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The Colonial Era, 1500–1808

The Colonial Era, 1500–1808


The first European presence in what was initially called the Land of the True Cross (Terra da Vera Cruz) and later Brazil (in recognition of red dye-wood [pau brasil;cb) was the arrival in April 1500 of the fleet commanded by the Portuguese Pedro Alvares Cabral. After notifying the king, the fleet continued around Africa to India. As follow-up fleet to that of Vasco da Gama, which had inaugurated the sea route from Lisbon to India (1498), Cabral's ships had been destined for India. By sweeping out into the Atlantic to avoid the doldrums, Cabral sailed so far off course to the west as to encounter, by chance, the South American continent. In accordance with the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), he claimed the new land for Portugal. Although the Spaniard Vicente Yáñez Pinzón had preempted Cabral by a few months, this claim was not challenged. Other early travelers included the Florentine pilot Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed the coastline of Brazil to the Río de la Plata naming topographical features (1501–1502). The following quarter of a century was to witness landfalls on the coast, or residence, by other Europeans.

In a 1 May 1500 letter to King Manuel I, professional scribe Pero Vaz de Caminha reported on the coastal Tupinambá. He described well-built men, physically attractive and modest women, as well as their good health, nakedness, and bodily decoration. The Portuguese pursued a policy of pacification, and relations were cordial. The Tupinambá offered bows, arrows, cloths and hats made of feathers, parrots, and special beads, and received from the Portuguese red caps, linen bonnets, bracelets, and rosaries. Masses were said on shore. Vaz de Caminha extolled the beauties of the land, its agricultural promise, the innocence of the people, and their rich potential for conversion to Christianity.


Native American populations were the first victims of the European arrival. Friendly encounters gave way to hostilities, barter to slavery. Campaigns against the local people were initiated by Mem de Sá in Bahia in the 1570s. Indian-European relations were to be characterized by tension. To survive, Amerindians accommodated to European pressures, retreated beyond European spheres of influence, or resisted. By the end of the sixteenth century, they had been ousted from most coastal regions. But they could not escape European diseases (smallpox, measles, and common cold) to which they had no immunity, European mores (alcohol consumption and use of clothing), forced relocations, long migrations, and destruction of their beliefs. They were victims of paulista slaving Bandeiras, official and unofficial slaving expeditions in the Amazon, forced labor, unjustified attacks, and systematic genocide. In the sixteenth century, Amerindian peoples were enmeshed in Gallo-Portuguese hostilities, and the struggle against the Dutch in the seventeenth century found indigenous peoples divided in their loyalties, even within the same family. Gold rushes to Goiás and Mato Grosso took Europeans farther into Indian territories. European intrusions into Amazonia also had fatal results. The Amazonian population guesstimated at 2.4 million in 1500 had probably declined by half by 1808.

This drastic decline was in sharp contrast to the population increases of persons of Portuguese and African birth or descent. The number of Portuguese grew through immigration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, more slowly, through natural reproduction as more white women became available. Push and pull factors stimulated migration from Portugal and the Atlantic islands. Crown-sponsored migration occurred in the eighteenth century. The typical migrant was male, in his twenties or early thirties, from north of the Tagus, and of limited financial means. The absence of adequate regulatory procedures meant the virtual absence of immigration data. A greater crown presence, suppression of hostile groups, and economic upturns spurred migration in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This was accelerated by news of gold strikes in Brazil, which drained Portugal of three thousand to four thousand emigrants annually.

The third major component of Brazil's population was of African origin. Brazil was the major importer of slaves to the Americas. Estimates put this forced migration at between 4 and 5 million by 1810. The trade was dictated by supply and demand, internal conditions in Africa, and changing fads in Brazil. Its composition was characterized by a number of males double that of females, some young adults, and few children. Slaves in Brazil had low rates of natural reproduction and high mortality. In regions of greatest economic intensity, sugar and mining, there was a slave majority. By 1808, slaves made up about 38 percent and whites, free blacks, and mulattoes each about 28 percent of Brazil's population.

Excluding its indigenous, Brazil's population was about 30,000 in 1600, 300,000 by 1700, 2 million by 1776, and about 3 million by 1808. At the end of the colonial period, Amerindians in settled areas numbered only 6 percent of the population.


The two centuries following Cabral's landfall was characterized by reticence in going beyond coastal regions to the interior of the territory claimed by Portugal. Even along the coast, settlement was irregular. Only in the late sixteenth century were there tentative, and individual, moves away from the coast. In the seventeenth century, there was movement inland from coastal enclaves of Salvador and Recife to the agreste and sertão and northward to Belém and into the lower Amazon. People traveled from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo to the west and south. Increasing immigration from Portugal, Madeira, and the Azores, and internal migration fueled such moves. There was a variety of actors: slaves accompanied by owners; missionaries were pioneers to the far north, Amazonia, and far south; cattle ranchers went to Ceará, Piauí, Maranhão, and Minas Gerais; clerics and friars, authorized and unauthorized, roamed the colony; there were few white women or families. Bandeirantes, or pioneers, commonly associated with São Paulo but also from Bahia and Pernambuco, came closest to the stereotype of frontiersmen. They splayed out across Brazil as far as the Andes, the Platine region, and the far west.

