Brazil History

By | January 9, 2023


Brazil National Flag

The history of Brazil is reckoned from the discovery in 1500. See also South America – history.

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Portuguese colony

On April 22, 1500, Portuguese Admiral Pedro Álvares Cabral officially took possession of the land that was to become Brazil for the King of Portugal. It has been a controversial question whether Brazil was “discovered” by chance, or whether Pedro Álvares Cabral, who led a fleet en route to India, chose a more westerly shipping route because the Portuguese knew that the lands which, according to the Tordesilla Treaty from 1494 between Portugal and Spain was to belong to Portugal, was in fact to be found.

Heads of State
1822-1831 Pedro 1.
1831-1840 guardianship government
1840-1889 Pedro 2.
1889-1891 M. Deodoro da Fonseca
1891-1894 Floriano Peixoto
1894-1898 Prudente de Morais
1898-1902 M. Campos Sales
1902-1906 F. Rodrigues Alves
1906-1909 Afonso Pena
1909-1910 Nilo Peçanha
1910-1914 Hermes da Fonseca
1914-1918 Venceslau Brás
1919 Delphi Moreira
1919-1922 Epitácio Pessoa
1922-1926 Artur Bernardes
1926-1930 Washington Luís
1930 military junta
1930-1945 Getúlio Vargas
1945-1946 José Linhares
1946-1951 E. Gaspar Dutra
1951-1954 Getúlio Vargas
1954-1955 J. Café Filho
1955 Carlos Luz
1955-1956 Nereu Ramos
1956-1961 Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira
1961 Janio da Silva Quadros
1961 P. Ranieri Mazzilli
1961-1964 João Goulart
1964 P. Ranieri Mazzilli
1964-1967 H. Castello Branco
1967-1969 A. de Costa e Silva
1969 military junta
1969-1974 EG Medici
1974-1979 Ernesto Geisel
1979-1985 João Baptista Figueiredo
1985-1990 José Sarney
1990-1992 Fernando Collor de Mello
1992-1995 Itamar Franco
1995-2003 Fernando Henrique Cardoso
2003-2010 Luíz Inácio da Silva (“Lula”)
2010- Dilma Rousseff

The indigenous people of Brazil consisted of various Native American peoples with approximately 1.5 million people around the year 1500 (about 230,000 in 1990).

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Hunters and gatherers inhabited the savannahs of the interior of the country, while nomadic half-farmers in the tropical forests cultivated corn and manioc by sweating.

In particular, the tupital tribes along the coast gained importance for the Portuguese colonization as a labor force and by their knowledge of the country.

According to a2zgov, a characteristic feature of Brazil’s history has been a series of “economic cycles” during which a single or a few export products have dominated for a long period of time.

The first economic cycle (until about 1550) was created by the Brazilian tree, whose felling became the Portuguese king’s monopoly, and which gave the country its name. In 1530, an actual Portuguese settlement began.

In 1532, the first city, São Vicente, was founded, and to promote colonization, 15 hereditary counties (capitanias) were created, the forerunners of the later Brazilian states.

Only the counties of São Vicente and Pernambuco came to function; therefore, ruled from 1548 centralized under a governor-general or viceroy with Salvador (Bahia) as the colony’s capital, which from 1552 also became the seat of Brazil’s first diocese.

In 1549 the Jesuits arrived partly for missionary work among the Indians, which often brought them into conflict with the colonists, partly for the purpose of running the school system; however, all higher education should continue to take place in Portugal.

After the Brazil tree, sugar became the main export product (2nd economic cycle) along with tobacco and cotton. To replace Native American labor, from 1532 slaves were imported from Africa; in total, approximately 3.5 million slaves introduced until 1850, when the slave trade formally ceased. The relatively small number of women among the Portuguese colonists led to widespread mixing.

From being a secondary piece in the Portuguese Empire, Brazil became its very foundation and of crucial economic importance to the Portuguese crown by virtue of monopolies and taxes, on the slave trade. France and the Netherlands also tried to establish colonies in Brazil, but were driven out by the Portuguese. The Dutch West India Company occupied 1624-1625 Bahia and 1630-1654 Pernambuco, the center of sugar production.

Sugar became crucial to Brazil’s economic and social structure, characterized by plantation farming with slave labor and monoculture; but the search for gold came to define the borders of the country. From São Paulo in particular, countless expeditions went further and further west for precious metals and Native American slaves, among others. from the Jesuit mission stations in Spanish Paraguay. This gave the Portuguese possessions in South America a scope far beyond what was originally stipulated in the Treaty of Tordesilla.

