South America: Chapter IV

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Discovery and Early History of Brazil


It still remains a point of dispute between the Spanish and Portuguese nations as to who was the discoverer of Brazil.

There is, moreover, Amerigo Vespucci.
Amerigo Vespucci may be said to have been more successful in his accounts of his voyages than in the feats which he actually accomplished.

To have succeeded on such slender foundation in causing an entire Continent to be christened by his name was in itself no mean performance, and this was probably his greatest claim to distinction.


Some historians take him more seriously than this.
Southey, for one, appears to accept Vespucci very much at his own valuation, and states that the honour of having formed the first settlement in Brazil is due to Amerigo Vespucci.

The Spaniards claim this distinction for their famous seaman, Vicente Pinzon.
Pinzon sailed from Spain in December, 1499. He shaped a more southerly course than any previous navigator in the Spanish service, and he appears to have made his landfall in the neighbourhood of Pernambuco.


He went ashore, it would seem, at a spot he named Cape Consolation, and of this he took possession in the name of the Spanish Crown.

His voyage, however, appears to have had very little practical result, for almost immediately afterwards he returned to Europe, and no steps seem to have been taken by the Spanish Court for the colonization of the land which he had discovered.


Columbus landing in america
Columbus landing in America. From a seventeenth-century engraving.

The Portuguese, for their part, assert that the territories of Brazil were first sighted by their great navigator, Pedro Alvarez Cabral.

The discovery was in one sense something of an accident.
It was necessary for the seamen who were setting their course for the East Indies to steer well to the west, in order to avoid the zones of calms which prevail in the neighbourhood of the African coast.

Cabral appears to have steered so boldly into the west that he fell in with the coast of Brazil.
This was in 1500. Word of this event was sent to Portugal, and the enterprising little kingdom, at that time at the height of her maritime power, made preparations to colonize the country.


The auspices under which the Spaniards and the Portuguese arrived in the New World were curiously different.
The Spaniards were frankly in quest of gold, and in many cases ransacked the fertile agricultural lands in search of minerals which were non-existent.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, had no reason to suspect the presence of precious metals in their new colony, and it was in the first instance for its vegetable products that the land, so rich in minerals, became famed.

It was only natural that the pioneer Portuguese should have been struck with the admirable quality of the valuable Brazilian woods.
Shipments of timber were the first to be sent from the new colony to the Mother Country.
It was from this very wood that Portuguese South America took its name, since much of it, being of a brilliant red colour, was known in the Portuguese language as "brasa."

Just about this time the Portuguese fitted out the most imposing fleet which had ever left their shores.
It was commanded by one of the greatest of Portuguese explorers, Vasco da Gama, and was destined to sail round the Cape of Good Hope to the Indies - the new and marvellous land of spices.
The fleet was worthy of its commander; it was made up of no fewer than thirteen vessels, and was manned by some 1,200 men.


With pomp and ceremony this imposing Armada sailed away from the blue waters of the Tagus, and, rounding the sunlit bluff, stood away to the south.
It made the Canaries in the usual way, passed the Cape Verde Islands, and struck out to the west, lighting on the Brazilian coast in latitude 17° south - that is to say, not far from the spot where stands the present town of Bahia.

From this point Vasco da Gama sailed southward, keeping touch with the coast.
He eventually established communication with the Indians, who were, as was usual in these latitudes, quite naked, their bodies being painted, and who wore great bones in their ears and in their slit lips and noses.

A criminal, one of the type which seems to have been brought out for purposes such as this, was landed in order to dwell among the natives, to test their temper and habits - a somewhat precarious profession this!

After a while the fleet sailed from the place they named Port Seguro, leaving two of these criminals or degradados - professional pioneers - behind.
These "were seen lamenting and crying upon the beach, and the men of the country comforting them, demonstrating that they were not a people devoid of pity."


