Empire in the Americas, Portuguese

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Empire in the Americas, Portuguese

The Portuguese were among the first Europeans to establish colonies in the Americas. Portugal was also one of the first imperial states to grant independence to its colonies in the Western Hemisphere. A range of factors made the Portuguese Empire in the Americas unique, and these have had long-lasting implications and ramifications. Portuguese explorers played a significant role in opening areas in the region for further exploration and exploitation by other imperial states, including the introduction of the modern slave system. Furthermore, Portugal's territory was not divided into smaller colonies, which in the long term allowed the emergence of Brazil as a unified regional power. In addition, the Portuguese Empire was the only major imperial power that transferred its monarchy to the colonies.


Portugal attempted to establish colonies in Africa, but the defeat of a Portuguese army in Tangier, Morocco, in 1436 led the kingdom increasingly to concentrate on sea explorations in search of an alternate route to Asia that would bypass the Venetian-controlled trade routes in the Mediterranean. The Portuguese subsequently established a number of colonies and trade factories along the coast of Africa, which proved highly profitable through the export of slaves and gold.

Meanwhile, Portuguese maritime explorations continued, and in 1487 Bartholomeu Dias (ca. 1450–1500) sailed around the Cape of Good Hope. In 1498 Vasco da Gama (ca. 1469–1524) landed in India and established trading posts that were to be the building blocks of Portugal's great maritime empire in Asia. After succeeding in finding a maritime route to the East, Portugal left Spain to concentrate on the Americas, opened up by Christopher Columbus's (1451–1506) voyages in 1492. But when the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) divided the world between Portugal and Spain along a north-south line 1,770 kilometers (1,100 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands, Portugal unwittingly acquired the land that was to become known as Brazil.

In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral (ca. 1467–1520) discovered Brazil when seeking a more direct route to India. While in the Americas, Cabral acquired brazilwood (a red wood that came to be highly sought after as a source of dye and that lent its name to the new colony in South America). A year later, Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512) further explored the coast of modern Brazil in a series of expeditions sponsored by Portugal.

During this period, the Portuguese concentrated on exporting brazilwood from the Americas but did not seek to establish any large colonies. Instead, Lisbon devoted its attention and resources to its growing empire in Africa and Asia. The early explorers had found the coastal areas of Brazil to be sparsely populated and judged that the area's economic value was limited. Beginning in 1500, the crown offered leases to Brazilian merchant groups, but by 1506 the monarchy took direct control of the trade posts after the leases failed to attract significant interest. However, individual Portuguese merchants began to cultivate sugarcane in Pernambuco in the 1520s.

The combination of brazilwood and sugarcane made the crown reconsider the potential importance of its trade factories in Brazil, and in 1530 King João III (1502–1557) launched an initiative to create a more substantial colony. Strategic reasons also added impetus to the decision, including imperial competition in the region from France (a Portuguese expedition in 1503 discovered French incursions into Brazilian territory). The king dispatched Martín Alfonso de Sousa (d. 1564) with a fleet and instructions to rid Brazil of any French presence and to establish settlements (the French argued that Portuguese claims to territory were invalid because there were no permanent settlements in the areas claimed by Lisbon). De Sousa founded two towns, São Vicente and São Paulo.


João III ushered in the era of Portuguese colonization in Brazil in 1533 with the donatory captaincies. Under this unique system, the monarchy divided Brazil into fifteen zones, or captaincies (these were royal gifts, known as donatarios, granted to various courtiers and royal favorites). Each grant extended about 241 kilometers (150 miles) in length and reached into the unknown interior. These land grants were hereditary, and the monarchy hoped they would lead to a new class of colonial aristocracy. The captaincies had control over trade and taxes in their jurisdictions, except for royal monopolies.

Only two of the captaincies were economically successful, but these became enormously wealthy through sugar cultivation, and Brazil became the world's largest producer of sugar by the 1570s. The failure of the other donatarios led João to reassert royal control in the 1540s and to appoint a governor-general in 1549. In addition, during the 1540s the settlements faced growing attacks from the Tupi-speaking natives. Tomé de Sousa (d. 1573) served as the first governor-general (1549–1553). His tenure was marked by significant increases in revenues and a series of military efforts against the natives and French raiders. He also founded the colonial capital, Salvador.

Relations between the natives and the Portuguese were initially cooperative. However, the donatory system displaced tribes, and the rise of sugarcane plantations led to efforts to enslave native peoples. The result was armed conflict between Portuguese settlers and natives. Accompanying de Sousa was a company of Jesuits who endeavored to convert the natives. Through their efforts, the crown created two classes of Native Americans. One category classified natives as peaceful and able to be converted (and therefore granted certain protections under the auspices of the Jesuits), while the second category was reserved for Native Americans who resisted conversion and consequently could be enslaved. Natives who converted to Christianity were resettled into Jesuit-controlled enclaves known as aldeias. These settlements were more successful in the southern regions. Several epidemics had devastating impacts on the indigenous population, and by 1563 some one-third to one-half of the native population had been wiped out.

Sugar cultivation required significant numbers of laborers, and the need for labor accelerated the slave trade to the Americas. In 1534 Portugal began shipping criminals to Brazil as laborers, but the relatively small numbers were not sufficient to meet demand. The Portuguese settlers were unable to enslave natives on a scale sufficient to meet their requirements. The Portuguese had started importing African slaves into Europe in 1441 and into the Spanish colonies in 1510, so that by the time of the sugar boom in Brazil, the trade had matured and was regulated through private contracts.

