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 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'
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 Brazils
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
Sugar cane harvest and a sugar cane
farm, the "engenho"
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 countrys
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 Brazils 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.
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 Napoleons 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
Portugal, and returned to Lisbon, leaving Pedro, the Crown Prince, in Rio as "Regent
The presence of the royal family
for a period of 14 years substantially changed Brazils 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?
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
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
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.