In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Brazil

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Surveys and Readers
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Amerindian History
  • Colonial Society and Economy
  • Colonial Politics and Administration
  • Church and Religion
  • Art, Culture, and Science
  • Independence

Atlantic History Brazil
John M. Monteiro
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0011


In the early 21st century, one of the world’s largest nations, Brazil, owes its existence to a history that is intimately connected to the ebb and flow of the Atlantic. In 1500 the Atlantic brought Cabral’s off-course fleet into contact with indigenous peoples along the east coast of South America. In 1850 the government of imperial Brazil finally ended the Atlantic slave trade, which had forcibly introduced millions of Africans into Portuguese America and Brazil over the course of three and a half centuries. Between these landmark dates an intense transoceanic exchange of peoples, pathogens, plants, animals, commodities, languages, and ideas shaped many of the essential features of this rich and varied New World society. Although this bibliography focuses mainly on the period ending with the extinction of the transatlantic slave trade, it should be noted that Brazil’s Atlantic vocation did not end there. The subsequent abolition of slavery itself, in 1888, accelerated the process of mass immigration from Europe, shifting the main axis of exchange from the south to the north Atlantic. Thanks to the expansion of graduate programs in Brazil in the early 21st century, historical studies have grown exponentially. This entry includes mostly English-language items, which limits and in some ways introduces a bias to the scope of the bibliography, as the depth and breadth of Brazilian scholarship is underrepresented. Even with the creation of a more explicit Atlantic studies agenda, however, it should be noted that Brazil’s engagement with the Atlantic, especially in its relations with Europe and Africa, has always figured as an important theme in Brazilian history.

General Overviews

Most general treatments of Brazil are concerned primarily with the historical roots of contemporary issues and dilemmas that face the modern nation. Three of the most important sets of problems were set forth in the 1930s, in the classic interpretations of Freyre 1946 (slavery, miscegenation), Holanda 2006 (appropriation of the public space for private benefit), and Prado, 1967 (the externally oriented, predatory economy). The authors of these works appear as constant references in subsequent overviews of Brazilian history. Because the works are dated in many respects, they must be read carefully and placed in due context. A more recent interpretive synthesis drawing on these themes is Ribeiro 2000. Readers can get a good sense of the predominant trends in more recent Brazilian historiography in Graham 1991 (for the 1970s and 1980s) and Novais 1997–1998 (for the late 1980s and 1990s). For broad approaches addressing the Atlantic dimension of Brazilian history, Dean 1997 offers a novel reading of environmental issues, whereas Bethencourt and Curto 2007 places the Lusophone Atlantic within the broader context of Portuguese expansion studies.

  • Bethencourt, Francisco, and Diogo Ramada Curto, eds. Portuguese Oceanic Expansion, 1400–1800. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

    Excellent set of essays by leading specialists in Portuguese expansion studies, covering a broad range of themes in a comparative scope. Many of the essays place Brazil within the wider context of Portuguese overseas activities.

  • Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

    Sweeping, ambitious history of Brazil from an environmental perspective. Dean’s focus affords an understanding of the relationship between different human populations and the Atlantic forest as the environment became more deeply enmeshed in the Atlantic economy.

  • Freyre, Gilberto. The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization. Translated by Samuel Putnam. New York: Knopf, 1946.

    First published in 1933, one of the main interpretations of Brazilian society, focusing on the rural, patriarchal plantation complex. Freyre had a great impact on Brazilian thought in the 20th century as well as on broader discussions of race relations in the Americas and beyond. Heavily criticized in later years, this book remains an important reference and a rich source of ideas and information.

  • Graham, Richard, ed. Brazil and the World System. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

    Includes three essays introducing English-language readers to important themes in Brazilian historiography. Fernando Novais summarizes his theoretical position on the late-colonial crisis; John Hall analyzes the patrimonial nature of colonial Brazilian society; and Luís Carlos Soares offers a synthesis of Brazilian thought on dependency and modes of production in historical studies.

  • Holanda, Sérgio Buarque de. Raízes do Brasil. Commemorative ed. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras, 2006.

    First published in 1936, this brief, sophisticated essay proposes an interpretation of Brazil through the historical tensions between private and public spheres. Although translated into Italian (1954), Spanish (1955), and Japanese (1967), this work unaccountably still awaits an English-language version.

  • Novais, Fernando A., ed. História da Vida Privada no Brasil. 4 vols. São Paulo, Brazil: Companhia das Letras, 1997–1998.

    Large editorial endeavor drawing together essays on “private life” in Brazilian history, with a strong sampling of contemporary historical writing in Brazil. The first volume includes essays on the colonial period (1500–1822), and the second covers the Empire (1822–1889).

  • Prado, Caio, Jr. The Colonial Background to Modern Brazil. Translated by Suzette Macedo. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

    First published in 1942, this study influenced generations of Brazilian historians inspired by the author’s interpretation of “the meaning of colonization” and its lasting impact on the economic and social structures of modern Brazil. Provides a portrait of the country’s economic and social life on the eve of independence.

  • Ribeiro, Darcy. The Brazilian People: The Formation and Meaning of Brazil. Translated by Gregory Rabassa. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

    Ribeiro, one of 20th-century Brazil’s most prominent anthropologists, social thinkers, and statesmen, wrote this sweeping interpretation of Brazilian history and culture shortly before his death in 1997. Ribeiro’s often witty and hyperbolic style lends the book literary overtones, but at the base remains his critical analysis of the ethnic, cultural, and social forces that contributed to Brazil’s national character.

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