Brazil was first discovered in 1500 when a fleet commanded by Portuguese diplomat Pedro Álvares Cabral arrived at a site between present-day Salvador and Rio de Janeiro called Porto Seguro. Since the Portuguese Empire’s priority was trade with the Far East, it didn’t bother to colonize the country until after 1530, when other European powers were threatening to claim Brazil for themselves.
Brazil got its name from the red wood found in its forests (pau-brasil) –which spurred for a time the lucrative international trade in that item (since it was used for making dyes). The early waves of Portuguese settlers first used indigenous Indian labor to establish plantations and settlements, but later turned to African slaves to help build a colony with a land mass the size of Europe.
By the end of 1600s, gold, emeralds and diamonds were discovered in the Brazilian province known as Minas Gerais (“general mines” in Portuguese) – which spurred development in that part of Brazil (with the arrival of skilled laborers from Europe, as well as fortune hunters). That region became responsible for shipping 30,000 pounds of gold a year to the Portuguese Empire in Lisbon. By 1763, Rio de Janeiro became the capital of Portuguese-ruled Brazil, and the colony’s economic importance to the Portuguese Empire was reinforced by its expanding list of exports (cotton, tobacco, and sugar). Brazil’s agrarian economy was expanded by the introduction of cattle ranching in the country’s interior.
In 1808, French conqueror Napoleon invaded Portugal, forcing that country’s monarch (Dom João VI), the Royal Portuguese family and their entourage to take refuge in Rio de Janeiro. 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 Portugal 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.
Brazil was an independent empire from 1822 until 1889. Dom Pedro reigned for nine years, then turned over the throne to his 5-year-old son, Dom Pedro II, who became emperor in 1840 at age 14. Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for 49 years, during which the nation became larger and richer. Wars with Argentina (1851-52) and Paraguay (1865-70) were settled peacefully. Railroads were built. Rubber from the Amazon jungle doubled foreign trade.
The early part of the 20th century was marked two phenomena: the emergence of a coffee and rubber-driven economy, and the wave of European immigrants (including Italians and Germans) that arrived in the country (with the encouragement of the Brazilian government). Still, the fall of world coffee prices during the Great Depression of the 1930’s brought new difficulties. In 1930, Brazil’s president was overthrown, and Getúlio Vargas became dictator. He patterned his government after the fascist regimes in Italy and Portugal. Vargas encouraged a spirit of nationalism and worked to boost the economy. Under his rule, living conditions improved and trade grew. During World War II (1939-45), Brazil fought on the side of the Allies and sent troops to Italy.
For many years after World War II, Brazil went through a series of military and civilian presidents. One of them (Juscelino Kubitschek of Minas Gerais) was responsible for creating the Brazilian state & bureaucracy as they’re known today – centered around the new capital of Brasilia in the country’s interior (which he established in 1960). Surrounded by tanks and technocrats, the Brazilian military brought about the “economic miracle” of the 1970s. However, it did not last. Their pharaonic projects — from hydroelectric and nuclear power plants to the conquest of the Amazon — never completely succeeded, and inflation soared. Power was to go peacefully back to civil hands in 1985.
During much of the 1980s, civilian rule was hampered by periods of hyperinflation (fueled by a debt crisis the government had with international creditors). Civilian politician Fernando Collor de Mello was elected president in 1990, promising to solve Brazil’s economic woes. However, rampant corruption under his rule resulted in Collor losing power two years later (1992). His then-Vice President Itamar Franco became the Brazilian head of state that year. Franco’s “Plano Real” finally brought the country’s runaway inflation under control.
Brazilian democracy entered a new phase when famed union leader Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva was elected President in 2002 (making him the country’s first working-class president). Despite his leftist background (which concerned the country’s business class), Lula’s presidency was marked by unprecedented economic growth. High prices for Brazilian commodities brought in sufficient revenues to finance social programs – with millions being lifted out of poverty. His protégé Dilma Rousseff became the first woman to be elected into the