(PORTUGAL in AMERICA, to 1600 – continued)

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PORTUGAL in AMERICA, to 1600 (2 of 2)

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Colony Building and Enslavement

The wealth that Spain was taking out of their areas in the Americas inspired the Portuguese, and in 1531 five vessels and four hundred colonists arrived on Brazil's coast, and that year they established a colony they called São Vicente (Saint Vincent), on the coast about south of what today is Rio de Janeiro.

Those who emigrated to Brazil were looking for land and an easy life. They had no intention of doing manual work, expecting that they could have the Tupi do their work for them. When the Indians refused, the colonists made slaves of those captured in the frequent wars between Indian tribes or by taking people in raids on Indian villages.

African Substitutes

Failing to enslave enough Tupi, the Portuguese in 1532 began shipping African slaves to Brazil. Africans had an immunity to tropical diseases that served them well in Brazil and they were believed to be able workers in mining and tropical agriculture. A circular trade was established, the Portuguese taking metal manufactured goods to Africa, trading these goods for slaves, shipping slaves to America and transporting from Brazil whatever they thought they could sell in Portugal.

In the 1530s the Portuguese established another colony, Olinda, to the north on the shore near the eastern-most point of the continent. In 1549 the Portuguese founded their colonial capital city in Brazil: São Salvador da Bahia (Salvador). By now their original colony at São Vicente had a population of around 5,000. In 1554 the Portuguese founded São Paulo. Meanwhile, French Protestants – Huguenots – running from persecution had founded a settlement at what was to be called Rio de Janeiro, and in 1560 the Portuguese drove them out and began building their own settlement there.

Jesuits, Tupi and more Expansion

In 1554 the Portuguese started to move inland, and the attempt to exploit the Tupi continued. Wars between the Portuguese and Tupi were described by Father Nóbrega in 1558, as putting an end to cannibalism and the "hellish mouth that has eaten so many Christians." Another Jesuit, Father José de Anchieta, to be called the "Apostle of Brazil" and made a saint, described fighting the Tupi in his poem De Gestis Meni de Saa, written around 1560. He wrote of the Portuguese destroying villages and fields. and wrote of the "heroic deeds" of soldiers "in the immense wilderness."

For the Portuguese soldiers it was a war to exterminate and subjugate. The Portuguese had begun building plantations.  The churchmen and others saw the war and the taking of slaves from warfare as morally correct. Jesuit correspondence with the King of Portugal supported subjugating and enslaving the natives in order to convert them, and, the letter went on, "Your Highness will draw much profit because there will be many stock farms and many plantations, even if there be not much gold and silver." note7

The Jesuit program was to settle the Indians into villages (aldeias) that they ran, similar to Spanish missions and forced Indian villages. Here the Indians were denied the nomadic hunting and gathering ways, and here they could absorb Christian doctrine and morality, learn a trade, pursue their native crafts, learn to read and write and they were protected from unapproved enslavement. Father José de Anchieta was the major architect of this program.

The Jesuits in Brazil came into conflict with Brazil's colonists much as Jesuits in Spanish America came into conflict with Spanish colonists. The colonists wanted a supply of labor and the Jesuits wanted to protect their Indians, which led to appeals by both sides to the king of Portugal. The crown's decree of 1574 reflected a partial victory for the Jesuits, granting them full control over the Indians in their villages while permitting the colonists to enslave Indians captured in "legitimate" warfare.


The Bandeirantes (followers of the banner) are credited with expanding Portugal's colony into the interior. They were also known as Paulistas. Many were descended from Tupi mothers and Portuguese fathers. These were men who wanted to become rich quick. They worked as free-enterprisers in a group as opposed to expeditions funded by the Portuguese government.

The Bandeirantes had firearms and the Tupi had bows and arrows. The Bandeirantes pursued their slave gathering by disguising themselves as Jesuits, sometimes singing mass to lure the Tupi from their settlements. If luring them didn't work, the Bandeirantes might surround a settlement and set it afire to force them out. Sometimes the Bandeirantes conducted a surprise attack. Another Bandeirante tactic was to set one native tribe against a second tribe in order to weaken them and then to enslave both of them.

The Bandeirantes collected those they captured in a large outdoor pen until, maybe weeks or months later, they had enough to justify a return trip to the coast, where the captives would be sold as slaves. For the journey to the coast the captives were stripped and tied to a long pole to prevent them from trying to flee.

At least some of the Jesuit missionaries considered themselves opponents of the Bandeirantes but they accompanied them, providing mass before an expedition and serving the dying or the souls of those killed.

Bandeirantes were frontiersmen. They planted and harvested food patches as they went. They built roads and founded settlements. They provided colonial administrators with information useful for mapping the land while not claiming property rights.

As the natives diminished in number, the Bandeirantes moved on to searching for gold and silver. Word was out, with some exaggeration, on discoveries made by the Spanish. In the 1660s, the Portuguese government offered rewards to those who discovered gold or silver deposits in inner Brazil, and the Bandeirantes responded.

Slaves from Africa

The dearth of slaves in Brazil led the colonists to purchase more slaves from Africa. The Portuguese had begun crystallizing sugar by boiling sugar cane cuttings in large in vats. A new industry to make money putting sugar on Europe's dining tables was in the making. By 1600, the colony had around 120 sugar plantations, with sugar and dyewood being its main exports, sugar exports around 50 million tons a year. In the colony were around 30,000 black slaves and about 50,000 Portuguese and half Portuguese, and about 680 head of cattle. A century later there would be around 1.5 million head of cattle, tobacco exports would increase, the white and mixed race population would be around 150,000, and African slaves would number around 150,000. note8


The Brazilian People, by Ribeiro Darcy, University of Florida Press, 2000

The Brazilian Empire: Myths & Histories, Revised Edition, Chapters 1 through 3, by Emilia Viotti da Costa, 2000

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

Additional Reading

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1999

Copyright © 2000-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.