the discovery of brazil -- 9/12/14

Today's selection -- from Brazil: Five Centuries of Change by Thomas E. Skidmore. In the late 1400s, tiny Portugal with its mere one million inhabitants led the world in navigation, in part due the superior sailing skills its merchants developed on the rough seas of the Atlantic as opposed to the calmer waters of the Mediterranean. Though later bested in navigation by Holland (1.5 million inhabitants), England (3 million inhabitants), and Spain (7 million inhabitants), it claimed the prize of Brazil when one of its explorers sailed off course after setting off for Africa's Cape of Good Hope. (Portugal had already turned down a request to finance the expedition of Christopher Columbus, who then took his request to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain):

"Any explanation of Portugal's historic role in the Americas must begin with the relationship between the crown and overseas exploration. ... The series of events leading directly to the discovery of Brazil began in early March 1500, when King Manuel of Portugal attended a solemn mass in his capital city of Lisbon to celebrate the launching of a new ocean fleet. Less than a year earlier, the great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama had returned to Lisbon from the epic voyage (1497-99) that opened the sea route to India. His success, with its promise of future trading riches, stimulated the Portuguese court to sponsor and organize a new voyage. Larger than any of its predecessors, it was to include thirteen ships carrying a total of 1,200 crew and passengers. The commander of the expedition was Pedro Alvares Cabral, a nobleman (unlike da Gama) who, though young, may have given the new expedition a social distinction the earlier one had lacked.

Twelve of 13 ships that were part of Cabral's fleet are depicted.
Many were lost, as can be seen in this drawing
from Memória das Armadas, c.1568

"The stated intent of this expedition was the same as earlier ones: to head for the southern tip of Africa, sail around the Cape of Good Hope, and head north toward India through the Indian Ocean. Almost as soon as the fleet had set out to sea, however, disaster appeared to strike. The lead ship, commanded by Cabral, swung off course into the Atlantic, sailing due west. Cabral and his fleet eventually reached the coast of what is now the Brazilian state of Bahia, anchoring at Porto Seguro on April 22, 1500.

"They had stumbled onto what turned out to be a vast continent. Or was it more than stumbling? There has been considerable scholarly debate about whether the Portuguese navigators had in fact planned this 'accident' to outflank the Spanish, and whether they were really following the route of previous secret voyages to Brazil. Historians have failed to uncover any evidence in the Portuguese archives or elsewhere to support this version of Cabral's intent. This does not, however, disprove what some historians think -- that previous Portuguese (and/or other European) navigators may have reached the coast of present-day Brazil before 1500.

"What Cabral and his men thought about the people they encountered when they first landed is captured in an official account written for King Manuel by Pero Vaz de Caminha, the fleet's scribe. His 'Carta' (letter) demonstrated a typical late-Renaissance perception of the new land, naturally emphasizing what was exotic to European eyes --some of it wishful thinking, no doubt, since the Europeans of the time had vivid imaginations of what they expected to see in their travels -- including kingdoms more beautiful than any before encountered and monsters more hideously frightening than any yet known. Vaz de Caminha depicted Brazil as a realm where human and environmental resources were there for the taking. The native women were described as comely, naked, and without shame, and the soil as endlessly fertile. This image of endless fertility, a romanticization of the Portuguese later shared by the Brazilians, has led to a variety of overoptimistic estimates of Brazil's agricultural potential. It was no accident that Vaz de Caminha's description of the new continent sounded seductively different from the hardscrabble life facing most Portuguese at home. It was designed to encourage the monarch to send follow-up expeditions as well as to attract would-be explorers." ...

"It is unknown how many Indians there were when Cabral landed; estimates range from two to five million. What is certain is that the subsequent fate of the Amerindian population in Brazil was largely death by disease or brutality. ... The current indigenous population of Brazil numbers less than 300,000."


Thomas E. Skidmore


Brazil: Five Centuries of Change, 2nd Edition


Oxford University Press


Copyright 1999, 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc.


1, 9-11
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