In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section São Paulo City

  • Introduction
  • Research Resources
  • General Overviews
  • The Colonial Town (1554–1822)
  • The Academic Village (1822–1872)
  • Second Founding (1872–1888)
  • Slavery, Abolition, and Race
  • Family and Gender

Atlantic History São Paulo City
Aiala Levy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0359


The city of São Paulo tends to be a minor character in histories of the Atlantic world, perhaps because its own historians have long characterized it as a backwater of little global consequence. Yet, as anniversary celebrations annually remind, São Paulo is among the oldest continuously inhabited European settlements in the Americas. It was founded by Jesuits in 1554 as the mission of São Paulo de Piratininga, a syncretic reference to the event’s date—Saint Paul’s conversion day, 25 January—and what the Jesuits believed to be the indigenous placename. A cluster of twelve Tupi villages, along with plentiful water, drew the Jesuits to the hilly basin approximately 34 miles inland and 2,625 feet above sea level. Other Europeans soon arrived, setting up a town council and joining the indigenous and mameluco (mixed-race) residents of nearby Santo André to create in 1560 the vila of São Paulo. The following century would be marked by recurring conflict among indigenes, townsmen, and Jesuits, with the latter forced to flee in 1640. Meanwhile, the town’s proximity to major rivers transformed it into a waystation for muleteers, as well as a base for slave-raiding expeditions (bandeiras). Consequently, women outnumbered men among year-round residents and slavery remained a largely indigenous affair well into the 18th century, when enslaved Africans were first brought in large numbers. Slavery’s expansion further fueled agricultural commercialization, which by 1800 produced a powerful merchant class and a highly unequal urban society. São Paulo’s was also a deeply religious society; religious edifices continued to dominate the landscape after the declaration of an independent Brazilian Empire, in 1822. However, government buildings were multiplying—the city was now the capital of São Paulo Province—and one cloister was converted into the Academia de Direito, one of only two law schools and a handful of higher education institutions in Brazil. The Academia earned São Paulo the label of “academic village,” although merchants, a growing assortment of professionals, enslaved people (a third of the population in 1836), and countless others daily occupied the city’s streets. The expansion of coffee into the West Paulista zone by 1890 helped rebrand São Paulo as the region’s metropolis: an entrepôt between port and hinterland, a labor marketplace (white immigrants were recruited to replace the enslaved long before full emancipation in 1888), a Republican stronghold (central to the monarchy’s 1889 overthrow), and an administrative, industrial, and cultural center.

Research Resources

Primary sources relevant for the history of the colonial and imperial city are largely concentrated in the hands of the state government (the Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo (APESP), the Acervo Histórico da Assembleia Legislativa do Estado de São Paulo (ALESP), the Arquivo do Tribunal de Justiça do Estado de São Paulo (ATJSP), etc.), a testament to the distribution of administrative and financial resources before 1890. While the official archive of São Paulo Captaincy originated in 1721, in the aftermath of the captaincy’s separation from Minas Gerais, the municipal archive was only organized in 1907, after the prefecture’s powers and the city’s wealth had substantially increased. Another important institution for the production and preservation of historical documents has been the Catholic Church. The Jesuits were meticulous recordkeepers, as were the clergymen who followed them; documentation by the latter is today housed in the archive of the Archdiocese of São Paulo. A more recent arrival to the patrimony scene is the University of São Paulo (Universidade de São Paulo, USP), which in 1963 took over the management of the Museu Paulista da Universidade de São Paulo and, in 2013, inaugurated the Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin (BBM). Many other public and private institutions have accumulated historical materials over the years and, in an effort to help researchers navigate this sprawling archival landscape, a team led by Paula Porta Fernandes published in 1998 a guide to historical documents in São Paulo (see Fernandes 1998). Although the guide remains useful, the logistics of studying São Paulo’s past have radically changed since its publication. Today, historians can access finding aids and catalogs on the websites of many archives. Moreover, while much remains restricted to the physical archive, institutions such as the Biblioteca Nacional Digital Brasil have invested heavily in digitization and online curation, enabling users to view and even full-text-search primary sources from anywhere in the world.

