Boydell Brewers banner

The teeming metropolis that is host to this year’s Olympic Games was once an undeveloped natural bay which became the site of a European battle for the New World. David Gelber on how Portugal and France fought for control of Rio de Janeiro. 

When the Jesuit priest Fernão Cardim arrived in Rio de Janeiro in 1584, he found a scene ‘that appears to have been devised by the supreme painter and architect of the world, Our Lord God’. The city was barely a generation old, a cluster of wattle-and-daub shacks huddled around a fortified hill on the western shore of the Guanabara Bay, home to around 750 individuals. Although it was a long time before Rio would attain pre-eminence in Brazil, its foundation was nevertheless a global event. It encompassed battles between civilisations, wars of religion, contests for resources and transoceanic migration. It marked the earliest extension into the western hemisphere of the imperial rivalries that would shape the history of the globe. It also helped to ensure the development of Brazil as a contiguous country. 

The settlement of Europeans around Guanabara Bay began in 1555, some 55 years after the Portuguese had first set foot in Brazil. The narrow shores of the bay, between the Atlantic and the looming granite mass of the Serra do Mar mountain range, had been occupied for centuries by Neolithic Tupi peoples. Scattered throughout Brazil, they pursued a semi-nomadic existence in tribes of different sizes, cultivating the land for as long as it could sustain them, hunting and fishing and thinking nothing of baring their entire bodies. ‘They seem to be such innocent people … Any stamp we wish may be easily printed on them’, Pero Vaz de Caminha, a voyager in the first Portuguese fleet to visit Brazil, wrote to King Manuel I in 1500. It was not long before the Portuguese discovered that they were also inveterate warriors, locked in insoluble feuds with each other and capable of turning their ire on interlopers, too. Most shocking of all was the revelation that they practised cannibalism on their enemies.

Although Caminha commended the ‘great plenty’ of Brazil, the Portuguese were slow to take an interest in the country. Under the Treaty of Tordesillas, the audacious division of the globe between Spain and Portugal by Pope Alexander VI in 1494, the coast of Brazil belonged to the latter. Early visits, however, yielded no evidence of precious metals or the kinds of spices that, carried out of Asia in Portuguese carracks, had turned Lisbon into one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The principal attraction was the brazilwood trees that grew along the Atlantic coast, a relation of the sappan wood trees of Asia, which produced a coveted red dye. The Portuguese crown soon claimed a monopoly over the import of brazilwood. Since these trees grew abundantly along the coast, those licensed to export them could send ships to gather logs without needing to settle there. Otherwise, exports from Brazil were limited to parrots, monkeys and the odd native: popular ornaments at court and in noble households.


The failure of the Portuguese to establish a presence in Brazil enabled ships from other nations, principally France, to plunder its coast. By the 1510s, and possibly earlier still, mariners from Brittany and Normandy were visiting Brazil to collect wood, offering the natives trinkets, metal tools and weapons in exchange for their labour. In the 1520s these activities increased: in the first half of 1529 alone, some 200 tons of brazil-wood arrived in the port of Honfleur. Over time, French merchants also began to export the pepper-like berry of the Schinus terebinthifolia plant. Although such voyages were private ventures, the French crown, in principle, had few qualms about them, since France did not recognise the Treaty of Tordesillas. 

Map of Brazil from Cosmographie Universelle by Guillaume le Testu, 1555

As French visits grew more flagrant, the Portuguese took counter measures, appealing to Francis I to prevent encroachments and sending patrols along Brazil’s coast. The most notable of these was led by Martim Afonso de Sousa, from 1530 to 1532. During the course of this mission, he spent three months in Guanabara Bay. This was not the first documented European visit to the bay. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan had paused there during his circumnavigation of the world to resupply and repair his ships, taking advantage of the natural shelter the bay provided behind the pyramid bulk of the Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). There are suggestions of earlier visits, too: tradition holds that Amerigo Vespucci stopped there on January 1st, 1502 during his third voyage of exploration, christening the bay (which he mistook for the mouth of a river) Rio de Janeiro, though evidence for this is sparse. French vessels had almost certainly visited, too.

Afonso’s brother, Pero Lopes, recorded in his diary how the Portuguese put ashore there in April 1531. Over the following three months they created a stronghold and constructed two brigantines. Four of the party were sent to explore the interior. They returned after two months, having travelled 450 miles inland, bringing with them ‘a great king, lord of all those lands’, who signalled that gold and silver were to be found near the River Paraguay. The fleet departed at the beginning of August. Afonso sent notice to João III of his sojourn, informing him of the ‘great abundance of wood’ in Guanabara Bay.

