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date: 20 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

Mercantile groups of colonial Brazil have drawn renewed attention in recent decades as analyses of empirical data have outlined a more complex economic scenario for the Portuguese colonies in Brazil, bringing into sharper focus the range of activities undertaken by businessmen who established themselves in the conquered lands. Acting individually or through large mercantile networks, they were on the front lines of efforts to expand and maintain the colonized areas, as well providing links between the Old and New Worlds, including by trafficking in enslaved Africans. The 18th-century gold boom had a tremendous impact on colonial markets and brought both economic and social consequences for merchants. Although the model of social hierarchization continued to be set by the agrarian elite, large merchants’ access to liquidity, credit mechanisms, and reinvestment opportunities gave them ever greater political weight in the empire’s balance of power. Most merchants in colonial Brazil were natives of Portugal and had to overcome prejudices and resistance to integrate themselves into society. Commercial success was only the first step in a long path that relied on political and family strategies. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, merchants in colonial towns from the north to the south of Brazil had some features in common: they sought symbols of social distinction, they formed and carefully tended networks of family and clients, and they participated in local governance.

Keywords: merchants, networks, Brazil, society, trade, hierarchy

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