The Dramatic History of a “Land of Contrasts”


IT HAS been called the “land of contrasts”—and with good reason. While Brazil is mainly a tropical country, its climate ranges from subtropical in the south to equatorial in the Amazon region. Brazil’s history is marked by contrasts as well. Over the years, this vast land—covering an area of 3,286,502 square miles [8,511,999 sq km], with a 4,600-mile [7,400 km] coastline—has become home to people from a number of different cultures.

Hospitality was one of the first qualities that the Portuguese noticed when they set foot in Brazil 500 years ago. Indeed, in writing to Portuguese King Manuel I in the year 1500, Pero Vaz de Caminha described native Brazilians mixing freely with their Portuguese visitors and embracing them. But what were the Portuguese doing in Brazil?

On March 9, 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral set sail from Portugal with a fleet of ships. His intention was to found a trading post in Calicut, India. Before reaching his destination, however, Cabral landed on the coast of what is now the Brazilian state of Bahia. The date was April 23, 1500.

Some researchers say that the Portuguese already knew of Brazil’s existence and that Cabral’s stop there was no accident. * In any event, it seemed that the only commodity Brazil had to offer was brazilwood, a tree known for its crimson-red dye. While this had obvious potential, Indian spices were worth more.

So for ten years Portugal leased Brazil to Fernando de Noronha of Portugal, who gathered brazilwood and paid taxes to the Portuguese Crown. But other European countries also wanted to expand their commerce with the New World,  and Noronha was powerless to curb the growing illegal trade carried on by French, English, and Spanish navigators. Fearing that they might lose Brazil, the Portuguese began colonization in 1532. Sugar production became Brazil’s first lucrative business.

Gold mining and diamond mining became thriving businesses during the 18th century. By the turn of the 19th century, the production of latex from the rubber tree had become an important economic activity in the Amazon region. * Later, coffee farming played a role in the urbanization of Brazil, financing railroad construction and the modernization of the ports of Santos and Rio de Janeiro. By the close of the 19th century, half the world’s coffee was being harvested in Brazil, and São Paulo was Brazil’s chief economic center.

Sadly, slavery played a part in Brazil’s history. At first, the Portuguese settlers used the Indians to cut down and transport brazilwood. Later, the Indians were put to work on sugarcane plantations. Tragically, large numbers of natives contracted European diseases and died from them. To replace these workers, Portugal brought in slaves from Africa.

Over the years millions of Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves, and they brought their cultural and genetic heritage with them. That influence can be seen in popular music such as the samba and in capoeira (a system of fighting) as well as in foods such as feijoada, made with black beans cooked with pork, sausage, and jerky. Finally, in 1888, slavery was abolished in Brazil. About 750,000 people—most of whom worked on plantations—were freed.

From the 19th century on, millions of foreigners flocked to Brazil, including Germans, Italians, Japanese, Poles, and Spaniards as well as those of Swiss and Syro-Lebanese descent. Brazil is a fine place to live. Its flora and fauna are plentiful. As a rule, Brazil is free of natural disasters. There are no wars, earthquakes, volcanoes, cyclones, or tidal waves. So why not get to know Brazil by visiting some of its well-known sights? You will enjoy the same hospitality and natural beauty that impressed the Portuguese 500 years ago.


^ par. 6 When the Portuguese and the Spanish signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, they divided the land to the west of the South Atlantic. Therefore, some say that Cabral set out to take possession of land that was already designated to Portugal.

^ par. 8 See Awake!, May 22, 1997, pages 14-17.

[Map/Pictures on page 16, 17]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)




Rio de Janeiro

São Paulo


Iguaçú Falls


1. Pedro Álvares Cabral

2. Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494

3. Coffee carriers

4. Iguaçú Falls, as seen from the Brazilian side

5. Ipixuna Indian

[Credit Lines]

Culver Pictures

Courtesy of Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla, Spain

From the book Brazil and the Brazilians, 1857


 [Pictures on page 18]

1. Pumas are plentiful in Brazil

2. Orchids in the Amazon jungle

3. Traditional dress of Salvador, Bahia

4. A macaw

5. Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro. Brazil has over 4,000 miles [7000 km] of beautiful coastline

[Credit Line]

Courtesy São Paulo Zoo

[Picture on page 19]

Brasília—capital of Brazil since 1960

[Picture on page 19]

São Paulo—the economic center of Brazil

[Credit Line]


[Picture Credit Line on page 16]

© 1996 Visual Language