  • Acervo Histórico da Assembleia Legislativa do Estado de São Paulo (ALESP).

    Houses annals of legislative sessions, petitions, and other records pertaining to the legislatures of the province and state of São Paulo, along with the Legislative Assembly’s library. Website includes downloadable speeches, biographies, and lists of officials, as well as databases of text-searchable legislation since 1835 and documents produced since 1828. Particularly useful for historians of imperial São Paulo given the Assembly’s jurisdiction over many aspects of urban governance.

  • Archivo do Estado de São Paulo. Publicação official de documentos interessantes para a historia e costumes de S. Paulo. São Paulo: Typ. Aurora, 1894–1932.

    Collection of demographic data, correspondences of military and government officials, and a miscellany of other documents deemed by state archivists at the turn of the 20th century to be valuable for studying the history of the captaincy/province. The fifty-four volumes, published over three decades, facilitated the emergence of archive-based histories of São Paulo. Volumes 6–10 and 29–31 are available through Hathi Trust.

  • Arquivo da Cúria Metropolitana de São Paulo (ACMSP).

    Houses ecclesiastic documents produced within the region that constitutes today’s Archdiocese of São Paulo, beginning with the first parish, established in 1591. The archive’s baptismal and marriage records have been of particular import to historians of the colonial or imperial city.

  • Arquivo Histórico Municipal (AHM).

    The archive of the municipal government of São Paulo. Its collection begins in the mid-16th century and contains the annals and budgets of the Municipal Chamber (Câmara Municipal), maps, a variety of petitions, and construction permits and their appended architectural plans. Digitized, early issues of the Revista do Arquivo Municipal may be of historiographic interest to scholars of pre-republic São Paulo.

  • Arquivo Público do Estado de São Paulo (APESP).

    Among the largest archives in Brazil, its collections include those of the executive branch of the captaincy and province of São Paulo, private individuals, the Faculdade de Direito, and the Instituto Histórico e Geográfico de São Paulo. Many manuscripts, periodicals, photographs, demographic records, and maps are accessible through the Digital Repository. Some digitized materials, such as those pertaining to 19th-century slavery, are thematically organized.

  • Arquivo do Tribunal de Justiça do Estado de São Paulo (ATJSP).

    The archive of São Paulo State’s judicial branch has been widely used by historians of colonial and imperial São Paulo, and especially by social historians. Its holdings include estate inventories, wills, 19th-century case files, and divorce and marriage records from after 1891, when civil marriage was constitutionalized.

  • Biblioteca Brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin (BBM).

    Guita and José Mindlin’s collection of books by Brazilian authors or about Brazil is now publicly accessible on the University of São Paulo campus, sharing the same space as the library and archive of the Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros (IEB). Much of the library has also been digitized and is text-searchable. In addition to books, the digital collection consists of maps, images, periodicals, pamphlets, and a few manuscripts.

  • Biblioteca Nacional Digital Brasil.

    An extensive collection of textual, visual, and aural materials housed in the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) and digitized since 2001. Periodicals, including a large number from São Paulo, are searchable through the Hemeroteca Digital.

  • Fernandes, Paula Porta S., ed. Guia dos documentos históricos na cidade de São Paulo, 1554–1954. São Paulo: Hucitec/Neps, 1998.

    Detailed directory of over 8,000 institutions located in São Paulo City that were founded before 1954 or are otherwise relevant for historical research. Organized by institutional type, the guide describes the history and collections of government agencies, cemeteries, research institutions, religious organizations, samba schools, museums, and other archives. Helpful for comparing collections, although some information is out of date.

  • Museu Paulista da Universidade de São Paulo.

    Also known as the Museu do Ipiranga. Contains the private archives of the region’s leading families (e.g. the Silva Prado family), genealogies, maps, and a wide range of published texts that are searchable through the University of São Paulo’s library catalog.

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.