Paulo Coelho, Brazil’s greatest novelist, wrote of his people, “They were seeking out the treasure of their destiny, without actually wanting to live out their destiny.” Although the Brazilians enjoy the world’s seventh largest (and still growing) economy, a diverse cultural stew, the continent’s best standard of living, and one of the planet’s greatest eco-systems, they are known by most as the “ultimate party animals.” However justified that preconception might be today, Brazil’s past has been anything but a Carnival. In fact, most of it has been downright grim.
When the Pope decided to divvy up the New World in the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 AD, as it happened a bulge in South America fell on the eastern (Portuguese) side. It was the only thing that Portugal got out of the treaty, but it was a whopper. The land was claimed by Pedro Cabral in April 1500 when the fleet he was leading down the African coast and around the Cape of Good Hope was borne so far westward that he made landfall in South America by mistake. When he arrived, some 2000 native (termed “indios”) tribes inhabited the coast and Amazon basin; semi-nomadic, these folk subsisted on hunting, fishing, migrant agricultural, tribal warfare and cannibalism. Since it was obvious the natives weren’t going to do anything with the rich land and were certainly not "good Christians," the first Portugal immigrants began to stake claims in 1532.
The discovery of brazilwood – a dense, orange-red hardwood prized in dye-making and in the making of effete musical instruments and furniture – incited the Crown’s interest; in 1534 King Dom Joao III encouraged more private colonial ventures. In 1549 the king appointed a governor-general and Brazil officially became a Portuguese colony. In wars with the French, the Portuguese slowly expanded their holdings to the north and south, taking Rio de Janeiro in 1567 and Sao Luis in 1615. In 1680 AD they claimed the lands around the Rio de la Plata, which became their southernmost territory. In the meantime, British and Dutch strongholds in the Amazon interior were overrun; as was the case throughout the Americas, the indios were either assimilated, enslaved, or exterminated.
The settling of Brazil was certainly a perilous affair. Tens of thousands of indios died from European diseases; thousands of Europeans died of native fevers. The interior was hot and humid, mostly jungle and swamp, broken by turgid rivers, where the slightest scratch could mean a lingering death. If one wasn’t shot by contending colonists or eaten by the angry natives, much of the flora and fauna were poisonous or hungry, from mosquitos to caiman. Then there were the tales of giant snakes that could crush or fish that could strip the flesh from the bones to keep the pioneers on their toes – provided one had any after the foot rot. Nevertheless, the stubborn Portuguese kept pushing inland, establishing outposts and plantations along the riverbanks.
By the end of the 17th Century, Brazil was the largest and most important of Portugal’s scattered colonies. Besides brazilwood, other major exports included sugarcane, dyes and spices. The Portuguese began their import of slaves from Africa to meet the growing international demand for these commodities; eventually Portugal would become one of the major slave-trading nations and slaves in Brazil would number in the hundreds of thousands. Why die in any number of unpleasant ways hacking a profit out of the jungle when someone else could do the work for mere centavos? Concurrently, prospectors sought in vain for gold in the jungles and hills of Brazil until extensive deposits were discovered in Minas Gerais. The subsequent gold rush brought such vast sums that the colonial capital was transferred from Salvador south to Rio de Janeiro in 1763 AD in order to help the government better get its cut.
Along the coast, port cities grew – Rio, Recife, Maceio, Fortaleza and others – to ship all this wealth out. They became the cultural centers of the colony, with churches, schools, concert halls, tabernas (taverns), houses of ill-repute, ladies-aid societies, and all the other trappings of civilization. Into these poured the hopeful from the old country. And then, in 1808 AD, the Portuguese royal family (led by Mad Maria) and its government ministers showed up in Rio de Janeiro since they had managed to lose their homeland to Napoleon Bonaparte. The prince regent Joao, ruling in the stead of his mother Maria I, who was incapacitated due to “mental illness,” re-established the Portuguese capital in Rio and ruled the “empire” from there.
