Key developments of 1532, and notes on Portugal’s slavery system in Brazil

Today, looking at 1532 CE, we’ll return to looking more at what the Portuguese Empire was up to worldwide (and especially in Brazil.) But first, a broader look at the main events that impacted the continuing development of the “West’s” domination of the world:

  • In January, São Vicente was established as the first permanent Portuguese settlement in Brazil.
  • In March, Henry VIII’s “Reformation Parliament” banned the English Church from making any payments to Rome. (Later in the year, Henry would make further moves towards marrying his second wife, Anne Boleyn.)
  • In June, Suleiman the Magnificent led another expansionist attack against the Habsburg Empire, this time heading for the city of Güns in present-day Hungary. Once again, he would be rebuffed.
  • In November, 18 months after his battle at Puna, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro González captured the Incan emperor Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca, in Peru. In 1533, Pizarro would reject the massive ransom the Incans offered for Atahualpa’s release, and execute him…

Portugal’s establishment of a permanent settler-cities in Brazil (then called the “Terra de la Santa Cruz”), came after several years in which the Spanish conquistadores had been establishing settler-cities along the coasts of several of the lands they were plundering in South and Central America. It marked a departure from the way the Portuguese had– for around 100 years by then– been building and maintaining a robust network of trading posts on the far side the world, in and around the Indian Ocean, since in the Indian Ocean their trading posts were established through agreement with generally capable local governing powers, and did not involve or require the import/implantation of large numbers of settlers from Portugal. Spain’s creation of settler-cities in Central/South America was a very different model, and one that the Portuguese would now start to emulate in Brazil.

The Portuguese did have a couple of small precedents of their own of outright, land-seizing settler colonialism, which they had pursued on islands in the Eastern Atlantic. Those were primarily in Madeira (captured by Portugal in 1419 CE) and São Tome and Principe (captured 1471.) Crucially, in both those longer established ventures they had sought to use the land on the islands for the cultivation of sugar cane, whose main products, sugar and rum, were becoming a very hot commodity in the European marketplace. But making either sugar or rum from raw sugar cane is an arduous business. The Portuguese colonists on those east-Atlantic islands tried to force the indigenes, where they existed to do the work. But where the indigenes either did not exist or ended up genocided by the harsh treatment they got from the Portuguese, the Portuguese soon found a solution, since between 1445 and 1488 CE they had established fortified trading posts all down the southwest coast of Africa, from Cap Vert at the extreme western tip of the African mainland down to the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip… And in all of those trading posts one of the main commodities being traded was enslaved human persons captured from the African interior. In the late 1400’s the sugar plantations in Portugal’s east-Atlantic island colonies were one of the first destinations in an Atlantic trade in enslaved persons that over the next 350 years would balloon to horrific proportions.

Once Portugal’s King John III had committed to building permanent colonial settlements in Brazil, he and the conquistadores under his control would follow the same template there that they had developed in Madeira and São Tome: establishing sugar-cane plantations and staffing them with indigenes pressed into labor under Portugal’s harsh version of the encomienda system, or where sufficient numbers of indigenes were not available, enslaved Africans.

Notable in this regard was a key advantage the Portuguese in Brazil had over the Spanish colonizers elsewhere in Central/South America: The Portuguese could import enslaved Africans directly from the Portuguese-run forts in Africa (though for a while, the King insisted they had to be trans-shipped through Portugal itself.) But the Spanish were prevented by the Treaty of Tordesillas from running any colonial operations in Africa. Thus, when they wanted to import enslaved Africans they had to contract with other slave-shippers — from Portugal, or later from France, England, or Holland — to bring them in. Those contracts were called Asientos.

Regarding the scale of the importation and use of enslaved Africans in Portuguese-run Brazil, English-WP tells us:

During the Atlantic slave trade era, Brazil received more African slaves than any other country. An estimated 4.9 million slaves from Africa were brought to Brazil during the period from 1501 to 1866. Until the early 1850s, most enslaved Africans who arrived on Brazilian shores were forced to embark at West Central African ports, especially in Luanda (present-day Angola).

Slave labor was the driving force behind the growth of the sugar economy in Brazil, and sugar was the primary export of the colony from 1600 to 1650. Gold and diamond deposits were discovered in Brazil in 1690, which sparked an increase in the importation of African slaves to power this newly profitable mining. Transportation systems were developed for the mining infrastructure, and population boomed from immigrants seeking to take part in gold and diamond mining.

Demand for African slaves did not wane after the decline of the mining industry in the second half of the 18th century. Cattle ranching and foodstuff production proliferated after the population growth, both of which relied heavily on slave labor. 1.7 million slaves were imported to Brazil from Africa from 1700 to 1800, and the rise of coffee in the 1830s further enticed expansion of the slave trade.

Brazil was the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery. By the time it was abolished, on May 13, 1888, an estimated four million slaves had been imported/taken from Africa to Brazil, 40% of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas.

There is a small (and perhaps understandable) divergence in the total numbers given there, but the general picture is still clear.

Later on that same page on “Slavery in Brazil”, English-WP tells us this:

In the first 250 years after the colonization of the land, roughly 70% of all immigrants to the colony were enslaved people. Indigenous slaves remained much cheaper during this time than their African counterparts, though they did suffer horrendous death rates from European diseases. Although the average African slave lived to only be twenty-three years old because of terrible work conditions, this was still about four years longer than Indigenous slaves, which was a big contribution to the high price of African slaves. [My itals there, HC.]

African slaves were also more desirable due to their experience working in sugar plantations. In a particular mill in São Vicente in the 1540s, for example, African slaves were said to have held all the most skilled positions including the crucial role of sugar master, even though they were vastly outnumbered by native slaves at the time. It is impossible to pinpoint when the first African slaves arrived in Brazil but estimates range anywhere in the 1530s. Regardless, African slavery was established at least by 1549, when the first governor of Brazil, Tome de Sousa, arrived with slaves sent from the king himself.

Finally, the image at the top of this post is a painting by Zacharias Wagner, dated 1637-44 CE, and titled “Mercado de escravos no Recife” (Slave market in Recife, Brazil.)