Pre-Colonial Period in Brazil – The Forgotten Years

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Pre-Colonial Period in Brazil – The Forgotten Years

1. Introduction

In this chapter we will study the pre-colonial period, also known as “the forgotten years” of Brazil’s colonisation.

The Pre-Colonial Period in Brazil runs from 1500, with the “discovery” of Brazil, to 1531, with the arrival of Martim Afonso de Sousa’s “civilising mission”.

These first years of Brazil’s history are particularly curious, as the Portuguese showed very little interest in actually settling and colonising the colony, preferring to invest in lucrative trade with the Far East.

It was a time when the main colonisers were smugglers, castaways and convicts, and it was also a time of peaceful coexistence with the natives.

The main economic activity during these first 30 years was the extraction of brazilwood, also known as “pau-de-tinta”.

Este fascinante mapa pictórico é um dos primeiros mapas regionais do Brasil que se pode obter. Ilustrado com o norte à direita, o mapa está repleto de vinhetas que representam a vida nativa, em vez de se concentrar em informações geográficas. Os índios nativos são mostrados com arcos e flechas, machados, lhamas e redes, pelos quais os brasileiros são bem conhecidos. O oceano ao redor está repleto de navios franceses e portugueses e monstros marinhos. Ao longo da costa, os europeus são retratados interagindo com os nativos. As poucas informações geográficas apresentadas são bastante imprecisas. O rio Amazonas (aqui chamado Maranon F.) e o rio Paraná têm origem em lagos situados ao lado de um vulcão em erupção. Montanhas e rios espúrios preenchem a porção ocidental do Brasil, denominada Terra non Discoperta (terra não descoberta).
Map of Brazil from 1606

This activity was usually done in partnership with the natives who, in exchange for harvesting trees in the forest, received “trinkets” such as mirrors, hats, knives, axes, jewellery, clothes and other manufactured products.

2. Portugal’s lack of interest in colonising Brazil


The opening of a maritime trade route with India practically coincided with the “discovery” of Brazil.

As Portugal was a country with scarce resources and a low demographic index, it had to choose to direct its colonisation efforts towards just one of the geographical areas.

To make matters worse, no precious metals or other products were found at first that could give economic meaning to the settlement and colonisation of the newly discovered lands.

It is common knowledge that the Brazilian lands were rich in brazilwood, a wood that was used to make a red dye used to dye fabrics. “However, the profit to be made from exploiting this wood was less than the advantageous trade in African and Asian products” (COTRIM, 1999, p. 58).

According to Caio Prado Júnior (1987, p. 12):

The colonisation of Brazil was a difficult problem for Portugal to solve.

With a population of just over a million inhabitants and its other overseas conquests in Africa and Asia to take care of, it had little in the way of people and financial resources to devote to Cabral’s occasional find.

As Boris Fausto tells us (2007, p. 42):

In those early years, between 1500 and 1535, the main economic activity was the extraction of brazilwood, obtained mainly by trading with the Indians.

The trees did not grow together over large areas, but were scattered.

As the wood ran out on the coast, the Europeans turned to the Indians to obtain it.

Collective labour, especially felling trees, was a common task in Tupinambá society. Thus, the cutting of brazilwood could be integrated relatively easily into the traditional patterns of indigenous life.

The Indians supplied the wood and, to a lesser extent, manioc flour, exchanged for pieces of cloth, knives, penknives and trinkets, objects of little value to the Portuguese.

Thus, the “discovery” of Brazil did not provoke much enthusiasm in Portugal.

Brazil appeared to the Portuguese as a virgin and exotic land, home to strange birds and animals, as well as being populated by human beings who were alien to the European gaze.

Radiography of Pau-Brasil

  • Name: Caesalpinia Echinata (family leguminosae).
  • Indigenous names: ibïrapitanga and arabutã.
  • Distribution: from Rio de Janeiro to Rio Grande do Norte.
  • Average height of each tree: between 10 and 15 metres.
  • Size and weight of the logs: 1.5 metres and 30 kilograms. Each ship carried an average of 5,000 logs to Europe. To fell and split each tree: around 4 hours with a stone axe and around 15 minutes with an iron axe.
  • Distance from where they were brought: in 1558, 18 kilometres from the coast.
  • In 1890, more than 150 kilometres.
  • Trees felled: 70 million trees. More than 3,000 tonnes a year for three centuries.
  • How much brazilwood was worth: a ship loaded with the wood was worth seven times less than a ship full of spices. Even so, it made a profit of 300 per cent (BUENO, 2003, p. 35).
The discovery of Brazil was nowhere near as exciting as Vasco da Gama’s arrival in India.

Brazil appeared as a land whose possibilities for exploration and geographical contours were unknown.

For several years, it was thought to be nothing more than a large island.

The exotic attractions – Indians, parrots, macaws – prevailed, to the point that some informants, particularly Italians, gave it the name of the land of parrots.

King Dom Manuel preferred to call it Vera Cruz and then Santa Cruz.

It has been associated with the main wealth of the land in its early days, the brazilwood (FAUSTO, 2007, p. 42).

