In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Portuguese-Spanish Interactions in Colonial South America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Document Collections
  • Digital Archives
  • Amazonia
  • Cartography
  • Chiquitos and Mojos
  • Contraband and the Slave Trade
  • Demarcations
  • Diplomacy
  • Mato Grosso
  • Paraguay
  • Río de la Plata
  • The Bandeirantes
  • The Guarani and the Jesuits
  • The Portuguese in Spanish America: Commercial, Political, and Social Connections

Latin American Studies Portuguese-Spanish Interactions in Colonial South America
Francismar Alex Lopes de Carvalho, Kara Schultz
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0272


On 7 June 1494, Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, an agreement that divided the world by a line that cut from pole to pole and began 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. This line allowed Portugal to claim possession of the coast of Brazil but it was quickly ignored by westward exploration movements that brought Portuguese, Spanish, Indigenous people, and people of African descent into contact and provided grounds for numerous conflicts in the following centuries. Even with the diplomatic efforts that led to the treaties of Madrid (1750) and San Ildefonso (1777), the boundaries between Iberian domains in South America remained porous and uncertain. A quick look at a map of South America allows us to see that from the Río de la Plata to Amazonia and from Paraguay to Guayana, the possibilities for interaction between Natives, Iberians, and people of African origins were numerous; if we include the major ports of South America (Buenos Aires, Callao, Guayaquil, Cartagena, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro) and the proximity of Angola, these possibilities, including legal and illegal trade, multiplied exponentially. We must not forget that Portugal and Spain did not remain opposite political entities during the early modern period. There were periods of political and diplomatic rapprochement and, of course, the years between 1580 and 1640, when Portugal was united with the Spanish empire in the so-called Iberian Union. Moreover, what it meant to be Portuguese—and what it meant to be Spanish—were also being defined. For these reasons, it is not surprising that historians have been concerned with the interactions between the Portuguese and Spanish in South America for a long time. Until the mid-20th-century, topics such as diplomacy, territorial demarcation, and military conflicts received more attention. In recent decades, however, historians have been more attentive to the interactions between individuals and groups “on the ground,” with special emphasis on the agency of Indigenous peoples, smugglers, merchants, slave traders, enslaved people of African origin, cartographers, and others. Modern historians have sought to understand how these frontier interactions influenced the formation of individuals’ identities, the personal and commercial networks they wove, and the knowledge about the environment they provided. Another topic of great importance concerns how Native peoples maintained their autonomy despite the expansion of the Iberian empires, especially during the eighteenth century. This article presents some of the most prominent works on each of these themes and resources for scholars to find relevant materials. Some studies are listed by theme (cartography, demarcation, diplomacy, etc.), while others are listed according to geographical subdivisions. Naturally, the studies that appear in thematic topics could also fit within regional categories, but we prefer to separate them by their relevance to the specific theme. In the regional topics, the “on the ground” interactions of Indigenous people with people of African, Spanish, and Portuguese origin stand out. Finally, it is important to note that in this essay, we concentrate on the colonial period, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and that we do not present references pertaining to the independence processes of South American countries, as we believe that this topic demands a separate essay.

General Overviews

Concise presentations regarding diplomatic negotiations and military conflicts over the territorial possession of South American border areas can be found in Solano 1991 and Rosas Moscoso 2008. Serrano Mangas 1994 focuses on Portuguese commercial operations in Spanish America during much of the Iberian Union and up to 1668. Herzog 2015 provide sophisticated and updated contributions to these topics; the author’s focus on the activities of agents “on the ground” reveal that the movement of subjects across the Americas, more than lines on maps, defined imperial sovereignty. On the relations between Iberians and Indigenous peoples, Weber 2005 is a rich scholarly overview, albeit one more focused on the Spanish side than the Portuguese. Levin Rojo and Radding 2019 organizes a collection of studies that serve as a general introduction to the topic and are accessible to a broader audience. Studnicki-Gizbert 2007 underlines the importance of Portuguese expertise in navigation and commerce to the foundations of Spain’s overseas empire. For topics such as smuggling, personal and trade networks, and the importance of institutions to economic activities, Klooster 2009 and Yun Casalilla 2018 provide extremely useful introductions. Schwartz 1968 takes on the question of Spanish influence on Brazil during the Iberian Union.

  • Herzog, Tamar. Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674735804

    Herzog examines the construction of borders between the Portuguese and Spanish in the Americas and in Europe. Emphasizing more the on-the-ground actions of local agents such as missionaries, explorers, nobles, and settlers than diplomatic agreements and court decisions, the author demonstrates that Portuguese and Spanish practices of defining territorial possessions were much more similar than both recognized.