In the mid-seventeenth century the bandeira of Antônio Rapôso Tavares traversed Brazil from São Paulo to Belém using interlocking river systems, and Fernão Dias Pais died searching for silver and emeralds in São Paulo and Minas Gerais (1681). Such treks, which lasted years, pioneered fluvial and terrestrial routes, and were undertaken strictly for profit in the form of Indian slaves, gold, and precious stones. Their predations on the periphery of Portuguese territories bordering on Upper Peru and New Granada, and to the south, with attacks into Spanish Guairá and Tape, disturbed Luso-Spanish relations.

Sparked by gold-rush fever, the first sustained moves to the west came in the eighteenth century. The São Francisco River and the river systems of Amazon-Madeira-Mamoré-Guaporé and Tieté-Paraná-Paraguay made the interior accessible. Portugal faced boundary disputes with Spain, notably in the Río de la Plata region. Through the treaties of Madrid (1750), Pardo (1761), and San Ildefonso (1777), and surveys of questionable accuracy, Portugal sought resolution of such disputes. By 1808, much of Brazil—not only on the peripheries but in the vast expanses between settlement nuclei—still was unsurveyed, and unknown and unsettled by Europeans. Settlements were isolated, huddled together around a major town. The frontier was a mathematical conundrum and geopolitical concept rather than a known quantity.

A yardstick for measuring such settlement is the establishment of townships. With the exception of São Paulo, before the eighteenth century urban development was predominantly on the coast. Urbanization was synonymous with port towns and cities—Belém, São Luís, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, Santos—which played multiple roles as commercial emporia, administrative centers, and defensive barriers. In the eighteenth century, the crown attempted to stabilize and regulate this moving population by elevating mining encampments to town status in Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso. By 1808, the greatest concentration of urban population was in the northeast. Salvador counted about 51,000; Recife, 25,000; and Rio de Janeiro, 50,000. São Paulo numbered about 24,000 in 1803 and Vila Rica 7,000 inhabitants in 1804. The population of Brazil was predominantly rural.


The Portuguese crown was slow to establish a royal presence in Brazil. It declared the dyewood trade a royal monopoly, and farmed it out to contractors. Spurred by French interlopers and threats of foreign occupation, João III (1521–1557) granted hereditary captaincies to twelve donataries. Each comprised 50 leagues of coast and had no western limit. Each donatary had jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases, made appointments, granted land allocations, and was responsible for defense, colonization, and conversion of the indigenous. In return, he received revenues and certain privileges and prerogatives.

Only ten captaincies were settled. Lack of capital, initiative, and leadership doomed some; disaffected colonists and local resistance undermined others. The only successes were Pernambuco under Duarte Coelho Pereira and São Vicente under Martim Afonso de Sousa. Flemish capital underwrote the latter, but the shared prosperity was founded on cultivation of sugarcane.

Disenchantment led the Crown to induce some donataries to forfeit their rights, a precondition to appointment of a captain-general. In 1549 Tomé de Sousa took up his post and established a capital at Salvador on the Bay of All Saints. Crown government was consolidated under Governor-General Mem de Sá (1558–1572), who ousted the French from the Bay of Guanabara, founded Rio de Janeiro, defeated coastal peoples, encouraged Jesuit missionaries, and brought order to administration.

Until 1808, the senior crown representative in the colony was a governor-general or, after 1720, a viceroy, who reported to the Casa da India, founded in Lisbon in 1503 in recognition of the importance of Asia to Portugal. The shift in power in Asia from Portugal to the United Provinces in the seventeenth century led to the establishment in 1642 of an Overseas Council in Lisbon with umbrella responsibility for the administration of the Portuguese empire. The council, along with viceroys and governors-general, acted in consultation with the sovereign, whose decisions were final. No Casa do Brasil was created to administer Portuguese America nor was a special bureaucracy assembled. Colonial policy was formulated in Lisbon, senior civil servants were mostly Portuguese-born and Portuguese-trained, and institutions were modeled on—or extensions of—metropolitan counterparts.

The Estado do Brasil underwent administrative restructurings, usually of short-lived duration. From 1621 to 1652 and from 1654 to 1772 the captaincies of Maranhão, Pará, and some smaller captaincies formed the Estado do Maranhão e Grão-Pará. The southern captaincies were detached from the authority of the governor-general in Bahia, united as the Repartição do Sul, and placed under Governor-General Salvador Correia de Sá E Benevides in 1658. This was in recognition of his service to king and country. After his death, they reverted to the jurisdiction of the governor-general in Salvador. New captaincies were created to meet new needs for administrative control stemming from demographic growth, changing commercial emphases, and strategic concerns. Gold strikes and immigration to the west led to the creation of the captaincies-general of São Paulo (1720), Minas Gerais (1720), Goiás, and Mato Grosso (1748). By 1800, there were ten captaincies-general and seven subordinate captaincies.

