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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

While heading to the East around the southern tip of Africa, some Portuguese ships were blown off course and landed at South America – less than 2,600 kilometers (1,625 miles) at the most narrow gap from Africa. In South America they found people called Tupi. Unlike the Spanish experience with Aztecs and Incas, the Portuguese found the Tupi Indians with little wealth they could plunder. Portugal's king left the area to Portuguese adventurers and tradesmen to find what they could. A few settlements were established in what they called Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross), and at first the only export by the Portuguese from the area was a red colored dyewood called brazil. "Brazil" was a shorter and more down to earth expression than "Terra da Vera Cruz," and Brazil was what the land would be called.

Tupi is today described today as a family of languages, and 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 as well as beginning agriculturists. They grew corn, sweet potatoes, beans, peanuts, tobacco, cotton, peppers, pineapples and papaya. These, their religion, the sweet waters of the region and their items of  handicraft, such as baskets, had been abundance for them, and they found prestige and joy in exchanging or giving things away.

Their system of justice was revenge. Like other tribal people they allowed petty conflicts and imagined offenses to escalate into wars. No Tupi state had arisen to unite them and impose a stable order and peace. Tupi 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 contributed to victories in battle and authority – and began to assume authority for themselves and their own god.

The Tupi and other Indians suffered, largely from the diseases that the Portuguese brought: small pox, whooping cough, tuberculosis and measles. They 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 Indians that they were being punished for their sins and that a good god in heaven might cast them to hell forever. And some Indians ran from the Portuguese and their god, into the interior – gods seen as occupying places as had once been believed by Europeans.

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


Copyright © 2000-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.