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Portuguese Colonization of the Americas


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Portugal was the leading country in the European exploration of the world in the 15th century. The Treaty of Tordesillas split the New World into Spanish and Portuguese zones in 1494.

Explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral landed on April 22, 1500 in what is today Porto Seguro, Brazil. Permanent habitation did not begin until São Vicente was founded in 1532, although temporary trading posts were established earlier to collect brazilwood, used as a dye. With permanent settlement came the establishment of the sugar cane industry and its intensive labor demands which were met with Native and later African slaves. The capital, Salvador, was established in 1549 at the Bay of All Saints. The first Jesuits arrived the same year. From 1565 through 1567 Mem de Sá, a Portuguese colonial official and the third Governor General of Brazil, successfully destroyed a ten year old French colony called France Antarctique, at Guanabara Bay. He and his nephew, Estácio de Sá, then founded the city of Rio de Janeiro on March 1567.

Between 1638 and 1640 the Netherlands came to control part of Brazil’s Northeast region, with their capital in Recife. The Portuguese won a significant victory in the Second Battle of Guararapes in 1649. By 1654, the Netherlands had surrendered and returned control of all Brazilian land to the Portuguese.

Unlike the Spanish, Portuguese did not divide its colonial territory in America. The captaincies there created were subdued to a centralized administration in Salvador which reported directly to the Crown in Lisbon. Therefore, it is not common to refer to “Portuguese America” (like Spanish America, Dutch America, etc.), but rather to Brazil, as a unified colony since its very beginnings.

As a result, Brazil did not split into several states by the time of Independence (1822), as happened to its Spanish-speaking neighbors. The adoption of monarchy instead of federal republic in the first six decades of Brazilian political sovereignty also contributed to the nation’s unity.

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