Rio de Janeiro (City)

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Rio de Janeiro (City)

Founded in 1565, Rio de Janeiro first served as a port for some local sugar and as the effectively autonomous capital for its hinterland and the southern captaincies. As such the city was eclipsed by others on the northern coast of the state of Brazil, such as Recife, Olinda, and Salvador, the capital—all wealthy places associated with more lucrative trade in sugar, African captives, and European luxuries.


Rio's ascension came with the discovery of gold and diamonds in Minas Gerais in 1690s and with the eighteenth-century Río de la Plata conflicts. As Minas's port and the capital closest to the disputes with Spain, Rio was made viceregal seat in 1763, supplanting Salvador. New building, wealth, mercantile and official elites, and amenities followed; Rio grew west between its old hills, filling its marshlands. By 1799, its population was about 43,000, of which one-third were slaves. Still, the city remained small and backward by European notions when the Portuguese court sought refuge from Napoléon there (1808–1820). João VI brought with him a numerous, refined court population as well as commercial obligations to British allies. These, and Rio's new imperial role, effected radical change. Restrictions on trade, industry, education, and printing ended; political supremacy, advanced schooling, foreign merchants, and economic incentives were established. By 1821, with a population of about 112,000, half of it slaves, Rio was a thriving, more cosmopolitan city.


Coffee, brought inland from Rio by the late eighteenth century, quickly prospered in the city's hinterland; by the 1830s, its export value surpassed that of sugar. Rio flourished with coffee and the court, and its elite enjoyed new wealth and European luxuries. The city's population reached 186,000 (half slave) by 1850 and 235,000 by 1870. Life was marked by a slow acquisition of amenities. European-style urban transportation, sewage, lighting, new docks to the north, and the first important railhead were established between 1830 and 1870. Other trends included new epidemic diseases; crowded, wretched housing for the masses; and new residential class distinctions. By 1850, elite urban homes were increasingly built in the South Zone. The poor survived near the shops, port, and workshops in the Old City; on the hills near the northern dockside (where the first Favelas, hillside shantytowns, emerged by the late 1800s); and on the filled-in marshlands leading north. Mass-consumption manufacturing began around 1850, when investors in the suppressed African slave trade were forced to seek new possibilities for their capital. The role of manufacturing, however, was relatively insignificant; Rio's grandeur derived from commercial, financial, political, and cultural supremacy. Publishing, cafés, and luxury trade were concentrated on the Rua do Ouvidor, the francophile realm of Machado De Assis, and the home of the empire's literature, art, politics, and high society.

The Old Republic (1889–1930) witnessed only the beginning of a gradual transition from Rio's overwhelming primacy. In fact, the Republic undertook Rio's Parisian reforms and modern port to demonstrate national civilization and progress (1902–1910). Despite decentralization, regional oligarchies cut deals and disputed policies in Rio. Hinterland agriculture survived and diversified after the decline of the late 1800s; manufacturing, spurred by the abolition of slavery in 1888, demographic growth (from about 523,000 in 1890 to 811,000 in 1900), and the 1890s boom (Encilhamento), continued. Financial and commercial strength endured, and São Paulo's export superiority, industrial surge, and Modern Art Week (1922) only suggested the coming threat to national supremacy.


Rivalry for national primacy with São Paulo has nineteenth-century roots; decline, twentieth-century origins. By the 1880s, paulista coffee led Brazilian exports; by the 1900s, it dominated the world coffee market. The wealth was poured into railways, wages, services, and manufacturing. São Paulo achieved industrial, if not demographic, superiority by the 1920s. Rio's population grew (1,188,000 by 1920; nearly twice the 570,000 of São Paulo, which outstripped Rio in 1960), along with industry, but without São Paulo's speed and within a more regional market. Despite these limitations, growth has consistently outpaced services and housing. By the end of the Estado Nôvo (1938–1945), with a population of about 2.3 million, Rio was presiding over ametropolitan empire of wretched industrial suburbs to the northwest and satellite cities across Guanabara Bay, with favelas throughout, encroaching on every hillside close to work. Although dramatic new landfills, highways, and architecture continued through the 1950s, and construction continues, the process of deterioration has been overwhelming.

Beginning in the 1950s, suburbs grew to the north and west of the city zone, and these are the most rapidly expanding areas of the city. Most of these neighborhoods are poor, with little modern infrastructure.

The creation of a new capital at Brasília (1960) and post-1964 administrations have exacerbated Rio's problems. Much federal aid, employment, investment, and attention have been shifted to Brasília or have been naturally diverted to the paulista dynamo. However, Rio still is a major financial center, and home to headquarters of many multinational corporations. The greater Rio area has one of the highest per-capita incomes of anywhere in Brazil.

In 2007 Rio was equally notorious for the filth, inefficiency, violence, and hopeless poverty which its 11.2 million metropolitan inhabitants confront. Yet, Rio's popular music remains unchallenged. Letters, arts, and sciences still flourish in traditional and new institutions. Finally, the Carioca lifestyle, distinguished by a matchless setting in which the elite's refined pleasures mingle with the common leisure of long-celebrated beaches, continues to compel envy and participation.

See alsoCarioca; Coffee Industry; João VI of Portugal; Minas Gerais; São Paulo (City); Slavery: Brazil.


Socioeconomic statistics and analysis tracing Rio's development make Eulália Maria Lahmeyer Lobo, História do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro: Access Editora, 1978, indispensable. A useful collection of essays can be found in Fernando Nascimento Silva, ed., Rio de Janeiro em seus cuatrocentos anos. Rio de Janeiro: Distribuidora Récord, 1965. For a broad exploration of the Côrte, see the encyclopedic study of Adolfo Morales De Los Rios, O Rio de Janeiro imperial, Rio de Janeiro: A Noite, 1946. Mary C. Karasch uncovers the vital and painful Afro-Brazilian experience in Slave Life in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1850, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987. Jeffrey D. Needell analyzes elite sociocultural trends from about 1808 to 1914 in A Tropical Belle Époque, Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University, 1987. Wilson Cano provides a comparative study of industrial development in Raizes da concentração em São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro: Difel, 1977. Michael L. Conniff sketches the establishment of Carioca populism in Urban Politics in Brazil, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh, 1981.

Additional Bibliography

Esteves, Martha de Abreu. O império do divino: Festas religiosas e cultura popular no Rio de Janeiro, 1830–1900. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Nova Fronteira, 1999.

Frank, Zephyr. Dutra's World: Wealth and Family in Nineteenth-Century Rio de Janeiro. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2004.

Gomes, Angela Maria de Castro. Histórias de imigrantes e imigraciao no Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras, 2000.

Schultz, Kirsten. Tropical Versailles: Empire, Monarchy, and the Portuguese Royal Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1821. New York: Routledge, 2001.

                                         Jeffrey D. Needell