Afonso’s expedition heralded a new phase of European activity in Brazil: a shift from maritime to continental engagement. João III adopted a programme in 1532 to colonise Brazil through grants of territories (known as captaincies) to prospectors. In return for wide-ranging economic and political powers, they would be required to populate and develop the lands in their bailiwicks at their own expense. In a letter to Manuel’s successor, João III, the diplomat and scholar Diogo de Gouveia, one of the originators of the strategy, suggested that multiple Portuguese plantations would deter French raiders, facilitate the defence of the land and defuse claims that, since Brazil was effectively unoccupied, the principle of uti possidetis (‘as you possess’, that the possessor at the end of a conflict keeps the territory or property) did not apply. Some seven or eight towns, he insisted, would suffice ‘to prevent the land from being parted with’. 

During the 1530s Brazil was carved up into 15 horizontal strips of land, a crude partition that took no account of physical reality. Each strip was roughly 150 miles in breadth, stretching from the coast to an indeterminate point inland. These territories were apportioned to 12 grantees: mostly courtiers, soldiers and adventurers. Afonso received the captaincies of Rio de Janeiro and São Vicente in the south of Brazil. 

Only two of the 15 captaincies flourished in the short term: Pernambuco in the north-east, thanks to its relative proximity to Europe and the energetic leadership of its governor, Duarte Coelho, who introduced sugar plantations, and São Vicente. The remainder were blighted by absent leadership, meagre resources and attacks by natives, who, in response to attempts to drive them from the land and enslave them, laid waste to sugar mills and slaughtered settlers with arrows and wooden clubs. In 1548, one resident warned João III: ‘If Your Majesty does not succour these captaincies soon not only will we lose our lives and goods but Your Majesty will lose the land.’ At the same time, French competition was depressing brazilwood prices on the European market and affecting royal income. By the middle of the 16th century, the crown’s profits from its Asian empire had passed their peak. Of necessity, the Americas were gradually assuming a more important place in the calculations of the royal counting house.

In December 1548 the king sent Tomé de Sousa, a veteran of Portuguese campaigns against the Moors, to the abandoned north-east captaincy of Bahia as governor-general of Brazil, with instructions to establish a fortified city, suppress native uprisings and drive out foreign ‘pirates’. The intention was not to supplant the territorial captains but to provide a more robust military presence in Brazil. Tomé de Sousa’s arrival coincided with the introduction into the country of the Jesuits, whom, it was hoped, would proselytise their beliefs to heathen tribes. 

A 'Brazilian from America', 16th century

While Afonso’s captaincy of São Vicente developed under his lieutenant Bras Cubas, his dominion of Rio was neglected. In spite of the enthusiasm he had shown for Guanabara Bay when he had anchored there, Afonso – who was sent by João III to India in 1534 and never returned to Brazil – made no attempt to populate it. The mountains that girdled the bay constricted access to the hinterland and the tight coastal plain was blanketed with salt marshes, which inhibited large-scale agriculture. There was little land for pasture and the harvesting of the one commodity that proliferated was a jealously guarded royal prerogative.

The growing Portuguese presence in the north-east in the 1530s and 1540s deflected French ships towards Rio. In 1537, after allying with João III against Emperor Charles V, the French king Francis I had temporarily prohibited Norman and Breton navigation to Brazil. The interdict was lifted in 1540 and by the end of the decade some seven or eight French ships a year were appearing in Rio and its environs to collect wood. In 1550, Pero de Gois, captain-general of the coast, described Rio as ‘now the main stopover for pirates’. 

Guanabara Bay and much of the surrounding region were occupied by the Tupinambá people, with whom French traders established good relations. Mutual self-interest bridged the chasm between cultures: the French needed manpower to fell and carry brazilwood trees; the Tupinambá wanted European weaponry to defeat tribal enemies. In 1554 various Frenchmen assisted the Tupinambá in ousting their rivals, the Temiminós, from the Ilha de Paranapuã (now Ilha do Govenador), the largest island in Guanabara Bay. A number of French factors (known as truchements) lived permanently among the Tupinambá, preparing cargoes and acting as interpreters. When Pero de Gois visited Guanabara Bay in 1550, he found two Frenchmen living in one of the 20 or more Tupinambá villages on its margins; in 1554 Hans Staden, a German gunner in Portuguese service who had been captured by the Tupinambá, encountered a Frenchmen who had been ‘adopted’ by a native chief. The French showed little interest in converting the Tupinambá to Christianity. Indeed, truchements embraced indigenous mores, fathering children with native women and even, it was alleged, practising cannibalism (Montaigne’s celebrated essay ‘Of Cannibals’ was based on the testimony of a Frenchmen who had lived in Guanabara Bay).

