Before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, the region now known as Brazil was home to people belonging mainly to the Tupi and Guarani ethnic groups. Colonisation by the Portuguese began in the late 16th century with the extraction of the valuable wood of the Pau Brasil tree, from which the country takes its name. Brazil was colonised and developed by the Portuguese rather than by the Spanish, who appropriated much of the Americas. Under Portuguese rule, parts of Brazil formed a Dutch colony between 1630 and 1654. The Dutch founded several cities, such as Mauritsville, and many sugar cane plantations. The Dutch fought a fierce jungle war against the Portuguese. Without the support of their home republic due to a war with England, the Dutch surrendered to the Portuguese, although they did not officially recognise Portuguese rule, which led to an all-out war with Portugal off the Portuguese coast in 1656. In 1665, the Hague Peace Treaty was signed, Portugal lost its Asian colonies and had to pay the Dutch Republic 63 tons of gold as compensation for the loss of its colony.
Brazil became the centre of the Portuguese empire in 1808, when King Dom João VI. (John VI) fled Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal and set up his government in the city of Rio de Janeiro.
The next four centuries saw the continued exploitation of the country’s natural resources, such as gold and rubber, and the growth of an economy largely based on sugar, coffee and African slave labour. Christianisation and exploitation of the indigenous people continued, and the 19th and 20th centuries saw a second wave of immigration, mainly of Italians, Germans (in southern Brazil), Spaniards, Japanese (in the state of São Paulo) and Portuguese, which contributed to a number of factors that have given rise to the complex and unique Brazilian culture and society of today.
After three centuries under Portuguese rule, Brazil became an independent nation on 7 September 1822. Until 1889, Brazil was an empire under the reign of Dom Pedro I and his son Dom Pedro II, when it became an emerging world power. Slavery was initially widespread and was restricted by successive laws until its final abolition in 1888. Many factors contributed to the overthrow of the monarchy and the subsequent rise of nominal republicanism, but in fact there was military intervention in Brazil for a century after the fall of the empire.
By far the largest, most populous and most prosperous country in Latin America, Brazil has only recently emerged from more than two decades (1964-1988) of military intervention in the country’s government to seek democratic rule as it faces the challenges of further industrial and agricultural growth and domestic development. By harnessing vast natural resources, a huge geographic area, a large labour pool and relatively liberal economic rules, Brazil is now Latin America’s leading economic power and a regional leader, eclipsing countries like Mexico and Argentina. Political corruption, as in most Latin American countries, and high barriers to entry, especially in labour matters, remain pressing problems. One consequence is the high crime rate, especially in the big cities.
The recent ‘pink tide’ in Latin American politics has led to greater economic inequality in Brazil, as in other countries. The political class is increasingly wealthy and numerous, while the poorly educated and politically disconnected suffer from significant barriers to entry into labour, higher education and other markets. Dissatisfaction with the Brazilian government erupted into open protests during the 2014 World Cup. Government forces had begun evicting people from their homes even before the tournament began, and the response to the protests was by all accounts brutal. Some protesters pointed out the absurdity of building expensive stadiums in remote locations while people live in slums with no property rights.