While in residence, he put in place all the ministries of a sovereign capital, as well as founding a royal library, a military academy, a royal mint, a printing office, and medical and law schools. In 1815, Joao declared Brazil a kingdom, co-equal with Portugal in the empire. Following the defeat of France, he wanted to remain in Brazil until called back to Portugal to deal with radical revolts. In April 1821, Joao appointed his son Pedro to the regency. Pedro’s ministers, mostly Brazilian born, urged independence once the Portuguese army was gone; the young regent issued a declaration of independence for Brazil in September 1822 and was crowned Emperor Pedro I with unseemly haste. In 1825 the Portuguese government reluctantly (although there wasn’t much they could do about the situation anyway) recognized Brazil’s sovereignty, and within the year even the most stubborn European monarchs followed suit.
Pedro I sought to insure that Brazil did not suffer the discord and revolutions that were plaguing Brazil’s unruly neighbors. To that end, he was the primary architect of a new constitution, one quite liberal and advanced … well, for its time. But Pedro was increasingly embroiled in affairs in Portugal, and in 1831 AD abdicated in favor of his five-year-old son so he could return there to reclaim the family throne. To fill the vacuum his abrupt departure left, Pedro’s son was officially declared of age at 14 and crowned Emperor Pedro II within the year. The new emperor’s five-decade reign was enlightened and progressive, and Brazil enjoyed a “golden age” in every realm – politically, economically, industrially, socially, culturally – becoming almost continental in its refinement and attitude. Under Pedro II, Brazil won three wars, expanded its international reputation, modernized, reformed its legal and monetary systems, boosted its agricultural diversity, and abolished slavery. But the latter had eroded support among the landed gentry; moreover, as he aged Pedro II increasingly lost touch with the new urban middle class and liberal student movements his ideals and policies had fostered. Although still beloved by his people, in November 1889 a bloodless military coup deposed Pedro in favor of a republic (which didn’t last long). Ever a patriot, when he departed into exile, Pedro II expressed his “ardent wishes for the greatness and prosperity of Brazil.”
For the next century, Brazil was governed by a series of dictators or military juntas, with an occasional fling at democracy that was soon ended by another ambitious general. In 1894 AD, amid general peace, General Peixoto reluctantly surrendered the presidency to the first civilian to hold the post, Prudente de Morais. He had been governor of the coffee-rich state of Sao Paulo, and has been deemed the first of the “coffee presidents.” These presidents, primarily wealthy landowners from Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais, reformed the economy, modernized the nation’s infrastructure, kept the peace, and guided the nation through troubled international times through a policy of near isolationism. In doing so though they offered little real democracy because only the landowning minority was allowed to vote, fraudulent elections were common, and regional political bosses operated with virtual impunity so long as they supported the president in power.
Two developments finally ended the period of the coffee presidents. First, coffee prices fell precipitously during the world-wide depression of the 1930s, and without a lot of money it was tough to get elected to siphon off more. Second, a movement composed of junior officers (the tenentes) grew in influence. Espousing populism, the tenentes championed not democracy but reform and progress; they fervently believed that only the military could propel the nation into the modern age. To do so, the young officers planned to oust civilian politicians, expand the reach of the federal government, modernize the military, and eradicate regionalism through a strong, centralized government. The depression and general unrest led Getulio Vargas, a defeated presidential candidate, to seize control of Brazil with support of the tenentes.
Vargas was supposed to assume power temporarily for the duration of the economic crisis; instead he closed the Congress, dismissed the constitution, and replaced the Brazilian states’ governors with his supporters, mostly military officers. Following a failed Communist coup in 1935 and a failed Fascist one in 1938, Vargas’ regime evolved into a full dictatorship, noted for its brutality and censorship of the press. In 1964, yet another military coup toppled the government. Although its methods were harsh, the new junta was at least less brutal than those in other parts of the continent. Moreover, it promoted capitalism, modernization, and international accords, making it popular with the lower and middle classes even during the years of arrests, torture and executions without trial. General Ernesto Geisel assumed the presidency in 1974, and surprisingly launched a “slow, gradual and safe” policy of returning rule to a democratic government. Over several years he ended the torture of political prisoners, censorship of the press, and finally the junta itself. His successor continued the process, and in 1985 the first free elections made José Sarney president after health issues (and later death) prevented Tancredo Neves from taking office.