There is evidence suggesting possible human habitation in Brazil more than 30,000 years ago, and scholars have found artifacts, including cave paintings, that all agree date back at least 11,000 years. By the time Europeans arrived there was a relatively small indigenous population, but the archaeological record indicates that densely populated settlements had previously existed in some areas; smallpox and other European diseases are believed to have decimated these settlements prior to extensive European exploration. The indigenous peoples that survived can be classified into two main groups, a partially sedentary population that spoke the Tupian language and had similar cultural patterns, and those that moved from place to place in the vast land. It is estimated that approximately a million indigenous people were scattered throughout the territory.
Whether or not Brazil was known to Portuguese navigators in the 15th cent. is still an unsolved problem, but the coast was visited by the Spanish mariner Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (see under Pinzón, Martín Alonso) before the Portuguese under Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500 claimed the land, which came within the Portuguese sphere as defined in the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494). Little was done to support the claim, but the name Brazil is thought to derive from the Portuguese word for the red color of brazilwood [ brasa = glowing coal], which the early visitors gathered. The indigenous people taught the explorers about the cultivation of corn, the construction of hammocks, and the use of dugout canoes. The first permanent settlement was not made until 1532, and that was at São Vicente in São Paulo. Development of the Northeast was begun about the same time under Martím Afonso de Sousa as first royal governor. Salvador was founded in 1539, and 12 captaincies were established, stretching inland from the Brazilian coast.
Portuguese claims, somewhat lackadaisically administered, did not go unchallenged. French Huguenots established themselves (1555) on an island in Rio de Janeiro harbor and were routed in 1567 by a force under Mem de Sá, who then founded the city of Rio de Janeiro. The Dutch made their first attack on Salvador (Bahia) in 1624, and in 1633 the vigorous Dutch West India Company was able to capture and hold not only Salvador and Recife but the whole of the Northeast; the region was ably ruled by John Maurice of Nassau. No aid was forthcoming from Portugal, which had been united with Spain in 1580 and did not regain its independence until 1640. It was a naval expedition from Rio itself that drove out the Dutch in 1654. The success of the colonists helped to build their self-confidence.
Farther south, the bandeirantes from São Paulo had been trekking westward since the beginning of the 17th cent., thrusting far into Spanish territory and extending the western boundaries of Brazil, which were not delimited until the negotiations of the Brazilian diplomat Rio Branco in the late 19th and early 20th cent. The Portuguese also had ambitions to control the Banda Oriental (present Uruguay) and in the 18th cent. came into conflict with the Spanish there; the matter was not completely settled even by the independence of Uruguay in 1828.
The sugar culture came to full flower in the Northeast, where the plantations were furnishing most of the sugar demanded by Europe. Unsuccessful at exploiting the natives for the backbreaking labor of the cane fields and sugar refineries, European colonists imported Africans in large numbers as slaves. Dependence on a one-crop economy was lessened by the development of the mines in the interior, particularly those of Minas Gerais, where gold was discovered late in the 17th cent. Mining towns sprang up, and Ouro Prêto became in the 18th cent. a major intellectual and artistic center, boasting such artists as the sculptor Aleijadinho. The center of development began to swing south, and Rio de Janeiro, increasingly important as an export center, supplanted Salvador as the capital of Brazil in 1763.
Ripples from intellectual stirrings in Europe that preceded the French Revolution and the successful American Revolution brought on an abortive plot for independence among a small group of intellectuals in Minas; the plot was discovered and the leader, Tiradentes, was put to death. When Napoleon's forces invaded Portugal, the king of Portugal, John VI, fled (1807) to Brazil, and on his arrival (1808) in Rio de Janeiro that city became the capital of the Portuguese Empire. The ports of the colony were freed of mercantilist restrictions, and Brazil became a kingdom, of equal status with Portugal. In 1821 the king returned to Portugal, leaving his son behind as regent of Brazil. New policies by Portugal toward Brazil, tightening colonial restrictions, stirred up wide unrest.
The young prince eventually acceded to popular sentiment, and advised by the Brazilian José Bonifácio, on Sept. 7, 1822, on the banks of the Ipiranga River, allegedly uttered the fateful cry of independence. He became Pedro I, emperor of Brazil. Pedro's rule, however, gradually kindled increasing discontent in Brazil, and in 1831 he had to abdicate in favor of his son, Pedro II.
The reign of this popular emperor saw the foundation of modern Brazil. Ambitions directed toward the south were responsible for involving the country in the war (1851–52) against the Argentine dictator, Juan Manuel de Rosas, and again in the War of the Triple Alliance (1865–70) against Paraguay. Brazil drew little benefit from either; far more important were the rise of postwar discontent in the military and beginnings of the large-scale European immigration that was to make SE Brazil the economic heart of the nation. Railroads and roads were constructed, and today the region has an excellent transportation system.
