Get to Know a Brazilian – Pedro Álvares Cabral

This marks the first in a new series I’ll be doing, “Get to Know a Brazilian.” Every Sunday, I’ll examine a different individual from Brazil’s past, from the 1500s to the present (and I only exclude the pre-1500s period because, unlike Mexico and Peru, we don’t really have any good chronicles of individuals in the early era; there are only broad studies on Brazil’s smaller and more mobile indigenous groups, like the Tupinambá). These posts will  look both at Brazilians known internationally, as well as lesser-known important figures. Their contributions to Brazilian history may be social, cultural, political, and/or economic, or some combination of everything. I’m eschewing a chronological approach in an attempt to emphasize different types of people and different aspects of Brazilian history, society, and culture from week to week.

The first entry in “Get to Know a Brazilian” isn’t even Brazilian, but given that Pedro Álvares Cabral is credited with heading the first European mission to encounter Brazil, he seems as appropriate place as any to start.

Born in the mid-1460s, Cabral was the son of the governor of the Portuguese regions of Beira and Belmonte in central Portugal, and allegedly a descendant of the first king of Portugal, Afonso I, on his mother’s side. There doesn’t seem to be much known about Cabral’s early years, but it is clear that he at some point became an able enough seaman that Portugal’s King Manoel I considered him an appropriate choice to continue the work of Vasco de Gama, the Portuguese navigator who had finally successfully sailed around Africa and reached India (Bartolomeu had previously sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, but de Gama was the first to reach India in this fashion).

As was common at the time, Cabral’s mission for the king was to “spread Christianity” and establish strong commercial connections in India, with emphasis on the latter mission and with a liberal use of arms encouraged at the slightest sign of contestation of the King’s plan. With his fleet of 13 ships, Cabral set sail from Portugal in March of 1500. Things did not go as planned, however, and whether it was due to incompetency or to the weather, Cabral and his men ended up being blown off course, taking a much more southwesterly direction than they had anticipated. On 22 April 1500, an anonymous sailor spotted land, and on the 23 of April, Pedro Cabral set foot on what he thought was an island but was in fact the coast of Brazil, near what is now Porto Seguro, in the southern panhandle of the state of Bahia. Probably hoping the land was east of the line of the Treaty of Tordesillas (which, in 1494, by the hand of Pope Alexander VI, divided the Americas on the East-West axis between the Portuguese and the Spanish, with little concern for the inhabitants of the lands), Cabral, in true “discoverer” fashion, planted a cross, held a religious service, and declared the land to be the domain of the King of Portugal.

After a little more than a week, Cabral set sail for his original intended point of arrival, India, on a trip that was ultimately rather disastrous (only 4 of his 13 ships made it back to Portugal). He never set foot in Brazil again, and died around 1520, relatively poor and forgotten, a fate that may not have been undeserving for somebody who unwittingly took the first step in what would lead to economic colonization that invariably relied upon the exploitation and death of indigenous peoples and, later, African-imported slave-labor . Brazil, too, would be relatively forgotten by the Portuguese crown; Portugal focused on its holdings in India and Africa and generally neglected Brazil, nominally holding  control for the next 50 years through a series of captaincies that offered little of the economic returns Spain was reaping from the Americas. By 1550, Brazil displayed none of the economic, geopolitical, or continental power it would one day come to assume (occupying nearly 2/3 of the South American continent by itself). No doubt, nobody could have possibly conceived the enormity of Cabral’s unintentional arrival in 1500 would have over the next 500+ years.

[I originally wrote this post at my old blogging haunt.]

Oscar Pereira da Silva's 1902 portrayal of Cabral's arrival in Brazil. For another portrayal, see .


About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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9 Responses to Get to Know a Brazilian – Pedro Álvares Cabral

  1. Randy Paul says:

    Well he did get a town named after him.

  2. Indeed. And to be fair, if it hadn’t been him, it would have been SOMEBODY, and at least with him, Latin Americanists can have fun with the “Spanish America vs. Portuguese America” comparisons and contrasts.

  3. Randy Paul says:

    I always loved Atahualpa’s response when Pizarro was explaining the Treaty of Tordesillas to him: “This pope must be a very powerful man if he can give away land that does not belong to him.”

    Looking for your next entry in this series.

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