A Brief History of Brazil

By Tim Lambert


The first human beings entered Brazil after 10,000 BC. They were hunter-gatherers. Among other animals, they hunted manatees. They also fished in the rivers and near the coasts, they collected shellfish. The first Brazilians also collected plants.

After 1,000 BC some people in Brazil were changing to a farming lifestyle. They practiced slash-and-burn agriculture. In other words, they cut down vegetation and then burned it. The ash was used as fertilizer. The Indians grew manioc, maize, and sweet potatoes. Some Indians also cultivated cotton and tobacco. However, after a few years, the soil was exhausted so they moved on the rainforest grew back.

The farmers made baskets and pottery. They lived in simple wooden huts with thatched roofs and slept in hammocks. However, some people in Brazil continued to live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The Portuguese discovered Brazil by accident. Pedro Alvares Cabral landed on 23 April 1500. Then, in 1501 Amerigo Vespucci led another expedition to the new land. However, at first, the Portuguese showed little interest in Brazil although merchants set up coastal trading stations and they exported Brazilwood.

However, the French also began to trade with the Brazilian Indians. Alarmed by French interest the Portuguese founded a colony to strengthen their claim to the area. In 1530 men were led by Martim Alfonso de Sousa. They made the first settlement at Sao Vicente. Then, in 1532, the king divided the coast of Brazil into 15 areas. He granted them to Portuguese nobles and merchants on the condition they encouraged settlers to Brazil.

Nevertheless, there were few settlers in Brazil over the next few years. So, in 1549 the king united Brazil and made Salvador its capital. A governor-general called Tome de Sousa was appointed. n Brazil began to grow when sugar was introduced in the late-16th century. Sugar plantations were created. They were worked by African slaves. In the early 17th century the Brazilian sugar industry boomed. Brazil became Europe’s main supplier of sugar.

However, contact with Europeans proved disastrous for the indigenous people. They had no resistance to European diseases and vast numbers of them died in epidemics. Some Indians were also enslaved by settlers.

However, in the early 17th century, the Dutch decided to take part of Brazil for themselves. They attacked the capital, Salvador, in 1624 and 1627 but both times they were repulsed. In 1630 they landed further north and occupied some Brazilian territory until 1654.

Meanwhile, the French also wanted a piece of Brazil. They landed at Guanabara bay in 1555. However, they were driven out in 1657. Afterward, the Portuguese founded Rio de Janeiro to strengthen their claim to the area. The French took some territory further north in 1612 but they were expelled from Brazil in 1615.

In the late 17th century the sugar industry in Brazil became less important but in 1695 gold was discovered. Another source was discovered in 1719. The discovery of gold led many people to settle in the interior of Brazil and the population shifted. As a result, the capital was moved to Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

However, after 1760 the gold boom faded. Meanwhile, a man, the Marques de Pombal governed Brazil from 1750 to 1777. He introduced new crops such as cotton, cacao, and rice. Sugar also regained some of its former prosperity under his rule.

Then in 1807, a momentous event happened. At the end of the year, Napoleon invaded Portugal. In 1808 the king and his court fled to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro became the capital of the Portuguese Empire. Its population grew rapidly. New public buildings were erected and new theaters and libraries were built.

The king also tried to encourage the Brazilian economy. In 1808 he lifted a ban on manufacturing industry in Brazil. He also allowed Brazilians to trade freely with all friendly nations, not just Portugal. As a result, many European craftsmen and artists came to Brazil.

Then in 1820, the king returned to Portugal. He left his son Dom Pedro as a regent in Brazil. In October 1821 Dom Pedro was recalled to Portugal but the Brazilians persuaded him to stay. On 7 September 1822, he broke with Portugal and declared Brazil independent. Portugal finally recognized Brazilian independence in 1825.


However, Dom Pedro’s reign as emperor of Brazil was short. Dom Pedro alienated the plantation owners by signing a treaty with the British in 1826. Britain agreed to recognize Brazil as an independent country but demanded that the slave trade be ended within 3 years. (The slave trade was banned in 1831 but it went on ‘unofficially’ until 1854. Slavery itself went on much longer. It was not abolished in Brazil until 1888).

Dom Pedro abdicated in 1831, in favor of his 5-year-old son, Dom Pedro II. As his son was only a child it left a power vacuum in Brazil and a period of instability followed. In 1835 the poor in Para began the Cabanagem rebellion. It went on until 1840. Meanwhile, another rebellion began in Bahia in 1838.

