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Bandeiras, large companies of armed colonists and Indian warriors that left the captaincy of São Vicente and penetrated the vast wilderness to the north, west, and south in search of gold and Indian slaves in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries. The bandeirantes (participants in the bandeiras) are responsible for the exploration of the great Brazilian west, numerous discoveries of gold, and the enslavement of thousands of Indians.

The first bandeiras were organized in the late sixteenth century as prospecting expeditions in search of gold and precious minerals, but the failure to find significant lodes shifted the focus to Indian slaving. Outfitted in the town of São Paulo, bandeiras included whites, Mamelucos, and Indians. They carried arms, gunpowder, lead, collars, chains, bows, and arrows. Gone for months, even years, at a time, the expeditions subsisted off of manioc flour and food hunted from the forest. These expeditions were financed privately from São Vicente by investors who expected to be rewarded with gold or Indian slaves.

The Guarani Indians living in Jesuit missions became the targets of the slaving bandeiras. Manoel Preto led attacks against the missions in the 1610s. In 1628, Antônio Rapôso Tavares led a bandeira of some three thousand men to Guairá, where he attacked and burned several missions, enslaved the Indians, and marched them back to São Vicente. Later bandeiras led by André Fernandes and Paulo de Amaral destroyed other missions. Soon thereafter the Jesuits moved their remaining missions to what is today Rio Grande do Sul, Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, and Mato Grosso. The bandeiras followed them and continued to take slaves.

In response to intense lobbying by the Jesuits, Pope Urban VIII issued a bull (1639) which reiterated the freedom of Indians and excommunicated those who held Indians in servitude. In São Paulo an angry town council responded by expelling the Jesuits from São Vicente. The Jesuits also received permission to arm their Indians in self-defense. The fortified missions then repulsed the bandeiras. A bandeira led by Pascoal Leite Paes was turned back in 1639, as was another at the Mbororé River in 1641. Thereafter, the bandeiras left the missions alone. Slaving continued, however, against tribal Indians.

A new phase of bandeirante activity began in the 1690s, when the first substantial discoveries of gold were made in Minas Gerais. Large bandeiras, led by former Indian slavers, were mounted to search for precious metals. Veteran bandeirante Bartolomeo Bueno da Silva, the younger, trekked through Goiás, where he discovered gold in the 1720s. Fernão Dias Pais sought emeralds in a quixotic quest that yielded only tourmalines.

The Crown used bandeiras for political ends. Some expeditions were outfitted to wage war against Indian enemies or runaway slaves. A bandeira led by Domingos Jorge Velho destroyed the quilombo of Palmares in the 1690s. Antônio Rapôso Tavares led a bandeira across South America in 1647 to reconnoiter a possible route to Peru. His expedition logged 7,000 miles through the Chaco, the eastern Andes, and down the Madeira and Amazon rivers to the Atlantic Ocean. Bandeirantes explored the far west and claimed it for Portugal. They were soon followed by a wave of prospectors, slaves, farmers, and traders who effectively won the far west for Brazil.

See alsoEntrada; Gems and Gemstones; Gold Rushes, Brazil; Mining: Colonial Brazil; Slavery: Brazil.


Richard M. Morse, The Bandeirantes: The Historical Role of the Brazilian Pathfinders (1965).

Alcantra Machado, Vida e morte do bandeirante (1978).

John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians (1978).

Additional Bibliography

Guimarães, Acyr Vaz. A saga bandeirante: De São Vicente ao Chuí, dos campos de Piratininga às minas do Cuiabá. Campo Grande-MS: UCDB, 2004.

Santos, Márcio. Estradas reais: Introdução ao estudo dos caminhos do ouro e do diamante no Brasil. Belo Horizonte: Editora Estrada Real, 2001.

                                            Alida C. Metcalf