Pedro Álvares Cabral’s Expedition and the Conquest of Brazil

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Pedro Álvares Cabral’s Expedition and the Conquest of Brazil

1 Introduction

In this chapter we will begin our study of the “discovery” of Brazil.

The word “discovery” is not appropriate, because before the Portuguese arrived in the region we now call Brazil, it was already inhabited by a wide variety of peoples.

In this sense, Brazil was not discovered, but conquered.

We will study the organisation of the Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, as well as some of the daily life of the voyage that led to the “discovery”.

In addition, we will problematise the process of conquest and the cultural contact, at first, between the colonising Portuguese element and the colonised native “Indians”.

Indian – the term was born out of a historical mistake, since Christopher Columbus, on discovering America, thought he had discovered India.

From then on, the term became popularised. Over time, other names have emerged for the Native American, such as: aboriginal, Amerindian, autochthonous, Brazilian Indian, gentile, Indian, black of the earth, native, buggy, forest dweller, among others.

2. Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition

Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition has the merit of having been responsible for the “discovery” of Brazil, but there are some historians who claim that Brazil had already been discovered a few years earlier, by both the Portuguese and the Spanish.

As Grandes Navegações, Parte 11 - Pedro Alvares Cabral, A descoberta do Brasil

On this subject Boris Fausto states (2007, p. 30) that:

Since the 19th century, it has been debated whether the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil was the work of chance, being produced by the sea currents, or whether there was already prior knowledge of the New World and Cabral was tasked with some kind of secret mission that would lead him to take the western course.

Everything suggests that Cabral’s expedition was actually destined for the Indies. This eliminates the likelihood of European navigators, especially Portuguese, having visited the coast of Brazil before 1500.

In any case, this is a controversy that is of little interest today, belonging more to the field of historical curiosity than to the understanding of historical processes.

Regarding this controversy, Eduardo Bueno (1998, p. 32-33) states that:

In any case – whether or not King Dom João II knew  of the existence of Brazil – what is certain is that, in the second half of 1497, when he was sailing towards India, Vasco da Gama had already sensed the existence of these same lands.

In fact, on 22 August of that year, after setting sail from the Cape Verde Islands in the direction of India, Gama and his men spotted seabirds flying “very hard, like birds going to land”.

Vasco da Gama couldn’t divert his course to follow them, but the sighting was recorded in his log.

At the time, the Portuguese navigators were interested in the real India – which they knew lay to the east, beyond the Atlantic Ocean – and not in the lands that Christopher Columbus was discovering to the west.

In June 1499, as soon as Vasco da Gama arrived in Lisbon with the long-awaited news that India could be reached by sea, the king of Portugal, Dom Manoel, set about organising the dispatch of a new expedition to the fabulous spice kingdom.

On its outward journey, this expedition could also explore the western shore of the Atlantic, whose possession Portugal had secured since the Treaty of Tordesillas, signed in 1494.

As we saw earlier, the controversy generated by the “discovery” of Brazil cannot be considered the centre of the issue.

Whether intentional or not, the discovery of Brazil made Portugal a power. We should consider it a milestone in the great navigations, as it was the most powerful expedition ever organised by a European state.

We don’t know if the birth of Brazil happened by chance, but there’s no doubt that it was surrounded by great pomp.

The first ship returning from Vasco da Gama’s voyage arrived in Portugal to great excitement in July 1499.

A few months later, on 9 March 1500, a fleet of 13 ships set sail from the Tagus River in Lisbon, the largest to have left the kingdom so far, apparently bound for the Indies, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, a nobleman just over thirty years old.

After passing the Cape Verde Islands, the fleet headed west, moving away from the African coast until it sighted what would become Brazilian land on 21 April.

On that date, there was only a brief descent to land and it wasn’t until the following day that the fleet anchored off the coast of Bahia, in Porto Seguro (BUENO, 2007, p. 30).

The Atlantic crossing of Cabral’s fleet, from its departure from Lisbon to the sighting of land on the Brazilian coast, lasted around 44 days.