In 1693, gold (in 1729 also diamonds) was finally found in such abundant quantities that it replaced sugar as Brazil’s most important product (3rd economic cycle). Around the middle of the 18th century, the annual gold export was approximately 15,000 tonnes, of which the Portuguese State received a fifth in taxes. In 1760 the Jesuits were expelled, and in 1763 the colonial capital was moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro, the port of shipment of gold from the province of Minas Gerais.

Budding opposition to the Portuguese government was expressed, in the form of political conspiracies – especially in 1789 in Minas Gerais’ capital Vila Rica (today Ouro Preto) and in 1798 in the province of Bahia.


The French invasion of Portugal in 1807 had far-reaching consequences for Brazil as well. The royal family and a large part of the state administration were evacuated to Rio de Janeiro, which in 1808 became the seat of government for the entire Portuguese empire. The Portuguese trade monopoly was abolished by opening the ports of Brazil to “friendly nations”, ie. for Britain, Portugal’s ally. The printing press, newspapers, banking, higher education institutions and courts, etc. were introduced, and foreigners were given the right to own land, which set in motion non-Portuguese immigration.

300 years of colonial isolation were over and were marked in 1815 by Brazil becoming a separate kingdom, but in union with the motherland. A revolution in Portugal in 1820 called the Portuguese king home. When the Portuguese Parliament wanted Brazil to regain subordinate status, the Crown Prince Pedro, Brazil’s regent, declared independence on September 7, 1822, and was soon proclaimed emperor as Pedro I.


The new state had approximately 5 mio. residents, about a third of whom were slaves. The economic-social structures of the colonial era were preserved with large estates that specialized in single or few export crops, but coffee gradually became the all-dominating product in the period approximately 1850-1950 (4th economic cycle).

Unlike developments in the Spanish part of Latin America, Brazil’s independence process was largely peaceful, and territorial unity was preserved. The Constitution of 1824 defined Brazil as a constitutional monarchy with a division between four powers, the emperor – in addition to the executive – also having the “moderating power”, and with the right to vote for only a wealthy minority.

Pedro I abdicated in 1831 due to political dissatisfaction and went to Portugal. After some turbulent years of guardianship, his son, Pedro II, took office in 1840, and a long period of political stability and economic progress followed. In alliance with Argentina and Uruguay, Brazil was at war with Paraguay 1865-1870 in South America’s largest armed conflict. In 1888, slavery was abolished without compensation to the slave owners.


In 1889, a bloodless military coup put an end to the empire that had lost its political backing, and on November 15, Brazil became a republic. Brazil’s population was then approximately 14 million; 50 percent of export earnings came from coffee, 20 percent from raw rubber.

The Constitution of 1891 introduced a federal state (Estados Unidos do Brasil, United States of Brazil) with presidential rule and suffrage for all men, but without a secret ballot, which was first introduced in 1934. Ideologically, positivism played a prominent role in parts of the military, symbolized in the motto of the new Republican regime: Ordem e Progresso (Order and Progress), which was inscribed in the flag of the country.

In 1896-1897, an alleged monarchist uprising was fought in Canudos, Bahia. A political alliance, called “coffee with milk”, between the economic elites of the two major states of São Paulo, characterized by coffee cultivation, and Minas Gerais with cattle breeding, however, quickly ousted the military from power and controlled Brazilian politics until 1930 with the permanent change of president. between the two states, through systematic electoral fraud.

From 1906, the state bought up the excess production of coffee to secure the export price. This became increasingly difficult during the 1920’s; in 1929, Brazil’s coffee stocks were greater than the world’s total annual consumption, and the stock market crash in New York s.å. gave the coffee economy the final death blow.


The revolution of 1930, carried out by the military and younger politicians, ended the “coffee with milk” period and brought Getúlio Vargas to power. Vargas was President of Brazil on two occasions: 1930-1945 and 1951-1954. After serving as interim president, Vargas was elected in 1934 under a new constitution (which, among other things, gave women the right to vote), but exercised an actual dictatorship through another new constitution, the authoritarian Estado Novo (New State), from 1937 to 1945. From 1942, despite the regime’s character on the Allied side, Brazil participated in World War II.

In 1950, when the population had reached 50 million, Vargas was again democratically elected president after the constitution of 1946, Brazil’s fifth. Politically isolated, Varga committed suicide in 1954 when the military demanded his resignation. In the wake of the collapse of the coffee economy, a far-reaching political and economic modernization process was launched under Vargas to bring Brazil out of the semi-colonial status of one-sided commodity exporter.

Power was concentrated in the central state apparatus, and a nationalist economic policy with protectionism and extensive state control aimed at building a Brazilian basic industry such as Petrobrás, which in 1953 gained a state monopoly on oil extraction and refining.

