Brazil, the largest country in South America, is known for its diverse culture and rich history. The nation’s development has been shaped by centuries of colonisation, imperial rule, and eventual independence.
The discovery and early colonisation of Brazil
The arrival of the Portuguese
The modern history of Brazil began in April 1500, when a fleet commanded by Pedro Alvares Cabral anchored at Porto Seguro on the northeast coast of Bahia. This marked the beginning of Portuguese colonisation, ultimately leading to the formation of the Brazilian nation. The Portuguese were initially drawn to Brazil by the prospect of lucrative trade opportunities and the desire to expand their empire.
European expansion and influence
Colonial Brazil was shaped by European expansion overseas from the fifteenth century onwards. Portuguese engagement with Genoa and Venice, the challenge of Islam in the peninsula and the Mediterranean, fear of a unifying Spain, and ventures in Africa and Asia all influenced initial contacts with Brazil and its place within the Portuguese world. Key institutions such as the monarchy, settler oligarchy, landed estates, and slavery emerged due to these influences.
The struggle for identity and the development of colonial Brazil
Amerindian presence and the study of family and society
Throughout the colonial period, historians attempted to understand the complex mix of Amerindian, African, Mediterranean, and Asian cultures that contributed to Brazil’s unique identity. This led to the incorporation of new approaches to the study of family and society, as well as a focus on the administrative organisation of the country, state formation, and commercial ventures.
The role of sugar, slavery, and land in colonial Brazil
Sugar production, more than brazilwood, tobacco, or gemstones, played a significant role in shaping Brazil’s colonial economy and society. Slavery was widespread, permeating much of society and becoming even more diffused in the post-Independence period. The institution of slavery was not limited to rural settings, as slaves were often found in various occupations, such as construction, petty trading, and workshops.
The longevity of the Portuguese colonial state in Brazil
Confronting Dutch and French threats
The Portuguese colonial state in Brazil proved to be resilient, successfully confronting Dutch efforts to establish an empire in the northeast and periodic threats from other European powers, particularly France. Brazil’s size and distance from Lisbon may have contributed to its survival, as well as the emergence of regional oligarchies and the country’s association with England.
Transition to independence and the creation of the Brazilian Empire
Brazil’s transition from a colony to an independent empire was unique in the Americas. Independence from Portugal was presided over by the heir to the Portuguese throne, Pedro I, who was acclaimed Emperor of Brazil in 1822. This event secured the survival of colonial institutions such as the monarchy, plantation, and slavery, as well as national unity.
The reign of Pedro I and the struggle for stability
The first Brazilian Constitution and Pedro I’s abdication
Pedro I’s reign was marked by impulsive and arbitrary decisions, eventually leading to his abdication in 1831 in favour of his five-year-old son, Pedro II. However, during his reign, Pedro I and his Council of State managed to create a liberal and progressive constitution for Brazil, which helped centralise the government and grant the emperor significant powers.
The Regency Period and the search for unity
Following Pedro I’s abdication, Brazil entered a tumultuous regency period characterised by civil warfare and insubordinate soldiers. Despite these challenges, the nation managed to hold together, eventually amending the constitution to provide for the election of a sole regent and the creation of provincial assemblies with local power.
The reign of Pedro II and the development of Brazil
A scholarly and democratic ruler
Pedro II’s nearly half-century reign marked a period of significant progress and prestige for Brazil. The emperor was known for his enlightened statesmanship and democratic ideals. He took a keen interest in education and was deeply involved in his nation’s affairs, making him a popular and respected ruler.
Pedro II’s government and the role of Luis Alves de Lima e Silva
Pedro II’s government functioned as a kind of parliamentary system under his watchful eye. He maintained power with the aid of Luis Alves de Lima e Silva (later the Duke of Caxias), Brazil’s most outstanding military figure. Together, they worked to maintain national unity and quell regional revolts throughout the empire.
Brazil’s involvement in regional conflicts and the War of the Triple Alliance
Diplomacy in South America
Under Pedro II’s reign, Brazil took an active interest in the affairs of its southern neighbours, particularly Uruguay. The nation sought to control Uruguay through indirect measures and even helped overthrow the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852.
The Paraguayan War
In 1864, Brazil invaded Uruguay to influence the outcome of a civil war. This action led to the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano Lopez declaring war on Brazil and Argentina, resulting in the bloody and costly War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70). Brazil, allied with Argentina and Uruguay, eventually defeated Paraguay and overthrew Lopez. The war had profound consequences for Brazil, including the weakening of state control over slavery and the questioning of Brazil’s economic backwardness by young military officers.
The struggle to abolish slavery in Brazil
Gradual emancipation and the Law of the Free Womb
Although Pedro II was personally opposed to slavery, he believed that the institution should be abolished gradually to avoid antagonising slave owners. In 1871, Brazil enacted the Law of the Free Womb, which granted freedom to all children born to slaves and set the stage for the eventual extinction of slavery.
The abolitionist movement and the end of slavery
Led by figures such as Joaquim Nabuco de Araujo, the Brazilian abolitionist movement gained momentum in the 1880s. The movement ultimately succeeded in ending slavery when the princess regent declared complete emancipation without compensation to slave owners on 13 May 1888, freeing approximately 700,000 slaves.
The decline of the Brazilian Empire
Changing social attitudes and regionalist sentiments
The decline of the Brazilian Empire can be attributed to several factors, including changing social attitudes, regionalist sentiments, and increasing army involvement in politics. The mass immigration of the 1880s challenged prevailing social norms and intensified regional tensions, particularly in São Paulo.
The role of the army, the church, and the urban bourgeoisie
The involvement of the army in politics, disputes with the Roman Catholic Church, and the identification of younger army officers and important sections of the urban bourgeoisie with republicanism all contributed to the eventual fall of the empire. By 1888, the monarchy was no longer seen as necessary for unity or order in Brazil.
The establishment of the Brazilian Republic
The Old Republic and the emergence of a political class
The Brazilian Republic was declared in 1889, ushering in a period of political instability and oligarchic control. The Old Republic was characterised by balancing interests between powerful state oligarchies, such as Minas Gerais and São Paulo, and establishing a central mechanism for arbitrating disputes. However, by the late 1920s, this balance had disintegrated, leading to the collapse of the Old Republic.
The Vargas Era and the rise of authoritarianism
The 1930 coup led by Getúlio Vargas marked a shift towards a more authoritarian and centralised state in Brazil. Under Vargas, the government pursued economic interventionism and social control, fostering a national project of technocratic modernisation. This period saw the gradual erosion of democratic institutions and increased state repression.
The road to modern Brazil
The experiment with democracy (1945-1964)
Between 1945 and 1964, Brazil experimented with “open” democracy, characterised by increased political participation and electoral competition in urban areas. However, the democratic experiment was short-lived, as political actors deemed it impossible to find a democratic solution to the problems facing the country.
The military government (1964-1985)
The 1964 coup initiated 21 years of military rule in Brazil. Although the regime was not characterised by systematic violence on the scale seen in Argentina or Chile, it was marked by repression, censorship, and the suspension of political rights. The military government focused on industrial deepening and economic growth, which led to rapid development and widened social inequality and environmental degradation.
The history of Brazil is a fascinating tale of colonisation, imperialism, and the struggle for independence. Today, Brazil stands as a testament to the resilience and adaptability of its people, who have forged a unique national identity and established their place in the world despite centuries of upheaval and change.