The journey was marked by a number of incidents, the most serious of which was the loss of a ship that was never located. Despite this, the crossing was smooth, thus confirming the possibility of Brazil becoming a safe stopover and watering point for future expeditions that aimed to reach the Indies.

In order to understand a little about daily life on board a caravel on the Atlantic crossing, we will introduce a fragment from the “Golden Book of Brazilian History”, by historians Mary Del Priore and Renato Pinto Venâncio (2001, p. 14-17). Follow along below.

Despite being small – around 20 metres long – agile, capable of zig-zagging against the wind and equipped with heavy artillery, caravels were considered to be the best sailing ships to sail the high seas.

But even if the ship was good, everyday life on overseas voyages was far from easy.

The precariousness of hygiene on board began with the restricted space used by passengers: around 50 centimetres per person.

On a ship with three decks, two were used for the cargo of the Crown, the merchants and the passengers themselves.

The third was mostly used for storing water, wine, wood and other useful artefacts.

In the “castles” of the ships were the chambers of the officers – captain, master, pilot, overseer, clerk and the sailors, storing gunpowder, biscuits, candles, cloths, etc. in the same place.

Bathing on board was impossible because, as well as the lack of hygiene, drinking water was used for consumption and cooking food.

All sorts of parasites such as lice, fleas and bedbugs proliferated on the bodies or in the food. Confined to cubicles, passengers satisfied their physiological needs, vomited or spat next to those eating their meals.

For this reason, a few litres of “lor water” used to be taken on board to cover it up. In the midst of the constant stench and the natural sway, “seasickness” was constant.

To make matters worse, poor hygiene on board often contaminated the food and water on board.

Diarrhoea, for which there was no cure, quickly claimed already dehydrated and malnourished individuals.

Food during these long journeys was always a problem for the Portuguese Crown.

The usual shortage of food in Portugal prevented the ships from being supplied with enough food.

The Royal Storehouse, which was responsible for supplying the ships, often simply failed to do so.

Chronic hunger and physical weakness contributed to the death of a significant number of sailors.

In Memória de um Soldado na Índia, Francisco Rodrigues Silveira complained that it was rare for “soldiers to escape corruptions of the gums (the dreaded scurvy, a disease caused by a lack of vitamin C), fevers, diarrhoea and other ailments…”.

As well as being scarce, the food on board was spoilt before the voyage even began.

Stored in damp holds, the edible food rotted even more quickly during the journey.

The “supply list” usually included biscuits, salted meat, dried fish (mainly salted cod), lard, lentils, rice, broad beans, onions, garlic, salt, oil, vinegar, sugar, honey, sultanas, wheat, wine and water.

Not all passengers had access to the provisions, which were strictly controlled by a steward or the captain himself.

Senior officers would take the products that were in the best condition, often selling them on a kind of black market to other hungry travellers.

Grumets and poor sailors were forced to eat “biscuits all rotten with cockroaches, and with very smelly mould”, among other foods in an advanced state of decomposition.

Honey and sultanas were offered to the sick noble crew.

High fevers and delirium, which affected many of the crew, were the result of eating excessively salty and rotten meat, washed down with bad wine.

When there were lulls in the torrid heat of the tropics, the hungry sailors ate everything: shoe soles, leather from trunks, papers, biscuits full of insect larvae, rats, dead animals and even human flesh.

They quenched their thirst with their own urine.

Many, however, preferred to commit suicide rather than die of thirst.

In reality, the dramatic situation of the sailors didn’t differ much from that faced by peasants on dry land.

A labourer who dug from sun up to sun down, seven days a week, earned no more than two pennies a day.

This barely allowed him to buy a bushel of bread.

What can we say about supporting entire families without food or clothing?

A large number of poor peasants preferred to flee from hunger by facing the risks of the sea, even knowing the privations they would be subjected to on the India Career.

The dream of the spice empire was an encouragement and a possibility in a context of misery and hopelessness.

In this text we can see that the journeys were not at all comfortable, there was practically a lack of everything, yet many people preferred to face the privations of travelling rather than staying on land and living a miserable life as peasants.

