The Tribal Peoples
Little is known of Brazil 's first inhabitants, but from the few fragments left behind (mostly pottery, trash mounds and skeletons), archeologists estimate that the first humans may have arrived 50,000 years ago, predating any other estimates in the whole American continent.
The population at the time of the Portuguese landing in 1500 is also a mystery, and estimates range from two to six million. There were likely over 1000 tribes living as nomadic hunter-gatherers or in more settled, agricultural societies. Life was punctuated by frequent tribal warfare, and at times, captured enemies were ceremonially killed and eaten after battle.
When the Portuguese first arrived, they had little interest in the natives, who were viewed as a Stone-Age people; and the heavily forested land offered nothing for the European market. All that changed when Portuguese merchants expressed interest in the red dye from Brazil wood (which later gave the colony its name), and slowly colonists arrived to harvest the land.
The natural (Portuguese) choice for the work, of course, was the Indians. Initially, the natives welcomed the strange, smelly foreigners and offered them their labor, their food and their women in exchange for the awe-inspiring metal tools and the fascinating Portuguese liquor. But soon, the newcomers abused the Indians' customs, took their best land, and ultimately enslaved them.
The Indians fought back and won many battles, but the tides were against them.
When colonists discovered that sugarcane grew quite well in the colony, the Indians' labor was more valuable than ever, and soon the sale of Indian slaves became Brazil 's second-largest commercial enterprise. It was an industry dominated by bandeirantes, brutal men who hunted the Indians in the interior and captured or killed them. Their exploits, more than any treaty, secured the huge interior of South America for Portuguese Brazil.
Jesuit priests went to great lengths to protect the Indians, a few even arming them and fighting alongside them against bandeirante incursions. But they were too weak to stymie the attacks (and the Jesuits were later expelled from Brazil in 1759). Indians who didn't die at the hands of the colonists often died from introduced European diseases.
During the 17th century, African slaves replaced Indian prisoners on the plantations. From 1550 until 1888, about 3.5 million slaves were shipped to Brazil - almost 40% of the total that came to the New World . The Africans were considered better workers and were less vulnerable to European diseases, but they resisted slavery strongly. Quilombos, communities of runaway slaves, formed throughout the colonial period. They ranged from mocambos, small groups hidden in the forests, to the great republic of Palmares , which survived much of the 17th century. Led by the African king Zumbi, Palmares had 20,000 residents at its height.
More than 700 villages that formed as Quilombos remain in Brazil today, their growth only stopped by abolition itself, in 1888.
Those who survived life on the plantation sought solace in their African religion and culture through song and dance. The slaves were given perfunctory instruction in Catholicism and a syncretic religion rapidly emerged. Spiritual elements from many African tribes, such as the Yoruba, were preserved and made palatable to slave masters by adopting a facade of Catholic saints. Such were the roots of modern Candomble and Macumba, prohibited by law until recently.
Life on the plantations was miserable, but an even worse fate awaited many slaves. In the 1690s gold was discovered in present day Minas Gerais, and soon the rush was on. Wild boomtowns like Vila Rica de Ouro Preto (Rich Town of Black Gold) sprang up in the mountain valleys. Immigrants flooded the territory, and countless slaves were brought from Africa to dig and die in Minas.
For years, the ruling powers of Portugal viewed the colony of Brazil as little more than a moneymaking enterprise. That attitude changed, however, when Napoleon marched on Lisbon in 1807. The prince regent (later known as Dom Joao VI) immediately transferred his court to Brazil . He stayed on even after Napoleon's Waterloo in 1815, and when he became king in 1816 he declared Rio de Janeiro the capital of a united kingdom of Brazil and Portugal , making Brazil the only New World colony to serve as the seat of a European monarch. In 1821, Dom Joao finally returned to Portugal , leaving his son, Pedro, in Brazil as regent.
The following year, the Portuguese parliament attempted to return Brazil to colonial status. According to legend, Pedro responded by pulling out his sword and shouting out `Independencia ou morte!' ( Independence or death), crowning himself Emperor Dom Pedro I. Portugal was too weak to fight its favorite colony, so Brazil attained independence without bloodshed.
Dom Pedro I, by all accounts a bumbling incompetent, ruled for nine years. He scandalized the country by siring a
string of illegitimate children, and was finally forced to abdicate in favor of his five-year-old son, Dom Pedro II. Until the future emperor reached adolescence, Brazil suffered a period of civil war. In 1840, Dom Pedro II ascended the throne with overwhelming public support. During his 50-year reign he nurtured an increasingly powerful parliamentary system, went to war with Paraguay , meddled in Argentine and Uruguayan affairs, encouraged mass immigration, abolished slavery and ultimately forged a state that would do away with the monarchy forever.
