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José Jobson Arruda

The development of the Brazilian economy during the colonial period resulted from foreign inducements exercised by Portuguese colonialists under the auspices of the Portuguese Crown. Over the course of three centuries, responsibility for Brazil’s economic destiny was gradually transferred to Luso-Brazilians, a process by which both the flow and accumulation of income became naturally internalized. This topic must necessarily be contextualized within a decades-long process of historiographical confrontation in which distinct analytical perspectives have sought to assert themselves. Some arguments are linked to the label of the old colonial system (Antigo Sistema Colonial, or ASC) and others to the old regime in the tropics (Antigo Regime nos Trópicos, or ART). While both schools recognize the primacy of slavery in determining the character of colonial society, the former emphasizes colonial identity and the exploitative status that entailed, while the latter focuses on the empire and the endogenous accumulation of wealth. Despite the friction between these hegemonic currents since the 1980s, a third analytical perspective is possible that while incorporating elements present in the two established outlooks also rejects the exceedingly long periodization and calcified three-century focus they share. This different strain of scholarship distinguishes between specific moments in colonial economic development during which external and internal accumulation fueled one or the other, serving as complementary forces responsible for the gross and per capita growth of the colonial economy, as well as granting Brazil the profile of a modern colony.


Between the arrival of Columbus and the last slave voyage to Cuba in the 1860s, over 12 million enslaved Africans were carried and sold in the Americas. Brazil received almost half of all these captives, most of them during the colonial period. An efficient slave-trading system allowed slavery to become a major force in the development of Portuguese America. The institution became pervasive throughout the colony in the three centuries comprising the colonial era, with important differences across time and space. Some of the major exports produced by African slaves in Brazil, such as sugar, tobacco, and gold, had various global impacts. They also stimulated important domestic developments, such as the creation of internal markets and the growth of cities like Salvador and Rio de Janeiro, with African slaves playing essential roles everywhere. Moreover, the history of African slavery became intertwined with the history of native Brazilians in peculiar ways.