View of Rio de Janeiro, 1600

The Origins of Rio de Janeiro

The teeming metropolis was once an undeveloped natural bay which became the site of a battle between Portugal and France for control of the New World.

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.

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