top of page

What motivated European colonialism of Brazil?


To some extent, Brazil’s colonial history fits into the general framework of Latin America but in other ways, particularly due to its geographic proximity to Africa, it is unique. Unlike regions of Mexico and Peru/Ecuador that fell under the control of the Aztec and Incan empires, Brazil’s indigenous populations never merged into a unified political entity. Brazil’s indigenous peoples, perhaps due to the harsh terrain of the Amazon and the Sertao, lived in smaller and more loosely settled nations. Like the rest of the Western Hemisphere, however, European colonization during the 16th century took place through a long, circuitous process of encounters, trade, conquest, rebellion, and war. 

The Europeans who arrived in the Americas in the late 15th century encountered a densely populated region. While it is impossible to accurately deduce the Pre-Columbian population, estimations point to a population of 40 to 70 million people. Soon after Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the Caribbean islands, the pope helped negotiate and ratify a 1494 treaty between Spain and Portugal called the Treaty of Tordesillas. This agreement, which was eventually modified slightly, divided the Americas into a western part to be controlled by Spain and an eastern part to be controlled by Portugal. At the time, neither country knew how much land would be found and what it would look like. This division explains why Brazilians mostly speak Portuguese whereas the rest of Latin America mostly speaks Spanish and are called Hispanic. Brazilians today qualify as Latinos, but not as Hispanic because they speak a Latin-based language but not Spanish.

Europeans did not arrive in Brazil until 1498, when in the midst of a journey to India, the Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares de Cabral was blown off course and landed unexpectedly there. Coming from a land that had been mostly deforested, the first Portuguese explorers gazed in awe at the verdant, lush forest that spread its roots and canopies along the Atlantic coast.

When Pedro Álvares de Cabral’s fleet landed, they immediately sought the two most important natural resources for voyagers: water and fuel. He noted in his journal: “On Tuesday, after eating, we went on land to take care of wood and wash clothes.” The indigenous tribesmen repeatedly helped them haul wood and place it on the ships. He also recorded one of the first symbolic acts of missionary activity: “While we cut wood, two carpenters build a large cross, from wood that they had cut for this the day before.” 

The initial motivation for exploitation lay within the deep red hues of one species of flora: the pau-brasil, or the brazilwood tree. Jean de Lery wrote: “brazilwood (from which this land has taken the name that we use for it) is among the most famous trees, and now one of the best known to us and (because of the dye made from it) is the most valued.” When the core of the tree mixed with water the result was a brilliant reddish-violet hue that would prove valuable on the European market. 

Much of Latin America, including Brazil, from then on developed into what later sociologists called “colonies of exploitation” as opposed to those in North America, which were termed “settlement colonies.” According to this theory, those colonists who ventured to the New World to make real homes, such as the Pilgrims in Massachusetts, generally created better societies than those who came to exploit the land and extract the riches and minerals so as to send them back to the metropolis, or homeland. After the Portuguese exploitation of the“Brazil-tree” led to severe deforestation, the colonizers moved on to exploit the even more lucrative crop of sugar and the labor that went along with it. 

Stuart Schwartz, a prominent historian of colonial Brazil, describes sugar as “the reason d’etre of the colony” and it was a reason that had a deep thirst for fieldhands. By 1676, 130 sugar-mills were active in the region surrounding Salvador, a city that served, because of its preeminence in sugar production, as the colonial capital. Many church orders, including the Jesuits (who owned six sugar mills), were deeply involved in the sugar industry.

The Portuguese attempted to use native labor in the sugar plantations and mills through wage labor. But while the Tupinamba once willingly cut and transported timber, they dreaded the drudgery of the heavy labor in the mills – the endless cutting and pressing of the cane, the brewing, and the heat of the furnaces. They simply refused to produce sugar voluntarily, at any wage.” So then the Portuguese tried slavery. Since the colonists depended on the sugar industry for profit and they needed labor, they resorted to slavery. 

