Guerrillas in the Brazilian Amazon

By Alvaro De Souza Pinheiro | Military Review, March/April 1996 | Go to article overview

Guerrillas in the Brazilian Amazon


Alvaro De Souza Pinheiro, Military Review


The Amazon basin is a strategic priority for Brazil because of the political, economic and psycho-social interests it has in the region. The author focuses on Brazil's use of military power to protect its interests in the Brazilian Amazon and demystifies Brazil's guerrilla warfare experience there by identifying the link between Brazil past military actions in the Amazon and future military concepts for protecting Brazilian sovereignty.

SINCE THE BEGINNING of Brazil's colonization, the conquest of the Amazon has been an episode written in blood, courage and determination. The city of Belem, the Para state capital, was the starting point for the Portuguese-Brazilian conquest of the region. Founded on 12 January 1616 by Francisco Caldeira Castelo Branco after expulsion of the French from Sao Luis do Maranhao, the city, protected by Fort Presepio, became a magnet for settlers.1 It was the jumping-off place for expansion and domination and a center for a new race established as a natural byproduct from the merging of white Europeans and Indians.

Conquest of the Amazon was marked by violent disputes as Portuguese-Brazilian forces tried to expel the English, French, Dutch and Irish, who had all come to the region to explore and build commerce and tried to dominate the land by building permanent forts along the region's riverbanks.

Captain Pedro Teixeira, known in Brazilian history as the "Conqueror of the Amazon," epitomizes the formidable Portuguese-Brazilian conquest. On 28 October 1637, he left Cameta along the Tocantins River on a two-year adventure with 87 soldiers and 300 hired porters and Paranese Indians. In 45 canoes, Teixeira and his men went up the Amazon River to Quito, Ecuador. During the long journey he fought, defeated and expelled foreigners who wanted to settle at strategic points along the "Sea River." Teixeira discovered, reconnoitered and manned the Amazon River's principal tributaries. After defeating the Encabellado Indians, he founded a small PortugueseBrazilian village-Franciscana-at the confluence of the Napo and Aguarico rivers, today's border between Peru and Ecuador. This established a boundary for the Spanish and Portuguese domains, whose thrones united under the King of Spain in 1580.

Shortly after the expedition's return to Belem Portugal won its independence from Spain and became the rightful owner of the Brazilian colony, thanks to Teixeira's expedition and to other Portuguese explorers such as Raposo Tavares. Tavares reached Belem 11 years later by descending the Madeira and Amazon rivers from the Sao Paulo Province.2 Teixeira's expedition served, much later, as the first argument in the doctrine of Uti Possidetis upon which the 1750 Treaty of Madrid would confirm the Portuguese-Brazilian conquest.3

Teixeira fought to subdue the Tupinambas Indians, who threatened the Portuguese conquest of Belem and other coastal locations such as Cuma and Cait6s, located between Belem and Sao Luis. In these battles, his reputation as an astute, courageous military commander was solidified when he demonstrated an efficient combat form-guerrilla warfare.

Teixeira was named Capitao-Mor do Grao Para, a position which is equivalent today to military commander of the Amazon. A victim of a rapid and insidious disease, he died in Belem in 1641. He is interred at the Metropolitan Cathedral of Belem, built in the 17th century in the same area where Fort Castelo stands.

Teixeira used guerrilla warfare to move the Tordesillas Meridian from the mouth of the Amazon to the Andes.4 His direction of riverine operations and decentralized use of troops in surprise actions against superior enemy forces are hailed as the beginning of ambush tactics. These tactics were emulated by Antonio Dias Cardoso, Andre Vidal de Negreiros, Henrique Dias and Felipe Camarao in the memorable Pernambucan Insurrection, a native movement that expelled the Dutch from Brazil's northeastern region. …

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