Merchants in northern France made no secret of their undertakings in the Americas. To welcome the visit of Henry II in 1550, the city of Rouen staged a Brazil-themed pageant. A meadow was transformed into a jungle, with parakeets, monkeys and brazilwood trees. A mock battle was then fought, involving some 50 natives brought to France, who participated ‘without in any way covering the part that nature intended’. 

Decades of navigation to Brazil prepared the ground for one of the most outlandish imperial projects of the 16th century: the founding in 1555 of a French colony in the middle of the Guanabara Bay. The enterprise, which became known as France Antarctique, was the inspiration of Nicolas de Villegagnon, a soldier and adventurer who had fought the Ottomans in Hungary and North Africa and commanded the fleet that conveyed Mary, Queen of Scots from Dumbarton to France in 1548 in the face of the English navy. In around 1552 he was appointed vice-admiral of Brittany, which brought him into contact with merchants and sailors involved in the Brazil trade. Over the next three years, he developed a plan to create a French enclave in Guanabara Bay. Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France, offered active support. Although Henry II did not endorse the expedition publicly, he provided two ships and 10,000 livres and licensed the release of prisoners to join it. In subsequent years, French ambassadors in Lisbon were careful to inform the king of Portuguese fleets travelling to Brazil, suggesting that he maintain an interest in the venture.

The project has sometimes been cast as an attempt to implant a province in the New World, where Huguenots could escape persecution and set to work rescuing pagan souls. There is no evidence that this was its purpose: even though several Protestants travelled in Villegagnon’s fleet, the party did not contain a single Protestant minister. Rather, Villegagnon and his backers in the ports of northern France expected to profit from the enterprise by securing the main source of brazilwood and opening up South America to exploration. For Villegagnon, there was the added attraction of fixing his place in French history as the country’s first conquistador. On the king’s part, a French colony in Brazil would provide a base from which to harass Spanish ships and serve as a standing retort to Iberian claims of sovereignty over the New World. 


Villegagnon set out from Le Havre in July 1555 with two ships and up to 600 men (few, if any, women travelled). After a tempestuous crossing, he reached the coast of Brazil in early November. The party stopped briefly at Cabo Frio, a popular resort for French loggers, before continuing to Guanabara Bay, which it entered unopposed. Nicholas Barré, a pilot of one of the ships, observed that the bay ‘is naturally beautiful and easy to defend, by reason of the narrowness of the entrance, which is shut on both sides by two high mountains’. He noted that the natives lit bonfires to greet the fleet. André Thevet, a Franciscan friar who would publish the first eyewitness account of Brazil, described how, ‘having knowledge of our coming’, the natives had ‘strewed and decked’ the shore ‘with leaves, and boughs of trees, and sweet smelling herbs’.

Rio de Janeiro and Botafogo Bay.

Despite the welcome he received, Villegagnon entertained doubts about the reliability of these allies. After spending two months surveying the bay, he resolved to establish his settlement on the Ilha de Serigipe, one of several islands in the middle of it. Around 220 metres in length, it had the convenience of being easily defended: it was surrounded by rocks that prevented large ships from landing and boasted a commanding view of the approach to the bay. Its situation also restricted opportunities for desertion. On the other hand, the absence of fresh water and land for planting crops made frequent trips to the mainland and trade with its inhabitants unavoidable. 

With the help of native labour (including prisoners enslaved by the Tupinambá), Villegagnon erected ramparts and fortifications around the island. The structure was named Fort Coligny, in honour of the French admiral, who was later sent the tongue of a captured whale in appreciation of his patronage. Further bulwarks were built on the small hills at either end of the island to house artillery pieces. Villegagnon constructed his own residence in the centre of the island. Although timber and stone were used for some of the defences, most houses were built using native wattle-and-daub techniques. A cistern was sunk into the ground, but the Rio Carioca, near Praia do Flamengo on the western shore, remained the main source of water. 

The garrison-like character of the new colony was not conducive to its long-term survival. Villegagnon’s failure to grant land to migrants prevented them from developing an attachment to their new country. Nor were the settlers prepared for the hardships that confronted them. The French had brought wheat seed and vine stock from Europe but most attempts to cultivate them failed. They were forced to fall back on indigenous staples, such as manioc, and whatever provisions they could obtain by barter with the natives and from visiting French vessels. The heat was devitalising and the swarms of mosquitoes that clouded the island laid many low. 