The centralized government of the state of Brazil was in the hands of a governor-general or viceroy, resident in Salvador from 1549 to 1763 and, with the transfer of the capital, thereafter in Rio de Janeiro. He exercised far-reaching jurisdiction over administrative, military, commercial, and fiscal matters; presided over the High Court; assumed responsibility for pacification and protection of Indians; distributed land grants; and made appointments subject to royal approval. He received instructions from the Overseas Council or from the king and reported to Lisbon. Beginning in the latter seventeenth and continuing into the eighteenth century, however, the governors of the captaincies gradually usurped his authority. Although they were subordinate to governors-general or viceroys according to the chain of command, governors often acted without consultation or bypassed the king's senior representative in the colony and dealt directly with the council or king in Lisbon. Gomes Freire de Andrade, governor of Rio de Janeiro (1733–1763), saw his jurisdiction expanded so that by 1748 captaincies subordinate to him were more strategically sensitive, commercially important, and extensive than those under the jurisdiction of the viceroy.

During the eighteenth century there were some superb administrators: Pedro de Noronha and Vasco Fernandes Cezar de Menezes were viceroys in Portuguese India and later in Brazil; André de Mello de Castro was governor of Minas Gerais and later viceroy. Among governors, Lourenço de Almeida saw service in India and as governor of Pernambuco and Minas Gerais.

Fiscal matters fell under the jurisdiction of the treasurer-general in the capital, who acted in consultation with a treasury council that included four High Court judges. Each captaincy had a crown-appointed treasurer and staff of whom only the most senior was dispatched from Portugal. The treasury was responsible for overseeing royal financial interests and leasing crown monopolies on such a variety of commodities and services as brazilwood, salt, whale fishery, tobacco sales, or river crossings. Some were leased in Lisbon, as was the case of the lucrative diamond contract. The treasury did not itself collect taxes. This was farmed out in a competitive bidding system and included collection of tithes—an ecclesiastical tax (dízimos) inappropriately used as general funds—of 10 percent on all agricultural production, customs dues, and import and export dues on all commodities, including slaves. Such contracts and proprietary offices spurred self-interest, extortionary practices, corruption, and mismanagement, and defaults were frequent.

The Desembargo do Paço in Lisbon appointed magistrates and undertook judicial reviews. Only in 1609 was a high court (relação) established in Salvador. This was suppressed in 1626 and reestablished in 1652. A second high court was created in Rio de Janeiro in 1751. These were the supreme courts, from which there was appeal to the Casa Da Suplicação in Lisbon. The chancellor was the chief officer of the High Court, which was manned by ten judges who were well paid, enjoyed privileges and exemptions, and, like all crown appointees, were trained at the University of Coimbra.

Captaincies in Brazil counted one or more judicial Comarcas, whose chief officer was an ouvidor geral. The crown also appointed juízes de fora. Career magistrates, including those who were Brazilian born, were rotated. Constraints against engaging in commerce or contracting marriages locally were intended to preserve judicial impartiality but were of limited success. Judges administered Portuguese laws. No codification was made specifically for Brazil, nor was there a counterpart to the Spanish Código Negro.

The administration of law was cumbersome; the appeals process was protracted; self-interest and venality in the bureaucracy and among the judiciary made it nigh impossible for all but the very rich and very poor to obtain a fair hearing. Judicial tours of inspection by district judges were too irregular to be effective. The magistracy exercised jurisdiction over areas not strictly judicial and reported to the king on the political, economic, and social state of their regions. As such, they formed part of the checks and balances of colonial administration and contributed indirectly to royal decision making for Brazil.

Forts were built and irregular marine patrols were mounted to defend the 4,603 miles of coast against foreign attacks. Professional officers commanded troops of the line, but defense of the colony depended on militia regiments under honorary masters-of-the-field or colonels. The quality of military personnel was low. They were ill equipped, underpaid, often without formal training, and wore ragged uniforms. The exceptions were two troops of dragoons posted to the Diamond District in the 1720s to impose stability and curb contraband in diamonds. Regular and militia troops escorted bullion shipments, attacked Amerindians, suppressed groups of runaway slaves, and crushed revolts. Free blacks and mulattoes had their own regiments and distinguished themselves fighting against the Dutch. They won a hard-fought and protracted battle to have officers of their own color, the same privileges and exemptions granted to their white counterparts, and eligibility for promotion.

Crown government in Brazil was undermined by difficulties of communication to and from Lisbon and within the colony. Rugged terrain and vast distances made law enforcement difficult, military campaigns logistic nightmares, and tax collection partial. Effectiveness of crown government declined in proportion to increased distance from administrative centers. Viceroys, governors-general, and governors were forced to react to local crises, often without adequate consultation. They were exposed to charges of lèse-majesté, to detractors maligning them at court, and to formal administrative reviews during (devassas) and concluding (residências) their terms. Renewals of triennial terms made crown officials vulnerable to local pressures. Many invested financially, politically, socially, and emotionally in Brazil. Although the most senior crown officials were often well trained, effective, impartial, and honest administrators, the standard deteriorated rapidly in subordinate positions. Disputes over jurisdiction and ill-defined mandates led to turf wars between different branches of government as well as individuals. Ecclesiastics did not hold high public offices. Nor, with rare exceptions, did persons of African or Jewish descent.


