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Home » Rio for Beginners » Colonial Rio
Guanabara Bay, XVIII century - Museu Historico Nacional. Photo by Silviano for All rights reserved | Todos os direitos reservados This photo is digitally watermarked and tracked. Property of's always a story behind a name. And Rio has a funny one... In the year of 1502 Portuguese explorers sailed over to Brazil. Their mission: confirming the existence of the land Pedro Alvares Cabral claimed he'd discovered (reportedly by accident, as he'd been sent on an expedition to India, and got lost along the way, but that's another story).

This second journey was headed by André Gonçalves. He was the one who found the bay today known as Guanabara. Apparently he mistook it for the mouth of a river, rio, in Portuguese, the month was January (Janeiro), and the name stuck. By then Rio was inhabited by Indians, who soon started to trade with the Portuguese. In addition to exotic birds like parrots and toucans, the funny-dressed visitors were also quite interested in pau-brasil. This native wood with a deep red color was used to dye fabrics in the XVI century.

Of course the relationship with the natives was not all roses. While Indians were no match to the modern weapons used by the Portuguese, some tribes had anthropophagic rituals that virtually terrified the Europeans. Up North, in the Amazon, they even had a technique to shrink skulls to the size of a tennis ball! The Indians also traded with the French and the Dutch, Portugal was not the only country with an interest in the new land.

Cartoon by Ziraldo. All rights reserved.  Todos os direitos reservados.Some historians claim that the first edification in Rio was built in an area known today as the Flamengo. It was a masonry house that Natives used to call Carioca (see people). Nothing much came out of it, though, and the Portuguese did not give much importance to their finding for a while. Until the French decided to set foot here, that is. In 1555 Admiral Villegaignon landed in Rio to found in Brazil the Antartic France, a colony of French Calvinists.

The Portuguese were not very happy with the idea, and thus sent Mem de Sá, who managed to expel the French in a mere two days, according to records. He left Rio and sailed back home, quite sure he had taught everybody a lesson. He should have known better, though as the French soon came back for more. In 1564, Estacio de Sá (a nephew) saw this second group of squatters with his very own eyes! This time it took them a full two years to finally get the area back to the hands of the Portuguese.

Estácio de Sá is the official founder of the city. He was later killed by a Brazilian Indian, pierced by an arrow. Morro do Castelo, around Guanabara Bay, is where the city was born. This hill was later put down, the only sign that it was once there is Ladeira da Misericordia (an uphill street that now leads to nowhere). The then clear waters of Guanabara Bay were used for fishing and whaling.

The first economic activities in Rio sugarcane farming. Brazilian Indians and African slaves did the heavy work. In addition to sugar, cachaça from Rio became world-famous. It was even used as a trading coin in exchange for slaves, who came from Portuguese feitorias (strongholds) spread along the coast of Africa. In the XVII century a number of religious orders sprouted in the city, and many churches date back to this period.

Rio only started to grow faster in 1690, with the discovery of gold in neighboring state of Minas Gerais. Minas is not bathed by the sea, and Rio was the closest port. The city suddenly started to attract uncalled-for attention. The French attacked Rio in 1710, and were repelled. They came again 1711, this time with a large fleet led by Duguay-Trouin. This time they were successful. When reinforcements arrived from Minas, they had to negotiate with the pirates and pay a ransom.

Rio in the XVIII Century

Lagoa do Boqueirao, Morro da Carioca and Arcos da Lapa in the XVIII century. Museu Historico Nacional. Photo by Silviano for All rights reserved | Todos os direitos reservados This image is digitally watermarked and tracked. Property of the city started to grow and become more metropolitan, a more regular supply of fresh water became essential. This is when the Carioca Acqueduct was planned. The most visible part of it, known today as Arcos da Lapa, was inaugurated in 1723. Stone, brick, sand, lime, whale oil and two years of slave labour produced a structure so solid that until today it is used as an overpass by the Santa Teresa tram line.

During this period the Portuguese Crown had misunderstandings with religious orders in Brazil. These orders had properties, sugarcane plantations and mills, slaves, and some were quite powerful. Jesuits were persecuted and expelled, and their property confiscated - including Morro do Castelo, the oldest settlement in Rio. The Carmelites also lost their convent at Largo do Carmo.

