Latin American Civilization: History and Society, 1492 to the Present

By Benjamin Keen | Go to book overview

11
THE FORMATION OF COLONIAL BRAZIL

PEDRO ALVARFS CABRAL, a Portuguese captain sent to follow up Vasco da Gama's great voyage to India, accidentally discovered Brazil in 1500 and claimed it for his country. Trade and conquest in the Far East claimed Portugal's chief attention at this time, but Portugal did not completely neglect its new possession. Brazilwood, source of a valued red dye, was the first staple of the colony, but sugar soon established its economic leadership. Raids on Indian villages and, after 1550, the importation of Black slaves provided labor for the plantations and sugar mills.

The second half of the seventeenth century saw a crisis in the Brazilian sugar industry, which was faced with severe competition from newly risen Dutch, English, and French sugar colonies in the West Indies. As the first economic cycle of colonial Brazil drew to a close, a second opened with the discovery of gold and diamonds in the regions of Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso, lying west and south of Baía and Pernambuco. But the gold and diamonds were found in limited quantities, and production declined sharply after 1760.

As the interior provinces of Minas Gerais and Goiás sank into decay, the northeast enjoyed a revival based on the increasing European demand for sugar, cotton, and other semitropical products. Between 1750 and 1800 Brazilian cotton production made large strides but as rapidly declined in the face of competition from the more efficient cotton growers of the United States. The beginnings of the coffee industry, future giant of the Brazilian economy, also date from the late colonial period.

Until the decree of January 28, 1808, which opened the ports of Brazil to the trade of all nations, the commerce of the colony was restricted to Portuguese nationals and ships. A significant exception was made in the case of Great Britain, Portugal's protector and ally. By the Treaty of 1654, British merchants were permitted to trade between Portuguese and Brazilian ports.

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