The plantation culture of the Northeast was already crumbling by the 1870s, and the growth of the movement to abolish slavery, spurred by such men as Antônio de Castro Alves and Joaquim Nabuco, threatened it even more. The slave trade had been abolished in 1850, and a law for gradual emancipation was passed in 1871. In 1888 while Pedro II was in Europe and his daughter Isabel was governing Brazil, slavery was completely abolished. The planters thereupon withdrew their support of the empire, enabling republican forces, aided by a military at odds with the emperor, to triumph.
In 1889 the republic was established by a bloodless revolution, with Marshal Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca as its first president. The rivalry of the states and the power of the army in government, especially under Fonseca's unpopular Jacobinist successor, Marshal Floriando Peixoto, caused the political situation to remain uneasy. The expanding market for Brazilian coffee and more particularly the wild-rubber boom brought considerable wealth as the 19th cent. ended.
The creation of rubber plantations in Southeast Asia brought the wild-rubber boom to a halt and hurt the economy of the Amazon region after 1912. Brazil sided with the Allies in World War I, declaring war in Oct., 1917, and shared in the peace settlement, but later (1926) it withdrew from the League of Nations. Measures to reverse the country's growing economic dependence on coffee were taken by Getúlio Vargas, who came into power through a coup in 1930. By changing the constitution and establishing a type of corporative state he centralized government (the Estado Nôvo —new state) and began the forced development of basic industries and diversification of agriculture. His mild dictatorial rule, although it aroused opposition, reflected a new consciousness of nationality, which was expressed in the paintings of Cândido Portinari and the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos.
World War II brought a new boom (chiefly in rubber and minerals) to Brazil, which joined the Allies in 1942, after coming close to backing Germany, and began taking a larger part in inter-American affairs. In 1945 the army forced Vargas to resign, and Gen. Eurico Gaspar Dutra was elected president. Brazil's economic growth was plagued by inflation, and this issue enabled Vargas to be elected in 1950. His second administration was marred by economic problems and political infighting, and in 1954 he committed suicide. Juscelino Kubitschek was elected president in 1955. Under Kubitschek the building of Brasília and an ambitious program of highway and dam construction were undertaken. The inflation problem persisted.
On Apr. 21, 1960, Brasília became Brazil's official capital, signaling a new commitment to develop the interior of the country. In 1960 Jânio da Silva Quadros was elected by the greatest popular margin in Brazilian history, but his autocratic, unpredictable manner aroused great opposition and undermined his attempts at reform. He resigned within seven months. Vice President João Goulart was his successor. Goulart's leftist administration was weakened by political strife and seemingly insurmountable economic chaos, and in 1964 he was deposed by a military insurrection. Congress elected Gen. Castelo Branco to fill out his term. Goulart's supporters and other leftists were removed from power and influence throughout Brazil and, in 1965, the president's extraordinary powers were extended and all political parties were dissolved.
A new constitution was adopted in 1967, and Marshall Costa e Silva succeeded Castelo Branco. In 1968, Costa e Silva recessed Congress and assumed one-man rule. In 1969, Gen. Emílio Garrastazú Médici succeeded Costa e Silva. Terrorism of the right and left became a feature of Brazilian life. The military police responded to guerrilla attacks with widespread torture and the formation of death squads to eradicate dissidents. This violence abated somewhat in the mid-1970s. Gen. Ernesto Geisel succeeded Médici as president in 1974. By this time, Brazil had become the world's largest debtor.
In 1977 Geisel dismissed Congress and instituted a series of constitutional and electoral reforms, and in 1978 he repealed all emergency legislation. His successor, Gen. João Baptista de Oliveira Figueiredo, presided over a period (1979–85) of tremendous industrial development and increasing movement toward democracy. Despite these improvements, economic and social problems continued and the military maintained control of the government. Civilian government was restored in 1985 under José Sarney, and illiterate citizens were given the right to vote. Sarney's reforms were initially successful, but increasing inflation brought antigovernment protests.
In 1988 a new constitution came into force, reducing the workweek and providing for freedom of assembly and the right to strike, and in 1990 President Fernando Collor de Mello was elected by popular vote. As a result of increasing international pressure, Collor sponsored programs to decrease the rate of deforestation in Amazon rain forests and to protect the autonomy of the indigenous Yanomami. In 1992, amid charges of wide-scale corruption within his government, Collor became the first elected president to be impeached by the Brazilian congress; he resigned as his trial began, and was succeeded by his vice president, Itamar Augusto Franco. In 1994 the supreme court cleared Collor of corruption charges, but he was barred from public office until 2001.
Fernando Henrique Cardoso was elected president in Oct., 1994, and took office in Jan., 1995. The Cardoso government reduced state controls on the economy and privatized government-owned businesses in telecommunications, oil, mining, and electricity. With the help of a new stable currency, Cardoso was able to bring inflation under control; he also signed decrees expropriating new lands from private estates for redistribution to the landless poor.
