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Brazil Travel Guide

Northeast



The Nordeste (Northeastern Brazil) is composed of the states of Alagoas, Bahia, Ceará, Maranhão, Paraíba, Pernambuco, Piauí, Rio Grande do Norte and Sergipe. The biggest cities are Salvador, Fortaleza and Recife, which are the regional metropolitan areas of the Nordeste, all with a population above a million inhabitants. The people who live there, are from there, or have family in the Brazilian Northeast, are called nordestinos.

The Northeast was primarily inhabited by indigenous peoples, mostly from the Tupi-Guarani family, who, before the colonial era, helped Europeans with the extraction of brazilwood from the coastal rainforest (or mata atlântica) in exchange for spices. But as colonization and commercial interest intensified in the region the number of Indians became drastically reduced due to the constant battles with the owners of the large sugar mills. Conflicts arose because the settlers had displaced the native inhabitants and then tried to enslave them as labor in the fields. The Portuguese colonials then considered the idea of importing black African slaves to use as manual labor. To this day culture in Northeast Brazil remains fully permeated by this African influence.

The Northeast was the first area of discovery in Brazil, roughly 1,500 Portuguese having arrived on April 22, 1500 under the command of Pedro álvares Cabral at Porto Seguro, in the state of Bahia.

The coast of the Northeast was the stage for the first economic activity of the country, namely the extraction and export of pau Brasil, or brazilwood. Brazilwood was highly valued in Europe where it was used to make violin bows (especially the Pau de Pernambuco variety) and for the red dye it produced. Countries like France, who disagreed with the Treaty of Tordesillas, (a papal bull decreed by the Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI in 1493 which sought to divide the South American continent between the Spanish and the Portuguese), launched constant attacks against the coast with the objective of stealing the wood.

French colonists not only tried to settle in present-day Rio de Janeiro, from 1555 to 1567 (the so-called France Antarctique episode), but also in present-day São Luís, from 1612 to 1614 (the so-called France Equinoxiale). The Dutch, also opposed to the Treaty of Tordesillas, plundered the Northeast coast, sacked Bahia in 1604, and even temporarily captured Salvador. From 1630 to 1654 the Dutch set up more permanently in the Northeast and controlled a long stretch of coast that was most accessible to Europe without, however, penetrating the interior. But the colonists of the Dutch West India Company in Brazil were in a constant siege despite the presence in Recife of the great Maurice of Nassau as governor.

Slave resistance began during the colonial era, in the seventeenth century, and eventually led to the formation of quilombos, or settlements of runaway and free-born African slaves. The Quilombo dos Palmares, the largest and most well-known of these settlements, was founded around 1600 in the Serra da Barriga hills, in the present state of Alagoas. Palmares, at the height of its power, was an independent, self-sustaining republic, hosting a population of over 30,000 free African men, women and children. There were over 200 buildings in the community, a church, four smithies, and a council house. Although Palmares managed to defend itself from the Dutch military and the Portuguese colonials for several decades, it was finally taken and destroyed and its leader Zumbi dos Palmares was captured and beheaded. His head was then displayed in a public plaza in Recife.

Besides being Brazil’s main sea port, Brazil's center of the African slave trade, a center of the sugar industry, and the seat of the first Catholic bishop of Brazil (in 1552) the city of Salvador was also the first general seat of government in Brazil as it is strategically located in the center of the eastern coast of the country. The government in Salvador sought to centralize power in an effort to support the various captaincies, geographical subdivisions that preceded the present states of Brazil, which at this time were in a state of crisis. Salvador remained the colonial capital until 1763 when it was succeeded by Rio de Janeiro, the new economic power center of that era.

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