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The Tordesillas Line: 1493-1500

When Columbus returns to Spain in 1493, with the first news of the West Indies, Ferdinand and Isabella are determined to ensure that these valuable discoveries belong to them rather than to seafaring Portugal. They secure from the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, a papal bull to the effect that all lands west of a certain line shall belong exclusively to Spain (in return for converting the heathen). All those to the east of the line shall belong on the same basis to Portugal.

The pope draws this line down through the Atlantic 100 leagues (300 miles) west of the Cape Verde islands, Portugal's most westerly possession.

The king of Portugal, John II, protests that this trims him too tight. The line cramps the route which Portuguese sailors must take through the Atlantic before turning east round Africa.

Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors, meeting in 1494 at Tordesillas in northwest Spain, resolve the dispute. They accept the principle of the line but agree to move it to a point 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. The new line has a profound significance which no one as yet appreciates. It slices through the entire eastern part of south America from the mouth of the Amazon to São Paulo.

The east coast of south America is first reached by Spanish and Portuguese navigators in the same year, 1500. The agreement at Tordesillas gives the territory to Portugal.

Thus the vast area of Brazil, the largest territory of south America, becomes an exception in the subcontinent - the only part not to be in the Spanish empire, and the only modern country in Latin America with Portuguese rather than Spanish as its national language.

Portugal and Brazil: 16th - 18th century

The Portuguese, with imperial ambitions focussed originally on the east Indies, are slower than the Spanish in setting up any form of administration in America. Brazil is deemed to be part of their share of the globe, through the accident of the Tordesillas Line. The coast is reached in 1500 by a Portuguese navigator, Pedro Cabral. Vespucci explores the rest of the Brazilian coastline for the king of Portugal in 1501-2.

But it is not until 1533 that steps are taken to colonize this rich territory. The Portuguese call it Brazil because of a valuable natural product - pau-brasil, a red wood much in demand for the dye which can be extracted from it.

The first attempt to establish a Portuguese presence in Brazil is made by John III in 1533. His solution is ingenious but idle. He divides the coastline into fifteen sections, each about 150 miles in length, and grants these strips of land on a hereditary basis to fifteen courtiers - who become known as donatários. Each courtier is told that he and his heirs can found cities, grant land and levy taxes over as much territory as they can colonize inland from their stretch of coast.

Only two of the donatários make any success of this venture. In the 1540s John III is forced to change his policy. He brings Brazil under direct royal control (as in Spanish America) and appoints a governor general.

The first governor general of Brazil arrives in 1549 and makes his headquarters at Bahia (today known as Salvador). It remains the capital of Portuguese Brazil for more than two centuries, until replaced by Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

Colonists gradually move into the interior. Accompanying the first governor general in 1549 are members of the newly founded order of Jesuits. In their mission to convert the Indians they are often the first European presence in new regions far from the coast. They frequently clash with adventurers also pressing inland (in great expeditions known as bandeiras) to find silver and gold or to capture Indians as slaves.

These two groups, with their very different motives, bring a Portuguese presence far beyond the Tordesillas Line. By the late 17th century the territory of Brazil encompasses the entire basin of the Amazon as far west as the Andes. At the same time Portuguese colonists are moving down the coast beyond Rio de Janeiro. A Portuguese town is even established on the river Plate in 1680, provoking a century of Spanish-Portuguese border conflicts in the region which is now Uruguay.

Meanwhile the use of the Portuguese language gradually gives the central region of south America an identity different from that of its Spanish neighbours.

Bahia and Rio de Janeiro: 16th-18th century

The economic strength of Portuguese Brazil derives at first from sugar plantations in the north (established as early as the 1530s by one of the only two successful donatários). But from the late 17th century Brazil benefits at last from the mineral wealth which underpins Spanish America. Gold is found in 1693 in the inland region of Minas Gerais, in the southern part of the colony.

The discovery sets off the first great gold rush of the American continent - opening up the interior as the prospectors swarm westwards, and underpinning Brazil's economy for much of the 18th century. Diamonds are also discovered in large quantities in the same region in the 18th century.

The shift in Brazil's economy from sugar to mineral wealth brings a change in the colony's centre of gravity. For the first two centuries Bahia, in the north, is the seat of colonial government. But the gold and diamonds make their way to Europe through the port of Rio de Janeiro, greatly adding to the prosperity and sophistication of this southern city.

Rio de Janeiro also benefits from the reforms imposed on Brazil in the 18th century by Pombal, the chief minister in Portugal. Among other new measures (ending the rights of the donatários, giving Indians legal equality with the rest of the population, reserving the diamond mines as a royal monopoly), Pombal moves the capital in 1763 from Bahia to Rio.

Tiradentes: 1788-1792

Rio de Janeiro witnesses the first coherent expression of republicanism in Latin America. The occasion is the two-year trial of the rebel known as Tiradentes ('puller of teeth'), a nickname deriving from his occasional practice of amateur dentistry.

His real name is Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, and he is above all a child of the Enlightenment. Educated by his brother, a priest, Silva Xavier is widely read in the French philosophes. He is also profoundly influenced by the American revolution, and is in the habit of distributing copies of the US constitution.

In discussion with like-minded friends in his home province of Minas Gerais, Silva Xavier argues for the emancipation of Brazil's slaves and for independence from Portugal. These are merely debating points until he leads an uprising, in 1788, in response to a campaign by Portuguese officials to recover overdue taxes.

The rebellion is soon put down, but it acquires its significance (and Tiradentes wins his fame as Brazil's first martyr for independence) because of his eloquence in proclaiming at his trial the ideals of liberty and republicanism. Only he, of the various conspirators, is condemned to death. He is beheaded in public in Rio in 1792 as a warning to would-be revolutionaries.

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