Brazil - The Indigenous Population
The Indigenous Population
In 1500 Pedro Álvares Cabral's fleet, which was en route
to India, landed at Porto Seguro in what is now the state of Bahia.
The territory that comprises modern Brazil had a native population
in the millions, divided among hundreds of tribes and language groups.
Their ancestors had lived in this land for as long as 30,000 years.
There is no way to be certain of the exact size of the population
or its distribution. Many areas that were inhabited in 1500 were
later stripped bare by epidemics or slave hunters. But scholars
have attempted to make estimates based on contemporary reports and
the supposed carrying capacity of the land. For Brazil's Amazon
Basin alone, demographer William M. Denevan has suggested 3,625,000
people, with another 4,800,000 in other regions. Other estimates
place 5 million inhabitants in Amazônia alone. More conservatively,
British historian John Hemming estimated 2,431,000 people for Brazil
as a whole. These figures are based on known tribes, although many
unknown ones probably died out in the devastating epidemics of the
Certainly, the indigenous population exceeded that of Portugal
itself. The early European chroniclers wrote of multitudes along
the coast and of dense populations in the Amazon Basin. Far from
being awed by the newcomers, the indigenous inhabitants displayed
curiosity and hospitality, a willingness to exchange goods, and
a distinct ability at aggressive defense. However, they could not
prevent the devastation caused by the diseases carried by the Europeans
and Africans. Tens of thousands succumbed to smallpox, measles,
tuberculosis, typhoid, dysentery, and influenza. Whole peoples were
likely annihilated without having had direct contact with Europeans
as disease was carried along the indigenous trade routes.
The Indians spoke languages that scholars have classified into
four families: the Gê speakers, originally spread along the
coast and into the central plateau and scrub lands; the Tupí
speakers, who displaced the Gê on the coast and hence were
the first met by the Portuguese; the Carib speakers in the north
and in Amazônia, who were related distantly to the people
who gave their name to the Caribbean; the Arawak (or Aruak) speakers
in Amazônia, whose linguistic relatives ranged up through
Central America to Florida; and, according to sociologist Donald
Sawyer, the Nambicuara in northwestern Mato Grosso (see Language,
ch. 2). These were not tribes but language families that comprised
many language groups. Numerous tribes also spoke languages unrelated
to any of the above. Warfare and migrations carried peoples from
these linguistic families to various parts of Brazil. The Europeans
took advantage of the cultural differences among the Indian peoples
to pit one against the other and to form alliances that provided
auxiliary troops in their colonial wars.
Portugal viewed the Indians as slave labor from the outset. When
Portugal began its imperial ventures, it had a population of about
1 million. Indeed, in the mid-sixteenth century Portugal's population
was so sparse that much of its territory was uncultivated and abandoned.
African and native Brazilian slaves were common on the streets of
Lisbon. Portugal's colonial economy in Brazil was based on slavery.
Initially, the Portuguese bartered with the natives to bring brazilwood
and other forest items to the coast. However, when the natives had
accumulated all the tools and pots that they needed, they showed
a lack of interest in continuing the arrangement. Consequently,
the Portuguese turned to violent persuasion. The enslavement of
the natives shaped much of the history that followed.
Just as Indian unrest had aided the Spanish conquerors of Mexico
and Peru, so too did the Portuguese profit from arriving at a time
of turmoil. The Tupí speakers had been shifting steadily
from the south in a massive migration to coastal areas, displacing
the resident Gê speakers, many of whom moved into the interior.
This population shift had triggered continuous warfare against non-Tupí
peoples and against Tupí subsets. It involved set battles
that arrayed hundreds and, in some reports, thousands of warriors
in fierce hand-to-hand combat. Some of the fighting went beyond
struggles over control of land or resources to vendettas in which
captives were sought and in some cases reportedly cannibalized.
The Portuguese used these vendettas to keep the Indians from uniting
against them and subsequently to obtain slaves. The conquest of
Brazil was not a simple toppling of an organized empire as in Peru,
but a drawn out, complicated process that spread over huge distances,
different peoples, and centuries. Thus, it is not surprising that
the Brazilian elites developed myths about racial harmony, peaceful
change, and compromise that often have colored the interpretations
of historians, thereby distorting understanding of Brazil's past.
Just as Portugal was different from the rest of Europe, so too
would Brazil be different from the rest of the Americas. Portugal
was both an agrarian and a maritime monarchy that used its control
over land grants to discipline the nobility and its issuance of
trading licenses to attract local and foreign investment in its
overseas ventures. As merchant-king, the monarch supervised an economic
system that imported timber, sugar, and wine from Madeira and the
Azores, gold from the Guinea coast, spices from India, and dyewood
and forest products, then sugar, gold, gems, and hides from Brazil.
These products were then reexported to Europe.
The Portuguese established themselves on the Brazilian coast in
their drive to control Europe's trade with India and East Asia.
They secured "title" to what became eastern Brazil in
their attempted division of the world with Spain in the Treaty of
Tordesillas (see Glossary) of 1494. During the next centuries, the
Portuguese, Spanish, French, English, and Dutch changed the South
American continent's trade patterns, which previously had been focused
internally. Seeking profits, the Portuguese marshaled Indian labor
to provide exportable products. The commercial objective that initially
had prompted overseas operations became the first principle of Portuguese
colonization. Brazil was not to be a place where Europe's religious
dissidents sought freedom of conscience. Rather, to paraphrase historian
Caio Prado Júnior, the colonization of tropical Brazil would
be "one vast commercial enterprise." Colonial Brazil's
reason for being was to supply dyewood, sugar, tobacco, eventually
gold and diamonds, cotton, coffee, and later rubber for the European
and then world markets. The externally oriented colonial economy
consisted of enclaves that faced seaward and that considered only
their own commercial interests.
In his 1843 essay, "How the History of Brazil Should Be Written,"
Karl Friederich Philipp von Martius urged the study of the three
basic racial groups--indigenous peoples, Europeans, and Africans--to
obtain a clear understanding of the country's history. Yet when
he discussed the interactions between the Indians and the Portuguese,
he wrote that the former were only a few primitive tribes and that
the "colonies developed and expanded almost without caring
about these Indians." Although he could not have been more
wrong, historians have echoed his attitude repeatedly. The natives,
rather than being few, were in the millions, and the Portuguese
determination to exploit their labor shaped frontier expansion and
set Brazil's modern boundaries.
The Colonial Era, 1500-1815
Data as of April 1997