Pedro Cabral and the Portuguese Settlement of Brazil

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Pedro Cabral and the Portuguese Settlement of Brazil


The exploration of Brazil by Pedro Cabral (1467-1520) established the nation of Portugal as a major power on the continent of South America. This would have a profound effect on the Native American people in the region and would eventually establish the modern culture of Latin America.


Pedro Cabral is accepted as the first European to recognize the vast potential of what is now Brazil. This was part of the vast expansion of Europe around the globe, which began in the fifteenth century. Events had been pushing Europe outward for at least five centuries. By the turn of the millennium, Western Civilization had begun to recover from the destruction of the fall of the Roman Empire. Advances were made in agriculture, communication, and transportation that allowed Europeans to develop a sound economy.

By the end of the eleventh century, Pope Urban II (1035-1099) called for a holy crusade to free Jerusalem from Islamic domination. These holy wars would be a turning point in Western Civilization. Although they were tragic military disasters, the Crusades reintroduced Europe to the products of the East, especially perfumes, spice, and silk.

The Islamic world system controlled the movement of these precious items first through the Indian Ocean and then across Southwest Asia by caravan. Monopolies were established with certain Italian city-states, and these were so successful that they provided the financial basis for the great Southern Italian Renaissance. It was also during this period that the great inland Asian empire of the Mongols began to collapse. This disrupted trade along the great Eurasian Silk Road, which reduced the flow of goods into Europe. The capture of Constantinople in 1453 established the Ottoman Empire as a major force in the world. This new strategic reality forced many of the Italian city-states to establish military and economic alliances with the Ottomans. These treaties provided the nations of Western Europe with the incentive to find an all-water route to the East and to break the monopoly of this Islamic/Italian connection.

Europe had also experienced centuries of religious and dynastic wars. One lasting effect of these struggles was the growth of military technology. On the eve of Western expansion, the major nations of the Atlantic coast began to expand their military capabilities beyond that of their potential rivals. On the Iberian Peninsula, Spain and Portugal began to compete against each other for control of the lucrative spice trade. In 1492, the Spanish monarchy decided to fund an expedition based upon the belief that India could be reached by sailing west. This voyage of exploration was headed by Christopher Columbus (1456-1501) and resulted in the discovery of the Western Hemisphere. In 1498, Vasco da Gama (1460-1524) sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, reached India, and returned home with a cargo worth sixty times the cost of his voyage. His great successes pushed the Portuguese government to fund a second trip in 1500. Exhausted from the physical and emotional stress of the first voyage, da Gama recommended that Pedro Cabral lead the second expedition.


In 1500, Cabral began his voyage to India. His ships were blown off course by strong westerly winds, and he ended up off the coast of Brazil. The dense vegetation along the coast proved a formidable obstacle to the early Portuguese explorers. The first years of contact were known as the "factory period." During this time, fortified warehouses or factories were constructed to house and protect the products extracted from the Brazilian forests. The most important resource in the early years was Brazilwood. Over the centuries Europeans had decimated their forests, first for fuel, and then for their massive shipbuilding programs. Brazilwood provided the Portuguese with much needed lumber for the construction and repair of their maritime fleet. The climate and soil of Brazil was also compatible to the cultivation of sugar, which was an important commodity because it could be stored for long periods and shipped great distances without spoiling. The government initially turned this program over to a group of merchants from Lisbon. However, they proved unable to handle the task, and the production of sugar reverted back to the crown.

In addition, Brazil became a strategic problem for the Lisbon government. The great potential wealth of the Western hemisphere created intense competition among Spain, France, and Portugal. Both countries challenged the Portuguese for the ultimate control of Brazil's resources. This competition drastically changed the way the Lisbon Government viewed its colony. The crown decided that a permanent settlement would have to be established to counteract any potential attempts by Spain or France to gain control of Brazil. The government sent four hundred settlers to create this defensive force. The colony not only had permanent working settlements but also patrolled the coast and undertook the exploration of the Amazon and LaPlatta rivers. The impact of these settlements led to serious changes to the entire region.

In the early sixteenth century, Portugal and the rest of Europe were still recovering from the effects of the Bubonic Plague on their populations. The Black Death created a labor shortage throughout Europe, thus there was no incentive for people to emigrate to the New World. The government had to look to its prisons to provide settlers for the new colony; so a vast majority of the inhabitants were either criminals or political prisoners. These were obviously not the type of people that insured a successful colonial experience. This was especially true in the production of sugar. The cultivation and harvesting of sugar required large numbers of people who were willing to perform the strenuous tasks required to send the crop to the factory. This work was also rigorous and required long, uninterrupted hours of labor to process the cane into refined sugar. It became quite obvious that a new a source of labor had to be found. Initially the Portuguese tried to use Indian slaves. The source of these slaves was the dominant Native American tribe in the region. They had practiced their own form of slavery for generations, and they were most willing to become the providers for the Portuguese. Initially slavery posed an ethical problem for the Lisbon government. Christianity had always preached the equality of all people in the eyes of God, and Jesuit missionaries were sent to Brazil to convert the native population. The Portuguese adopted the same principles they had used in their reconquest against the Moslems. If the Indians accepted Christianity, they would be protected from forced labor, but if they refused this new religion they were forced into bondage. The cultural shock of bondage broke the spirit of many Native American slaves. In response to the terrible working conditions many took their own lives; others perished as a result of European diseases. This was part of what has come to be known as the "Great Dying." It soon became obvious that another source of labor was needed to keep the colony in operation. Since the Portuguese had a long established relationship with the tribes of West Africa, they decided to use African slaves from the western region of the continent. These tribes had an extensive slave trade network that coincided with the movement of Islam into the continent. The crown took advantage of the situation to establish a slave trading system to supply their settlements in Brazil with a much needed labor force. African slaves were strong, intelligent, and used to working in a subtropical climate. The success of the Portuguese sugar industry rested upon the labor of these West Africans.

The massive relocation of Atlantic peoples was part of a larger historical phenomenon known as the "Columbian Exchange." This was the most extensive biological and demographic redistribution in the history of the world. Since the Western Hemisphere had been isolated from the Old World, the Native American population had not been exposed to many of the world's deadliest diseases. When the Portuguese established permanent settlements in Brazil, they exposed the indigenous population to smallpox and measles. With the introduction of slavery from West Africa, malaria was also unleashed against an unsuspecting population. Demographers suspect that the Native American population in Brazil was reduced from about 2.5 million to under 500,000. This demographic disaster affected Brazil in two ways: it reduced the Indian population by 80%, which prohibited the people of Brazil from organizing a successful resistance to European settlement; and it created an entirely new Latin American culture. This new civilization is a hybrid of three different continents, Europe, Africa, and South America. In addition, the new European-dominated class structure that was created remains in place to the present day.


Further Reading

Crosby, Alfred. The Columbian Exchange: The Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1972.

Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe ,900-1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.

Curtin, Philip. D. Cross-Cultural Trade In World History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Frank, Andre Gunder. ReORIENT: Global Economy in theAsian Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Great Explorers: The EuropeanDiscovery of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.