As a result, Portugal took very little interest in its American colony during the first 30 years of colonisation.

Portuguese efforts were limited to sending out a few expeditions to reconnoitre the coast, as well as fighting off visits from vessels of other nationalities; this initiative was called “coastguard expeditions”.

3. First expeditions to Brazil

  • Expedition probably commanded by Gaspar de Lemos (1501): explored a large part of the Brazilian coastline and named the main geographical features found at the time (islands, capes, rivers, bays). A large quantity of brazilwood was found along the coast. This finding was attributed to the Lorentine navigator Amerigo Vespucci, who was part of the expedition.
  • Expedition probably commanded by Gonçalo Coelho (1503): organised under a contract signed between the king of Portugal and a group of merchants interested in exploiting brazilwood. Among them was the wealthy merchant Fernão de Noronha.
  • Expeditions commanded by Cristóvão Jacques (1516 and 1526): two expeditions were organised to stop the smuggling of brazilwood by other European traders, such as the French. They were called coastguard expeditions. These expeditions, however, were unable to stop the smuggling due to the vastness of our coastline. SOURCE: Cotrim (1999, p. 58)

Although Portugal showed little interest in colonisation, in the first 30 years of the discovery, many Europeans made contact with the natives, and these contacts were relatively healthy for both parties. This will be the subject of the next section.

4. Shipwrecked, Traffickers and Convicts

Studying the first 30 years of Brazil’s colonisation is no easy task, as there are few published studies on the subject. One interesting book is called “Náufragos, Traficantes e Degredados” by journalist Eduardo Bueno.

As the title suggests, this work seeks to analyse these three social figures of European origin who, for various reasons, ended up living together with the Brazilian Indians during the pre-colonial period.

The pre-colonial period is the most nebulous in Brazilian history, as we said earlier, because there are few reports on the subject.

In these first three decades of colonisation, many Europeans were abandoned by their own countrymen in our territory.

These people were convicts who had been sentenced in Portugal to serve time in the colony. This was common, as the metropolis had a shortage of human resources and would even take advantage of criminals.

Deportees – people who were expelled from their homeland or land of origin.

In addition to the deportees, many castaways and deserters from the most diverse expeditions came to live with the natives.

The interaction between these Europeans and the Indians took place practically all along the Brazilian coast.

Later, with the establishment of the General Government in 1549, these Europeans would be very useful in establishing more solid foundations for the colonisation of Brazil.

According to Eduardo Bueno (1998, p. 7):

What can be said with certainty is that from 1525, when Europeans began to land more frequently in Brazil, they encountered a gallery of enigmatic characters.

They were white men who lived among the natives: some had survived the sinking of their ships, others had deserted.

Many had committed a crime in Portugal and were sentenced to exile in Brazil, others had the audacity to disagree with their captains and ended up banished.

Several were married to the daughters of the main indigenous chiefs, played a leading role in the tribe, knew its trails, customs and customs, and brokered negotiations between various indigenous nations and representatives of European powers.

Their presence at strategic points along the coast would be decisive for the future direction of the country.

These individual characters were very important in the early years of colonisation, as they were very well integrated into the culture of the Brazilian Indians.

They were responsible for the knowledge of various indigenous skills, such as: the location of brazilwood reserves, water sources, indigenous trails and paths, knowledge of fauna and flora and knowledge of the technique for making manioc flour.

In addition, these Europeans maintained a good relationship with the tribal chiefs. In many tribes, they ended up marrying the islands of the chiefs themselves. The fruit of this relationship with the Indians turned out to be very beneficial for the future process of colonising Brazil.

This is ironic because the same people who were condemned as criminals in Portugal, or even deserters in the colony, ended up being considered important people in the colonisation of Brazil.

The king himself wrote letters to these enigmatic figures extolling their achievements. At the time, this was considered a great honour.

One of these figures was Diogo Álvares, known among the natives as Caramuru, who was Portuguese and was shipwrecked in the shallows of the Vermelho River in 1509 or 1510, in present-day Salvador, the capital of Bahia.

Caramuru received a letter from King João III, given to him by Tomé de Sousa, the first Governor General of Brazil, which was undoubtedly a great show of recognition and respect.

Eduardo Bueno (2006. p. 41) presents the letter sent by King João III in full.

Read it carefully.

Diogo Álvares: I, the King, send you my greetings.

I now send Tomé de Sousa, a nobleman of my house, to this Bahia de Todos os Santos, as captain and governor of it, for the said captaincy, and others of this State of Brazil, to provide justice for it and the rest that my service fulfils; and I order you to make a large settlement and seat in the said Bahia and other things of my service: and because I am informed that, due to the much practice and experience you have of these lands and their people and customs, you will know how to help and conciliate him, I command you that when the said Tomé de Sousa arrives there, you go to him, and help him in what you must fulfil and what he entrusts to you; because I will do you much service in this.

And because the fulfilment and time of his arrival, he finds it supplied with provisions from the land, to provide for the people who are going with him, I write about it to Paulo Dias, your son-in-law.

