In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section First Contact and Early Colonization of Brazil

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Early Texts and Document Collections
  • Digital Collections
  • The Portuguese Age of Discoveries
  • First Reports: Recognition and the Quest for Legitimacy of the Conquest
  • Indigenous Peoples and the Shock of Conquest
  • Indians, Colonists, and the Law
  • The Missionary Effort and the Jesuits
  • European-Indigenous Contacts and Early Economic Activities
  • Donatary Captaincies
  • Government and the Church
  • Antarctic France
  • Sugar’s Beginnings
  • Early Brazil in Maps
  • African Slavery and the Slave Trade
  • Society and Culture in Early Brazil
  • Environmental History

Atlantic History First Contact and Early Colonization of Brazil
Stuart B. Schwartz, Aldair Rodrigues
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0312


This article covers much of the first century of the history of Brazil. The quincentennial commemorations of the Vasco da Gama voyage (1498) to India and that of Pedro Alvares Cabral (1500), which “discovered” Brazil, stimulated in Portugal and Brazil as well as in the academic communities interested in their histories a surge in research, reeditions of classic accounts, and a rise in the curiosity of, and readership by, the general public. This article includes major works from this recent historiographical boom along with classical studies that have long served as the basis for understanding Brazil’s first century. The article covers the period from 1500 to c. 1580 when a dynastic crisis brought Portugal and its empire under the control of King Phillip II of Spain. At first a number of royally commissioned voyages of exploration visited the Brazilian coast, but, for the most part, contact was in private hands since the Portuguese Crown granted contracts for the extraction of dyewood. In the 16th century, French competitors contested the Portuguese presence on the coast and the relations of the Portuguese with native peoples. By the 1530s, to secure this region from foreign competition, Portugal instituted a system of proprietary captaincies to develop settlements. A few of the captaincies (e.g., Pernambuco, São Vicente) flourished due to the beginnings of a sugar industry, but most of them failed such that, in 1549, to secure the colony, a royal governor and judicial and treasury officers were dispatched along with c. 1,300 men. Jesuit missionaries accompanied them and a capital city was established at Salvador. During the next three decades, the Portuguese settled and took control of the Brazilian coast, eliminating a French attempt at colonization and, in its place, founding the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1565. Meanwhile, relations with Brazil’s indigenous population shifted as missionary efforts, epidemic diseases, and the need for laborers in the growing sugar plantation economy resulted in war, enslavement, and depopulation. By the 1560s, colonists in Brazil had turned to the existing Portuguese slave trade with Africa to augment their supply of workers. By c. 1570 a multiracial society had formed. Although the laws and institutions of Portugal clearly provided governing structures for the colony, the extent to which Brazil’s colonial situation, the influences of indigenous and then African cultures, and the growing importance of slavery distinguished the colony from its metropolis has recently become a central issue of debate about the origins and the nature of early Brazil.

General Overviews

General histories of colonial Brazil offer synoptic views of the first century of contact and settlement. Classic works such as Varnhagen 1962 (originally published 1854–1857) for its factual information, Capistrano de Abreu 1997 (originally published 1907) for its interpretative sweep, and the influential Marxist interpretation in Prado 1967 (originally published in 1942) are still essential starting points. The essays in Gouvêa and Fragoso 2014 and those in Buarque de Holanda 1960–1984 offer monographic analyses of various themes, while Johnson 1984 is still the best starting point for anglophone readers.

  • Buarque de Holanda, Sergio, ed. História geral da civilização brasileira. 12 vols. São Paulo, Brazil: Difuisão Européia do Livro, 1960–1984.

    The first two volumes dedicated to the colonial period offer excellent syntheses by some of the leading historians of the mid-20th century. Although some chapters are now dated, it is still useful.

  • Capistrano de Abreu, João. Chapters of Brazil’s Colonial History, 1500–1800. Translated by Arthur Brakel. Edited by Stuart B. Schwartz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Originally published in 1907. More an interpretative essay than a history, Capistrano de Abreu’s vision broke with the strict chronological and administrative history as found in Varnhagen 1962 and instead looked for social and political themes and differences between population centers and frontiers as a way of envisioning Brazil.

  • Gouvêa, Maria de Fátima, and João Luís Fragoso. O Brasil Colonial, 1443–1580. Vol. 1. Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 2014.

    This is the first volume of a set of three that includes excellent essays on the period from roughly the Treaty of Tordesillas (which divided the Atlantic world between Portugal and Spain) until the entry of Portugal into the Spanish monarchy (1580–1640). Its twelve chapters cover a wide range of theoretical perspectives and addresses economic, political, religious, and cultural aspects of the exploration and first century of colonization.

  • Johnson, Harold J. “The Portuguese Settlement of Brazil, 1500–1580.” In The Cambridge History of Latin America. Vol. 1, Colonial Latin America. Edited by Leslie Bethel, 249–286. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

    This concise overview by an author with considerable knowledge of Portugal’s medieval history remains the best analysis in English on early Brazil and covers social, political, and demographic aspects as well as the relations between the indigenous peoples and European settlers and missionaries.

  • Mauro, Frederic. Le Portugal, le Brésil et l’Atlantique au xviie siècle, 1570–1670. Paris: Fondation Calouste Gulbenkian Centre Culturel Portugais, 1983.

    Although concentrating on the subsequent century, this economic study by the leading French specialist on colonial Brazil of his generation is full of information on agriculture, commerce, maritime activity, labor, and much else applicable to earlier decades. A student of Fernand Braudel, this reedition of Mauro’s original thesis (1960) reflects their shared interests in commerce and the global economy in the Early Modern period.

  • Novais, Fernando A. “Brazil and the Old Colonial System.” In Brazil and the World System. Edited by Richard Graham, 11–56. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.

    This translation of an important theoretical essay (1974) from a Marxist perspective follows the earlier work of Prado 1967 but elaborates on it. Novais argues that commercial capitalism and colonialism were inextricably linked. A generation of Brazilian historians have been guided by its insights and his concept of the “old colonial system,” based on merchant capitalism.

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

    A book that both reflected and shaped thinking about colonial Brazil in the late 20th century, its Marxist approach centered on Brazil’s economic dependency and its negative effects. Sweeping in its coverage and marked by a pessimism about the colonial past, it still provides a solid introduction.

  • Varnhagen, Francisco Adolfo de. História geral do Brasil. 3 vols. 7th ed. São Paulo, Brazil: Edições Melhoramentos, 1962.

    Originally published 1854–1857. The great 19th-century positivist general history of colonial Brazil. The author was responsible for the discovery of many original documents and his edition is greatly enriched by the extensive notes of J. Capistrano de Abreu and Rodolfo Garcia, excellent historians of the next generation. Varnhagen’s text, a nationalist project that reflected some of the prejudices of its era, still offers the most detailed historical narrative of Brazil’s first century.

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