In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Colonial Portuguese Amazon Region, from the 17th to 18th Centuries

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • European Conquest
  • The Frontiers and the Hinterland
  • Missions and Missionaries
  • Amazonian Society
  • A Note on Recent Dissertations and Theses on Amazonian Colonial History

Latin American Studies Colonial Portuguese Amazon Region, from the 17th to 18th Centuries
Rafael Chambouleyron
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0195


The colonial Portuguese Amazon region constituted a separate province of Portuguese America, and it lasted as such from the beginning of the 17th century until the beginning of the 19th century, when Brazil became an independent nation. Although its precise limits were uncertain, this territory had the Amazon River and its tributaries as the backbone of the Portuguese dominion of the region. It bordered Dutch, French, English, and Spanish territories. From a territorial and administrative point of view, it had several configurations. It was officially created in 1621, as the state of Maranhão, or the state of Maranhão and Pará. This configuration lasted until 1751, when the Crown renamed it the state of Grão-Pará and Maranhão. From the mid-1770s until the beginning of the 19th century, the Crown created two separate provinces from it: the state of Grão-Pará and Rio Negro (west) and the state of Maranhão and Piauí (east). It was constituted by several captaincies: the most important being Pará, Maranhão, Piauí (created at the beginning of the 18th century), and Rio Negro (created in the mid-18th century). Most of its territory corresponds to the modern-day Brazilian Amazon region, except from its eastern part (especially part of the captaincy of Maranhão and the captaincy of Piauí). The Amazonian part of this Portuguese province was heavily dependent on Indian compulsory labor, although African slaves entered the region in increasing numbers, mainly during the second half of the 18th century, when the Crown established a monopoly trade company to foster agricultural exploitation in the region. The Amazonian colonial economy was based on a combination of agriculture, cattle raising, and extraction of forest products, known as drogas do sertão, which one could translate as “Amazonian spices.” The importance of the latter, and of Indian compulsory labor and slavery, gave rise to a society and economy dependent on territorial expansion to survive. Thus, except for agriculture and cattle raising, developed mainly in the areas close to the main cities, the hinterland, known as sertão, remained crucial for the economic development of the region. Scholarship on the colonial Portuguese Amazon region has increased in recent years, mainly owing to the development of graduate studies in Amazon region universities. Thus, much of the renewal of the field is still in the form of dissertations and theses, which can be found online in the universities’ repositories.

General Overviews

General overviews of the colonial Amazon region are almost nonexistent; Reis 1940 is a classical and general interpretation of the colonial period that extols Portuguese deeds. Soublin 2000, Souza 2001, and Hemming 2008 are general introductions to the history of the Amazon region, with sections on the colonial period. General histories of colonial Brazil have chapters or sections dedicated to colonial Amazonia, including Boxer 1995 and Schwartz 1987.

  • Boxer, Charles. The Golden Age of Brazil: Growing Pains of a Colonial Society, 1695–1750. Reprint. Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 1995.

    A general history of Portuguese America, first published in 1962 (University of California Press), with a chapter on colonial Amazonia, focusing especially on the issue of Amazonian Indian labor and the conflicts between clerics and settlers (see pp. 271–292).

  • Hemming, John. Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

    A general and good introduction to Amazonia, written by a specialist. The first four chapters deal with colonial times, from the first Spanish expeditions in the 16th century up to the beginning of the 19th century.

  • Reis, Arthur Cezar Ferreira. A política de Portugal no vale amazônico. Belém, Brazil: Officinas Graphicas da Revista Novidade, 1940.

    A comprehensive account of the Portuguese Amazon region, from the beginning of the 17th until the end of the 18th century. The author addresses the territorial, political, religious, and cultural features of Portuguese dominion. Extolling Portuguese deeds in the region, it concludes by legitimizing Portuguese, and therefore Brazilian (after independence), rule over the region.

  • Schwartz, Stuart B. “Plantations and Peripheries, c. 1580–c. 1750.” In Colonial Brazil. Edited by Leslie Bethell, 67–144. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511609510.005

    This chapter analyzes the main economic areas of colonial Brazil (except that of the mines) and devotes a section to the northern and southern parts of the colony. The Amazon region is here considered as a periphery of colonial Portuguese America owing to its isolation and poverty. On colonial Amazonia, see pp. 118–127.

  • Soublin, Jean. Histoire de l’Amazonie. Paris: Payot, 2000.

    A history of the region, written in a nonacademic format. A good general introduction for a broader public, based on secondary literature. Most of the book is devoted to the colonial period.

  • Souza, Márcio. Breve história da Amazônia. 2d ed. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Agir, 2001.

    A general and introductory history of the Amazon region, written by an important intellectual of the region. Covers from pre-Columbian times until the present. Each chapter is divided into small topics, including characters and aspects of Amazonian history. On the colonial period, see pp. 13–122.

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