A Short History of Brazil: From Pre-Colonial Peoples to Modern Economic Miracle

A Short History of Brazil: From Pre-Colonial Peoples to Modern Economic Miracle

by Gordon Kerr


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Host of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, the fifth largest country in the world is the perfect topic for the next title in the Short History series

Discovered by Portuguese sailor and explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral more than 500 years ago, Brazil's history since then has been turbulent, blighted by rebellion, cruelty, dictatorship, and poverty. But, it is also a vibrant, exciting, and ethnically diverse nation that has, in the face of great adversity, emerged as one of the world's fastest growing major economies. This book examines the events that have led to Brazil's ascendancy, looking at the indigenous peoples who populated the territory until its discovery in 1500 and chronicling the tempestuous years since, leading to the economic miracle of recent years. It covers the three centuries of Portuguese colonial rule when sugar became the main export, produced with the help of around three million slaves who were forced to make the deadly crossing of the Atlantic from Africa. It describes how Brazil declared independence from Portugal as a monarchy in 1822, the monarchy being replaced by a republic in 1889, and details the pattern of boom and bust in the Brazilian economy since then, covering the lives of some of the authoritarian rulers that seized power along the way. Finally, it looks at the many difficulties Brazil faces in the 21st century—the devastating social problems resulting from its dramatic economic inequality and the often ruthless exploitation of the country's natural resources. With the eyes of the world currently focused on this immense South American country, there could be no better time to examine the dramatic and fascinating history that has brought it to this point.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781843441960
Publisher: Oldcastle Books
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Series: Short History Series
Pages: 160
Sales rank: 1,244,392
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Gordon Kerr is the author of A Short History of Africa, A Short History of China, A Short History of Europe,and A Short History of the First World War.

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A Short History of Brazil

By Gordon Kerr

Oldcastle Books

Copyright © 2013 Gordon Kerr
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84344-199-1


The Geography of Brazil

Brazil is a vast country, the fifth largest in the world after Russia, Canada, China and the United States. With a total area of 3,287,612 square miles, it also has the world's fifth largest population – estimated in 2013 to be 201,032,714. It is the biggest country in South America, occupying 47 per cent of the continent. Its Atlantic coastline stretches for 4,655 miles and it shares almost 10,000 miles of inland borders with a number of other South American nations – Uruguay to the south; Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia to the southwest; Peru to the west; Colombia to the northwest; and to the north, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. In fact, it shares a border with every South American country except Ecuador and Chile.

From the Amazon basin in the north and west to the Highlands of the southeast of the country, Brazil enjoys a diverse topography that includes hills, mountains, plains, highlands and scrublands. Its most important geographical feature is the Amazon River. The second-longest river in the world, it flows for approximately 4,300 miles before draining into the Atlantic Ocean. In terms of water-flow it is by far the largest river in the world, accounting for around a fifth of the world's total river-flow and it plays host to the world's most extensive virgin rainforest. Its great tributaries include the Juruá, Purus, Madeira, Tapajós, and Xingu rivers on the southern side and the Rio Negro to the north. In places, it is impossible to see from one side to the other and a large part of it boasts a depth of one hundred feet. In fact, small ocean-going vessels are able to navigate all the way from the Atlantic to Iquitos in Peru, a distance of 2,300 miles. The Amazon and its tributaries were vital in enabling the exploration of the north and west of Brazil and the Amazon Basin enjoys unparalleled biodiversity, with more than a third of all the world's species inhabiting its rainforest.

The country's highest point is Pico da Neblina, which reaches 9,888 feet, but the Brazilian Highlands and plateaus generally average less than 4,000 feet in height. The terrain is more rugged in the southeast where extensive uplands fall away quickly at the Atlantic coast, much of which is composed of the wall-like geographical feature known as the Great Escarpment that separates the highland plateau from the shoreline. Behind it lie mountain ranges such as the Mantiqueira and the Serra do Mar. The northwestern part of the plateau is made up of rolling terrain interrupted by low, rounded hills. In the north of the country, the Guiana Highlands form a wedge between rivers flowing southwards into the Amazon Basin and rivers that drain into the Orinoco River system in Venezuela, beyond Brazil's northern border.

Brazil is home to five major types of climate – equatorial, tropical, semi-arid, highland tropical, and subtropical – which provide the country with a variety of environments. In the north there are equatorial forests and the northeast boasts semi-arid desert conditions. Temperate coniferous forests flourish in the south and in the centre of the country can be found tropical savannas. Microclimates abound. The semi-arid region in the northeast receives less than 31.5 inches of rain per year and occasionally less than that, leading to prolonged periods of drought. In central Brazil, the rainfall is more seasonal, as could be expected of a savanna climate. In the south, near the coast, rain falls throughout the year and the area generally enjoys temperate conditions with cool winters and even frosts and snowfall on higher ground.

