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PORTUGAL in AMERICA, to 1600 (1 of 2)

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Portugal in America

The Portuguese meet Tupi Indians | Colony Building and Enslavement

Monument to the bandeirantes

São Paulo's monument to the Bandeirantes, who from 1580 to 1670
sought profit in slave hunting. A monument inscription reads: "Glory to our heroes."

The Portuguese meet Tupi Indians

In the year 1500, while heading to the East around the southern tip of Africa, some Portuguese ships under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral were blown off course and landed in South America – less than 2,600 kilometers (1,625 miles) at the most narrow gap from Africa. There the Portuguese found people called Tupi and nothing to plunder. On April 22 they claimed the area for the Portuguese Empire. A few settlements were established in what the Portuguese called Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross). The only export by the Portuguese from the area would be a red colored dyewood called brazil. "Brazil" was what the land would be called.

At the invitation of Portugal's king, Manuel I, the Atlantic coastline of what today is called South America had been explored several times by an Italian explorer, financier and map-maker, Amerigo Vespucci. He declared that the land was a new continent, and his description of his 1502 voyage was published and popular across Europe. A German map-maker, Martin Waldseemuller, drew from Vespucci and created his map, Universalis Cosmographia (today housed in the US Library of Congress), and to honor Amerigo Vespucci for having discovered the continent he named the continent "America."

The Tupi People

The Tupi are described as having arrived where the Portuguese did centuries before and expelling people who had been there before them. The Tupi were hunter-gatherers and beginning agriculturists. They grew corn, sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts, tobacco, cotton, peppers, pineapples and papaya. These, the sweet waters of the region and their items of  handicraft such as baskets were an abundance for them, and they found prestige and joy in exchanging or giving things away.

Like other tribal people they engaged in revenge for the sake of justice, and they allowed petty conflicts and imagined offenses to escalate into wars. Their religion contributed to their wars by creating a demand for captives to sacrifice to their gods. The Tupi ate from the bodies of those they sacrificed to their god, believing that they were ingesting the character of the person whose flesh they were eating – a ritual cannibalism. Tupi warriors rejected eating the flesh of people for whom they had contempt, which meant that they preferred the flesh of other Tupi warriors.

Tupi religion played a role in the Tupi at first accepting the Portuguese. They believed that the Portuguese had arrived by the magic of  their supreme god, the creator Mahyra, and they believed that it was their duty to be generous and helpful to the Portuguese – despite what they saw as Portuguese ugliness. The Portuguese endeared themselves to one side or another in the frequent wars of the Tupi, or they incited one side against another and extended authority for themselves and their own god.

The Tupi and other people in Brazil suffered from the diseases that the Portuguese brought: smallpox, whooping cough, tuberculosis and measles. The Tupi asked why they, Mahyra's chosen people, were suffering so much, and they wondered whether their god Mahyra had died. Missionaries provided them with an answer. They told the suffering that they were being punished for their sins and that a good god in heaven might cast them to hell forever. And believing that gods dwelled in places, some Tupi ran from the Portuguese and their god, into the continent's interior.

The Tupi saw the Portuguese as grasping and perpetually distressed. The Portuguese saw the Tupi as too content and lazy and as leading useless lives. Their solution was slavery.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.