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.
George Felix Cabral de Souza
A general overview of the economy and society in the southern part of Portuguese America from the late 17th century to the early 19th century (c. 1680–1820) must address three interconnected areas of colonization: the commercial and military settlement of Colonia de Sacramento, located on the banks of the La Plata River within the borders of modern-day Uruguay, and the captaincies of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande de São Pedro, Brazil. Originally founded as a Portuguese effort to penetrate the mercantile markets of Spanish America, the La Plata settlement was highly disputed until it was definitively conquered by the Spanish in 1777. In contrast, the Portuguese were able to effectively colonize the southern captaincies, which became relatively stable by the end of the 18th century, reflecting the Crown’s relatively successful implementation of a policy of targeted settlement. The economic formation of the southernmost areas of Portuguese America underwent a change in pattern at the turn of the 19th century. The original economy, centered around the export of livestock, hides, and precious metals, was replaced by a new model based on food production to supply the markets of Brazil’s Southeast and Northeast. At one end of the spectrum lay Colonia de Sacramento, which focused on the smuggling and export of hides; at the other lay Santa Catarina and Rio Grande de São Pedro, linked to the export of manioc flour, dried meat, and wheat to the rest of Brazil.