Modern Brazil is divided into 26 states and a Federal District but the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística has divided the country into five main geographic divisions. The North consists of the southern slopes of the Guiana Highland and the northern Brazilian Highlands as well as the Amazon Basin. The Northeast, recognised as the birthplace of Brazil, is renowned for its hot climate, stunning beaches and rich cultural tradition, including Carnival. Of its 53.6 million inhabitants, about 15 million live on the arid hinterland or sertão, while the rest live in urban centres such as Salvador, Recife and Fortaleza. The Centre-West region is home to Brazil's purpose-built capital, Brasília, in the area known as Distrito Federal (Federal District). Other areas are the flat Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul consisting of much of the Pantanal, one of the world's largest tropical wetland areas. The Southeast region of Brazil is the country's wealthiest area, representing around 60 per cent of its GDP. It contains São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, the country's richest states.


Pre-Colonial Peoples

Prehistory to 1500

Many histories of Brazil begin their narrative on Wednesday 22 April 1500, the day on which Portuguese explorer, Pedro Álvares Cabral (c1467–c1520), anchored his ship near Monte Pascoal in what is currently the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil. The Portuguese were not the first people to set foot on this land, of course. Before their arrival, there are estimated to have been between 2 and 4 million indigenous people, living in some 2,000 nations and tribes in Brazil's rich coastal zone, from the modern-day states of Maranhão and Pará in the North to Santa Catarina in the South.

The origins of the native peoples of South America are the subject of debate amongst archaeologists. One theory holds that they arrived between 13,000 and 17,000 years ago, migrating from North Asia across the Bering Land Bridge that connected Asia and North America at various times during the Ice Age. This view is challenged, however, by the discovery of human remains in South America that appear to date from up to 20,000 years ago. Recent finds appear to be morphologically different to the Asian type and, in fact, these remains are closer to Australian Aborigines. This has given rise to a theory suggesting that these earlier immigrants might have voyaged across the ocean on boats or sea-going rafts or could possibly have travelled north along the coast of Asia and into America over the Bering Strait. Many believe, however, that this journey would have been impossible. Even more difficult to believe is a theory that they made their way from Australia along the coast of Antarctica to the tip of South America.

On the eve of the arrival of the Portuguese there were several groupings of Brazilian natives, the main ones being the Mundurukú, the Tupinambá and the Yanomami.

On the coast, the Tupinambá were the main group, speaking 'Tupi', which is part of the Tupi-Guarani language family comprising more than 40 language groups that are in evidence throughout Latin America. Twenty-one Tupi-Guarani languages are spoken in Brazil, mostly in the areas of the modern states of Maranhão and Pará in the North and Mato Grasso in the Centre-West. The fact that Tupi-Guarani speakers exist in Bolivia, Peru, Argentina, French Guiana, Venezuela and Colombia demonstrates the extent to which these peoples migrated in the centuries before European colonisation. They may have migrated in search of new sources of food or they may have been forced to move by war. They may have journeyed for religious reasons but it may simply have been climate change that persuaded them to go off in search of new territories.

The Tupinambá had emigrated from the south centuries prior to the arrival of the Europeans and lived on the coast from Ceará in the north to Porto Alegre in the south, in villages that were home to between 400 and 1,600 inhabitants organised by family. They occupied large dwellings more than 500 feet long and 100 feet wide, the male leader of the community occupying the area at the head of the house with his wives and servants. The Tupinambá hunted for food and augmented their diet of fish and game with crops cultivated on land adjacent to their village. For the Tupinambá, warfare was constant, their religious and social values delineated by it. Ritual cannibalism formed part of their ceremonial activities. The survival of a generation was guaranteed, they believed, by the consumption of human flesh that would placate the spirits and allow them to gain the wisdom of their ancestors. The Tupinambá resisted the Portuguese and French settlers, joining together in confederations to fight efforts to enslave them or corral them in Jesuit missions. They fled the coast, scattering into the distant interior, but disease and further Portuguese incursions – especially the war waged against them by the Portuguese Governor General of Brazil, Mem de Sá (c1500–72), between 1557 and 1572 – greatly reduced their number.

The Mundurukú migrated to the area of modern Mato Grasso around 1000 AD and began to live in forests and engage in agricultural pursuits. The leader, or headman, of a settlement had both political and religious duties, responsible for maintaining the myths of his community and acting as a channel for spiritual messages to his people from the gods. Like the Tupinambá, warfare played a large part in the lives of the Mundurukú and they travelled far and wide on land and on rivers to secure sacrificial heads, believing that only when another group was subdued by force and ritually sacrificed would balance be achieved in the universe. They were skilled with the bow and arrow and their society was male-dominated, women barred from male-only huts where the men swapped tales of hunting prowess. The men hunted jaguars, deer, monkeys, tapirs and birds while the women of the village trapped smaller game. Their diet was augmented by manioc – also known as cassava – and they lived in thatched dwellings on poles situated on grassy hills from which they could survey their territory.

When the Europeans arrived, the Yanomami lived in isolated villages and practised communal agriculture, growing plantains, cassava, tubers, corn and other vegetables which were supplemented by fruits, nuts, seeds, grubs and honey. They hunted a variety of wildlife. Yanomami culture valued aggressive behaviour and American anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, has described them as living in 'a state of chronic warfare'.

