Ethnic Groups in Brazil - Historic Background

Historic Background

The Brazilian population was formed by the influx of Portuguese settlers and African, mostly Bantu and West African populations(such as the Yoruba, Ewe, and Fanti-Ashanti) slaves into a territory originally inhabited by various indigenous populations, mainly Tupi, Guarani and Ge In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in what is known as Great Immigration, new groups arrived, mainly of Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and German origin, but also from Japan, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.

When the Portuguese reached what is now called Brazil in 1500, its native population was probably composed of about 2.5 million Amerindians. Up to 1532, the Portuguese made no real effort to colonise the land, limiting to the establishment of “feitorias” to organise the trade of brazilwood. When it became clear that this policy would result in the land being taken by other European powers – namely the French and the Dutch – the Portuguese Crown decided to effectively occupy the territory by fostering agricultural activities – especially sugarcane crops – in Brazil. This resulted not only in the growth of the population of Portuguese origin, but also in the introduction of African slavery in Brazil.

The population, however, only boosted in the 18th century, as a result of the discovery of gold and diamonds in the region known as Minas Gerais, which prompted massive populational movements from Portugal – as well as increased slave trafficking – to Brazil.

During the colonial period, the Portuguese prohibited any influx of other Europeans to Brazil. In consequence, the Portuguese and their descendants constituted the overwhelming majority of the White population of colonial Brazil. However, in the Southern Brazilian areas disputed between Portugal and Spain, a genetic study suggests that the predominant genomic ancestry of the Brazilian Gaúchos (inhabitants of the Pampas) may be Spanish, not Portuguese. Also a small number of Dutch settlers remained in the Northeast after the Portuguese retook Dutch Brazil and may have contributed to the demographic composition of Northeastern Brazil.

Only in the 19th century, whence the colonial relation between Brazil and Portugal changed and the polity was renamed “United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarves”, was the immigration of non-Portuguese allowed. Even then, however, and even after the country’s independence in 1822, immigration to Brazil was mainly Portuguese, though a significant number of German immigrants settled in the Southern region.

In the mid-century, the crisis of the slave-based production in Brazil prompted the Brazilian elites to find new solutions for the work force needed for the expansion of Brazilian agriculture – especially the growing sector of coffee culture in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

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