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Colonial Brazil, Plantation Society

sugar boom, white colonist, Portuguese territory, fundamental patterns, largest empire

The Portuguese initiated the Atlantic slave trade in the 1440s, bringing black Africans back to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Slavery dated from ancient times in both Europe and Africa, but the enslavement of black Africans by Europeans was new. For three centuries (roughly 1550 to 1850) Europeans transported their human cargo from Africa to the Americas. More than 10 million Africans survived this forced passage, with about 3 to 4 million going to Brazil alone.

Along the coastal zones of the Northeast, especially in the captaincies of Bahia and Pernambuco, the slave trade created a black majority. (Some 80 percent of the people of the northeastern coast today are descendants of Africans.) As the decades passed, the mulatto population of mixed European and African ancestry grew increasingly larger. The mixing of Native Americans and Portuguese produced the racially mixed mamelucos. The mulattoes and mamelucos formed racial, social, and cultural groups midway between the dominant white elite and the African slaves and indigenous population at the bottom of the social structure.

Probably three-fourths of the 50,000 Portuguese colonists lived near Salvador and Olinda, the capital of Pernambuco. For every white colonist in the early 17th century, there may have been as many as three African slaves. There was probably a total of several hundred thousand Native Americans in the interior. By the early 17th century, the sugar boom had created one of the fundamental patterns that would long plague Brazil: A small white elite controlled vast landholdings and dominated an economic and political system with a nonwhite majority.

In 1580, after the death of King Sebastian of Portugal, who left no heir, King Philip II of Spain placed himself on the Portuguese throne through bribery and the threat of war. The merging of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies lasted until 1640 when the Portuguese regained their independence. The union created the second largest empire in world history, to be eclipsed later only by the British Empire. It included control of most of the Americas, the Philippines, the Portuguese trading empire in Asia and Africa, and Spanish possessions across EuropeóThe Netherlands, Sicily, and southern Italy.

Unfortunately for the Portuguese, the forced coalition with Spain drew them into bitter European power struggles between the Spanish and the Dutch. Involvement in this struggle was very costly for the Portuguese. By 1650 the Dutch had taken the Asian spice trade from the Portuguese and had gained control of the Indian Ocean. In Africa, Dutch attackers captured Portuguese territory in Angola as well as Portugalís West African slave ports and held them for decades. In the 1620s the Dutch attacked Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. After a bloody struggle they were driven back. A second incursion in 1630 left the Dutch in control of Recife and Olinda, which the Dutch occupied until the 1650s. After their expulsion, the Dutch (followed by the English, French, and Spanish) set up their own sugar plantations in the islands of the Caribbean. Although sugarcane remained Brazilís major crop, the new competition sent the colonyís economy into decades of decline.

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