Try and get them (the supplies) through the ports of the captaincy of Jorge de igueiredo (neighbouring Ilhéus). As your company and help is needed, I ask you to help him (Tomé de Sousa) in whatever way you see fit, as I believe you will.

As we saw when reading the previous letter, figures like Caramuru were very important for the future colonisation of Brazil. To better understand this issue, we will introduce a fragment from the book “Náufragos, Traficantes e Degredados”, by journalist Eduardo Bueno (1999, p. 8-9). Follow along.

The gallery of names isn’t limited to well-known names such as the mythological Caramuru, indirectly responsible for the founding of Salvador, or João Ramalho, virtual founder of the city of São Paulo.

Just as important, for example, was the mysterious Bacharel de Cananeia, Brazil’s first major slave trader, whose name is not even known.

But there are several others whose trajectory is even more obscure.

What about the intrepid Aleixo Garcia, who in 1524 marched from Santa Catarina with a private army of two thousand Indians to attack the cities bordering the Inca Empire, more than two thousand kilometres away?

What about his companions Henrique Montes and Melchior Ramires – deserters and polygamists – who were nevertheless received at court by the kings of Portugal and Spain and became the most important men in the exploration of the River Plate and the southern coast of Brazil?

The list of amazing characters from the first 30 years of Brazil doesn’t end with them.

There’s still João Lopes de Carvalho, the Portuguese pilot who was banished to Rio in 1511 and, after being rounded up by the Spanish, returned to Brazil in 1519 only to be abandoned in Borneo, Asia, two years later in the company of his son, a seven-year-old indigenous boy.

And what to think of Francisco del Puerto, a grumete who lived among the natives of the Plata for 14 years and then betrayed the Europeans who had taken him in, opening the gate of a fort to allow the Spanish and Portuguese to be massacred by the natives.

These are just some of the protagonists of Brazil’s first 30 years – the three lost decades.

Their personal history, and the history of their time, can be reconstructed from letters, sparse references found in foreign archives, logbooks and travel reports.

The lack of official documents has hampered research into this period and, in most books on the history of Brazil, the period from 1500 to 1531 is generally reduced to two paragraphs.

Therefore, castaways and convicts played an important role in the first fifty years of Brazil’s colonisation.

In the next unit we will study the actual process of colonisation in Brazil, starting with the hereditary captaincies, the General Government, sugar cane monoculture and the use of slave labour with Indian and African labour.

4. Were the Indians of Brazil Cannibals or Good Savages?

The European view of the Indians oscillated between two equally biased extremes.

Christopher Columbus and Pero Vaz de Caminha, for example, saw them as beautiful and innocent savages living in an almost endemic state.

Friar Vicente de Valverde, who accompanied Pizarro’s expedition to conquer the Inca Empire, considered them to be wicked, savage cannibals deserving of a thousand deaths.

None of this corresponds or has corresponded to reality.

It is true that some indigenous tribes (but by no means the majority) were cannibals; however, the cannibalism they practised was ritual, generally a gesture of respect to a brave or venerable adversary.

The repeatedly recorded horror of Europeans at this rite is even more difficult to understand if we take into account that the main Catholic rite, communion or the Eucharist, in which the body and blood of Christ are symbolically consumed, is also a ritual of cannibalism.

This fact perhaps helps to understand the backwardness of the European mentality at the time, the inability of many Europeans to understand other sets of references, in other words, other cultures, in order to evaluate moral problems.

And it is perhaps the only justification for the savagery that the “civilised” Europeans practised against those they called savages.

One of the ironies of the discoveries is precisely the revelation of European backwardness, especially Iberian, at the very moment when European superiority over the world began to be asserted.

Another is the role of a large part of the Spanish Church, especially the Franciscan and Dominican orders, in defending the indigenous people from excessive exploitation by the colonisers.

The Church of the Inquisition, the defender of absurd scientific dogmas that, if respected, would have made the discoveries impossible, became the first institution to defend the Indians, to recognise that they had souls and were “equal” to Europeans, while constantly disrespecting their right to deviate from its norms.

While the Indians found defence in the Church, African slaves were considered exclusively as merchandise.

The Dominican friar Bartolomeu de Lãs Casas, one of the most ardent defenders of the American Indians, went so far as to request, in a letter to the prior of the order, that black slaves be sent to the colonies as soon as possible, in order to put an end to the cruelties practised against the Indians.

In fact, since 1512 the Indians had been considered Spanish citizens, albeit with restricted rights; the same was not true of the black slaves, who had no rights whatsoever.

SOURCE: Migliacci (1997, p. 69)

5. In this chapter we have seen that:

  • The first thirty years of Brazil’s history were one of relative abandonment, because during this period, the Portuguese were not interested in colonising Brazil, as it did not offer the possibility of profits for the crown.
  • The first thirty years of Brazil’s history were one of relative abandonment.
  • In the first thirty years, only the trade in brazilwood provided any profit for Portugal.
  • During this period, a number of coastguard expeditions were organised to maintain possession of the land.

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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