The first European settlers to arrive in the area were the Portuguese, who
were led by adventurous Pedro Cabral, who began the colonial period in 1500.
The Portuguese reportedly found native Indians numbering around seven
million. Most tribes were peripatetic, with only limited agriculture and
temporary dwellings, although villages often had as many as 5000
inhabitants. Cultural life appears to have been richly developed, although
both tribal warfare and cannibalism were ubiquitous. The few remaining
traces of Brazil's Indian tribes reveal little of their lifestyle, unlike
the evidence from other Andean tribes. Today, fewer than 200,000 of Brazil's
indigenous people survive, most of whom inhabit the jungle areas.
Other Portuguese explorers followed Cabral, in search of valuable goods for
European trade but also for unsettled land and the opportunity to escape
poverty in Portugal itself. The only item of value they discovered was the
pau do brasil (brazil wood tree) from which they created red dye. Unlike the
colonizing philosophy of the Spanish, the Portuguese in Brazil were much
less focused at first on conquering, controlling, and developing the
country. Most were impoverished sailors, who were far more interested in
profitable trade and subsistence agriculture than in territorial expansion.
The country's interior remained unexplored.
Nonetheless, sugar soon came to Brazil, and with it came imported slaves.
To a degree unequaled in most of the American colonies, the Portuguese
settlers frequently intermarried with both the Indians and the African
slaves, and there were also mixed marriages between the Africans and
Indians. As a result, Brazil's population is intermingled to a degree that
is unseen elsewhere. Most Brazilians possess some combination of European,
African, Amerindian, Asian, and Middle Eastern lineage,and this multiplicity
of cultural legacies is a notable feature of current Brazilian culture.
The move to open the country's interior coincided with the discovery in the
1690s of gold in the south-central part of the country. The country's gold
deposits didn't pan out, however, and by the close of the 18th century the
country's focus had returned to the coastal agricultural regions. In 1807,
as Napoleon Bonaparte closed in on Portugal's capital city of Lisbon, the
Prince Regent shipped himself off to Brazil. Once there, Dom Joao
established the colony as the capital of his empire. By 1821 things in
Europe had cooled down sufficiently that Dom Joao could return to Lisbon,
and he left his son Dom Pedro I in charge of Brazil. When the king
attempted the following year to return Brazil to subordinate status as a
colony, Dom Pedro flourished his sword and declared the country's
independence from Portugal (and his own independence from his father).
In the 19th century coffee took the place of sugar as Brazil's most
important product. The boom in coffee production brought a wave of almost
one million European immigrants, mostly Italians, and also brought about the
Brazilian republic. In 1889, the wealthy coffee magnates backed a military
coup, the emperor fled, and Brazil was no more an imperial country. The
coffee planters virtually owned the country and the government for the next
thirty years, until the worldwide depression evaporated coffee demand. For
the next half century Brazil struggled with governmental instability,
military coups, and a fragile economy., The country enjoyed its first
democratic election in almost three decades in Unfortunately, in 1989 the
Brazilians made the mistake of electing Fernando Collor de Mello. Mello's
corruption could do nothing to help the economy, but peacefully removal
from his office indicated that, at least that the country's political and
governmental structures are stable.
The world’s sixth largest population is in Brazil --about 148 million
people--which has doubled in the past 30 years. But because of its size,
there are only 15 people per sq. km, concentrated mainly along the coast and
in the major cities, where two-thirds of the people now live: over 19
million in greater Sao Paulo and 10 million in greater Rio.
The immigrant Portuguese language was greatly influenced by the numerous
Indian and African dialects they encountered, but today in Brazil it remains
the dominant language. In fact, in the development of the Portuguese
language, the Brazilian dialect has become the dominant influence for the
simple reason that Brazil has 15 times the population of Portugal and a much
more dynamic linguistic environment.