These difficulties were compounded by Villegagnon’s own conduct. Migrants complained of the ‘incredible toil to which they were subjected’ in building Fort Coligny, which was still under construction when more immigrants arrived in early 1557, while Villegagnon promenaded in fine silks and jewels. More serious still was the arbitrary nature of his regime. As beleaguered as many of the Portuguese captaincies were, they at least had the semblance of governing structures. France Antarctique, on the other hand, was a private venture under the absolute rule of its commander, who authorised corporal punishment for minor misdemeanours, imposed laws at will and forbade colonists from leaving the fort without his permission. 

Particularly grievous was his prohibition in early 1556, upon pain of death, of relationships between Frenchmen and native women. This struck at a long-standing custom practised by truchements and precipitated a conspiracy to assassinate Villegagnon. It was led – according to Barré – by a truchement who had lived in Rio for seven years ‘in the most filthy and Epicurean manner of life … without God, without faith, without law’. The plot was discovered by Villegagnon’s bodyguards before it could be put into action. At least one conspirator was hanged and several others were condemned to slavery. A number of other individuals, including several craftsmen, fled to the mainland, establishing a community close to a Tupinambá hamlet at Flamengo (in his book Thevet called it ‘Henriville’). 


The arrival in March 1557 of reinforcements did not improve matters. The previous year, Villegagnon had sent his nephew Bois-le-Comte back to France to obtain assistance. Coligny entrusted the task of mustering new émigrés to Philippe de Corguilleray, a Protestant noblemen, who drafted several Calvinist theologians into the contingent. They included Jean de Léry, who published his own portrait of France Antarctique in 1578. Sectarian fissures emerged at the Pentecost celebrations of 1557. A debate over the Eucharist erupted and Villegagnon threw his weight behind the Catholic orthodoxy. In October a group of Protestants, prevented by Villegagnon from pursuing their faith and finding their rations restricted, abandoned Fort Coligny for Flamengo, where they lived alongside the Tupinambá, who, according to Léry, ‘were beyond comparison, more humane to us than he’. A number of them returned to Europe in early 1558 on a French merchant vessel, but three Calvinists who went back to Fort Coligny were drowned as heretics by Villegagnon. By 1559 the admiral, whom Léry denounced as the ‘Cain of America’, was back in France, having entrusted his authority to Bois-le-Comte. He never returned to Brazil. 

News of the establishment of a French colony in Rio was greeted with outrage in Lisbon. João III sent protests to Henry II. Nevertheless, the Portuguese were slow to take advantage of the disarray in the French camp. Tomé de Sousa’s successor as governor general, Duarte da Costa, was ineffectual and divisive. In 1556 the royal justice Mem de Sá was appointed to replace him. Although he would prove a much more capable figure, it was two years before he arrived in Brazil. Native revolts continued to plague many captaincies. 

These problems took on a new dimension as the Jesuits intensified their activities. Their opposition to the enslavement of natives had infuriated settlers in the developed captaincies of the north-east, forcing them to divert their activities southwards. During the late 1550s, Jesuits in the neighbouring captaincy of Espírito Santo converted the Temiminós, who had been driven out of Guanabara Bay, to Christianity. In São Vicente, they managed to catechise the Tupiniquim, with whose help they established in 1554 the town of São Paulo on the Piratininga plateau, driving out the Tupinambá. Such triumphs begat difficulties. The shift in the balance of power in the south-east provoked an insurrection among the Tupinambá, which the French fanned.

Growing Jesuit influence in Espírito Santo and São Vicente, and the attendant unrest, focused Portuguese attentions on Rio. The idea of establishing a second royal city in the south-east of the county had already been mooted by Tomé de Sousa, who in 1553 urged João III to build a ‘fine and noble settlement’ there under a crown officer. But during the second half of the 1550s, Rio came to represent the third point of a Portuguese triangle in the south-east. The Jesuit Quiricio Caxa believed that the conquest of Rio would ‘open the door for the king of Portugal to increase his spiritual and temporal power’. His colleague Manuel de Nobrega wrote repeatedly of the need for a Portuguese city in Guanabara Bay to protect Espírito Santo and São Vicente. 