The Senado Da Câmara was the local town council. Elections occurred annually. Eligibility requirements included age, property ownership, financial and social standing, and civil status. Clerics were excluded, as were, for the most part, persons of African descent. Two ordinary judges presided over a council of three, and there was a procurator. Paid appointees included a scribe, attorney, doctor, and in some cases a surgeon and public health and law enforcement officers. Responsibilities included price regulation, setting professional standards, overseeing guild exams, licensing, public health, marketing regulations, taxation, all public services, public works, maintaining public order, and celebrating religious and civil holidays. The judges, who usually lacked legal training, had limited jurisdiction in civil cases of the first instance.

Municipal councils had a high degree of autonomy and enough political and economic clout to influence legislation and policies by bringing pressure to bear on a viceroy or governor and at court. The Crown attempted to bring councils to heel by appointment of a juiz de fôra in an oversight capacity, but with limited effect. Councillors enjoyed privileges and exemptions and pressed for privileges granted to councillors in Lisbon and Oporto. Passions and tensions ran high at election time and rigging was not unknown. Councils were not self-perpetuating oligarchies, but membership represented powerful family and other corporate groups. Policies reflected self-interest as well as the public good.


By virtue of Padroado Real conceded by papal bulls predating establishment of royal government in Brazil, the Crown could create archbishoprics and bishoprics, make appointments, and set ecclesiastical and missionary policy. By 1808, Brazil counted one archbishopric in Salvador (established in 1676) and six bishoprics: Pernambuco, Rio de Janeiro, Maranhão, Mariana, São Paulo, and Pará. There were ecclesiastical courts. Although ecclesiastical dignitaries were of high caliber, priests were often poorly educated, poorly paid, and vulnerable to venality, self-interest, and profit. Many depended on their congregations for financial support, levied outrageous fees for services, and engaged in contraband and commerce. The church never formally opposed the institution of slavery and had a mixed record in evangelization and religious education of slaves but, although there were examples aplenty of backsliding and syncretism, Roman Catholicism was generally the accepted norm. The church owned landed estates, urban properties, and slaves, and often clashed with the religious orders, the Society of Jesus in particular.

The Holy Office, or Inquisition, had no separate tribunal in Brazil. Clerics resident in the colony were designated to represent it in enquiries. Agents of the Inquisition from Portugal made special visits to Bahia (1591–1593 and 1618), Pernambuco (1593–1595) and Belém (1763–1769), but the most intensive period of enquiries throughout Brazil was the first half of the eighteenth century. Expulsion of Jews from Portugal led many to come to Brazil in the sixteenth century. Emigration was particularly heavy between 1587 and 1601, when Jews were permitted to sell their goods before leaving Portugal. Jewish emigrés established congregations in Pernambuco in the seventeenth century. The rumor that many Catholic priests were Judaizers (secret Jews) called into question the sincerity of forced conversions. Crypto-Jews could not escape the charge of being "of tainted blood" (de sangue infecta). Denunciations against them were made in secret. There were few charges of heresy; most crypto-Jews were accused of sexual deviance, bigamy, adultery, blasphemy, and practice of Jewish rites. Seventeen Judaizers were extradited from Brazil to Portugal in the first half of the seventeenth century and eight in the second. Most were from Bahia. In the eighteenth century most were from Rio de Janeiro. There was intensive persecution of Judaizers who were extradited. Between 1644 and 1748, eighteen Brazilian Jews were executed by the Inquisition in Lisbon. Other punishments included flogging, the galleys, jail, and property confiscation.

Religious orders in the colony included Jesuits, Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, Augustinians, and Carmelites. The fact that half of the bishops in Brazil came from their ranks indicates their strength. The orders played roles of varying importance in evangelization and missionary activities. They provided social services such as hospitals, apothecaries, prison assistance, and alms. The religious orders became wealthy as owners of estates and urban properties and engaged in commerce as well. In the absence of a banking system, they played a major role in the colonial economy as the only sources for credit and loans. All maintained monasteries. Because of their wealth and large numbers, they were charged as drains on colonial resources; although many were Brazilian-born, few became provincials, posts most often held by Portuguese.

The first of many convents for women was established in Salvador in 1677. Such institutions owed their genesis less to religious than secular factors: first, to obviate the practice of predominantly elite families sending daughters to convents in Portugal rather than having them marry in Brazil; second, to curb the currency drain from the colony in the form of dowries. Convents in Brazil were places of seclusion or retreat for young women, for the divorced or separated, or for wives whose husbands were absent. After a probationary period, supplicants took vows and were admitted as nuns in one of two categories, namely of the black or the white veil, a distinction which reflected the social background of the supplicants, with nuns of the black veil enjoying higher status. The majority of women were in temporary vows. Convents owned properties, engaged in commercial activities, and made interest-generating loans. Visitors to Brazil lauded the musical and culinary skills of such conventuals and speculated on sexual activities, but could not undermine the religious devotion of such nuns.

The Society of Jesus, unchallenged as the most influential, wealthiest, and most commercially active religious entity in the colony, also numbered the best-trained and educated religious and most dedicated missionaries. Manuel da Nóbrega, José de Anchieta, and Antônio Vieira, whose missionary zeal carried him to the Amazon, spearheaded evangelization, especially among the original Brazilians. The Jesuits operated the only post-secondary schools, which did not exclude persons of African descent; their colleges made a unique contribution to education in the colony.

