great “bifurcations” between the destiny of Brazil and that of Latin America.
At that very moment, the King of Spain chose to remain, which contributed to the division of his empire.
If Dom João VI had decided differently, one can imagine, given the natural diversity of the 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 Portuguese-speaking countries of great size and originality. broadly comparable to the former subdivisions of the Spanish empire.
In Salvador and Recife, in the cities of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, groups were ready to do as their peers did in Lima, Mexico City, Quito or Bogotá.
However, the instituted imperial power had diplomatic power vis-à-vis England and military power vis-à-vis the separatist and abolitionist movements that erupted to maintain slavery for a longer time in the unity of this new country.
The “slavery solder” interested the regional oligarchies that, alone and in the formation of new countries, possibly republican ones, would not be able to maintain the lucrative and disgusting practice of enslaving people.
The Brazil that was born with Independence, proclaimed on September 7, 1822, had everything to surprise an outside observer; in fact, foreign travelers expressed their admiration for this paradox: an immense country with marked economic and human diversity, but which maintained, at the same time, a profound political unity.
However, despite this unity, and as massive and immense as it is, Brazil has long functioned (and still functions, in many ways) as an archipelago.
Its economic history, for more than four centuries, consisted, as Celso Furtado demonstrated, of a series of economic cycles, a succession of large productions that successively formed the essence of its exports: sugar in the XNUMXth century, gold at the end of the XNUMXth century and in the early XNUMXth century, coffee in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries, rubber in the early XNUMXth century.
The formation of the Brazilian archipelago is due to this succession of speculations, because each one 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 until then almost empty, giving a style to social relations and the organization of space in these regions.
The consequences of formation by cycles do not end with this heterogeneity, but imply a certain functioning of the whole of the national territory. Independent Brazil remained, throughout the entire XNUMXth century and the first half of the XNUMXth century, as a collection of juxtaposed agro-export cells, a mosaic of quasi-autonomous regions formed at the height of these cycles.
Each cell focused 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, as these cells communicated only by cabotage, along the coast.
The fact was proved when Brazil joined the Allies in the Second World War: a few German submarines were enough to sever any connection between Rio de Janeiro and Salvador and, consequently, between the north and south of the country, since there was no no internal route, with the exception of the precarious waterway of the São Francisco.
The history of the formation of the territory is not reduced, however, to these cycles. Understanding it presupposes also taking into account several other factors, such as the dynamism of the bandeirantes, the efforts of missionaries, the patient expansion of cattle ranchers and the tenacious political and administrative will of the Portuguese Crown.
The bases – the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries The country's first serious economic base was sugar production. The climate and the 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 stocked product was intense. In fact, in the first half of the XNUMXth century, Brazil was the main world producer of sugar.
The consequences of this expansion were of several orders. First: In order to grow sugarcane, it was necessary to import African slaves: the first arrived in 1532, and the trade continued for three centuries, until, from 1842, Great Britain enforced its prohibition by force. Starting from the Gulf of Guinea, initially, and from Angola and Mozambique, millions of Africans were then displaced to work on plantations in Brazil.
On another scale, the sugar cycle generated secondary cycles that marked other spaces. To pay the slaves, the Portuguese settlers installed in Brazil needed an exchange commodity.
In this case, the classic modality of “triangular trade” with products from the metropolis did not occur, but direct exchange, with payment in tobacco: the Recôncavo Baiano, a region close to Salvador, was specialized 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 on food production and raise oxen to drive the mills that crushed the sugarcane.
These needs led to the creation of specialized zones: food crops in the agreste (the transition zone to the dry interior) and extensive cattle raising in the sertão.
In this vast semi-arid zone, agricultural production could not be thought of, and livestock made it possible to conquer it, going up the rivers, notably the São Francisco.
Consequently, the formation of a northeastern complex dates from that time and from that economic cycle, whose traits have survived because they have not been altered by any subsequent cycle.
The first base 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 cattle ranchers.
The task of really extending the territory, of occupying it, of tracing sure and lasting routes, fell to the cattle ranchers. A fulminating conquest was witnessed, a veritable territorial explosion, whose consolidation and appreciation came thanks to his patient efforts to establish roads, farms and inns. Present since the sugar era, cattle ranchers had occupied the semi-arid forest of the hinterland, raising oxen to supply the coastal plantations with dried meat, leather and the animals essential to turn the mills' mills.
The gold mines also needed them, and the expansion of creation continued inland, north and south.
Cattle ranchers, who had already occupied the upper São Francisco before the discovery of gold, reinforced their presence, because the mines constituted new markets. This creation, supported by established roads and fairs, gave decisive impetus to the extension of Portuguese rule to the south, facing the Spaniards.
It was, therefore, livestock, more than gold, that contributed to expand the Brazilian space, so much so that it lasted after the gold collapse, creating stable roads and support points: the farms were fixed, lasting establishments, useful supports in these extensions. huge.
From them, the cattle would go to the coast following fixed paths from river to river, the cattle roads, comparable to the trails of the American West.
