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Who were the country’s first settlers?


On April 22, 1500, a Portuguese navigator called Pedro Alvares Cabral reached the shores of Brazil. The country took its name from “brazilwood”, a redwood tree commonly found along the Brazilian coastline that was ordinarily used to dye garments back in Europe.

Present-Day Map of Brazil and its neighbors

Pedro Álvares Cabral
Pedro Álvarez Cabral

While Spanish navigators set out in search of a route to Asia by sailing westward from Europe, Portuguese sailors opted instead for sailing progressively southward along the African coast. Portuguese navigators reached the Cape of Good Hope at the southernmost tip of Africa in 1487, and in 1498, led by Vasco da Gama, opened the sea route from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and then to the Far East.

Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama and the route of his famous
voyage to India around Africa (1497-1498)

In 1494, the "Treaty of Tordesillas" between Spain and Portugal settled the dispute about lands yet to be discovered. According to the treaty, territories lying east of an imaginary north-south line located 370 leagues west of Cape Verde Islands would belong to Portugal, and lands to the west of that imaginary line would be under Spanish control. This division, extending from pole to pole, dissected the easternmost part of the South American continent and defined Brazil's first frontier (although the discovery by Pedro Alvares Cabral did not take place until six years later, in 1500). Brazil's territory as shaped by the meridian of Tordesillas can be seen on the maps below.


Early Brazilian maps showing the Tordesillas' meridian


How did Brazil acquire such a large territory?

In 1578, the King of Portugal died and left no successor. Seizing this opportunity to claim the throne in Lisbon for himself, the Spanish King Philip II united Spain and Portugal, which remained under his rule from 1580 to 1640.

Ironically, the sixty-year union between Portugal and Spain triggered a substantial expansion of the Brazilian territory. With the absence of boundaries, both Portuguese and Brazilian settlers began moving westward and further into Brazil’s hinterland, thus unwittingly expanding the borders of the future independent country.

The main starting point for these explorations was the region of São Vicente in present-day São Paulo. These explorers were known as "Bandeirantes".  


In 1640, the Duke of Bragança, later Joao IV, was able to reclaim the Portuguese Crown, with the assistance of England and Holland. The lands that had been occupied west of the original Tordesillas remained in Portuguese hands afterwards.

In the beginning, Brazil’s economy relied primarily on sugar production and the exploitation of gold and precious stones, along with cattle ranching and other agricultural activities. To carry out such endeavors, increasing tracts of South American uninhabited land were progressively incorporated into Brazil by Portuguese settlers.

Sugar cane harvest and a sugar cane farm, the "engenho"


Brazilian gemstones

The discovery of gold brought migrants from the coastal plantations over to the interior of the country together with new immigrants from Portugal. The boom in gold and diamond mining, like that of sugar, was followed by the rise of another important source of wealth for which Brazil is well known today – coffee growing. Coffee plantations drew even more foreign immigrants to the country.

These economic activites helped shape the country’s territorial expansion up to the 19th century. Since then, borderlines were defined by diplomacy. Brazil did not fight any war for that purpose. All of its borders were negotiated peacefully with the neighbouring countries. In the maps below we can have an idea of the evolution on Brazil’s borders.

Brazil and the Americas after the Treaty of Madrid (1750)
and the map of Brazil in 1887


"Colhedores de Café" by Cândido Portinari and a man drying coffee

How did Brazil become independent from Portugal?


In the first decade of the 19th century, Europe was in turmoil. France's attempt to dominate Europe met with English resistance, and, as consequence, Napoleon tried to prevent other countries from trading with England. Claiming neutrality, Portugal continued to honor previous trade treaties with England. But France and Spain signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1807 and agreed to divide Portugal between them. Soon after that , Napoleon ordered an invasion of Portugal.

Before Napoleon’s troops could reach Portugal, Queen Maria I and her son, Prince João VI (see picture above) left the country and sailed to Brazil. They arrived in January 1808, and remained until 1821. Napoleon's dominance of Portugal had ended in 1815, but Joao VI chose to stay in Rio de Janeiro, even after the death of his mother in 1816. In 1821, however, he yielded to political pressures from Portugal, and returned to Lisbon, leaving Pedro, the Crown Prince, in Rio as "Regent Viceroy ".

The presence of the royal family for a period of 14 years substantially changed Brazil’s economic environment. The country came to know a higher level of autonomy and modernization. João VI nullified previous Portuguese laws that  prohibited local manufaturing of textiles, gunpowder, and glass, as well as the building of wheat mills. These measures were adopted as a means to ease the transition toward political independence.

Back in Lisbon, politicians did not like the way things were going, whereas in Brazil Pedro's advisers promoted the idea of independence. Barely a year after João VI's return to Portugal, the Crown Prince proclaimed the independence from Portugal, on September 7, 1822, and had himself crowned Emperor of Brazil, under the name Pedro I. While the Spanish viceroyalties in the Americas had to fight fiercely for their independence, to end up as several different republics, Portugal and Brazil settled the matter by negotiation, with Great Britain acting as a broker.

Flag of the Brazilian Empire (1822-1889)


Brazilian Currency during the Monarchy. Pedro II's reign lasted from 1840 to 1889


When did Brazil become a Republic?

Brazil remained a monarchy for almost 70 years, that is, from 1822 to 1889. The transition from Monarchy to Republic took place without bloodshed. The absence of an “independence war” in Brazil is largely credited to the positive influence of the “enlightened” monarch Pedro II, who succeded Pedro I. Brazil became a federal republic in November 15, 1889.

Brazilian Flag after 1889


Did Brazil fight many wars?

      Paraguay War

The history of Brazil is remarkably peaceful. Brazil has ten neighboring countries, yet the last war fought against any of them took place more than a century ago - a war against Paraguay, that lasted from 1864 to 1870.


In World War II, Brazil was part of the Allied forces. A 25,000-men Brazilian force (see the picture), attached to the U.S. Fifth Army, was sent to Italy. Brazil was the only country in the Americas, besides the U.S. and Canada, to send armed forces to fight in the Second World War.


     Brazilian Expeditionary Force


Recent History

     President Juscelino Kubitschek

From 1956 to 1960, Brazil experienced five years of high economic growth under President Juscelino Kubitschek.

In 1960, crowning his endeavor, the futuristic city of Brasilia was inaugurated as the new capital city.


Brasília, the capital of Brazil, inaugurated in 1960

From 1964 to 1985, Brazil, like many other Latin American countries, was under the rule of military leaders. It was the time of the so called "cold war" between the United States and the Soviet Union. Between 1964 and 1990 there were no popular elections for President. In the late 1970s the country gradually returned to democratic rule. In 1982, direct elections were held for state governorships for the first time since 1965, and in 1990 direct presidential elections took place.

How is Brazil governed today?

Luís Inácio Lula da Silva,
President of Brazil

Today, Brazil is a vibrant democracy. The current President, Luís Inácio Lula da Silva, took office in January, 2003. The inaugural ceremony, in Brasília, was quite a party, with people from all over the country, as you can see below.