This was the scene which presented itself to the eyes of the more fortunate mariners as they sailed away.
Nevertheless, the criminals seem to have survived.
No small advertisement, this, of the courtesy of the Indian tribe, for the people composing it must have belonged to one of the coastal races who afterwards were grimly famed for their ferocity.

As a matter of fact, human instruments of the kind, which, it must be admitted, were of small merit, played no small part in the colonization of Brazil.
In some respects these unfortunate folk were undoubtedly useful.

They resembled the candles carried by underground miners.
If the candle continued to burn, all was well; but if the candle went out, there was obviously danger in the air. Quite a number of these human candles went out in the course of the early Iberian explorations.

In a sense there was sufficient justice in this, since they were criminals whose offences had been usually those of murder and violence.
If, therefore, they escaped in the first instance with their lives, their penitence had been consummated, and they were free to take advantage of the land.


People of this kind had been set ashore to pave the way for their betters in Africa and in India, and this system was now extended to Brazil.
When friendly relations were once established, it may be imagined that the influence of these criminals upon the savages was not of the best.

According to Southey: "The Europeans were weaned from that human horror at the blood-feasts of the savages, which, ruffians as they were, they had at first felt, and the natives lost that awe and veneration for the superior races, which might have proved so greatly to their advantage."


In 1503 the Portuguese sent out an important expedition under Duarte Coelho.
This leader explored the country in the neighbourhood of the Bay of Bahia.
After this he proceeded southwards, and landed men in order to establish a small colony.

The first really important attempt at colonizing the country was undertaken by Martin Affonso de Souza.
This navigator set out from Portugal in command of many ships and men. Like Coelho, he struck the Brazilian coast at Bahia; but, instead of proceeding to the south, as his predecessor had done, he remained for some while at the spot.

It is said that when De Souza landed he fell in with a Portuguese of the name of Correia.
This worthy is supposed to have formed one of Cabral's expedition. For some reason or other he was marooned at that place.

The Indians, instead of slaying him, had conceived a great veneration for this white man, who had, as it were, dropped from the clouds into their midst.
The marooned sailor had become a kind of professional adviser, whose counsel was sought by the natives on every important occasion.

Many of the early navigators maintain that the comparatively easy colonization of this portion of the Brazilian coast was due to the presence of the much-esteemed Correia.


Bahia rapidly became the most important of these early Portuguese settlements.
In the first instance it was, of course, extremely difficult for the few bands of daring Portuguese to make any practical impression on the huge slice of coast which had fallen to their share.

The experiences of the first colonists, moreover, were destined to differ considerably from those of the pioneer Spaniards.
The latter had their field of exploration practically to themselves.

The Portuguese, on the other hand, found rivals in the South Seas almost as soon as the prows of their ships had pierced the waters.
The Dutch eventually were destined to become by far the most formidable of these; but in the first instance the chief friction occurred with the French.

Just at this period the Gallic sailors awoke to a strong interest in Brazil, and the French vessels carried numbers of warlike and industrial adventurers to the tropical shores.

Even before 1530 a French factory had been established at Pernambuco, but a circumstance of far greater importance was that these French rovers discovered the magnificent harbour of Rio de Janeiro, sailed into the narrow entrance between the lofty peaks, and founded a colony there before the Portuguese had obtained the opportunity of a permanent footing in that place.


The leader of these troops was Nicolas Durant de Villegagnon, and his men comprised a number of Huguenots who were abandoning France. Villegagnon's own character appears to have been complex and curious in the extreme.

He was apparently a true blade of the old swashbuckling type; he employed religion for such ends as he might have in view at the moment, regarding its tenets cynically, tongue in cheek.

Thus he came out in command of the Huguenots, ostensibly himself a Huguenot; but his convictions appear to have changed on various occasions, and he is seen now as their abettor, now as their oppressor. In the end he clearly showed himself antagonistic to the convictions of his followers, and took to denouncing them as heretics.

With the exception of this leader, the circumstances and motives of the expedition were somewhat similar to those which caused the first emigration of the English Puritans to North America.