In the face of the unrest, Dom Pedro II was crowned in 1840, even though he was only 14. He soon proved to be a capable ruler and he restored order.

Then in 1864-1870 Brazil and its allies Argentina and Uruguay fought a bloody war with Paraguay. It was called the War of the Triple Alliance and it began when Paraguay invaded Uruguay. The war ended in victory for Brazil and its allies but at a terrible price.

Meanwhile, Brazil experienced a coffee boom. Coffee was first grown in Amazonia in 1727. In the late 18th century it spread across Brazil and from the mid-19th century, it boomed.

From 1830 to 1964 coffee was Brazil’s main export. In the 1870s and 1880s, a network of railways was built across Brazil, which made it easier to transport coffee to the ports for export.

From the mid-19th century, the rubber industry in Brazil grew rapidly. Cacao growing was also an important industry. However, in the 1870s republicanism began to grow in Brazil. Finally, in 1889 the army overthrew the monarchy and Brazil became a republic.


From the 1870s many Europeans emigrated to Brazil. From the 1890s to the 1920s there was a huge surge of immigrants. Among them were many Italians, Germans, and Portuguese. There were also many Japanese immigrants.

Brazil continued to be prosperous in the early 20th century but after 1929 the world was gripped by depression. Demand for Brazilian coffee collapsed. The government tried to help plantation owners by buying the coffee they could not sell. However popular discontent led to a revolution. After months of violence, the army intervened and installed Getulio Vargas as president. Vargas became the dictator of Brazil in 1937.

Vargas called his regime the Estado Novo (new state). He nationalized industries like oil, steel, and electricity. He also created a welfare state. Vargas also promoted industrial growth in Brazil. In 1942 Brazil joined the war against Germany and in 1944 a force of Brazilian soldiers was sent to Italy to fight the Germans.

Then, in 1945, the army forced Vargas to resign. Elections for the presidency were held and they were won by Eurico Dutra.

However, Vargas won the next election in 1950. This time his rule was troubled by inflation and growing national debt. In August 1954 the army demanded that Vargas resign. Instead, he shot himself.

Another election was held and Juscelino Kubitschek won. In 1960 he created a new capital at Brasilia. He was followed by Janio Quadros who resigned after 7 months. He in turn was succeeded by Joao Goulart. However, in the early 1960s, Brazil was facing worsening economic problems and in 1964 the army staged a coup.


All political parties except two were banned and trade unions were suppressed. The media was strictly controlled. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the military rule became even more repressive. The repression coincided with a wave of urban guerrilla warfare.

However, it also coincided with a period of rapid economic growth known as the ‘Brazilian economic miracle’. The economy grew at more than 10% a year during that period. Still, not everyone benefited. Many people were very poor. Worse in the 1970s inflation began to climb steeply. Unemployment also rose in Brazil.

In the late 1970s military rule in Brazil became a little less repressive. After workers went on strike in Sao Paulo in 1977 trade unions were allowed once again.

Then in the early 1980s, the army ended censorship in Brazil and allowed political parties to form. However, they decided that the next president of Brazil, who was scheduled to take power in 1985 would not be directly elected by the people. Instead, he would be elected by an ‘electoral college’ made up of congressmen and senators.

The army hoped the electoral college would elect a president favorable to them. However, it did not turn out that way. Instead, the college elected a man named Tancredo Neves. In 1985 he announced the new republic.


However, Neves died shortly afterward and Jose Samey became president. Samey failed to solve Brazil’s economic problems and inflation soared. In 1990 Fernando Collor de Melo replaced him as president. Collor de Melo was accused of corruption and resigned in 1992. His vice-president Itamar Franco replaced him. His finance minister Fernando Henrique Cardoso introduced the plan real to curb inflation and bring economic stability. In October 1994 Cardoso was elected president. He was re-elected in 1998.

Then in 2002 Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, known as Lula was elected President of Brazil. In 2011 Dilma Rousseff became the first woman president of Brazil. She was re-elected in 2014. However, she was impeached and removed from office in 2016.

In the first years of the 21st century, Brazil was developing rapidly. However, in 2015 and 2016 Brazil saw its economy shrink. However, from 2017 the economy began to grow again. Car making is an important industry. Other industries in Brazil include iron and chemicals.

Meanwhile, in the early 21st century, the population of Brazil grew rapidly. In 2024 the population of Brazil was 215 million.

Last revised 2024