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date: 18 October 2019

Summary and Keywords

Portuguese colonists carried their conceptions of social organization to the Americas. Their ideal was to “live like a gentleman,” that is, to own land and command laborers in order to distance themselves from manual labor and exercise patriarchal authority over a large household. Their property also allowed them the time and resources to be active in local politics and serve the Crown. They intended to reproduce in the New World the lifestyle of the Portuguese provincial nobility. There were, however, huge differences, since in Brazil the elite lorded over enslaved persons instead of peasants. The first elite families made their fortunes through the conquest and enslavement of Native Americans in the second half of the 16th century, but many of them did not manage to maintain their position during the transition to enslaved African labor in the following decades. Especially in the most dynamic areas, such as Pernambuco and Bahia, the first half of the 17th century was a period of flux in elite composition. By mid-century, however, a small number of families controlled most local offices, slowly fashioning themselves into local nobilities and wielding these claims to negotiate with the Crown and its representatives. Planter elites also established broad patron-client networks that included even their enslaved property. Nevertheless, their preeminence was threatened by the rise of merchant power in the 18th century, boosted by the huge demographic and economic expansion derived from gold discoveries in the southeast and the development of the internal market. Nevertheless, the noble ideal did not lose its appeal, and many rich merchants linked themselves to old noble families through marriage and the adoption of an aristocratic lifestyle.

Keywords: elites, slavery, landowners, nobility, Brazil, Portuguese Empire, inequality, power, city councils

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