The other major influence in training Portuguese sights on Rio was the Sá dynasty. Mem de Sá finally arrived in Brazil at the start of 1558, armed with instructions to expel the French from the Guanabara Bay. He rapidly appreciated the importance of Rio ‘for the security of the whole of Brazil’, both because of the threat posed by the French and because of its proximity to the Spanish colonies around the River Plate. Various kinsmen followed Mem to Brazil, drawn by the prospect of glory and land, which the ungoverned spaces of Rio seemed to offer. They included his son Fernão and his young cousin Estácio (sometimes referred to as his nephew). Another relation, Salvador Correia de Sá, would serve as the first Portuguese governor of Rio following its conquest; his descendants would dominate it for the best part of a century. 

As well as sharing an interest in capturing Rio, the Jesuits and the Sás depended on each other more broadly. As governor-general, Mem looked to Nobrega and another experienced Jesuit, José de Anchieta, for counsel. The Jesuits also assisted by co-opting catechised natives to fight for the Portuguese. The Jesuits, in turn, sought the governor-general’s help in extending their activities into new areas. The influence that these two groups managed to exercise over policy speaks to the frailty of wider political institutions in Brazil at this time.


It took fully nine years for Mem to bring Guanabara Bay under his control. In June 1558, he confessed in a letter to João III’s widow, Queen Catarina, who was acting as regent on behalf of her infant grandson King Sebastião, of his ignorance of the strength of Villegagnon’s colony, explaining that he had attempted to capture a French boat to ‘find out the truth about how many men they have and what their intentions are’. Information eventually came from a French defector, Jean Cointa. Even so, eruptions of violence in other parts of the country deprived Mem of the men he needed to launch a sustained campaign in Rio. Time and again, he was forced to plead for reinforcements from Portugal.

In September 1559 two Portuguese carracks set off from Lisbon under the command of Bartolomeu de Vasconcelos da Cunha. His orders were to rendezvous with Mem in Bahia and then proceed to Rio, where he was to ‘destroy what they found there and expel the French’. He arrived in Bahia in November. Since Vasconcelos brought few fighting men, Mem was forced to conscript local residents into the army. The squadron left Bahia in mid-January 1560, having been joined by eight further vessels. It arrived at the bar of Guanabara Bay on March 15th. Mem de Sá sent a demand to Fort Coligny to surrender. The defenders sent a contemptuous dismissal. In response, Mem ordered an all-out assault, despite Vasconcelos’s conviction that it was ‘impregnable’. The fortress was bombarded for more than 12 hours, forcing its residents and the ‘many pagan tribesmen’ in their ranks, ‘each one as well armed as the French’, to break out. While some fought the invaders at close quarters, the majority escaped to the mainland, taking with them whatever weapons they could seize. Within two days, the island had fallen. Some 75 Frenchmen were taken prisoner, along with a further 40 from a captured ship. 

Although the Portuguese managed to expel the French from Fort Coligny, the status quo ante soon reasserted itself in Guanabara Bay. Nobrega’s claim that Rio had been purged of all ‘Lutherans’ had little truth to it: French escapees were welcomed into Tupinambá settlements at Uruçumirim (now Morro de Gloria) and Ilha de Paranapuã. The Portuguese, meanwhile, withdrew. Instead of occupying the French bastion, Mem de Sá razed it. When Queen Catarina censured him for this, he protested that he had too few soldiers to garrison it and needed to preserve men to quell revolts in São Vicente. By June 1560 he was urging her to send further assistance, claiming that unless Guanabara Bay was permanently occupied, Villegagnon would enlist the Turkish sultan’s aid to recover it and give him all the wood he needed for his navy. 

Within the bay itself, the French and Tupinambá maintained a guerrilla campaign against their Portuguese neighbours, while French traders continued to live there unmolested. In 1561 a group of French and Tupinambá attacked Espirito Santo. The following year some seven French ships put in at Rio. In 1564 São Paulo itself came under sustained attack.

To add weight to his appeals, Mem sent Estácio, who had fought in the campaign of 1560, back to court to solicit aid. He finally left Lisbon in late 1563 at the head of a new fleet. He stopped en route in Bahia and in Espírito Santo, where the Temiminó chief, Arariboia, who had converted to Christianity, supplied him with fighting men. He reached Guanabara Bay in April 1564 and managed to capture a French ship anchored in the bay. After coming under attack, he retreated to São Vicente. With the help of Nobrega, he gathered veterans of the wars against the Tupinambá for another attempt on Guanabara Bay. He was joined on his mission by Anchieta, a number of Temiminó and some Tupiniquim. 