The crown granted official approval to import slaves into Brazil in 1559, and the slave trade dramatically increased in the 1570s. In 1570 there were about 3,000 slaves in Brazil, about 15,000 by 1600, and by 1650 more than 200,000. Brazil ultimately received 42 percent of all slaves imported into the Americas (more than any other single colony).


Growing profits from sugar cultivation led to renewed interest in Brazil from the other colonial powers. In 1555 the French established a significant colony in Guanabara Bay. Known as France Antarctique, the colony was destroyed in 1567 by Mem de Sá (d. 1572), Brazil's third governor-general, who founded Rio de Janeiro on the site of the former French settlement. Subsequent French attempts to establish a new colony failed. The French did establish a major colony, France Équinoxiale, in 1611, but Portuguese troops captured the settlement in 1615 and permanently prevented any further French settlement.

There were long-running colonial conflicts between Portugal and Spain, which were exacerbated by political struggles in Europe. In 1580, however, Portugal and Spain began a period of dual monarchy under the Hapsburgs. The dual monarchy lasted until 1640, and the period was marked by a reduction of imperial tensions between the two powers. Afterwards, tensions resumed over territory around the Río de la Plata. The Portuguese built a settlement at Sacramento in 1680 on land claimed by Spain and far beyond the western boundary of the Portuguese Empire as established by the Treaty of Tordesillas. Sacramento also became a hub for smuggling goods into and out of Spanish-controlled territory.

In 1726 Spain struck back by establishing Montevideo on territory that Portugal claimed. The Treaty of Madrid (1750) fixed the borders of the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas but did not completely end colonial conflict between the two powers: In 1776 the Spanish sent a large army to stem Portuguese incursions into its territory in the River Plate region.

During the 1600s, the Dutch emerged as the main rival to Portugal in the Americas. The conflict between Holland and Portugal had its roots in the period of the dual monarchy, which coincided with the Dutch struggle for independence against the Spanish. There were repeated Dutch incursions against the Brazilian colonies during the early 1600s. The Dutch captured the colonial capital Salvador in 1624 and other towns, and these areas remained under Dutch control until 1654. Intermittent conflict continued until a lasting peace agreement was signed in 1661.


Gold was discovered in the interior in 1693 in the region that, because of its mining, was called Minas Gerais, or the General Mines. This discovery accelerated the transformation of the colony from a coastal settlement to one with significant infrastructure in the interior regions. The discovery also prompted a new wave of settlement by Portuguese and other European adventurers and put new pressures on the native population. The gold rush further accelerated the slave trade as new slaves were imported to work in the mines. The new wealth led Lisbon to concentrate more resources and attention on Brazil as the colony became the greatest source of wealth for the empire. Other precious stones, including diamonds, were also discovered, further enhancing the economic strength of the colony.

In 1755 a severe earthquake in Lisbon led to a period of benign neglect of the colonies. The disaster enhanced the powers of the prime minister, José de Carvalho e Melo (1699–1782), the marquis de Pombal, who became a hero through his management of the disaster relief. Pombal was subsequently able to gain a great deal of influence over the monarchy. He enacted a range of reforms designed to enhance Portugal's wealth and power, known collectively as the Pombaline reforms. Pombal eliminated certain concessions enjoyed by foreign merchants, especially the British. He also reformed the economic codes that regulated the sugar and diamond trade and created chartered companies to oversee trade in northern Brazil and Portugal's fishing industry. His greatest impact on the kingdom's American colonies was the expulsion of the Jesuits, whose exile he ordered in the belief that they held too much power and influence, especially in the remote areas of Brazil. Pombal later fell out of favor and was dismissed in 1777.


The British and Portuguese were allies during wars with Holland, and a series of treaties, signed in 1642, 1654, and 1661, granted the British commercial and trade concessions in the Portuguese colonies. In addition, Portugal allied itself with Great Britain during the European dynastic wars of the early to mid 1700s.

In 1807 the French ruler Napoléon Bonaparte (1769–1821) invaded Portugal through Spain. Portugal became the center of the British land effort to defeat Napoléon. To escape the advancing French forces, the regent, Dom João (1769–1826), the son of the mentally unbalanced Queen Maria I (1734–1816), and his court fled to Brazil (the escape was aided by the British, who ultimately moved some fifteen thousand Portuguese to Brazil and lent the government $3 million to keep it solvent). Rio de Janeiro became the new capital of the Portuguese Empire, and colonial officials in Brazil gained new power and influence. Even after Portugal was liberated from French forces, the monarchy remained in Rio.

In 1815, following the death of Maria I and the installation of João as King João VI, Brazil was elevated to the status of a kingdom with a dual monarchy. João increasingly sought to centralize power, and he launched an unpopular war to conquer Uruguay. As a result, a series of Brazilian rebellions broke out in 1817. These were known as the Pernambuco Revolution after the province where the insurrection started. The rebellion failed, but it seriously undermined the monarchy. In 1820 a military rebellion in Portugal forced the return of the king and court while republican revolts spread across Brazil.

In September 1821 the Portuguese Parliament abolished Brazil's status as a separate kingdom and sent troops to bolster the colonial government. João's son, Dom Pedro (1798–1834), who was serving as regent, led a revolt and declared Brazilian independence on September 7, 1822. He subsequently established a new imperial government with himself as Emperor Pedro I.

see also African Slavery in the Americas; Brazilian Independence; Henry the Navigator, Prince; Mining, the Americas; Sugar Cultivation and Trade.


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