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Brazil is the largest most populous and economically powerful country in South America.

Brazil is a very large country of just over 8,500,000 square kilometres sharing borders with 10 other South American nations. It is situated on the eastern side of the continent has 7,691 kilometres of Atlantic coastline.

Prior to becoming an independent nation in 1822, Brazil was a Portuguese colony.

In 1499, a vessel under the command of Vincente Yañez Pinçon, who had sailed on Colombus’ first expedition (1492-3), sighted land near Cabo de Santo Agostinho (Cape St Augustine), about 37 Kilometres south of the present day city of Recife.

Pinçon then sailed north rounding Cabo de Saõ Roque and ranged north east along the coast to the mouth of the Amazon River, from where he sailed to the estuary of the Orinoco River. He claimed the land in the name of the Spanish Monarchy, returning with specimens of precious minerals, medicinal plants and Brazil wood.

The following year Brazil was claimed in the name of the Portuguese crown by Pedro Alvarez Cabral, whom King Manuel I had sponsored to follow the course of Vasco da Gama to the Indies. On learning of Cabral’s landing at present day Porto Seguro, Manuel dispatched a fleet under the command of Amerigo Vespucci, but this voyage was unsuccessful.

A second expedition, again commanded by Vespucci, established a small, fortified settlement on the Brazilian coast, although the Portuguese monarchy showed relatively little interest in exploiting their new territory for several decades.

The Portuguese crown had little interest in becoming directly involved in colonial settlement, preferring to invest its resources in strengthening trading ventures in India. From the reign of Dom João (John) III (1521-57), colonisation occurred by much the same system used to secure Madeira and the Azores. Ambitious members of the aristocracy and wealthy entrepreneurs were given hereditary titles to large tracts of land together with wide ranging governmental and judicial power. These titles were called capitaços (captaincies).

The economy of the colony developed slowly during the sixteenth century shifting from reliance on exportation of Brazil wood to producing cattle and sugarcane, introduced in the middle decades of the century from Madeira. The century also saw the Roman Catholic Church undertake missionary activity, with the first Bishop of Brazil being appointed in 1522.

The failure of settlement by capitaços in many coastal regions left Brazil exposed to occupation by other Europeans. This led the Portuguese crown to intervene, replacing the abandoned capitaço of the Bahia region in 1549 with a royal governor-general, accompanied by judicial and administrative officials, and supported by a colonists capable of serving as a military force.

After Philip II of Spain gained the Portuguese crown in 1578, Brazil became part of the Spanish Empire until 1640. Spanish disinterest in the colony served further to encourage French, Dutch and British adventurers.

In 1640, the house Bragança gained the throne of an independent Portugal that had lost much of its India and Eastern Asian empire. Brazil assumed new importance as a source of wealth, especially after the discovery of gold in 1694 and diamonds in 1729.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese crown variously reorganized how the colony was ruled in order to consolidate its power and maximize revenue derived from colonial produce. Governmental reforms extinguished much of the power and feudal privileges enjoyed by the inheritors of the capitaços granted in the early decades of settlement.

The prosperity derived from mining was a critical factor in the defeat of French aggression in 1710-12, leaving Spain as the only serious threat to its Brazilian territories.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the colony’s exploitable reserves of diamonds and precious metals were exhausted. The spread of cattle raising and agriculture in the colony’s southern regions could not prevent economic depression and a serious decline in royal revenue when worsening relations with Spain necessitated greatly increased spending on defence.

Between 1756 and 1777, the Portuguese government, headed by Sebastião José de Cavalho e Melo, implemented various reforms designed to increase monarchical control of Brazil, stimulate economic activity and ensure Portugal was the prime beneficiary of trade with the colony. Among the reforms were the creation of new government monopolies, a new fiscal system, and the transfer of the office of Viceroy to Captaincy-general of Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

The reforms had mixed consequences, though perhaps most importantly they led to younger members of the colonial elite desiring independence from Portugal, especially after Britain conceded it had lost the revolutionary war with its North American colonies.

Despite the savage repression of uprisings in 1789, aspirations towards self-determination grew during the years of revolutionary in Europe and in 1822 Brazil became an independent nation.

Related Entries for Brazil
Parties: Viceroy of Brazil

Places: Rio de Janeiro

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Prepared by: Turnbull, P
Created: 4 October 2001
Modified: 10 December 2003

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000066

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