Under the slogan “50 years in 5”, Juscelino Kubitschek (President 1956-1961) continued the policy of industrialization with high economic growth and borrowing abroad, and in record time, Brasília, the capital of 1960, was built when Brazil reached 70 million. pop. Jânio Quadros, worked out by the right wing to break Vargaslinjen and fight corruption, was elected president in January 1961 with the largest number of votes, but came surprisingly left after only seven months.

Vice President João Goulart, Vargas’ ideological successor, stood for a distinctly left-wing populist line and had to accept a prime ministerial regime for a period of time in order to take over the presidency. Economic and political conditions deteriorated rapidly. On March 31, 1964, the military seized power in an uprising.

Military dictatorship

Brazil underwent a radical system change under military rule 1964-1985. On the grounds of national security, a series of “institutional acts” and two new constitutions were introduced in 1967 and 1969 with prior censorship, the death penalty for certain political crimes, indirect elections to all important posts and the right to issue secret decrees for the president, etc.

Only two political parties were allowed: a party for the government and a party for the tolerated part of the opposition. In foreign policy, Brazil was close to the United States, which had supported the military uprising. In 1968, the country officially changed its name to República Federativa do Brasil (Brazilian Federal Republic) and then had approximately 90 million residents, in 1980 approximately 120 mio.

The political circumstances enabled the military regime to accelerate economic development by various drastic means. Industrial production increased sharply, partly through extensive government investment, partly through favorable conditions for attracting foreign capital (cheap raw materials, low wages and favorable taxation), and it was increasingly targeted at export markets. Infrastructure and energy production expanded rapidly, largely financed by borrowing abroad, which led to the reprocessing of the world’s largest foreign debt of DKK 85 billion at the time. dollars in 1990.

In the period 1968-1973, the gross domestic product increased annually by approximately 10 percent in “the Brazilian miracle”. Urbanization increased, so that almost 70 percent of the population in 1980 lived in the cities against approximately 30 percent in 1940, and a middle class began to seriously emerge. However, property and income were further concentrated, and an improvement in the conditions of the majority of the population did not materialize, also due to a sharp growth in the population.

The inability of military governments to solve economic and social problems led from 1978 to a gradual “democratic opening” with political amnesty, the abolition of dictatorship repression legislation and the reintroduction of the multi-party system.


In indirect presidential elections in 1985, the military led defeat to the opposition, whose victorious candidate, Tancredo Neves (1910-1985), however, died immediately before joining. Instead, Vice President José Sarney became Brazil’s first civilian president since 1964. In 1988, the Constituent Assembly adopted a new democratic constitution (Brazil’s Eighth) with far-reaching civil rights, such as the right to strike.

In 1990, the first elected president in 30 years, Fernando Collor de Mello, took office with a program for the modernization of Brazil, by privatization and less protectionism against foreign competition, and against misuse of public funds. Collor was replaced in 1992 by his vice president, Itamar Franco, after being removed from office due to nepotism and suspicion of complicity in widespread corruption, for which he was later acquitted.

The anti-inflation plan under President Itamar Franco (1992-1995) was the main reason why its architect, Finance Minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso, won the election in 1994. Cardoso went to the polls to form an alliance with both liberals and conservatives. Despite fragile coalitions, he was re-elected and sat for eight years, albeit largely without pursuing the policies of his small, Social Democratic party.

Among other things, he failed the promise of land to 300,000 families, which contributed to the so-called Landless Movement carrying out many land occupations and becoming increasingly militant. Cardoso’s liberal policies meant that the bourgeois bloc continued to feel threatened by the election of the Labor Party’s strong leader, Luíz Inácio da Silva, known as “Lula”.

In 1999, Cardoso allowed the real to devalue once again; already in 2000 there was growth again, and in 2001 unemployment began to fall. In 1999, Cardoso allowed the real to devalue. From 2001 there was again growth, but in 2002 the country was severely affected by Argentina’s crisis.

Brazil’s economy came through the crisis, and since 2004, growth rates have been good again. In its fourth attempt, the Labor Party’s Lula finally succeeded in winning the 2002 presidential election. due to a more center-seeking rhetoric than before, but also with promises of e.g. land reforms.

He took office in 2003, and his government has maintained economic progress, while promises of land reforms have not yet been fulfilled. The Labor Party was hit by a corruption scandal in 2005, but Lula managed to retain much of its popular popularity, and he was re-elected president in October 2006. In 2010, he was replaced by the Labor Party’s own candidate, Dilma Rousseff, becoming Brazil’s first female president..

Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo experienced violent and bloody clashes between police and criminals in 2005 and 2006.