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Sesmaria, plot of land of varied size granted to petitioners in colonial Brazil by the Portuguese monarchy in recognition of service to the crown. The sesmaria was the principal form of land distribution implemented by Portuguese colonizers, although purchase and inheritance were also legitimate forms of land acquisition.

Land was the domain of the crown and the personal patrimony of the king or queen. Personal contacts at court often influenced the granting of land in Brazil to persons of "quality." In keeping with the objectives of colonization, crown grants were subject to strict, selective regulation, defined by law and aimed at assuring effective settlement and exploration as well. The laws governing the granting of sesmarias restricted the amount of land assigned to any one grantee, regulated the exploration of the land, and did not confer private ownership of the sesmaria. By the eighteenth century it was necessary to confirm sesmarias in Lisbon.

Despite numerous abuses, including the sale and exchange of grants, the distribution of land in this form permitted the crown control over the effective settlement of Brazil and fixed on that country an archaic, long-lasting system of Land Tenure dominated by powerful sugar and coffee planters and cattle ranchers.

When Brazil became independent in 1822, the granting of sesmarias was suspended. Henceforth, they were officially recognized, but until 1850 effective occupation was the only form of legal acquisition of public lands. Until passage of the Land Law of 1850 there was unregulated occupancy of both small holdings and vast expanses of unclaimed public lands.

See alsoPortuguese Empire .


Warren Dean, Rio Claro: A Brazilian Plantation System, 1820–1920 (1975).

Jacob Gorender, O escravismo colonial (1980).

Emília Viotti Da Costa, The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories (1985).

Additional Bibliography

Bueno, Eduardo. A coroa, a cruz, e a espada: Lei, ordem e corrupçao no Brasil colonia, 1548–1558. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2006.

Diffie, Bailey W. A History of Colonial Brazil, 1500–1792. Malabar, Florida: R.E. Krieger Pub. Co., 1987.

Metcalf, Alida C. Family and Frontier in Colonial Brazil: Santana de Paranaíba, 1580–1822. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Metcalf, Alida C. Go-betweens and the Colonization of Brazil, 1500–1600. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005.

                            Nancy Priscilla Smith Naro