Reelected in 1998, Cardoso was faced with an economic crisis as budget deficits and a decline in foreign exchange reserves led to currency devaluations and increased interest rates. Late in 1998, he appealed to the International Monetary Fund, which assembled a $42 billion aid package for the country. Brazil then began implementing a program of stringent economic policies that restored investor confidence by mid-1999 and led to economic growth. In May, 2000, Cardoso signed a fiscal responsibility law that limited spending by the states; the legislation was a result of fiscal crises in several Brazilian states.
A series of corruption scandals that undermined the governing coalition in early 2001 was followed by an energy crisis that led the government to order widespread cuts in electrical consumption from May until Mar., 2002; the crisis resulted from a drought that reduced the water available to produce hydropower and a decade-long increase in the demand for electricity. Popular dissatisfaction with economic austerities helped fuel the election of Lula da Silva, of the opposition Workers' party (PT), to the presidency in 2002. Da Silva's subsequent inauguration also marked the increasing stability of Brazilian democracy; it was the first transfer of power between elected presidents since 1961. The new president did not deviate greatly from his predecessor's economic program, however, which alienated many supporters on the left.
Da Silva's government was hurt by a campaign finance scandal in early 2004 and by an increase in unemployment, and suffered losses in popular and congressional support, although economic growth in 2004 was strong and unemployment subsequently decreased. In June, 2005, the president was further hurt PT officials were accused of buying the votes of some of its congressional coalition members. The charges, made by the leader of a party in coalition with the president, led to the resignation of the president's chief of staff (who was expelled from the congress late in the year) and of the Workers' party leader and treasurer and forced the president to reshuffle his cabinet to shore up coalition support for his government. A separate bribery scandal led to the resignation of the speaker of the House in September, and in Mar., 2006, the finance minister resigned when he also was ensnared in a bribery scandal. Although the president weathered the scandals, they led to the sidetracking of social-reform legislation he had proposed. Meanwhile, Amazonas state was hit by a severe drought in 2005 when the dry season saw much less rainfall than usual.
A weeklong outbreak of rampant gang violence and, in turn, police vengeance against the gangs erupted in mid-May, 2006, in São Paulo state when a gang sought revenge for a government attempt to break the influence of its imprisoned leaders and members. The violence exposed a variety of ills in Brazil criminal justice system, including corruption in the prisons and lawlessness among the police. São Paulo experienced outbreaks of criminal gang violence in July and August as well, and Rio de Janeiro experienced a series of gang attacks in late December.
The 2006 presidential election, in October, was inconclusive after the first round. Da Silva won a plurality, but failed to win the required majority; his campaign was hurt by the corruption scandals that affected the PT and a late-breaking dirty-tricks scandal involving his campaign organization. The runner-up, Geraldo Alckmin, the former governor of São Paulo state, saw his campaign hurt by the recent violence in the state. In the runoff at the end of the month, da Silva won handily, securing 60% of the vote. Corruption scandals continued to make news in 2007. The most prominent new cases occurred in May, when the energy minister resigned after corruption allegations against him became public and a major Brazilian newsmagazine reported that the Senate president had taken payoffs; toward the end of the year the Senate president resigned, though he remained a senator. In August, the supreme court voted to charge da Silva's former chief of staff and the former Workers' party treasurer with corruption; they and a number of others were convicted in 2012. In Jan., 2008, Brazil became a net creditor nation, in large part due to debt-reduction measures undertaken by da Silva's government. Allegations that Brazil's intelligence agency had wiretapped Brazilian officials and politicians led the president to suspend the agency chief and other officials in Sept., 2008.
In 2009 a scandal involving former president Sarney threatened da Silva's favored successor, his chief of staff Dilma Rousseff; she was accused of attempting to influence the investigation into Sarney's conduct. Rousseff weathered the charge, and went on to become PT's presidential candidate in 2010. Benefiting from da Silva's popularity (due in large part to Brazil's economic growth and government social programs), she won the presidency in October after a runoff election. She became the first woman to be elected president of Brazil. Also in 2010, a concerted government effort began to control drug-gang-related crime in Rio de Janeiro and break gang power in the slums there.
In Jan., 2011, SE Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro state, experienced floods and devastating mudslides as a result of heavy rains; more than a thousand people died or were missing as a result of the disaster. Rousseff's chief of staff, Antonio Palocci, resigned in June, 2011, over alleged corruption; a newspaper had reported that his net worth had increased twentyfold in the past four years due to consultancy income. During 2011 corruption allegations also led five government ministers to step down as Rousseff showed less tolerance for entrenched corrupt practices than previous presidents.
Brazil's economic growth slowed beginning in 2011. In June, 2013, the sluggish economy contributed to nationwide protests lasting several weeks that were sparked by an increase in the cost of public transportation; rising consumer prices generally, congressional corruption, poor public services, and the high cost of holding the 2014 World Cup also stoked the angry demonstrations. Brazil's Congress subsequently passed a number of bills focused on issues that had led to the protests.