During the 19th century, coffee replaced sugar as Brazil 's primary export, at one time supplying three-quarters of world demand. With mechanization and the building of Brazil 's first railroads, profits soared, and the coffee barons gained enormous influence over the country.
In 1889, a coffee-backed military coup toppled the antiquated Empire, sending the emperor into exile. The new Brazilian Republic adopted a constitution modeled on that of the USA , and for nearly 40 years Brazil was governed by a series of military and civilian presidents through which the armed forces effectively ruled the country.
One of the first challenges to the new republic came from a small religious community in the northeast. An itinerant holy man named Antonio Conselheiro had wandered for years through poverty-stricken backlands, prophesying the appearance of the Antichrist and the end of the world. He railed against the new government and in 1893 gathered his followers in the settlement of Canudos. Suspecting a plot to return Brazil to the Portuguese monarchy, the government set out to subdue the rebels. Only on the fourth attempt were they successful, but in the end, the soldiers killed every man, woman and child, and burned the town to the ground to erase it from the nation's memory.
Coffee remained king until the market collapsed during the global economic crisis of 1929. This weakened the planters of Sao Paulo , who controlled the government, and an opposition alliance formed with the support of nationalist military officers.
When their presidential candidate, Getulio Vargas, lost the 1930 elections, the military seized power and handed him the reins.
Vargas proved a gifted maneuverer, and dominated the political scene for 20 years. At times his regime was inspired by the Italian and Portuguese fascist states of Mussolini and Salazar: he banned political parties, imprisoned opponents and censored the press. He remained in and out of the political scene until 1954, when the military called for him to step down. Vargas responded by writing a letter to the people of Brazil , then shooting himself in the heart.
Juscelino Kubitschek, the first of Brazil 's big spenders, was elected president in 1956. His motto was `50 years' progress in five.' His critics responded with `40 years of inflation in four.' The critics were closer to the mark, owing in part to the huge debt Kubitschek incurred during the construction of Brasilia . By the early 1960s, inflation gripped the Brazilian economy, and Castro's victory in Cuba had spread fears of communism. Brazil 's fragile democracy was crushed in 1964 when the military overthrew the government.
Brazil remained under the repressive military regime for almost 20 years. Throughout much of this time, the economy grew substantially, owing in part to heavy borrowing from international banks. But it exacted a heavy toll on the country. At the neglect of all social reform, problems grew dire. Millions came to the cities, and favelas (shantytowns) grew at an exponential rate.
November 1989 saw the first presidential election by popular vote in nearly 30 years. Voters elected Fernando Collor de Mello over the socialist Luiz da Silva ('Lula'). Collor promised to fight corruption and reduce inflation, but in 1992 he was removed from office on charges of corruption - accused of heading a group that siphoned more than US$1 billion from the economy.
Itamar Franco replaced Collor and surprised his critics with a competent administration. In 1994 Franco introduced a new currency, the real, which sparked an economic boom. Franco's finance minister, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, later won a landslide presidential victory riding the real's success.
Cardoso presided through the mid1990s over a growing economy and record foreign investment, and small efforts were made toward education, land reform and anti-poverty measures. But by the end of Cardoso's office, the social problems facing the country were dire.
Corruption and violent crime was rife. In the late 1990s murders were running at 700 a month in greater Sao Paulo , making it (along with Rio de Janeiro ) among the most violent cities on earth. Fifty million Brazilians lived in serious poverty, many unable to earn enough just to feed themselves.
Given the numbers, it's not surprising that sooner or later a presidential candidate would campaign solely on a platform of social reform. What is surprising is that such a candidate could win, especially one who had run three times previously and lost.
In 2002 Lula ran for the fourth time and at last won. From a humble working class background, Lula rose to become a trade unionist and a strike leader in the early 1980s. He later founded the Workers Party (PT), a magnet for his many followers seeking social reform.
At his inauguration, Lula reaffirmed that his priorities were eliminating hunger and creating jobs. But he was also cautious not to alienate investors. This was a shift from the anti-capitalist rhetoric PT espoused years ago.
Still, this didn't stop conservative zealots in the US from labeling him a communist. (In a letter to Bush, Congressman Henry Hyde wrote, `There is a real prospect that Castro, Chavez, and Lula da Silva could constitute an axis of evil in the Americas which might soon have nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.')
Following Lula's first days in office, his harshest critics said that he had not moved fast enough; some even said that he was incapable of accomplishing his idealistic goals. Certainly, Lula's term won't be easy. Brazil entered the 21st century with a sickly healthcare system, urban overcrowding, rural landlessness and ongoing environmental abuse. Brazilians, and many around the globe, are watching to see if the Lula experiment can at last bring social justice to Brazil .