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The Colonial Era, 1500-1815

Having completed our account of the Spanish dominions on the American continent, we come now to the only one held by Portugal. Brazil was discovered accidentally on April 22, 1500, by Pedro Alvarez Cabral, who was blown on the coast south of Bahia, while on his way to India. He took possession of the land for Portugal. But it remained long neglected. The first colony, called Sao Vicente, south of Rio Janeiro, was founded in 1532. Bahia was started in 1549, and became the capital.

The political development of colonial Brazil may be divided into three epochs. First, there was the confusion of early colonization, the unsuccessful attempt to establish a system of feudal captaincies, the struggles against the Indians, French, and Jesuits, and the search for a solid economic foundation for the new commonwealth. On the whole, this era contained the promise of the ultimate development of a freer governmental system than that of Portugal. The interior was an unknown wilderness. Why should it not contain El Dorado, that legendary dream of a land whose trees were purest gold and whose soil was filled with precious metals and sparkling gems? Naturally the Portuguese authorities are anxious to extend the dominions of the King. The entradas — that is, expeditions into the forest wilderness which occurred in the course of the sixteenth century, each started at some favorable point along the seashore, but every attempt failed; nothing at all had been achieved. In 1526 the Portuguese throne was occupied by Dom John III, who began to pay more attention to the American conquest. Next comes the bandeira [flag, the royal standard] with the same purposes as the entrada — that is, to bring back Indian captives, drive away fierce tribes, and discover mines. The entradas left no lasting or stable sign of their passage. The bandeirante strike into the interior following the course of rivers, traversing plain and forest, and the trails which they open are never again closed, but serve as the lines to mark the newly conquered lands.

In the west of Brazil the settlements were established at a striking distance from the coast, but in Sao Paulo the colonists could more easily spread over the open plains of the interior than along the mountainous coast. On top of their plateau they were cut off from ready communication with the mother country ; they struck out for themselves, and their development was something like that of the British in North America. They were the pioneers of Brazil, corresponding closely in character and habits, in the virtues of daring, hospitality, and self-confidence, and in the vices of cruelty, rudeness, and ignorance, with the pioneers of the Mississippi valley.

The Portuguese occupation of Brazil was induced solely by commercial considerations. Explorers and emigrants went out to make their fortunes, not to escape religious or political tyranny. When the first voyagers were disappointed in not finding gold mines, they turned their attention to brazil-wood. Soon the, suitability of the territory for sugar was discovered. The European demand for this luxury was increasing, and the Portuguese had become familiar with its culture in Africa. Cane was taken from Madeira and the Cape Verdes to Brazil before 1525, and there is a record of exportation at least as early as 1526.

Here was found the basis for the real colonization. From the very start the industry prospered in Pernambuco, and Brazil became the main source of the world's supply. By the middle of the sixteenth century Brazil contained one rapidly expanding colony of sugar planters, Pernambuco, which gave sure promise of wealth if not attacked from without, — a half dozen moribund settlements on the thousand miles of coast to the south, and an isolated but vigorous and self-sufficing group in Sao Paulo, whose inhabitants produced little for export, but who were reducing the aborigines to slavery in an expanding circle.

The smaller captaincies were little more than resorts for pirates and contraband traders in brazil-wood. The settlers were powerless to prevent the French expeditions which yearly became more numerous. There were short-lived French colonies at Bio Janeiro (1555-60), and Maranhao (1612-19). Next followed the Spanish dynasty and the wars against the Dutch. The Dutch seized Bahia in 1624, held it for a year, took Pernambuco in 1631, and formed a powerful colony there. But these colonists were constantly at war with Portugal, and were finally driven out in 1654. Control of Brazil by the home government was weakened, and the colonists learned their own military power.

The years following the expulsion of the Dutch — 1655 to 1700 — were the brightest politically in Brazil's colonial history. Brazil was governed by viceroys from 1640, and in 1762 the capital was changed to Rio Janeiro. The colonies developed rapidly in the eighteenth century. The municipalities, governed by local oligarchies of landowners, exercised functions not contemplated by the Portuguese code. Though the military governors were continually encroaching, and the system was imperfect, it was in essence thoroughly local. Its fundamental defect was the want of co-operation between the towns.

The third period began with the consolidation of Portugal's international position in the closing years of the seventeenth century. Once secure from foreign attacks, she renewed the exploitation of Brazil with redoubled eagerness. The discovery of the mines made the plunder enormous. At first there were resistance and even formidable rebellions like Beckman's in Maranhao, of the mascates in Pernambuco, or of the emboabas in Minas. But the civic vitality of the people was not great enough to sustain any continuous and effective opposition. Early in the eighteenth century the municipalities were already at the mercy of the military governors, and Brazil was governed partly by petty despots and partly by numerous feeble local bodies who were without cohesion or power to resist interference. Brazil would have remained a dependency of Portugal during an indefinite period had it not been for a series of events which arose in Europe out of the French Revolution.

By 1807 England was the only power which still defied Napoleon. Portugal had been Great Britain's ally for a century, but Napoleon found it necessary to have command of Lisbon and Porto in order to enforce his Berlin and Milan decrees. He peremptorily commanded Portugal to give up her English alliance. The pusillanimous John, who had been prince regent since the insanity of his mother in 1792, hesitated and shuffled, seeking to put off the emperor with negotiations and evasions and a show of hostility to England.

A single despatch indicating his double dealing was enough for Napoleon, who promptly made an agreement with Spain for the division of Portugal and ordered Junot to march on Lisbon. The people were ready to make a desperate resistance, but their king was in two minds each day, and the army had been withdrawn from the frontier to bid the British fleet a hypocritical defiance. John shed tears over his unhappy country, but prepared to save his own person.

When, in 1808, Napoleon drove the prince regent, Dom Joao, out of Portugal, the latter took refuge in Brazil, making Rio his capital. Succeeding to the Portuguese throne in 1816, he returned to Portugal in April, 1821, leaving his son, Dom Pedro, as regent. This prince placed himself at the head of a movement for independence, and on September 7, 1822, definitely refused obedience to Portugal.

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Page last modified: 15-04-2013 12:09:40 ZULU