Scurvy – was a common disease among sailors travelling by sea to the Indies or the New World. This “ailment” was caused by a lack of vitamin C as a result of the poor diet on board the ships.

In addition, the text tells us what daily life was like on a caravel, and this reality practically lasted until the 19th century, when citrus fruits were added to the sailors’ diet, which provided the vitamin, since the main cause of scurvy was precisely the lack of this vitamin.

With the consumption of fruit, the incidence of scurvy decreased considerably.

It is necessary to realise that Brazil did not initially become an important trading post for the Portuguese, because what mattered at the time was solidifying trade relations with India. This was an arduous task, given that Portugal was a country with scarce population resources.

Pedro Álvares Cabral followed Vasco da Gama’s route and, either by accident or on purpose (it’s conceivable that the Portuguese had information about the presence of land nearby), located the Brazilian coast, docking in Porto Seguro in 1500.

From there, with 11 ships (one had broken up in the Atlantic and was no longer located and a second was sent to Portugal with the news of the discovery of Brazil), the Portuguese set sail for India.

Despite the loss of four ships on the Atlantic crossing (one of them commanded by Bartolomeu Dias, the first man to sail round Africa), Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived in Calicut, bearing rich gifts for the Hindu samorin, who had complained that Vasco da Gama had not given him a proper present.

The Muslim merchants, who dominated trade in the region, tried to prevent the Portuguese from obtaining the goods they wanted, and when Pedro Álvares Cabral captured a Muslim ship carrying spices, the merchants protested by attacking their trading post and killing those inside.

Pedro Ávares Cabral reacted by capturing another ten Muslim ships and set sail for Cochin and Cananor, where he completed the loading of his ships.

He returned to Lisbon in July 1501; the cargo of the six ships he brought into port more than made up for the costs of the expedition (MIGLIACCI, 1997, p. 46).

Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition was a success in every respect, as it took possession of Brazil and established a solid base for trade with India.

In the next section, we will study the process of conquering Brazil after the “discovery”.

3. Conquest of Brazil

When the Portuguese officially “discovered” Brazil on 22 April 1500, it was inhabited by a multitude of peoples, spread over practically the entire territory that today makes up contemporary Brazil. We can divide these Amerindian peoples into two large groups: the tupis-guaranis and the tapuias.

Índio Tupi, 1643Albert Eckhout
Tupi Indian, 1643 Albert Eckhout

The first group called tupis-guaranis inhabited practically the entire Brazilian coast, from Ceará to Lagoa dos Patos, in present-day Rio Grande do Sul.

According to Boris Fausto (2007, p. 37):

The Tupis, also called Tupinambás, dominated the coastal strip, from the north to Ananeia, in the south of the present-day state of São Paulo; the guaranis were located in the Paraná-Paraguay basin and on the stretch of coast between Cananeia and the extreme south of what would become Brazil.

Despite the different geographical location of the Tupis and Guaranis, we speak Tupi-Guarani together, given the similarity of culture and language.

The second group, called Tapuias, inhabited areas where the Tupi-Guarani presence was interrupted, for example the Goitacases, located at the mouth of the Paraíba River, the Aimorés in the south of Bahia and in the north of Espírito Santo, the Tremembés between Ceará and Maranhão.

Índio Tapuia, Albert Eckhout
Índio Tapuia, Albert Eckhout

These populations were called tapuias, a generic word used by the Tupi Guarani to designate Indians who spoke another language” (FAUSTO, 2007, p. 38).

The Tupis-Guaranis were more numerous than the Tapuias, but the Tapuias were fiercer than the former.

Both groups are of great importance in the context of pre-Columbian Brazil, as they developed unique cultural experiences in the prehistory of the American continent.

The classification listed in the previous paragraphs derives from contemporary anthropological studies, which have sought to organise Brazil’s indigenous peoples according to their cultural affinities and language.

Both groups practised hunting, fishing, fruit and root gathering and agriculture. Their experience of mastering nature would be put to good use by the Portuguese in the future process of colonising Brazil.

