My previous post was about my experiences in Brazil; this post is about some things I learned about the history and culture of that country.

Before I went to Brazil, I took a short, free, online course about its history. The course was called Brazil for Beginners and was offered through Udemy. It had around five hours of lectures (around 20 min. each) and comprised an introductory profile of the country followed by an outline of its history.

Brazil is a huge country, both in area and in population (5th in the world at 200+ million people). It is an industrial and agricultural powerhouse and is self-sufficient in energy. Unlike many large countries, it doesn't have any separatist movements. There are five major regions in Brazil:

  • The Northeast (e.g. the state of Bahia), which was the first to be colonized. It has the most African population.
  • The Southeast (e.g. the state of São Paulo), which is the industrial heartland of the country and has the largest cities.
  • The South (e.g. the state of Rio Grande do Sul), which has significant ranching and is also very modernized and developed. It has the most European population (it was settled by immigrants from central/eastern Europe).
  • The North (e.g. the state of Amazonas), which is vast and sparsely populated. Brazil is famous for the Amazon rainforest but most Brazilians don't live there.
  • The Centre-West (e.g. the state of Mato Grosso do Sul), which contains the capital of Brasilia and is the fastest-growing region.

Aside from this basic overview, I also learned about the history of Brazil through this course. Here are some of the significant events and people:

  • Its accidental discovery by Europeans in 1500 (Portuguese sailors strayed too far southwest en route to Cape of Good Hope)
  • The plantation complex of slavery to produce export crops ("African labour, American land, European markets") had a profound impact on the history of not just Brazil, but the whole Americas
  • Sugar cultivation grew astronomically, from 100,000 pounds exported in 1570 to 6,000,000 pounds exported in 1580
  • 40% of slaves shipped in the Transatlantic slave trade went to Brazil (compared to 7% to USA; the Caribbean was also a major destination)
  • The first gold rush in the western hemisphere occurred in the state of Minas Gerais in the early 18th century
  • The Portuguese royal family moved to Brazil in 1808 to escape Napoleon
  • Brazil was elevated to the status of a Kingdom in 1815. The king (Pedro I) declared independence in 1822 rather than return to Portugal to assume duties there. He abdicated in favour of his 4 year old son (Pedro II) in 1831.
  • Export of coffee began around the same time as independence
  • Slavery had a huge impact in Brazil. The continuous influx of slaves reinforced African cultural traditions over a long period of time. The slave trade wasn't abolished until 1850 (compared to 1808 in the US) and the practice of slavery wasn't abolished until 1888—making Brazil the last country in the western hemisphere where it was legal.
  • There was a coup on Nov. 14, 1889 (shortly after the abolition of slavery) in Rio de Janeiro that led to the abdication of the king. It was led by elites and was mostly bloodless, although there were regional revolts in the aftermath.
  • Vargas was a significant political leader in the twentieth century. He staged a coup, but later was elected too. He committed suicide rather than resign at the end. He promoted import-substitution industrialization.
  • Kubitschek built the modern capital of Brasilia and lots of infrastructure; he also racked up lots of debt for the country.
  • There was military rule from 1964 – 1985: first by relative moderates, then hardliners. It included some torture, censorship, and disappearances.
  • More recent political leaders of note include Cardoso and Lula

The situation with the Brazilian monarchy, where a European royal house relocated to the Americas, was more-or-less unique in the New World.

During Brazilian history, plantation owners—first for sugarcane then later coffee planters—have been a potent political force. I'll have more to say on that below.

"Brazil for Beginners" was the first online course of its kind that I've taken, but I doubt it will be the last. It's great to have access to such a wide variety of options these days for learning for personal interest or even continuing education purposes. In light of concerns about student debt and the rising cost of post-secondary education, I can even see these kinds of courses being a way for self-motivated students to affordably get their "101" credits (for lecture courses, not ones that rely on labs or 1-on-1 interaction) if they get accredited for transfer to traditional universities.

In addition to the course that I took, I've also learned a bit about Brazilian history through a book I'm reading called Uncommon Grounds. It is about the history of coffee, but, as I mentioned, coffee has been very important in Brazilian history.

Coffee cultivation used to be jealously protected. Just as the Dutch smuggled a coffee tree from Aden, Yemen to Holland in 1616, some coffee seeds were smuggled into Brazil from French Guiana in 1727. Later, the royal family promoted coffee production in Brazil by sponsoring botanical research and distributing seedlings. Slave labour was the mainstay of coffee plantations until abolition; afterwards the planters enticed immigrants from Europe (Italy, etc.) to work on their plantations.

The author, Mark Pendergrast, includes this quote from an 18th century traveller to the Caribbean to illustrate the way slavery was intertwined with coffee and sugar production:

"I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America ... [&] Africa" (p.17)

At the turn of the twentieth century, Brazil was unrivalled for global coffee production. Apparently by 1900, there were half a billion coffee trees in the state of São Paulo. The port of Santos alone (not counting other ports in Brazil) shipped half of global coffee production in 1901 following a bumper crop. (Even though the city of São Paulo is less than 100 km from the coast, it is separated from the sea by a dramatic mountain range. The nearby coastal city of Santos is thus the main port for SP state. If I go back to Brazil, I think it sounds like an interesting place to try to visit.).

Coffee production in Brazil was aimed more at quantity than quality, according to Uncommon Grounds. For example, they grew coffee directly in the sun rather than in the shade, which leads to faster growth but is less sustainable. They also used a system of supply management to try to keep the price that growers would receive from dropping too low if production outpaced demand. This involved warehousing excess production if the price of coffee in global markets dropped below targets. In spite of these efforts, coffee prices still underwent boom and bust cycles. In fact, the price of coffee as a commodity crashed two weeks before the start of the Great Depression—an early warning of sorts. It is difficult for a single country to control the price of a global commodity (Central American countries and Colombia were increasing their exports); in the 1930s, Brazil resorted to burning millions of bags of beans per year rather than selling them and seeing the price drop from such a surplus of supply. In the late 1930s Vargas ended this practice and allowed more of a free market in coffee exports. Brazil was becoming industrialized by the inter-war period, so the economy was less dependent on a single export and coffee barons had relatively less political power.

Uncommon Grounds also talks about coffee production in other countries and its distribution/advertising/consumption in the US and Europe. This includes the origin of coffee brands such as Folgers and Maxwell House that are still around today along with many that went out of business over the years. I'm finding the parts about the coffee growing countries to be the more interesting parts of the book, though.

Something random I learned about Brazil from these sources and also from being there is that Italy was a big source of immigrants and there is a large Italian community there. Brazil was also the only Latin American country to fight in World War 2, sending soldiers to the campaign against the fascists in Italy.

I'll finish this post off with a few more photos that I took on my visit:

Large-scale agriculture, for crops such as sugarcane and coffee, is a key sector in the Brazilian economy (although they have diversified with a lot of manufacturing and other industry compared to a century ago). Here is a farm growing sugarcane:


One of the uses for sugarcane is in the production of cachaça; 51 is a major brand:

Cachaça tanks

The Pirassununga campus of the University of São Paulo is located on an enormous former farm and runs zoology and food engineering programs. This illustrates the ongoing importance of agriculture in Brazil:

USP Pirassununga, former farm