Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Brazilians Speak Portuguese

by Leighton Gage

Brazilians speak Portuguese.
But the rest of South America speaks Spanish.
Ever wondered how that came about? Read on.

In the last decade of the fifteenth century, the two great maritime powers of the age, Spain and Portugal, were engaged in a struggle for the riches of the Orient. The key to unlocking those riches was a sea route to the East. Since the time of Prince Henry the Navigator, dead by then for over thirty years, the Portuguese had been working the hypothesis that the discovery of The Route lay to the South, around the tip of Africa. They weren’t even sure there was a tip ofAfrica, but that was their theory and they were clinging to it.

Bartolomeu Dias - First Navigator to round the Cape of Good Hope

Then, in 1488, they hit the jackpot. Bartolmeu Dias rounded the Cape of Good Hope – the “good hope” being an expectation that they’d found their way at last. 

Vasco de Gama
But before another Portuguese navigator, Vasco de Gama, was able to convert the hope to a proven reality, and sail from Portugal all the way to India, Columbus was back from his first voyage. 
Old Chris started spreading the word that he’d found The Route by sailing West, not South.
The Portuguese didn’t believe it for a minute. They thought (and time would prove them right) that Columbus had grossly underestimated the circumference of the earth. They weren’t, however, about to share their conviction with their rival, Spain.
But now, all of a sudden, the Spanish were laying claims left and right.

And those claims were supported by the Spanish-born Pope, Alexander VI, who  issued bulls giving dominion over the newly-discovered territories to Spain.
Concerned, King John II of Portugal opened negotiations with theSpanish Court.

Those negotiations culminated in the Treaty of Tordesillas (a small town near Valladolid, in Spain) in which it was agreed that a line of demarcation would be drawn 370 leagues (a league was about 4.2 kilometers) west of theCape Verde Islands. It's the westernmost meridian (the one on the left) on this map:

 Any newly-discovered lands to the east of that line would be recognized as Portuguese territory, anything to the west as Spanish.

The Spanish figured they’d negotiated a good deal, because they now had the right to “the Indies”. And the Portuguese were pleased because they were quite convinced that the Spanish were barking up the wrong tree.

The treaty was signed and ratified in 1494.
In 1498, de Gama landed in India.

 Two years later, the fleet of Pedro Àlvares Cabral embarked on a follow-up voyage, carrying colonists and supplies to the new Portuguese colonies on the Indian subcontinent.
On board was de Gama’s pilot, who’d discovered doldrums off the coast of Africa on his previous voyage. He advised Cabral to try to pick up wind by sailing west before turning south.
Cabral did – and bumped into Brazil.
Look at the map.

See the way Brazil sticks out from the rest of the continent? And how close it is to Africa?
One of the first things the Portuguese did after setting foot on shore was to carry out some astronomical observations.
They quickly determined that the spot they’d landed upon was to the east of the line of demarcation. That made it Portuguese territory.

And that’s why today, more than five hundred years later, Brazilians speak Portuguese.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Interesting but a bit confusing as to the line of demarcation. Did the Portuguese battle the Spaniards for the rest of Brazil?

Leighton Gage said...

Hi Jean,

The French, the Dutch and the Spaniards all battled Portugal for parts of Brazil, but that was much later.

In the early days, Spanish exploration was all about finding precious minerals.

Pizzaro found gold in Peru and destroyed the Inca empire to get it. Ditto Cortez, in Mexico, who decimated the Aztecs. And then there were the great silver mines at Potosi where so many died to fill the holds of the treasure ships.

But the gold and silver in Brazil was only discovered much later, far from the coast.

During most of the sixteenth century, the country was only of interest to people who wanted to cultivate land and settle there.
Or missionaries who were out to convert the Indians.

And why would anyone want to settle in a Portuguese-speaking region if they weren't Portuguese-speaking? There was plenty of land for all and no reason to fight about it.

Conflicts between the European powers for parts of the country began with the cultivation of sugar, another way to grow rich, but that began a century after the Portuguese began settling the territory.

And it was mostly the Dutch and the French who fought them for it, because, by that time, the Spanish had vast holdings of their own in South America, and their forces were spread too thin.

Moreover, they had their hands full holding off English pirates.

MysteryShrink said...

Oh boy, another history freak. And especially Latin America. My mother was a travel writer there when I was a kid and I'm solidly hooked. Thanks for the post. I'm mostly nuts about history of Mexico and the Southwest.
Loved it.
Barbara DeShong

Leighton Gage said...

Thanks, Barbara,
I appreciate your kind words.
You got that right!
I'm hooked on history.
All places and all eras.

john said...

to answer your question more specifically, Barbara...yes, the Portuguese did engage in numerous battles with their European rivals, in particular with French Normans in Rio De Janeiro,the Dutch in the very North of Brazil,and the Spaniards in the extreme South of Brazil...

The Portuguese (with help from Portuguese colonists, African slaves and Native Indians) were successful in repelling all their rivals attempts in colonizing Brazil, with the exception of losing modern day Uruguay to the Spaniards, which was originally a Portuguese-Brazilian territory...