According to Boris Fausto (2007, p. 38), “[…] calculations oscillate between figures as varied as 2 million for the whole territory and around 5 million for the Brazilian Amazon alone”. It is therefore difficult to establish the number of the native population at the time of the “discovery”. This issue will be explored in greater depth in the next section.

To delve deeper into the study of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, we will introduce a fragment from the book “História do Brasil: um olhar crítico”, by historian Gilberto Cotrim (1999, p.13-15),  which deals with the Tupi culture.

The following are the basic characteristics of Tupi societies.

This characterisation is based on the records left by European missionaries and travellers in the 16th and 17th centuries.

However, despite the apparent similarities, any attempt to summarise these peoples ethnographically is problematic due to the diversity of the societies that make up the Tupi linguistic family.

To describe the cultural diversity of indigenous societies, Europeans reduced them to two generic categories: Tupi-Guarani and Tapuia.

Tapuia were groups that were little known to Europeans, perceived as the antithesis of Tupi and Guarani societies, i.e. groups that spoke languages other than Tupi and Guarani (Jês, Aruaques, etc.).

The Tupi Guarani practised subsistence agriculture, the aim of which was to produce food to meet the group’s survival needs. There was no concern with accumulating surpluses.

They grew manioc, maize, sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts, tobacco, pumpkin, cotton, chillies, pineapple, papaya, yerba mate, guaraná and many other plants.

To prepare the soil, the men cleared the forest, chopping down trees with stone axes and clearing the land by burning. The women dedicated themselves to planting.

Even though they were farmers, the Tupi Guarani did not form fixed, permanent settlements: spatial mobility was still a cultural characteristic of these peoples. The displacement of a village was motivated by various reasons: wear and tear of the soil, dwindling game reserves, internal disputes between factions, or the death of a chief.

The identity of each village was associated with the community leader, who was responsible for mobilising relatives and followers and organising material life. However, indigenous leadership did not usually imply economic or social privileges.

Despite a certain linguistic and cultural unity, the Tupi-Guarani Indians did not form a single society. On the contrary, they often formed rival groups that were given various names such as: Tupinambás, Tupiniquins, Guaranis, Caetés, Potiguares, etc.

The Tupi Guarani lived in permanent war against their adversaries, whether they were tribes from their own cultural matrix or tribes from other matrices, such as the Jês, the Aruaques, etc.

War, captivity and the sacrifice of prisoners were one of the bases of relations between Tupi Guarani villages in pre-colonial Brazil.

They were fundamental elements in intertribal relations and, later, in Euro-Indian relations. Understanding this dynamic of conflict provided Europeans with one of the keys to controlling the native population.

In countless sectors of the country’s cultural expression (music, plastic arts, literature, dance, religion, work techniques, etc.), we find the marked presence of indigenous societies.

Let’s look at some examples that illustrate this cultural presence in everyday Brazilian life:

  • Foods: potatoes, corn, manioc, sweet potatoes, bee honey, tomatoes, beans, peanuts, pineapple, papaya, guava, jaboticaba, passion fruit.
  • Plant species used in the world economy: rubber, cocoa, heart of palm, tobacco, yerba mate.
  • Medicinal plants: jaborandi, copaiba, quinine, coca leaf,
  • Manufacturing plants: cotton, piaçaba (brooms), babaçu (oil production).
  • Vocabulary: Curitiba, Piauí, cashew, manioc, alligator, sabiá, Tietê, armadillo, pineapple, among many others.
  • Techniques: ceramic work, preparation of manioc flour and corn flour.

To this end, it is important to emphasise that contact with the Portuguese represented a real catastrophe in the daily lives of the native populations.

The conquerors introduced new habits and customs, as well as professing a new religion that would later predominate among the native populations.

Christianity was to be one of the main flagships of the Portuguese, with the Jesuits being the main representatives.

Cabanas indígenas
Indian huts

In the next section, we’ll take a closer look at the Portuguese conquest of Brazil and its consequences for the indigenous nations.

4. Arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil

Desembarque de Pedro Álvares Cabral em Porto Seguro em 1500 - Oscar Pereira da Silva
Pedro Álvares Cabral’s landing in Porto Seguro in 1500 – Oscar Pereira da Silva

We have to understand that the process of settling and colonising Brazil was not a “fairy tale”, but rather a painful historical process, especially for the native peoples, a process full of ruptures.

In his famous letter to the king of Portugal, Pero Vaz de Caminha (2002, p. 94), the scribe of Cabral’s squadron, reports that the inhabitants of the “newly discovered” lands had the following characteristics:

Their feature is that they are brown, in a reddish way, with good faces and good noses, well made.

They walk around naked, without any cover.

They don’t bother to cover up or show their shame, and in this they are as innocent as in showing their faces.

They both had their bottom lips pierced and their white, real bones stuck in them, the length of a hand, the thickness of a cotton spindle, sharp at the end like an awl.

They put them in through the side of their cheeks, and the part between their cheeks and their teeth is made like a chessboard, fitted in such a way that it doesn’t bother them or hinder them when talking, eating or drinking.

Their hair is flowing. And they were shorn, with a high shear, of good thickness and shaved to just above the ears.

And one of them was wearing a kind of yellow bird’s feather headdress, about the length of a stump, very long and very serrated, which covered his head and ears.

And it was attached to her hair, feather and feather, with a mixture as soft as wax (but it wasn’t) so that the headdress was very round and very long, and very even, and it took no more washing to lift it.

In his account, Caminha only describes the Indians, he doesn’t mention any conflicts that took place between Europeans and natives. We know that the first years of colonisation were relatively peaceful, but conflicts were not long in coming.

Gilberto Freyre states that when the Portuguese landed in Brazil, they found a native population still living in prehistoric times, with simple habits and a strong connection to nature.

Freyre creates a very interesting discussion by comparing the natives with the newly arrived Portuguese colonisers.

The historian analyses the encounter between the natives and the colonisers, stating that the former were still in the adolescence of civilisation, while the Portuguese were already in their adult phase.

So it is not the meeting of an exuberant culture of maturity with another already adolescent that is seen here; European colonisation comes to surprise in this part of America almost like flocks of large children; a green and incipient culture; still in its first teething; without the bones, the development or the resistance of the great American semi-civilisations (FREYRE, 2003, p. 158).

Thus, the first contacts were peaceful and easy to understand. Despite this, the Portuguese always developed an arrogant attitude, indicating that their culture and religion were superior to those of the natives.

According to Mary Del Priore and Renato Pinto Venâncio (2001, p. 30):

Initially, the Portuguese did not affect the life of the natives and the autonomy of the tribal system.

Holed up in just three or four trading posts scattered along the coast, they depended on the latter, their “allies”, for food and protection.

The bartering of products such as brazilwood, flour, parrots and slaves – victims of inter-tribal wars – for hoes, knives, scythes, mirrors and trinkets gave regularity to understandings.

But from around 1534 onwards, these relations began to change.

If before the whites had been submissive to the will of the natives, the panorama began to change. The European way of life and social institutions, such as the regime of the donatárias, became entrenched in the new land.

In relation to the indigenous people, the initial idea developed by the colonisers was one of sympathy.

According to Nelson Werneck Sodré (1976, p. 56), the first contacts were “[…] simple, cordial, without any obstacles or worries, from one side to the other, everything went smoothly, and there began to be unbridled praise, continuous praise, a curious repetition of qualities”.

An interesting cultural aspect that was part of the colonisation, initially with estrangement and then with the effective participation of the Portuguese, is directly related to the sexuality of both the coloniser and the native.

As Gilberto Freyre teaches us:

The European would jump ashore slipping on a naked Indian woman; the priests of the Company themselves had to descend carefully, otherwise they would jam their feet in flesh.

Many of the other clerics allowed themselves to be contaminated by debauchery.

The women were the first to give themselves to the whites, the most ardent going to rub themselves against the legs of those they thought were gods.

