In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Rio de Janeiro

  • Introduction
  • Research Resources
  • Memoirs and Annals
  • Wars and the Founding of the City
  • Atlantic Expansion
  • Urban and Political Expansion
  • Trade and the Internal Market
  • The Slave Trade
  • Slavery and Society
  • Religious Practices
  • Local Powers
  • The Portuguese Court in the Tropics
  • Images of the City
  • The City and the Nation

Atlantic History Rio de Janeiro
Ronald Raminelli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 August 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0137


From the 17th century on, the city of Rio de Janeiro was an important urban center in the southern Atlantic, connected to Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Angola, the Mina Coast in western Africa, and Mozambique. Later on, the city began to receive ships heading for the southern Pacific, in particular the British fleet on its way to Australia. Dating from the 16th century, the foundation of the city gave rise to war waged by the Portuguese, French, and Tupi Indians over the control of Guanabara Bay. The city’s prominence as a regional center only began after Angola was freed from the subjugation of the Dutch. Without support from the metropolis, the local elite formed a victorious army and navy and resumed the slave trade from the ports of Angola. This trade promoted the growth of both the city and the sugar plantations, just as later on it supplied the labor force to exploit the gold deposits discovered in Minas Gerais. Rio de Janeiro was a port of entry and departure, connected as it was both to the vast interior, with the gold mines, and to the Atlantic, where merchants traded African slaves, sugar, rum (cachaça), and later on textiles from Asia. Indeed, urban growth was linked not only to the production of gold and to the influx of adventurers hailing from the Portuguese kingdom and the Crusades, but also to the production of sugar and rum. Even before it gained the status of capital of the State of Brazil, the city bore an enormous political and military influence on the captaincies of the south, all of which were subordinate to the governor of Rio de Janeiro. In 1763, already as capital, it was the center of the struggles against the Spanish on the southern borders and intensified the circulation of merchandise, arms, and soldiers. The great administrative, military, and judicial apparatus that survived until Brazil became independent was created for this very purpose. In 1808 the city received the Prince Regent and the Portuguese nobles taking flight from the Napoleonic Wars. Rio de Janeiro then became the capital of the pluricontinental Portuguese Empire after Lisbon was taken over by French troops. In addition to its political prominence, the city that was previously populated by a multitude of slaves, freed people of color, mestizos, and a few white people began to receive European immigrants, merchants, and agents from the Old World spurred on by the opening of the ports to “friendly nations.” In such circumstances, the city enjoyed remarkable growth and modernization. Mention should also be made of the fact that the transfer of the court included the first official printing press, museums, academies, libraries, newspapers, and leaflets; the last in particular, which had been prohibited, played a crucial role in refining the habits of the population and stimulating political debates, especially during the process of independence between 1821 and 1822. Thereafter, the city was transformed into the political center and the cradle of the nation, developing into a highly efficient web that was responsible for keeping Brazil’s regional elites united.

Research Resources

Gathered together here are the principal instruments of research on the history of Rio de Janeiro. In fact, in the catalogues can be found parochial and administrative documents, as well as travel chronicles. For research dedicated to social history, the books Belchior 1965 and Rheingantz 1965 are indispensable for consultation of parochial archives. For current approaches to the history of power, the best material is found in the Overseas Historical Archives of Lisbon, catalogued by Castro e Almeida 1917–1951. The catalogue Camargo and Borba 1993 is the most authoritative reference on the first printing press in Brazil. Finally, it is worth mentioning França 1999, a catalogue dedicated to the reports on journeys made throughout the colonial period. Such books are indispensable for research on the social, cultural, and administrative history of the city. It should be noted that the above-mentioned documentation privileges the period between 1750 and 1808. In fact, data on the first centuries of colonization are scarcer.

  • Belchior, Elysio de Oliveira. Conquistadores e povoadores do Rio de Janeiro. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria Brasiliana, 1965.

    Comprised of small biographies of the early conquistadores and settlers of the city, this work also provides information on the origin of the data presented and adds bibliographic references, as well as indexes with respect to the posts, functions, occupations, and titles of the subjects of the biographies.

  • Camargo, Ana Maria de Almeida, and Rubens Borba de Moraes. Bibliografia da Impressão Régia do Rio de Janeiro. 2 vols. São Paulo: Edusp: Livraria Kosmos Editora, 1993.

    The book lists the titles published in Rio de Janeiro between 1808 and 1822, when the court settled in the city. This work contains brief comments about each publication and is the best compendium and study on the birth of the press in Brazil.

  • Castro e Almeida, Eduardo de, ed. Inventário dos documentos relativos ao Brasil existentes no Archivo de Marinha e Ultramar. Anais da Biblioteca Nacional. Vol. 39, 1917; Vol. 46, 1924; Vol. 50, 1928; Vol. 71, 1951.

    The Overseas Historical Archives in Lisbon boasts the largest holdings of manuscripts on Rio de Janeiro; these catalogues cover the period between 1616 and 1757. These inventories and the respective digitized documentation (Projeto Resgate-Arquivo Histórico Ultramarino) are also available at the University of Brasília website.

  • França, Jean Marcel C. Visões do Rio de Janeiro colonial. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1999.

    A guide to the travel chronicles dedicated to colonial Rio de Janeiro, this anthology is comprised of information on the journey, a small biography of the traveler, and extracts of the narrative referring to the city, translated into Portuguese. It should be mentioned that Portuguese-speaking travelers are not included.

  • Rheingantz, Carlos G. Primeiras famílias do Rio de Janeiro. 3 vols. Rio de Janeiro: Brasiliana, 1965.

    Genealogical survey of families based on research in the parish registers of baptisms, marriages, and deaths in the period between 1616 and 1700. Family trees or lineage are enumerated alphabetically and refer to the parishes of Rio de Janeiro, São Gonçalo, and Niterói.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.