The Jesuits protected the indigenous from labor-hungry colonists by collecting them in Aldeias. The aldeias, with regular work days, organization, and prohibitions of nudity and polygamy, however, eroded Amerindian authority and cultural traditions and isolated rather than prepared the indigenous for integration into mainstream colonial society. The control of the aldeias as well as the Jesuit activity on the peripheries, in Maranhão and Pará, and in the disputed borderlands to the south, created suspicion that resulted in temporary and regional expulsions of the Jesuits, culminating in the expulsion of the society from Brazil in 1759.


The Portuguese crown regarded Brazil as a "milch cow" to be exploited for the benefit of the metropolis as a source of raw materials where production was heavily regulated and imports and exports (including slaves) were taxed repeatedly. The economy, in which the crown held monopolies, was export-oriented. Colonists were also expected to contribute to the costs of royal marriages, the rebuilding of Lisbon after the 1755 earthquake, the upkeep of garrisons, and the extraordinary expenditures of the Crown. Tithes (dízimos) on agricultural products, a 20 percent tax on extractive industries, and prohibition of manufacture that might compete with Portuguese industry heavily discouraged colonial economic and commercial initiatives.

The mainstay of the Brazilian economy was agriculture, and sugar was preeminent. Colonists built on experience gained in Madeira and São Tomé. Sugarcane was introduced into Brazil during the captaincy period. Bahia and Pernambuco retained their preeminence, but there was also production in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere. By 1570, Brazilian production rivaled that of Madeira and São Tomé. The industry thrived until 1610, when production flagged, but it recovered during the seventeenth century despite Dutch destruction of mills. The industry was vulnerable to inflation, rising costs, prices on European markets, global demand, competition from the Caribbean, and changing labor-supply conditions in Africa. In Brazil, transportation inadequacies, crop disease, ants, and weather affected productivity and distribution. But sugar was the most consistent generator of revenue throughout the colonial period.

Production demanded heavy capital investment in labor, land, and machinery. Smaller plantations with thirty to forty slaves predominated, although some had two hundred or more. Cane was crushed in oxen- or water-driven mills, and the juice boiled, scummed, and purged before the syrup was collected in earthernware jars where it crystallized. The only technological innovation was in the early seventeenth century when the three-roller vertical mill replaced the two-roller vertical mill. There were two basic grades: white and muscavado. An important derivative was rum.

Tobacco from Bahia, dipped in molasses after curing, was exported to West Africa in exchange for slaves. For smoking, or when taken as snuff, it found markets in Europe and even Asia. Other regional export economies included cacao and, later, rice, cotton, and coffee. Brazil produced a wide range of tropical crops. In the subsistence sector manioc, maize, beans, and wheat were important. Urban demands led to manipulation of supply to force up prices. Livestock-raising was important in the interior of the northeast, the north, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul. There was a domestic market for meat, tallow, and salted meat. Hides were used in-country as well as exported.

The extractive industries came to importance in the eighteenth century. Gold production in Minas Gerais peaked in the 1730s but strikes in Goiás (1725), Mato Grosso (1734), and elsewhere led to overall production increases into the early 1750s. Alluvial panning was predominant. There was some gallery mining, but the industry was characterized by labor intensity. Inefficient modes of production and absence of technological innovation contributed to its decline as much as overregulation. A variety of expedients to tax production, including capitation taxes, quotas, and smelting houses, did not stem endemic contraband. Gold production provided an important incentive to subsistence agriculture and stimulated commerce and merchant communities in port cities, notably Rio de Janeiro.

Diamonds were officially discovered in the 1720s near Vila do Príncipe. After flooding the European market, the Crown controlled production through demarcating a closely supervised Diamond District and accepting bids for the diamond contract. In 1771, however, the contract was abolished and operation reverted to the crown.

Brazil was part of a global trade network that included Europe, Africa, India, and East Asia. There was a thriving but illegal trade from Spanish America through Río de la Plata and the Portuguese Colônia do Sacramento (founded 1680). Brazil was superbly endowed with deep-water ports which became commercial emporia. Imports from Portugal and Europe included farm animals, flour, salt, olive oil, cod, cheese, wine, textiles, manufactured goods, and machinery, which were exchanged for agricultural products, gold, and diamonds. Slaves from Africa were paid for in tobacco and even bullion, and homeward-bound East Indiamen unloaded silks, china, and oriental exotica. From Africa came bananas, plantains, certain gourds, okra, squashes, and oils, in return for sweet potatoes, peanuts, manioc, maize corn, squashes, pumpkins, and capsicums. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries much of the carrying was in Dutch bottoms. There was a thriving domestic trade along the coast and inland by land and navigable rivers; there were also local and regional networks for distribution.


Brazil's prosperity, coupled with changing alliances in Europe, made it vulnerable. At the forefront of the brazilwood trade through the 1540s, the French seized the Portuguese factory at Itamaracá in 1531. In 1555 Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon established a settlement in the Bay of Guanabara until dreams of "La France Antarctique" were ended by Mem de Sá in 1565. The French also established São Luis but were expelled from Maranhão in 1615. They briefly occupied Rio de Janeiro in 1711. The ascension of Spain's Philip II to the Portuguese throne led to the union of Portugal with Spain (1580–1640).