They would give themselves to the European for a comb or a shard of mirror (FREYRE, 2003, p. 161).

The following is an adaptation of the book “Casa Grande e senzala“, by historian Gilberto Freyre (2001, p. 2), which shows, in cartoon form, a little of the history of the cultural relationship between the Portuguese and the natives.

The colonising Portuguese exerted a real fascination over the natives, as their technological base was far superior. In this context, Europeans and Indians coexisted peacefully in the first decades of the colonisation of Brazil.

Portugueses relacionamento com índias
Portugueses relacionamento com índias

Despite this, the process of conquest undertaken by the Portuguese would intensify when the decision was made to begin the colonisation process itself.

This would happen from 1530 with the arrival of Martim Afonso de Sousa’s expedition.

It was natural for relations between Indians and whites to be more harmonious in the early years of colonisation, because in the words of Nelson Werneck Sodré (1976, p. 57):

In the early period of Brazilian life, when the coast was only policed, or a few trading posts were set up on it, no reasons arose for friction between primitive settlers and new settlers.

They didn’t come to dispute the land, to appropriate it, to plant and harvest.

They were few in number, disinterested in the things of the new land, turned towards the ocean and hoping that, if not freedom with their return, at least the utilities, the resumption of contact with people who were their equals, who spoke their language and understood their desires.

The white man from the factories accommodated himself to the life the Indians led, drew on his experience, lived with the Indians


With the intensification of the colonisation and conquest process, this reality would tend to change, as the Portuguese would come to see the Indians as labour to be enslaved, and they would also covet the lands occupied by the native populations.

These aspects tended to strain relations between the Indians and the Portuguese, leading to serious conflicts.

In the words of Sodré (1976, p. 57-58):

In a second phase, and when the definitive establishment of the settlers took place, when it was strictly speaking a question of colonising – which did not happen all along the coast or at all times – relations were subverted.

The Indian was presented as a labour force, and a labour force at that, with immense and irreplaceable advantages.

Then, as was inevitable, the struggle opened up and took on the proportions of systematic destruction.

With the introduction of monoculture, the process of conquering the native peoples and the land itself will take on unprecedented proportions. The consequences of this process would be the extermination of the tribes; the indigenous culture would not be able to withstand the production structure that was being established.

By replacing barter with agriculture, the Portuguese were beginning to turn the tables.

The indigenous people became both the great obstacle to occupying the land and the labour force needed to colonise it.

Subduing them, enslaving them, trading them became their main concern (DEL PRIORE; VENÂNCIO, 2001, p. 31).

The coastal indigenous populations were forced to migrate inland, losing a significant part of their population. Thus began the martyrdom of the Brazilian Indian, who went from ally to enemy in just a few decades.

The coastal indigenous populations will be forced to migrate inland, losing a significant part of their population. Thus begins the martyrdom of the Brazilian Indian, who has gone from ally to enemy in just a few decades.

4. In this chapter we have seen that:

  • Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition, as well as making the “discovery” of Brazil official, laid solid foundations for trade with the East.
  • The discovery of Brazil was casual or intentional.
  • Brazil was conquered and not discovered, as there were already people living here who were very different from the Portuguese.
  • At first, relations with the natives were relatively peaceful, but this would change as the process of settlement and colonisation intensified.

Discover the periods of colonial Brazilian history below:

  1. Portuguese Maritime Expansion and the Conquest of Brazil
  2. Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the Voyage of Vasco da Gama
  3. Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition and the Conquest of Brazil
  4. Pre-colonial period in Brazil: “The Forgotten Years”
  5. Installation of the Portuguese Colony in Brazil
  6. Installation of the General Government in Brazil and the Founding of Salvador
  7. Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil
  8. Colonial sugar mills in Brazil
  9. The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Brazil
  10. Foundation of the city of São Paulo and the Bandeirantes
  11. Between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire in Brazil
  12. Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil
  13. The Portuguese Empire in Brazil
  14. Independence of Brazil – Breaking of colonial ties in Brazil
  15. Historical Periods of Brazil

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