Once established in Rio de Janeiro, the Huguenots succeeded in making friends with the Indians of the neighbourhood, who became their firm allies and proved of great assistance to the French in their struggles against the Portuguese, who came down in force to evict the intruders.

The Huguenots were defeated in 1560 by Mem de Sa, the third Governor of Brazil; but, although dispersed for a while, the power of the invaders was by no means broken.

Shortly afterwards they came together again, and succeeded in establishing themselves more firmly than before in the place.
They were again fiercely attacked by the Portuguese, but the number of islands in the bay afforded excellent points of defence, and it was not until 1567 that the Portuguese sea and land forces combined were able to expel the last Frenchmen from the mountains which lay about the harbour of Rio de Janeiro.

This, as a matter of fact, was merely a foretaste of much of the active and aggressive competition in matters of colonization from which the Portuguese were destined to suffer.


Before arriving at the subject of the predatory expeditions of the various nations in South America, it would be as well to consider the initial methods taken by the early Portuguese settlers.

In the first instance the partition of so vast an extent of territory among so small a number of colonists was necessarily effected in a crude and tentative fashion.
The great colony was divided into capitaneas, or counties, each of which possessed a coast-line of 150 miles.

A Governor was appointed to each capitanea.
As was perhaps natural, the powers of each of these officials, more or less isolated as each was, grew rapidly - to such an extent, indeed, that the home authorities in Portugal became anxious to curb the occasional eccentricities of some of the more despotic of these.

In order to effect this, Thomé de Souza was made Captain-General of Brazil, and was sent out to that country provided with numerous officials and troops.
He established his headquarters at Bahia, and the size of the town increased in consequence.


Vasco da Gama
Vasco da Gama. Seventeenth-century engraving.

In 1572 Brazil was divided into two governmental areas, Bahia being recognized as the capital of the north, and Rio de Janeiro as the capital of the southern portion.

This division, however, only lasted for five years.
Brazil in the meanwhile was becoming populous, and had taken its place as the largest among the regular Portuguese colonies throughout the world.

It was not long before the jealousies between the Spanish and Portuguese led to various outbreaks and to troubles on the frontiers.
From a purely practical point of view, there is no doubt whatever that such bickerings were a sheer absurdity, since the territories at the disposal of both nations were far too great to be effectively dealt with by any forces which either the Spanish or Portuguese could introduce into the Continent.

As it was, the era was one of moulding and experiments.
Even at the present day it would seem difficult to decide whether many of these latter have proved themselves definite successes or undoubted failures.


The general conditions of the New World at this period are well worthy of note.

No doubt South America has been more widely experimented upon in the colonizing sense than any other Continent.
The methods of the Spaniards and Portuguese were by no means similar throughout.

Indeed, the principles adopted by the four greatest colonizing nations of the age - the Spanish, the Portuguese, the English, and the Dutch - were all distinguished from each other by various important features.

The British, where they came into contact with dark-skinned races of inferior vigour and individual power, made a point of holding aloof, so far as the more important social points were concerned.
Thus in India and in Africa the gulf between the white and the black has continued unbridged.

The representatives of the British have remained as a governing race, relying upon the strict justice of their rule for its preservation.
They have refrained from interference in the thousand jealousies and caste regulations with which the East Indies were, and are, honeycombed, becoming active only when oppression became barefaced.

These officials, that is to say, have made a point of respecting the religions of the various tribes, and have even encouraged them to continue unmolested.


As a result, the Governors, as a body, won the respect, and even the reverence, of a great mass of the populace, but gained comparatively little actual and personal affection.
They were subjected to the jealousy of the fakirs in India, of the witch-doctors in Africa, and of other dusky fanatics who had been accustomed to oppress the rank and file of the populace before the advent of the European civilization.

The Dutch pursued a policy very similar to that of the English.
They were essentially just in their rule, and they won the wholesale respect of the subject races.
Their methods of governing, however, were usually more severe than those of the British, and as a rule the discipline they enforced was considerably stronger.
This has been evidenced in Africa and elsewhere.


