In honor of the Olympic Summer Games taking place right now in Rio de Janeiro, we’ll look at the history of Brazil, specifically how it came to be the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America. The country’s history is actually quite unique, and today Brazil is an economic powerhouse, despite its current economic troubles. At JBI, this translates directly into a large number of Portuguese voice-over projects every year.
In this blog post we’ll take a look at two the historical events that made Brazil the nation we know today – and the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America.
[Average read time: 4 mins]
The prevalence of Portuguese in South America
It’s difficult to overstate just how large Brazil is. The nation covers almost 50% of the South American continent – by land mass it’s the fifth largest country in the world. It’s almost as large as the nine Spanish-speaking countries in South America – Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Perú, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay – put together.
Moreover, Brazil has almost as many inhabitants (202 million) as the nine Spanish-speaking countries combined (207 million), according to 2015 statistics from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. The Hispanophone countries have millions of speakers of native languages like Quechua and Guaraní, so that there are actually more Lusophones in South America than speakers of any other language. To reiterate – Brazilian Portuguese is the most-spoken language of South America.
How Spain and Portugal split up South America
Spain and Portugal were two first major colonial explorers in the American continent. Initially, João II of Portugal wasn’t terribly interested in the Americas, but instead wanted to explore Africa, and especially to secure a route to India, which he wanted to conquer. When Christopher Columbus came back from his first voyage, Fernando and Isabel got Pope Alexander VI – who was Spanish – to reverse previous treaties, awarding Spain any land discovered south of the Azores and Cape Verde. João threatened a military expedition.
The Spanish monarchs couldn’t hold off his superior military power, so they signed a series of treaties – beginning with the Treaty of Tordesillas, in 1494 – that effectively gave Portugal control of the eastern part of the Atlantic. In 1500, this line was moved west by papal decree, so that Portugal’s portion now included the eastern tip of what is today Brazil. Later on in the colonial period, Portuguese explorers went further west, and the Spanish didn’t counter them, in part because they were more focused on staking claims in Asia. It also didn’t help that when the initial treaties were negotiated, no one in Europe really had a good sense of what America looked like, as evidenced by this map from 1502, which shows the dividing line (highlighted in yellow) and a drastically inaccurate topography:
Thus, South America was effectively split in two. Later incursions by other European powers (who completely ignored the Spanish-Portuguese treaties) established footholds in the continent, but the Spanish and Portuguese fought them back.
Kingdom leads to Empire of Brazil
Why did Brazil remain one large country after its independence, while the Spanish colonies splintered into smaller states? Because the Portuguese monarchy moved there.
In 1808, the Portuguese royal family, under threat from Napoleon (this was the height of the Napoleonic Wars, after all), left for Brazil. While there, the Prince Regent Dom João is said to have fallen in love with the country. More importantly, the royal family established Brazil’s first printing press, stock exchanges, and even a National Bank, drastically changing the colony. Once Napoleon was defeated, other European regents demanded that Dom João return to Brazil, but he instead decided to establish the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves – effectively, creating a transatlantic kingdom and ending Brazil’s status as a colony.
When the royal family finally returned to Portugal, João’s son, Pedro de Alcântara stayed on. Soon after, the Portuguese court tried to turn Brazil back into a colony, sparking an independence movement – which Pedro joined. Pedro declared Brazilian independence in 1822, and shortly thereafter, the newly-titled Dom Pedro I became the first ruler of the Empire of Brazil. After a three-year war, Portugal officially recognized Brazil’s independence in 1825.
Independence or Death (1888), by Pedro Américo.
In the end, Brazil didn’t split up into smaller countries like the rest of South America because it already had a history as a state with a centralized ruler, and independence was in effect an effort to keep that intact. Moreover, the establishment of a press and financial institutions by the royal family tied the country together. That is not to say that there wasn’t political unrest – in fact, Brazil has suffered from political instability for a lot of its history. But this turmoil didn’t splinter the empire, and directly led to the huge, multicultural and vibrant nation that is hosting the Olympics this week.