Estácio de Sá’s return to Rio in 1565 marked the start of a new Portuguese strategy. Rather than striking the enemy directly, he sought to establish a beachhead on the fringes of the bay from which to launch operations against the French and Tupinambá. Estácio and his two or three hundred followers arrived in Rio in torrential rain on March 1st, landing on a beach pinched between the Pão de Açúcar and the Morro Cara de Cão on the peninsula of São João. The mountainous terrain and seclusion from the rest of the mainland – save for a single approach – offered some security. On the other hand, land for planting was scarce.


Estácio immediately erected fences to deter attackers. Within months he had built earthwork and wooden fortifications, watchtowers and wattle-and-daub houses, ‘never resting day or night … always being the first to begin work’, according to Anchieta. Although the new settlement was little more than a military encampment at first, Estácio garlanded it with the trappings of a city, both to lift the morale of his followers and to certify its legitimacy. He christened the new settlement Cidade de São Sebastião de Rio de Janeiro, in honour of St Sebastian and his namesake the king. A coat of arms was awarded, a municipal council was set up, grants of land were made and civic officers were appointed. Estácio also ordered the construction of a chapel dedicated to St Sebastian. The settlers had some success in cultivating foodstuffs but also relied on products they brought with them and periodic foraging raids on Tupinambá villages.

The new city sustained itself for two years, surviving regular attacks by land and canoe. As before, only the intervention of the metropolis broke the deadlock. After witnessing the birth of the settlement, Anchieta had departed for Bahia to inform Mem of developments. The governor-general again requested forces from Portugal. In late 1565 the slow process of forming a fleet began once again. To spur their efforts, Mem and Estácio were admitted into the Order of Christ.

In May 1566 three galleys under Cristóvão de Barros left Lisbon. They reached Bahia in August, where Mem supplied six further ships. In November, the relief force, now commanded by Mem, departed for Guanabara Bay. On January 18th, 1567 it anchored off the Pão de Açúcar and Mem and Estácio united their forces. Two days later – the feast day of St Sebastian – they attacked the stronghold of Uruçumirim, where the French and Tupinambá had built a fortress ‘on lofty crags … with ample cannon at their disposal’. After a day of fierce fighting, the Portuguese prevailed: according to Mem numerous Tupinambá and French were killed and ten of the latter were captured. The Portuguese victory came at a cost, however. Like the Christian martyr he revered, Estácio was struck by an arrow and died the following month. 

A second battle was fought a few days later on the Ilha de Paranapuã, where the Portuguese faced 1,000 Tupinambá and French. Here too – ‘by dint of immense efforts and even greater risk’, according to Mem – they triumphed. A final confrontation took place at the stockade that Estácio had built on the peninsula of São João, to which some French and Tupinambá had fled. The defenders capitulated immediately on condition that their lives were spared. Guanabara Bay was finally in Portuguese hands. 

Estácio’s body was buried in the settlement he had founded. Afterwards, Mem ordered the relocation of the city to the Morro de São Januario, a hill on the western side of the bay. There, the instruments of government that Estácio had established were given physical form: behind ditches and ramparts, Mem erected a castle with ‘plentiful cannon’, a city hall, a court, a jail, a cathedral and a Jesuit church. The model for this ‘large and noble settlement’, as one Portuguese described it, seems to have been the city of Bahia, which was similarly built on high ground overlooking the bay. Mem also made grants of land to his followers, including one to the Temiminó chief Arariboia. In spite of the praise heaped on it, the new city was crude even by Brazilian standards. There was little formal planning of the kind found in Spanish colonial cities and few buildings were even made of stone. 

Mem departed from Rio in May 1568, leaving his cousin Salvador Correia as royal governor. His assertion that the land was in ‘peace and quiet’ was largely borne out: although the French and Tupinambá maintained a presence in Cabo Frio until 1574, they never again seriously threatened Rio. Within a few years, Salvador Correia – who created an estate on the Ilha de Paranapuã – had begun the cultivation of sugar. For a brief period in the 1570s, the city served as the capital of the whole of the south of Brazil. It was two centuries before it again acquired a comparable status. Its importance, however, was no longer in doubt.

David Gelber is managing editor of The Court Historian, the journal of the Society for Court Studies.

The Origins of Rio

Related Articles

By Gabriel Paquette

Brazil may be an emerging superpowers, but its history is a mystery to many
A Portuguese merchant is greeted by his Indian household, early 16th century.

By Roger Crowley

How did a small, poor, thinly populated country usher in the age of globalisation?

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email