Part II: Discovery and Conquest
From the beginning, the raison d’etre of the conquest of the Americas was exploitation. The Portuguese search for a sea route to India was a commercial venture. The Spanish mandate to bring gold back from the New World was scantily disguised by the heavenly mandate to convert and catechize. Substantial differences did exist, however, between the style of conquest by the two countries.
Portugal had successfully circumnavigated Africa and extended the trade route to China by establishing a string of pearls, a Portuguese port in every country. Traveling south and east from Portugal, one hops from island to island: the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, the islands in the Gulf of Guinea, Angola, Mozambique, Goa in India, and Macao in China. They developed a commercial empire using their port cities as trade bases. As a rule, the Portuguese did not bother to extend their empire inland.
Portuguese colonization of Brazil began much the same way. From its suspicious accidental discovery in 1500, Brazil was seen as a commercial port. Brazil owes its name to brazilwood, the source for red dye greatly demanded in Europe. Thus began the Portuguese exploitation of Brazilian resources. Colonization remained largely costal for some time. The first land was granted by the king in 1533, and slaves from Guinea began to arrive in 1538. In 1549 the first Jesuits arrived, to catechize the slaves and to provide education and a church-centered social structure for the settlers.
The Portuguese system of land granting differed from the Spanish. While the Spanish crown maintained legal and financial control of its territories, the Portuguese crown began by granting government powers along with huge territories. The Portuguese grantees were expected to run their estates independently of the crown, to develop and to protect. They could tax and make governmental appointments. The Spanish employed a cumbersome system of waiting for legal approval from Spain for every governmental decision.
As Portugal granted herself more and more land in the New World, Spain was busy first in Mexico and then in Peru, emptying the continent of gold and silver. With Spain focused in the west Portuguese expansion involved lands which blurred the line of demarcation. The Portuguese, too, were hungry for gold. Finding little they turned to exploitation of other resources, and to enslaving Indians for labor. Brazilian agriculture developed early as an exploitative venture. Europe wanted raw materials, so Portugal saw no need to diversify the economy of Brazil. A series of speculative products mark the history of the Brazilian economy. The fazendas, the large estates, focused on brazilwood, sugar, tobacco, cotton, cacao, and rubber, one after another.
As the slavery of Indians proved less and less feasible, importation of Africans increased. The Portuguese colony of Angola became the main source of slaves. An eerie exchange began between Angola and Brazil, of slaves from Angola, of Jesuits from Brazil going to learn African languages in order to catechize the new slaves, and of Luso-Angolans to Brazil to be educated in Jesuit colleges. According to Burns by 1822 two million slaves, Africans or their descendants, lived in Brazil where the total populations was four million people.
Enslavement of Indians had always been problematic. They had no natural resistance to European disease. The common cold, measles and small pox decimated huge portions of the population. In 1500 there were perhaps two and one half million Indians in the rain forests. It is impossible to verify, but a conservative estimate has 50% dead of disease immediately after initial contact.
It wasn’t only susceptibility to disease that made the Indians impractical slaves. An equally powerful resistance was the Indian attitude toward production and consumption. The rain forest Indian culture was communal and reciprocal. Living in plenty, the concept of private ownership was irrelevant. They revered nature, took what they needed and never learned to hoard. Status derived from kinship and social dictates, from religious and communal expression. Material was irrelevant. The idea of working very hard to amass a great deal of wealth, of sugar cane or rubber was absurd. What do you do with acres of sugar cane? Capitalistic motivation was incomprehensible. Indians made poor slaves, and later, unproductive wage earners.
The third factor which limited the use of Indians as slaves was the heated debate about the morality of their enslavement and of the conquest as a whole. Contemporary and modern writers about the destruction of American Indian cultures abound. In the sixteenth century one of the most powerful voices, though not powerful enough, was the Jesuit Order.