Brazil bore the brunt of the predations of the Dutch West India Company: the seizure of Brazilian vessels, the invasion and occupation of Bahia (1624–1625), and the occupation of Pernambuco (1630–1654). The Dutch period in Pernambuco was at its height during the governorship (1637–1644) of Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. Artists, botanists, and zoologists recorded in words and pictures the flora and fauna of Brazil. Religious toleration made Dutch Brazil a haven for Jews and Judaizers. But wars of attrition devastated the northeast and revenues from sugar failed to reach Dutch expectations. Beginning with a 1645 revolt led by João Fernandes Vieira, the Dutch were ousted in 1654.

The British did not invade or occupy Brazil but were influential in commerce from the seventeenth century when Charles II took a Portuguese bride (1662). England enjoyed commercial concessions and provided a market for Brazilian sugar in exchange for British manufactured goods, notably textiles and, in the eighteenth century, grain. British exports to Portugal were reexported to Brazilian markets. Portuguese wines and then Brazilian gold paid for such purchases. The British provided credit for Luso-Brazilian merchants in the eighteenth century and were a constant presence in colonial commerce. After 1776 U.S. vessels regularly put into Brazilian ports.


Amerindian laborers were co-opted for collection of brazilwood. They worked on sugar plantations of the northeast, often alongside African slaves, until their phasing out in favor of Africans by the 1630s. Despite prohibitions on enslavement except in special circumstances, indigenous labor continued legally and illegally, especially in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and the north. Demands for more labor led the Portuguese to extend to Brazil a trade structure already institutionalized between West Africa and the Atlantic Islands and Portugal in the mid-fifteenth century.

African slaves were the field hands of plantations and cattle ranches and worked in diamond and gold placer mining as well as in domestic service. Some had skills as artisans, porters, or boatmen. In the fields and mines, especially, they had terrible conditions, long hours, physically demanding labor, and suffered harsh punishments. They lived in crowded quarters, were exposed to diseases, suffered dietary deficiencies, and had a low average life expectancy. Domestic slaves may have had less arduous working conditions but were also subject to physical and mental abuse. Some negotiated agreements with owners whereby they could practice a trade or other occupation without direct supervision on condition that a portion of their income be given to the owner. While encouraging illegal activities such as prostitution and contraband, and spurring some to run away, this system enabled slaves to acquire money enough to buy their freedom.

There was a free wage-labor sector which included the indigenous and persons of African descent. The former were employed in regional industries such as making rope out of fibers, gathering fruits, logging, and sailmaking, and in expeditions as scouts. The latter worked as overseers, drovers, ferrymen, and tradespeople. But the majority of skilled jobs were held by whites who dominated the guilds, owned taverns and shops, and held supervisory positions.


Colonial Brazil was paradoxical in that it bore the European legacy of a society of estates, yet permitted increasing (especially in the eighteenth century) social and financial mobility and blurring of lines of social or racial demarcation. Place of birth, pedigree, religious orthodoxy, occupation, wealth, civil status, and legal status as free or slave were less subject to interpretation than were skin hues and attributes based on perception. Among persons of European descent, there were tensions between Portuguese born and Brazilian born; among persons of African descent, between those of different African "nations," between mulattoes and blacks, between free and slave, and even between those who had been born free or had bought their own freedom, or had been given their freedom by an owner. In a society characterized by miscegenation and subjective racial classifications for persons of mixed blood (caboclo, mameluco, mestiço for Indian-Caucasian; mulato, pardo for African-Caucasian; cafuzo for Indian-African), division by racial phenotypes is inappropriate. Although eligibility for public office was denied to persons of African descent and New Christians, there were exceptions. Prominent persons with African blood included Henrique Dias, the black veteran guerrilla leader who distinguished himself in the War of Divine Liberty against the Dutch; João Fernandes Vieira, commander of a force of blacks and mulattoes who was described in an official document as the "prime cause" of the Portuguese capture of Pernambuco from the Dutch; and Antônio Vieira, the Jesuit who championed the cause of black slaves and Amerindians. Fluidity and not rigidity increasingly characterized social and racial relations in colonial Brazil.

The ruling class was usually white, of Portuguese descent, and landowning. Families such as the Albuquerque Coelho in Pernambuco, Correia de Sá in Rio de Janeiro, or Dias d'Avila in Bahia were all-powerful. Sugar planters and mill owners (senhores de engenhos) and cattle ranchers, often characterized as "poderosos do sertão" (powerful men of the backlands), exerted strong control over the social, commercial, and political life of the colony. In the eighteenth century they were joined by an emerging merchant and business community, especially in Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. Mining entrepreneurs dominated Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, and Goiás. Dignitaries of church and state also belonged to the ruling class.

An urban middle class was composed of lawyers, doctors, surgeons, businessmen and merchants, priests and friars, and low-ranking civil servants at the upper end and, at the lower, artisans, store and tavern owners, and free-wage laborers. In the eighteenth century, increasing manumissions created an African community of freepersons engaged in commerce. The underclass included "tame" Indians, slaves, and a large number of poor and destitute who were stricken by disease and malnutrition, and reduced to begging.