With an inadequate local supply of slaves, in the late 16th century the Portuguese encouraged natives to attack rival tribes and then they resorted to direct enslavement through brutal force and kidnapping along the coast and into the interior, taking in 2,000-3,000 slaves annually. Mem de Sa casually depicted his destruction of the Tupinkin tribe: 


“I attacked the village and destroyed it and killed all who tried to resist. On the 

return I came burning and destroying all the villages that lay behind…They now

 dared only to live in the hills and forests, where they ate dogs…Forced by 

necessity, they came to beg for mercy. I granted them peace on condition that they must be subjects of His Majesty and pay tribute and rebuild the mills. They accepted everything and did so…”


Brazil’s indigenous populations like the Tupinkin, the Tupi-Guarani and the Potiguar made important choices during this period. Either they allied with the newcomers to gain power vis-a-vis other native nations or they fought back. When they resisted colonization violently, they often succeeded for a considerable length of time. Eventually, however, the onslaught of newly introduced diseases like smallpox proved catastrophic and nearly annihilated indigenous communities and their capacity for military resistance. 


How did colonialism re-create Brazilian society?

During the colonial period, sugar and timber indirectly became the catalyst for, and sometimes even the carrier of, the introduction of other biological organisms –smallpox and yellow fever—which transformed Brazil. Sugar brought slaves from Africa and “the primary source of smallpox contagion in Brazil was tropical Africa.” It was a vicious cycle: disease killed natives, so the Portuguese brought African slaves, who carried diseases that killed natives, so then they brought more slaves.  

The first smallpox epidemic in Brazil occurred in Bahia, from 1562 to 1565, only after the introduction of sugar to the colony. It devastated the region and killed about 30,000 natives within a few months, including one-third of those who lived in Jesuit aldeias. The decimation of native populations led the Portuguese, determined to work for sugar’s future and to profit from it,  to search out another source of labor; they began to import millions of slaves from West Africa to work on the sugar plantations, especially in northeast Brazil in towns like the colonial capital of Salvador, Bahia. It is generally accepted that the existence of African slavery in the Americas was not inevitable; rather, it sprung from the labor demands in sugar plantations once Indian chattel slavery was no longer viable. In a vicious cycle, diseases decimated Indian populations, forcing the importation of African slaves, which then resulted in more epidemics – all to ensure the constant production of sugar. Sugar was the common cause of all of these consequences.

Hence, in the 1550s there were very few African slaves in Brazil, but three decades later about 2,000 West African laborers toiled in the fields of Pernambuco. In 1572, seven percent of the slaves in Engenho Sergipe in Bahia were Africans but by 1631 they all were. About 10,000-15,000 slaves arrived in Brazil each year by end of the first century of colonization. 

These African slaves brought foods such as millet and yams, religion, music, and dance that had a lasting influence on Brazilian culture. It is due to this complex colonial economy and the transfer and enslavement of slaves that Brazil and Brazilian culture was born. Much of what Brazilians hold dear, such as percussion music, samba, capoeira, and feijoada, trace their roots to African cultural influences.

The Atlantic coast of Brazil, in 1700, looked strikingly different from its appearance two centuries before. In 1500, large populations of indigenous villagers planted manioc, hunted game, and warred against enemy tribes, while children played under the cool canopy of a lush and extensive tropical forest, home to chirping birds and magnificent flowers. The first two centuries of colonization witnessed a dramatic demographic transformation, as the land’s population, once entirely indigenous, became largely a conglomerate of white, black, and mulatto, mameluco and cafuso. 

Over time, sugar defined not only who lived in Brazil but also the Brazilian social hierarchy. The powerful elite built the sugar mills and sold their crop to wealthy merchants who oversaw the trans-Atlantic trade. The senhores de engenho (sugar mill owners) became faux-nobility, reminiscent of the old medieval Portuguese lords – objects of respect, admiration, and fealty. They dominated the town councils and became the local godfathers to children of the poor. Below the planters and merchants were tenant farmers, fisherman, and tradesmen such as carpenters, shipwrights, blacksmiths, and potters – many of whom were mulatto and all of whom one way or another were involved in the sugar industry. Lastly, of course, were the masses of slaves who toiled endlessly for no profit. Sugar and race thus defined social-class: senhores de engenho were all white; cane farmers were white and mulatto; artisans and technicians were mostly mulatto; slaves were nearly all black. Because of sugar, the dichotomy of freedom and servitude had become an entrenched reality in the colony. 


Question: What is the historical context of the following quotation? What event is it referring to?

“When this last tribulation was past, and they wanted to raise their heads a little, another illness engulfed them, far worse than the other.  It was so loathsome and evil-smelling...You can imagine how one’s heart was torn with pity at seeing so many children orphaned, so many women widowed.” 



Recommended viewing times: entire video

Guiding Questions:

  • How does the music in this video represent the culture legacy of Brazilian colonialism? 

bottom of page