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Ceará, a state in northeastern Brazil, covers 58,150 square miles and in 2000 had an estimated population of 6.5 million. Its capital is Fortaleza. Located partly on the sandy coastal plain and partly on semiarid uplands, Ceará suffers periodic droughts. The state is economically reliant upon cotton, sugar, tobacco, carnauba wax, and other agricultural products. Forty percent of the population lives in the countryside, and rural poverty has been widespread throughout its history.

The French presence among Indian populations inhibited early Portuguese settlement of the area, but ranchers pressed into the interior during the 1600s. Occupied by the Dutch from 1637 until 1654, the region was part of Maranhão until 1680, when it became a dependency of Pernambuco. Ceará became an independent captaincy in 1799, a province of the empire in 1822, and a state of the republic in 1889.

In the 1700s the economy centered on cattle ranching and sugar. In the 1800s the long-staple cotton crop rose to prominence, particularly during the American Civil War. Ceará's unprecedented prosperity, resulting from a surge in cotton exports, ended with a severe drought in 1877–1879. The drought overwhelmed attempts to provide relief, and an estimated 200,000 to 500,000 people died of starvation and disease. Roughly 30 to 50 percent of Ceará's population emigrated or perished.

By 1880 property had been devastated throughout the northeast, and slaves were virtually the only negotiable commodity. Many slaves were shipped south in exchange for food and in order to conserve local food supplies. Since the 1860s and perhaps earlier, free workers had performed most of Ceará's agricultural labor, but access to southern markets bolstered slave prices. In the early 1880s, laws restricting interprovincial slave trading undercut slaves' value in Ceará. Abolitionism gained momentum, and the province abolished slavery in 1884, four years before the national emancipation law. Ceará's action served a symbolic function for abolitionism elsewhere in Brazil.

Between 1877 and 1915 four major droughts struck the state, prompting massive migrations of sertanejos (inhabitants of the interior). Some fled to cities within Ceará, while others were attracted to coffee production in the south and work in the rubber tree forests of Amazonas and Pará. Although Ceará's government collected a head tax on emigrants, the loss of manpower resulted in a chronic labor shortage lasting into the 1920s. Economic hardships during this period also abetted the coalescence of sertanejos around Padre Cícero Romão Batista of Joaseiro (now Juazeiro do Norte). The priest held sway over much of the state from the mid 1910s until his death in 1934.

Despite Ceará's chronic and intractable problems, which are similar to those in the rest of the northeast, the state became known nationally and internationally in the 1990s for a series of pragmatic and effective governments led by Tasso Jereissati and Ciro Gomes. Their public works programs provided employment in an expeditious fashion to many during the 1987 drought, and evidently operated in something other than the traditional patron-client fashion. Health care improved, and infant mortality declined significantly. Ceará became the first Latin American government to receive UNICEF's Maurice Pate Award for its children's programs. Agriculturally, there have been some setbacks, especially in terms of the damage that the boll weevil has done to cotton production.

See alsoMessianic Movements: Brazil; Slavery: Brazil; Slave Trade.


Conrad, Robert. The Destruction of Brazilian Slavery, 1850–1888. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Della Cava, Ralph. Miracle at Joaseiro. New York: Columbia University Press, 1970.

Tendler, Judith. Good Government in the Tropics. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

                                 Andrew J. Kirkendall