The basic social unit was the family, either nuclear or extended, with linkages through marriage or godparenthood. Usually marriages were between persons of equal social or economic standing and civil status. For the white elite and upper classes, marriage was an instrument to consolidate and extend a family's reputation and fortune. The female partner was often younger than the male, sometimes disproportionately so. Dowries were important and took the form of currency or land, property, or cattle.

There was a double standard governing female and male behavior: white females were expected to be chaste, faithful, and secluded; for the male, no shame or sanctions were attached to sexual promiscuity, extramarital relations, and the taking of a concubine. There was a double standard (among whites) also regarding white and nonwhite women: the latter were expected to be sexually available and have lower moral standards. Recent studies, however, undermine the stereotype of the patriarchal family as the norm for the colony. While accurate for the upper classes, many middle- and lower-class families were headed by women. Desertion and widowhood, not infrequent, threw responsibilities onto women. Among whites, widows administered ranches, estates, and mines; women of African descent—both slave and free—played a crucial role in marketing. Exorbitant fees led to a low incidence of legal marriages. Marriages between free persons of African descent and slaves were less common. The civil status of offspring followed that of the mother. Some slaves would find a free or freed woman of color or Indian woman to bear their children. Indian-black or Indian-white unions were less frequent than white-black unions.


Only Salvador, Rio de Janeiro, and, fleetingly, Vila Rica do Ouro Preto developed an urban culture. Urban planning was not absent, but topography dictated city configurations after the initial phase. The central area had (where appropriate) governor's and bishop's palaces; city chambers; main church; Jesuit college; monasteries; and the Santa Casa da Misericórdia, a charitable organization. Portugal maintained a cultural hegemony over colonial Brazil. Despite requests, no university was authorized, nor was there a legal printing press, and the book trade was closely supervised. Brazilian students attended the University of Coimbra or other European universities. Institutions of higher education were limited to Jesuit colleges.

In the eighteenth century, literary academies came into being but were usually of short duration and little lasting impact. Theater was a form of recreation. Religious music showed mainly European antecedents, while secular music bore both Portuguese and African imprints. Religious art and architecture also derived from Europe, but Brazilian baroque, which found its greatest expression in Minas Gerais, was unique. There were few examples of secular art of any quality and the fine arts were not prominent. A number of persons of African descent were sculptors, painters, instrumentalists, and composers. The lay brotherhoods were major promoters of architecture and decorative arts in the building of churches and chapels, but there was no tradition of artistic patronage among the elites or merchant classes. The colonial literary scene included clerically penned treatises, histories, and poetry, ranging from the satirical Gregório de Matos to the epic O Uruguai, written by José Basílio da Gama.


The reign of João V (1706–1750) was a watershed in terms of absolutist rule. José I (1750–1777) appointed Sebastião José de Carvalho e Mello, later marqués of Pombal, secretary of state for foreign affairs and war. José continued the centralization of power: the authority of the Overseas Council was eroded by ministerial appointments; new administrative captaincies were created; and the capital was moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro in 1763. A new Royal Treasury was created in Lisbon and treasury boards were established in each captaincy. Boards of inspection were established in major port cities.

In an attempt to nationalize the Luso-Brazilian economy, monopoly trading companies, such as Company of Grão-Pará e Maranhão (1755) and Company of Pernambuco e Paraíba (1759), were created to offer more regular shipping, promote exports, and provide labor. The fleet system was abolished and prohibitions lifted on coastal trade. The economic center of Brazil moved from the northeast to the center-southern region.

Pombal's measures could not rectify the mid-century economic downturn prompted by the decline in gold production, but his measures did stimulate Brazilian agriculture. Toward the end of the century sugar exports increased, tobacco was flourishing, exports of hides were up, and newer crops of cotton, cacao, and coffee found European markets. New regions—Pará (cacao) and Maranhão (cotton and rice)—became major producers. There was diversification in the agricultural economy. Cotton moved into second place behind sugar as the major export crop. Pombal's attempts to shore up merchants and make them less dependent on foreign capital and thence more competitive led to a decrease in British imports and a downturn in Britain as a market for Brazilian exports while stimulating commerce between captaincies. Some of Pombal's reforms and initiatives were rejected by his successors, but he had set in motion an inexorable momentum for change.

During this period the Jesuits were expelled from Brazil (1759) and the remaining religious orders weakened. Amerindian aldeias were placed under secular control. Pombal abolished the distinction between Old and New Christians (1773). But he did not remove the double standard applied to persons of African descent and Indians or products of Indian-white liaisons; laws to benefit the indigenous in terms of personal freedoms, ownership, and right to trade were not matched by legislation favoring Africans.

Earlier Luso-Spanish rivalries in the Río de la Plata region escalated into warfare, which cost both parties a great deal of money and manpower. Spanish attacks on Colônia do Sacramento culminated in its conquest in 1762 and subsequent Spanish invasion of Rio Grande do Sul. Colônia was returned, but a Spanish expeditionary force under Pedro Antônio de Cevallos took Colônia and Santa Catarina in 1777. The Treaty of San Ildefonso (1777) returned Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul to Portugal, but the Portuguese ceded Colônia. In 1801 Portugal made incursions into Siete Missiones and held the conquered lands.