The Iberian system of colonization was in general totally different.
Even the Spaniards, far less spontaneously genial than the Portuguese, encouraged an intimacy between their colonists and the subject races of a kind unknown in the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic circles.

It is true that in the first instance the Spaniards slaughtered hundreds of thousands of natives.
But these wholesale killings were on account of no social convictions; they were merely the result of an overpowering greed for gold and of too harsh a method of enforcing labour.

The colour question, as between Spaniard and native, scarcely ruffled the social surface of the colonies.
This was not altogether to be wondered at when the antecedents of these bold Spanish colonial pioneers are taken into consideration.


A dusky tide from Africa had flooded the half of Spain, and had remained there for centuries, until the southern Spaniard, who lived in the midst of Moorish conquerors, tolerantly treated and allowed almost entire religious freedom, forgot the hostility towards his traditional enemy, and became oblivious of questions of colour.

So much so was this the case that the Christian services were wont, after a time, to be conducted in Arabic, a system which evoked horrified protests from Bishops in other parts.
Be that as it may, it is certain that the Spaniards had, with the sole exception of the Portuguese, been more concerned with the African races and dark blood than any other nation in Europe.

Thus, once in South America, although the actual helplessness of the Indians was immediately remarked and taken advantage of, no question of inferiority from a mere racial point of view arose.


The Indian went to the wall, not because he was an Indian, but because his powers were less than those of the European who had invaded his lands.


If this was the case with the Spaniard, it was far more marked in the case of the Portuguese.

In some respects, perhaps, no nation colonized with quite the same amount of enthusiasm as this.
Its pioneers once definitely settled in the country, whichever it might be, there arose no question of looking upon the new conquest as a place to be resided in for a certain number of years and no more.

The Portuguese went to the east and to the south-west to make themselves part and parcel of the soil of the country they had annexed.
To this end they mingled from the very start with the natives, and inter-married with an entire want of restraint with the Indian women.

Thus from the very inception of the Portuguese colonial era we are confronted with a race of half-castes, and we see the forces brought about by a mixture of blood and climatic conditions working more powerfully in the Portuguese colonies than in any others.

The result was, in one sense, the formation of a new race, and an almost complete absence of rebellion and native unrest in those parts where genuine civilization had been attempted.
That the race as a whole lost its European vigour and its northern principles was inevitable.

This was the price of peace.


The subject is one into which climatic influence enters largely.
Many of the districts of Brazil were not, and are not, in the least suited as a permanent place of residence for the white man.
Were an attempt to be made to populate such places as these by Europeans, it could only be done by means of a continual change of inhabitants.

That is to say, each resident, having spent a certain number of years in the spot, must be succeeded by another in order to preserve the integrity and vigour of the race.


Portugal, with an extraordinary generosity, flung her handful of white colonists into the vast lands she had discovered, and hoped by this means to raise the leaven of the whole.
In India, as exemplified in Goa, the result has met with scant success.

In Brazil, however, where the proportion of white to black was greater, a race of intellect and culture has been developed, although occasionally subject to the mental paroxysms of the dwellers in the tropics.
In any case it may be said that the colour question has never existed in Brazil - so far, at all events, as the Indian is concerned.

It was necessarily in evidence to a certain extent upon the first introduction of the negro slave, but even here the question has become of less and less importance, until, at the present day, the negro has in Brazil probably a more congenial resting-place than anywhere else in the world.


It must never be forgotten that these remarks as regards the Spanish colonies, and to almost as great an extent as regards the Portuguese, apply to the general run of the population.

The majority of the leaders, both social and political, in all the South American colonies have been in the first instance, and have continued, men of good blood, and generally of ancient lineage, who have floated along with the rest, until they met with the inevitable current which bore them to the topmost of the new social layers.

And once there, having been found the most fitting, they have remained.



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