Rio became the capital of the Vice-Kingdom of Brazil in 1763. By then Rio was already a city with 50 thousand residents. The location was more strategic than Salvador, the previous capital. Brazil was then having problems to control a province known as the Cisplatina, who would eventually seceed and become the country of Uruguay.

In 1770 the first coffee plantations appeared, and soon spread along the valley of the Paraiba River. The revolution in France had reflects in Brazil. Portugal tried to exert a tighter control on the colony and raised the taxes. The first movements for independence were reported, and in 1792 Rio witnessed the hanging of Tiradentes. The Brazilian Martyr of Independence was later decapitated, the head was taken back to his native Vila Rica and exposed in a public square.

The Royal Family

Tiradentes' execution was signed by Dona Maria I, Queen of Portugal, but she probably never even realized was happened. Dona Maria I, was married her uncle, Dom João III. He died in 1786, and she became the Queen of Portugal. Two years later her eldest son, Dom José, died of smallpox. She started to show signs of madness, in 1792, and Dom João had to take over the family job.

It seems Dom João was not really that keen on becoming the king. He only agreed to becoming the Prince Regent in 1799, when D. Maria was declared incurable. Though many historians seem to be more interested in gruesome appearence, reportedly poor personal hygiene standards, and instatiable appetite, his role in the urban development of Rio cannot be ignored.

Dom João VI was married to Dona Carlota Joaquina, a dish for anyone interested in ugly royals. They married when she was only ten years old, and on one of their first meetings she almost bit off his ear and threw a crystal glass at his face. They only knew each other in the biblical sense five years later, when she was already fifteen.

Rio, the capital of Portugual

In the early nineteenth century, Europe was being ravaged by Napoleon. Dom João VI, the Portuguese monarch, packed up and fled with his wife and the whole court to Rio. This increased the city population from 50 to 65 thousand in one year, and 70 thousand on the next.

Although the Portuguese royalty was not exactly a model of sophistication, they did bring with them civilized habits, like using silverware. Locals did their best to please the sovereign, and taking advantage of this, D João VI often paid his debts by giving nobility titles or awards.

Many important landmarks were inaugurated by D. João VI including the Botanical Gardens, Royal Library, São João Theater, Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts, etc. The Botanical Gardens were created to adapt plants to Rio's tropical climate. He also brought important European artists who portrayed in detail the colonial years. Jean Baptiste Debret is maybe the most famous of them all. Dom João never really took to life in the tropics, though, and as soon as things quieted down he moved back to Portugal.

Imperial Rio

Photo by Silviano. All rights reserved | Todos os direitos reservadosHe left his son Pedro in charge of things. This same Pedro would later declare the country independent. Dom Pedro was the first Emperor of Brazil, and quite a womanizer. His extra-marital affairs were common knowledge (Marquesa de Santos, became almost as famous as his wife, Austrian-born Empress Leopoldina).

Soon he resigned in favor of his son and namesake Pedro, who then was only 5 years old! The country would only enjoy some political stability after D. Pedro II gained majority, 9 years later. In the mid 1800's the city received major improvements with access to gas lights, plumbing, a sewage system, telephone and telegraph. A railway linking the city to the State of Minas Gerais was built (Central do Brasil).

In the year of 1888 the African slaves were freed by Princess Isabel, and a large migration from the country fields to the city took place. Rio's first favela (shanty town) was born on the Providencia Hill. The dwellers were Black military who had fought in Bahia, and did not get support when they returned home. Favela is the name of a plant found in that region of Bahia.

View of Outeiro da Gloria. Copyrights free photo courtesy of Turisrio.

Rio, capital of the Republic

With a military coupe in 1889 the first Republic was born, under the rule of Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, our first president. Rio was the capital of Brazil until the year of 1960, when President Juscelino Kubitschek inaugurated what was his dream vision of a model capital. The federal district was then transferred to Brasilia, a city oddly shaped like an airplane. Rio remained the cultural capital of the country, and the favorite city in Brazil. It is the capital of the State of Rio de Janeiro.

Contemporary Rio

Brazil is at present going through an integration process with its neighboring countries, namely: Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Together they make the Mercosur (Mercosul in Portuguese). Import barriers are gradually being reduced, in the likes of the NAFTA, and the European Community. Rio is the ideal city for companies interested in establishing a foothold in this new and attractive marketplace.

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