Brazil had not been devoid of collective uprisings, born of social tensions within the colony or reflecting resentment toward decisions taken in Lisbon which favored metropolitan interests over those of the colonists of Portuguese America. Such were short-lived and of local impact: the Beckman Revolt in Maranhão (1684); Guerra dos Emboabas (1708–1709) in Minas Gerais; Guerra dos Mas-cates in Pernambuco (1710–1711); and the uprising over proposed foundry houses in Vila Rica (1720). The Enlightenment spurred colonial self-assessment vis-à-vis the metropolis and fanned aspirations if not of separation from Portugal at least of more control over colonial affairs. Two such movements were aborted. The 1789 Inconfidência Mineira in Minas Gerais was made up of a good measure of elite self-interest, reaction against proposed supplementary taxation, and a corrupt governor. Its hero and front man, and the only one to be hanged, was Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, better known as Tiradentes. The Conspiracy of the Tailors in Bahia (1798) involved a group of mulattoes espousing ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, as well as a Bahian church.

At the end of the colonial era Brazil was prosperous: exports and domestic commerce were growing; population had increased; cities were growing. When Napoleon invaded Portugal in 1807, the prince regent Dom João, with British assistance, evacuated his court from Lisbon in November 1807. After touching at Salvador, he disembarked in Rio on 7 March 1808. Dom João opened the ports of Brazil to trade with all friendly nations and rescinded prohibitions on colonial manufacturing, unknowingly paving the way toward Brazilian independence. While still a colony of Portugal, Brazil was the residence of a European monarch and his court and the seat of metropolitan government—a distinction unique in Latin America.

See alsoCabral, Pedro Álvares; Indigenous Peoples; Jesuits; Mining: Colonial Brazil; Slave Trade; Tavares, Antônio Rapôso.


Charles R. Boxer, Salvador de Sá and the Struggle for Brazil and Angola, 1602–1686 (1952), The Dutch in Brazil, 1624–1654 (1957), and The Golden Age of Brazil, 1695–1750 (1962).

Gilberto Freyre, The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization, translated by Samuel Putnam, rev. ed. (1963).

Caio Prado, Jr., The Colonial Background of Modern Brazil, translated by Suzette Macedo (1967).

Dauril Alden, Royal Government in Colonial Brazil with Special Reference to the Administration of the Marquis of Lavradio, Viceroy 1769–1779 (1968).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Bahia, 1550–1755 (1968).

Kenneth R. Maxwell, Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750–1808 (1973).

Stuart B. Schwartz, Sovereignty and Society in Colonial Brazil: The High Court of Bahia and Its Judges, 1609–1751 (1973).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, ed., From Colony to Nation: Essays on the Independence of Brazil (1975).

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

James Lang, Portuguese Brazil: The King's Plantation (1979).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, The Black Man in Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil (1982).

Stuart B. Schwartz, Sugar Plantations in the Formation of Brazilian Society: Bahia, 1550–1835 (1985).

Leslie Bethell, ed., Colonial Brazil (1987).

John Hemming, Amazon Frontier: The Defeat of the Brazilian Indians (1987).

Alida C. Metcalf, Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Parnaíba, 1580–1822 (1991).

Muriel Nazzari, Disappearance of the Dowry: Women, Families, and Social Change in São Paulo, Brazil (1600–1900) (1991).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, Society and Government in Colonial Brazil, 1500–1822 (1992).

Stuart B. Schwartz, Slaves, Peasants, and Rebels: Reconsidering Brazilian Slavery (1992).

Additional Bibliography

Abreu, João Capistrano de. Chapters of Brazil's Colonial History, 1500–1800. Trans. Arthur Brakel. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Bueno, Eduardo. Náufragos, traficantes e degredados: As primeiras expedições ao Brasil, 1500–1531. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 1998.

Del Priore, Mary. Festas e utopias no Brasil colonial. São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1994.

Goldschmidt, Eliana M.R. Convivendo com o pecado na sociedade colonial paulista, 1719–1822. São Paulo: Annablume, 1998.

Higgins, Kathleen. "Licentious Liberty" in a Brazilian Gold-Mining Region: Slavery, Gender, and Social Control in Eighteenth-Century Sabara, Minas Gerais. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Kiddy, Elizabeth W. Blacks of the Rosary: Memory and History in Minas Gerais, Brazil. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.

Langfur, Hal. The Forbidden Lands: Colonial Identity, Frontier Violence, and the Persistence of Brazil's Eastern Indians, 1750–1830. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006.

Metcalf, Alida C. Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Parnaíba, 1580–1822. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

Silva, Maria Beatriz Nizza da. História da família no Brasil colonial. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 1998.

Souza, Laura de Mello e. The Devil and the Land of the Holy Cross: Witchcraft, Slavery, and Popular Religion in Colonial Brazil. Trans. Diane Grosklaus Whitty. Austin: University of Texas Press, Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, 2003.

Vainfas, Ronaldo. A heresia dos índios: Catolicismo e rebeldia no Brasil colonial. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1995.

                                  A. J. R. Russell-Wood

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