During the years since that first Portuguese ship dropped anchor, the number of indigenous people in Brazil has drastically declined, a decline hastened by slavery, captivity in Catholic missions and the European lust for gold and land. Mostly, however, they have been decimated by diseases brought by the Europeans. By the end of Brazil's colonial period, slaves who had been transported from their African homelands made up 38 per cent of the population of Brazil; whites, mixed race people and freed blacks represented 56 per cent; but the indigenous peoples who had lived and hunted on these lands for centuries amounted to only 6 per cent.

Today, there are 818,000 indigenous people in more than 220 tribes scattered across the country. Their individual cultures are fading; 110 of the tribal languages of Brazil are spoken by fewer than 400 people and some tribes, such as the Akuntsu and the Kanoê number little more than a few dozen members.


Colonial Brazil 1500 to 1822

The Age of Discovery

In 1453, the Ottoman Empire's conquest of Constantinople, coupled with the Italian Maritime Republics' control of the Mediterranean, brought an end to Europe's lucrative overland trade with Asia, persuading many to seek routes to the east by sea. This heralded the start of what has become known as the Age of Discovery, or Age of Exploration, the period between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries during which Europeans explored Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, initially trying to discover a route to the 'East Indies' by which the money-spinning trade in gold, silver and spices could continue, but establishing new colonies in the process.

Initially, Spain and Portugal were the two principals in this perilous expansion of the known world. In fact, Portugal began its exploration some hundred years before the Genoese sailor, Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), made his historic journey to the Americas, sailing under the Spanish flag. The Portuguese had already gained a great deal of experience in long-distance trade and their proximity to the islands of the Atlantic and the coast of Africa encouraged maritime travel. The currents on which sea-going vessels relied were particularly favourable to the ports of Portugal and southwest Spain and added to this was the fact that Portugal was a stable, unified kingdom, facing no external threat at a time when France, England, Spain and Italy were mired in wars and internal strife. This relative peace had transpired following the revolution of 1383–85, a peasant revolt similar to the ones that broke out elsewhere in Europe at the time. In the Portuguese case, however, it ended very differently, after the king of Castile in modern northern Spain, invaded the country, supported by the Portuguese aristocracy. Thus did the struggle become one of national independence and ended with the revolution's central protagonist, Prince João (r. 1385–1433), illegitimate son of Pedro I (1357–67) of Portugal, on the throne. Power was consolidated in João, enabling Portugal to contemplate the great ventures of the next few decades in comparative peace.

Each section of Portuguese society had reason to embrace overseas expansion with enthusiasm. The king saw it as a way to increase revenue flooding into the royal coffers; the Church relished the thought of new Christian converts; for the merchants, of course, there was the tantalising prospect of new markets and new products; and even the ordinary citizen perceived opportunity in these new lands, the chance to make a new and better life in exotic climes. The time was right. New maritime technology had been introduced that facilitated the extensive voyages that had to be endured. Navigators were able to use improved quadrants and astrolabes to plot their course by the stars. The Portuguese had invented the caravel, a light fast vessel whose shallow draft allowed it to sail close to land. Used extensively in the navigation of the coastlines of Africa and Brazil, it enabled Portugal to become Europe's pre-eminent sea power during the fifteenth century.

In 1492, when Columbus reached America, arriving at the Antilles, Portugal disputed Spanish ownership of the new land. This led to a series of negotiations that produced the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, an agreement between the two superpowers that effectively divided the world into two hemispheres. Land discovered west of a line 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands would belong to Spain; that discovered east of the line would be assigned to Portugal.

The principal objective of these maritime ventures was to find gold and spices. Gold, it goes without saying, was vital as a reliable means of exchange and was also used to decorate clothing and the bodies of Portuguese aristocrats. Methods of preserving meat were, at the time, fairly primitive and spices helped to disguise the taste of rotting flesh. Eventually, after 1441, the Portuguese began to specialise in human cargo, heralding the beginning of the slave trade that would continue for more than three centuries.

The first man to realise the commercial opportunities offered by the world's oceans was the Portuguese Prince Henry (1394–1460), also known as Henry 'the Navigator'. From his residence in Vila do Infante on the Sagres Peninsula, at the most southwestern point of Iberia, with access to both the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans, Henry sponsored voyages of exploration down the west coast of Africa. Reaching as far south as Guinea, Portuguese ships brought back slaves and goods, establishing a series of fortified trading posts or feitorias at intervals along the coast. Eventually, in a voyage of 1497–99, Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama (c1460–1524), brought east and west together for the first time when he rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made his way up the East African coast and across the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the coast of southwest India.


Excerpted from A Short History of Brazil by Gordon Kerr. Copyright © 2013 Gordon Kerr. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents


Chapter One: The Geography of Brazil,
Chapter Two: Pre-Colonial Peoples,
Chapter Three: Colonial Brazil,
Chapter Four: Imperial Brazil,
Chapter Five: The First Republic,
Chapter Six: The Vargas Era,
Chapter Seven: Flirting with Democracy,
Chapter Eight: Military Government, Democracy and Economic Miracles,
Suggested Further Reading,

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