  • Klooster, Wim. “Inter-Imperial Smuggling in the Americas, 1600–1800.” In Soundings in Atlantic History: Latent Structures and Intellectual Currents, 1500–1830. Edited by Patricia L. Denault and Bernard Bailyn, 141–180. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.

    DOI: 10.4159/9780674053533-005

    Provides an overview of smuggling in the Americas, including the illicit trade between the Portuguese and Spanish. The author argues that smuggling supplanted legal trade during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

  • Levin Rojo, Danna A., and Cynthia Radding, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Borderlands of the Iberian World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Features an introduction and thirty-four articles written by leading scholars in the field of borderland studies in the Americas. Some articles address Portuguese-Spanish relations on South American frontiers, particularly in the Río de la Plata and Amazonian regions.

  • Rosas Moscoso, Fernando. Del Río de la Plata al Amazonas: El Perú y el Brasil en la época de la dominación ibérica. Lima: Universidad Ricardo Palma Editorial Universitaria, 2008.

    Adopting a comparative approach, this book offers a synthesis of Portuguese and Spanish activities on South America’s frontiers. Building on the conventional view of Portuguese expansionism via São Paulo and Belém (Pará) as opposed to Spanish carelessness and indifference to territorial losses, the author shows that this scenario changed with the demarcation expeditions of the late eighteenth century, especially in Amazonia.

  • Schwartz, Stuart B. “Luso-Spanish Relations in Hapsburg Brazil, 1580–1640.” The Americas 25.1 (1968): 33–48.

    DOI: 10.2307/980096

    Explores Spanish influences on Brazil’s administration, legislation, economy, and society during the Iberian Union (1580–1640). Asserts that a number of Spaniards resided in Brazil and had mostly amicable relations with their neighbors. Divides Luso-Spanish relations into two periods: 1580 to 1622, during which Portuguese profited from the union via the slave trade, and 1622 to 1640, “a period of loss and disillusionment,” when the Dutch and English attacked Iberian possessions.

  • Serrano Mangas, Fernando. La encrucijada portuguesa: Esplendor y quiebra de la Unión Ibérica en las Indias de Castilla (1600–1668). Badajoz, Spain: Excelentísima Diputación Provincial de Badajoz, 1994.

    In this work, the author argues that the Portuguese experience in Spanish America was shaped by profit-seeking, messianism, and defiance. Drawing on Spanish sources, the author highlights a phase of prosperity until 1640 followed by difficulties until 1668. Some of the themes covered here include the Portuguese in Buenos Aires and Cartagena; their roles in the Carrera de Indias and the African slave trade; and the question of Portuguese identity.

  • Solano, Francisco de. “Contactos hispanoportugueses en América a lo largo de la frontera brasileña (1500–1800).” In Estudios (nuevos y viejos) sobre la frontera. Edited by Francisco de Solano and Salvador Bernabeu, 187–215. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1991.

    A short, useful overview of Portuguese-Spanish interactions in South America, with emphasis on the exchange of agricultural products, currency and precious metals, and enslaved people. Although covering several topics, the author devotes the greatest attention to the relations between the inhabitants of São Paulo and Paraguay in the seventeenth century.

  • Studnicki-Gizbert, Daviken. A Nation upon the Ocean Sea: Portugal’s Atlantic Diaspora and the Crisis of the Spanish Empire, 1492–1640. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195175691.001.0001

    Using Inquisition records held in European and American archives, Studnicki-Gizbert provides a rich portrait of the Portuguese diaspora (termed the Portuguese “Nation”) in early modern Spain and Spanish America. The author explores themes such as the provenance of Portuguese migrants; the construction of regional and trans-Atlantic trade networks; Spanish attitudes toward the Portuguese; and the Inquisition’s persecution of New Christians in the years leading up to Portuguese independence.

  • Weber, David J. Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    Although Weber focuses on the interactions between Spaniards and autonomous Indigenous peoples in different border regions of the Spanish empire in the eighteenth century, this important book discusses numerous examples pertinent to the Spanish-Portuguese border area in South America. It is a panoramic work consistently grounded in contemporary accounts of peace practices and conflicts between Europeans and Natives.

  • Yun Casalilla, Bartolomé. Iberian World Empires and the Globalization of the World, 1415–1668. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

    A critical survey of the literature on Iberian empires and the origins of European globalization. The book explores themes such as the emergence of state tax systems; the power of institutions; political economy; family and patronage networks; and the role of war. Provides comparative and interwoven analyses of the Portuguese and Spanish empires (both in Asia and in the Americas), although with greater attention to the Spanish case.

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