Along these tracks, which set 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 universe of plantations and mines, the world of livestock extended the sugar and gold zones – a mobile but organized frontier, where the pioneering spirit of the bandeirantes was maintained, consolidating and homogenizing the space they had conquered.
Expansion and consolidation - XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries
However, it remained to conquer the immense Amazon basin to give the country its current size, which was done from the end of the XNUMXth century onwards. The Portuguese Crown had been led to take possession of the mouth of the Amazon to respond to the threat of foreign corsairs.
Then there was a double movement, that of the military and the Jesuits, both setting up their establishments, forts or missions farther and farther upriver.
They were both anxious to advance as quickly as possible, because at the same time other soldiers and other missionaries were also advancing 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 meager resources.
The Manaus fort was founded in 1669, and missions spread along the entire river from the mid-1661th century onwards. When the Jesuits were expelled in XNUMX, the conquest was practically over.
In the XNUMXth century, the movement expanded, progressing along the tributaries.
Economic exploitation was reduced to hunting and extracting a few plants, roots, rubber and resins, and dreams of wealth, fueled by recurring myths (Lake Pari-ma, El Dorado), never materialized.
The engine of the conquest was the will of the Portuguese, agents of the Crown and the Church, to extend their dominion.
Two factors favored this ambition. On the one hand, it was easier to advance upriver, 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 weighed little 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 in some parts the Spanish and Portuguese empires. The territorial expansion since Tordesillas is notorious.
The XNUMXth century and the beginning of the XNUMXth century were marked by the last “cycles”, undoubtedly the ones that most contributed to shape the territory.
The shortest was the rubber one. The worldwide demand for tires grew very quickly with the development of the automobile, and a whole system was created to satisfy it.
On the upper level were the import and export houses of Belém and Manaus, and on the lower level were the rubber tappers.
Most came from the Northeast, less attracted by rubber than driven 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. With this episode, the first wave of internal migrations began, proof that the Brazilian population had reached its critical mass and was already numerous enough to feed internal currents, from the more consolidated regions to the new lands, without depending entirely on immigration. .
From 1910 onwards – when the Amazon produced 80% of the world's rubber - English and Dutch plantations in Southeast Asia reached maturity, and their production became more regular and less expensive than Amazonian extractivism.
During this short period, the Brazilian Amazon was covered, expanded, and the pioneering advances were made official by treaties with most of the neighboring countries, such as that of 1903, which allowed the annexation of Acre.
It was also populated: its population went from 300.000 inhabitants to 1.500.000 between 1872 and 1920. Deprived of rubber resources, it entered a lethargy, from which it only emerged in the early 1970s.
In that same period, the coffee wave transformed the south of the country and ensured its economic takeoff.
Introduced in Brazil in the XNUMXth century, coffee has developed magnificently.
At a time when world demand for the new drink was increasing, the country was able to offer climates and soils well adapted to the requirements of this delicate plant, thus finding the new resource that it lacked to boost the economy again.
This new culture could, moreover, make use of the old systems, those of sugar cane, and initially did not provoke any structural change. The coffee plantations, originally close to Rio de Janeiro, progressively spread to Minas Gerais and, especially through the Paraíba do Sul valley, to São Paulo.
Coffee found its favorite land in the western highlands, where, under intact forests, fertile soils lay, the famous purple earth, the earth reddened by the decomposition of basalt.
However, the coffee cycle was not a late and southern replica of the sugar cycle.
The plantation slave system, dominated by the plantation house, was already, in the XNUMXth century, an unbearable anachronism.
Externally, Great Britain, for various reasons, some noble and some less so, led the campaign for the abolition of slavery and imposed a ban on the slave trade 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 conjunction, not fortuitous, marked Brazil's entry into a new era at all levels.
The coffee culture was initially disorganized by the end of slavery, but the answer was quickly found: the low-skilled and evidently low-motivated servile workforce was replaced by salaried or contracted labor made up essentially of Europeans. , whose immigration was organized and partially funded by the landowners and the government of São Paulo.
This sudden flow of population made it possible to expand the plantations and, in a short time, the entire system was organized around the railroad, which made it possible to advance the front of deforestation and export coffee.
On the spiers of the western highlands a network was set up linking regularly spaced cities.
This new economic cycle profoundly altered the structures of the country. Like the previous cycles, it almost exclusively dominated the national economy, shaped a new region, and later began to decline.
However, new factors had been introduced that would allow the development process to continue on other bases, and the former coffee region is today notable for many other activities, which ensure it an overwhelming supremacy in the Brazilian economy.
From this long succession of cycles, the country emerged deeply marked in its regional structure and in its style of development.
Traces of the cycles are still very visible in the Brazilian archipelago, as the displacement of the center of gravity left behind three types of regions. Those that are just ruins of previous cycles, those that managed to survive their end and, finally, those in which dynamic activities, resources and power accumulate.
The regional imbalances, so evident in Brazil, are, in large part, products of this contrasted history.
Thus, the current organization of the Brazilian space incorporates, therefore, the legacies of its economic history, the genesis of its economy and its society.
The Southeast benefited, after the coffee cycle, from the accumulated conditions that were fundamental for the industrial development that changed the pace of Brazilian economic history.