Learn About Brazil

Brazil has a varied wildlife, such as this toucan.

Brazil is one of the world's giant nations. It is the largest and most populous country in South America, containing almost half the continent's area and more than half its people. Among the nations of the world, Brazil ranks fifth in area, after Russia, Canada, China, and the United States. It ranks sixth in population.

When Portuguese traders arrived in the 1500s, they found certain trees with wood the color of live coals — brasa in Portuguese. They called the trees brazilwoods and named their country after them. Brazilwood yields red and purple dyes, which were highly prized in Europe for coloring cloth.

Brazil was ruled by Portugal for over 300 years before gaining its independence peacefully in 1822. Following the reign of two emperors, Brazil dissolved the monarchy in 1889. Today it is a federal republic made up of a number of states, territories, and the federal district of Brasília, the national capital.

Brazil is a land of great variety and contrast. Vast jungles and tropical rain forests, great rivers, and mountains cover much of the interior of Brazil, while rapidly growing modern cities crowd the long coastline of the Atlantic Ocean.

Brazil's earliest inhabitants were the Indians. More than one hundred native tribal groups inhabited the land. They did not plant crops, but hunted and gathered fruits and berries.

The Portuguese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral claimed Brazil for Portugal in 1500. However, for some 30 years after Cabral's historic voyage, the Portuguese paid little attention to their new colony, and only a few trading posts grew up along the coast. Portugal's main interest still lay in trade with the Far East. But Portugal's attitude changed after 1530 for two reasons: A new source of wealth was needed, and other European powers were threatening to take Brazil.

Portuguese Settlement. The Portuguese king started the settlement of Brazil by giving favored nobles grants that stretched far inland from the coast. The early settlers had difficulties with the Indians. The settlers also had to face a new and strange tropical environment and unfamiliar soil conditions. The large landowners soon discovered that if they were to run successful settlements, they needed more farm laborers. Black slaves were brought from Africa to work on plantations in the northeast.

Meanwhile, in the east and the south, groups of people called bandeirantes roamed the interior in search of gold. They also sought Indians to sell as slaves to the plantation owners of the north. The bandeirantes found both gold and slaves. In doing so, they opened large regions for more exploration and settlement in the present states of Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Goiás, and Mato Grosso do Sul.

Just as the first movements for Brazilian independence were developing, troops sent by French emperor Napoleon invaded Portugal. In 1808 the Portuguese royal family and more than a thousand members of the court fled to Brazil. For the next 14 years Rio de Janeiro was the capital of the Portuguese empire. At last, in 1821, the king returned to his native land and left his son, Dom Pedro, to rule Brazil. The next year Dom Pedro, following the advice of José Bonifácio de Andrada, his minister of the interior, declared Brazil independent of Portugal. Peaceful change became the pattern of Brazil's political life.

Independence. Brazil remained an empire from 1822 until 1889. Dom Pedro was emperor for nine years and then turned over the throne to his 5-year-old son, Dom Pedro II, who became emperor in 1840 at the age of 14. Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for 49 years, during which the nation became larger and richer. Wars with Argentina (1851–52) and with Paraguay (1865–70) were finally settled peacefully. Railroads were built. Rubber from the Amazon jungle doubled foreign trade. Thousands of immigrants swelled Brazil's population between 1874 and 1889. But much of the nation's wealth depended on slavery.

This growth ended in 1888, the year that slavery was abolished. Many of the large landowners and slaveholders called for an overthrow of the government. But some wanted a republican form of government. The army itself, which was republican in spirit, favored the change. And in 1889 the old emperor peacefully left Brazil to avoid conflict. Ruy Barbosa, a jurist from the state of Bahia, prepared the first constitution of republican Brazil in 1891.

The Republic. During the early years of the republic, when the army ruled Brazil, there was civil war and political upheaval. But by 1895 order had been restored and Brazil had a civilian government. Brazil became increasingly important in world politics. It fought with the Allies during World War I (1914–18). However, the years between the two world wars were troubled ones. The over-production of coffee and the fall of world coffee prices during the Great Depression brought new difficulties to the country. In 1930 the president was overthrown, and Getúlio Vargas became dictator of what he called a "disciplined democracy." Under Vargas' rule, living conditions improved and trade grew. During World War II (1939–45), Brazil was an ally of the United States and sent troops to Italy. Vargas offered benefits in exchange for passive acceptance of his government, which was patterned after the fascist regimes of Benito Mussolini in Italy and Oliveira Salazar in Portugal. He also encouraged a spirit of nationalism and worked to accelerate economic development.

The Second Republic. The army forced Vargas to resign in 1945. General Eurico Gaspar Dutra was elected as his successor. But in 1950, Vargas ran for office and was elected. In 1954, at the end of a very serious political crisis, Vargas took his own life. Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira then became president.

Kubitschek told the Brazilians that they would "enjoy in five years the progress of 50 years." He worked hard to live up to his promise. A new capital was built. And the government helped develop hydroelectric plants and some industries. But inflation and falling world coffee prices brought new economic and social problems.

The 1989 elections were the first since 1960 in which Brazilians voted directly for the president. Fernando Collor de Mello won the presidency after a runoff election. But his term was marked by controversy, and in 1992 he was impeached on charges of corruption. He resigned and was succeeded by his vice president, Itamar Franco. In 1994 Fernando Henrique Cardoso became president. In 1998 he won re-election to a second term, becoming the first president in Brazil's history to do so. As president he favored policies that made Brazil attractive for foreign investment while at the same time addressing some of Brazil's most pressing social needs. But a more immediate challenge was to stabilize the country's failing economy. By the end of the year, Brazil's markets were quickly shrinking, due in part to a wider international economic crisis in Russia and Asia. In order to avert a disaster, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in and gave Brazil $41.5 billion in emergency funds. In 1999, however, Brazil's economic problems worsened as the government reduced the value of its currency.

By the century's end, Brazil faced the future supported by faith in its restored democracy but still in need of major social and economic reforms.

Peter O. Wacker
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
Updated by Robert M. Levine
University of Miami
Author, Brazilian Legacies

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Most countries in South America speak primarily Spanish. What language is spoken in Brazil? What would explain this? To learn more, explore the links below.

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Rainforest Conservation
Learn how the World Wildlife Fund is working for conservation in Brazil. Read about their projects, see pictures, and learn how you can get involved in protecting the environment.

Learn about Candomble a religion still practiced by many descendants of slaves.

Life as a Kid in Brazil
Read about life as a kid in Brazil, learn some Portuguese words, and see a timeline of Brazilian history.