Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro

The place that was to be called Rio de Janeiro did not arouse the immediate interest of the Portuguese explorers after their arrival in the American lands. The same did not occur with Spanish and French navigators who soon recognized the advantages of the geographic position of Guanabara Bay and the opportunity to barter with the natives who lived there, products such as brazilwood, animals such as howler monkeys and parrots, and other items much appreciated in Europe (Serrão, 2008:46). However, only after the third decade of the 16th century, the region became an obligatory stopover for Lusitanian and Spanish vessels that sailed to the southernmost tip of America. Food was supplied by the natives and consisted of local foods such as fish, game, and flour extracted from roots (Thevet, 1944: 167). The travelers who passed through there highlighted the natural beauties observed, describing Guanabara Bay as beautiful and spacious, with the most seductive landscape in the world, surrounded by islands with calm waters (França, 1999:14-35; RIHGB, 1965: 38) and with a perfect port for loading and unloading of goods, capable of anchoring ships safely (França, 1999: 20). All these qualities did not go unnoticed by French shipowners, who refused to accept the Iberian monopoly in the South Atlantic and saw the opportunity to benefit from the rich merchandise existing in these distant lands (Abreu, 2010: 51). Hans Staden recorded the presence of French ships frequently in a port that the natives called Niterói (Staden, 1974: 122). Far from Bahia and Pernambuco, where the Portuguese had a more effective occupation, Rio de Janeiro presented itself to other Europeans as an ideal place to establish their bases, since they had good interaction with the local inhabitants and could extract brazilwood from there. Although the Crown had expressed concern with the foreign presence in that part of its overseas territory, ordering the construction of fortifications for its defense, Governor General Tomé de Souza did nothing to consolidate the Portuguese presence, claiming to have few people to execute the order and that the best would be to establish a settlement there. For the said governor, by controlling Rio de Janeiro, the entire southern portion of the Portuguese territories would be safe (Abreu, 2010: 60-61). As part of the dispute of European nations for territories overseas, and with support from Henry II and Admiral Gaspar de Coligny, Nicolau Durand de Villegagnon, funded by Huguenots, erected a fortress in the interior of Guanabara Bay that had as its objectives trade, the reception of Protestant emigrants, and the harassment of the Spanish, “in order to make them diverge to these parts their war resources,” since there was a context of dispute in Europe (Varnhagen, 1877: 276). The realization of a rival base in South America, with the presence not only of indigenous people opposed to the Portuguese occupation, but also Protestants, aroused the concern of the Jesuits, who, far from being eremitic religious, could be considered “unarmed arms of the conquests,” combatants of the ideas of those they identified as heretics, Lutherans or Calvinists and who could be an obstacle to “their missionary action in Brazil” (Abreu, 2010: 105). The Jesuits, in this way, sought to encourage the retaking of Guanabara Bay.  Portugal’s offensive was soon present and the governor Mém de Sá, a nobleman of the King’s House and Council, brother of the well-known poet Francisco Sá de Miranda, was appointed to assume the general administration of Brazil (Varnhagen, 1877: 281), with the mission of expelling the French from the lands of Rio de Janeiro. The new governor had the help of colonists, men-at-arms, among them Estácio de Sá, Indians from Bahia, and also people that the governor-general gathered in the captaincies, reinforcing the armada sent from the Kingdom (Abreu, 2010: 108). After intense confrontation, the Gauls fled the island where they were established, their fortress was knocked down and their weapons confiscated. The destruction of Fort Coligny, however, was not decisive for the French, refugees in the backlands, to put an end to the pretensions of permanent establishment in the region (Abreu, 2010: 117). In view of this, it was imperative to establish a settlement at the site and, to colonize Rio de Janeiro, the captain-mor Estácio de Sá was designated, who founded a nucleus on the peninsula next to the Pão de Açúcar hill, between the sea and the first bag of the bay. The settlement was soon given the status of city and named São Sebastião after the Lusitanian king. The chosen location allowed direct control of the entrance to Guanabara Bay and also monitored the movements of the indigenous canoes hostile to the Portuguese that circulated in its interior. The rocky coast of Morro da Urca was a natural barrier against attacks from land and sea, and the narrow size of the inlet limited the enemies’ attack front (Abreu, 2010: 124).  After Estácio de Sá died from an arrow wound to the face during the fighting on Morro do Lery, where one of the Tamoios’ trenches was located, Mém de Sá moved the city to Morro do Castelo, a coastal hill with a remarkable defensive position (Abreu, 2010:144). The administration of Rio de Janeiro, since its beginnings, was under the responsibility of the first settlers who risked themselves to defend it and used their own resources, their relatives, slaves and flechers to serve the king. This condition was as important or even more important than material wealth and enabled them to assume the high-ranking positions in the local government (Fragoso, 2002: 44). This was the case of the Correa de Sá family who, together with other allies, considered the elite of the tropics (Fragoso, 2002: 42), were at the head of the Rio de Janeiro administration for a long time and rivaled the group led by the Mariz family, who opposed them. Its members governed Rio de Janeiro following metropolitan determinations, but without neglecting their own interests and those of the settlers who settled there. The Correia de Sá’s contributed to the development of the captaincy with the donation of sesmarias where some sugar mills were installed for the production of sugar, which started to be exported, although in a smaller volume than the main routes that connected Brazil to Europe. Rio de Janeiro also played a role as a pole or sub-center of a new Portuguese expansion in the southern Atlantic (Sanches, 2006: 174). During the Union of the Iberian Crowns, the number of mills had a significant increase, from three, at the end of the sixteenth century, to one hundred and fourteen in the sixth decade of the sixteenth century, which allowed a local commercial impulse. In parallel, another activity was also responsible for the prosperity of the captaincy: the traffic with the Rio de la Plata and, through it, with the lucrative Potosí routes. Such activity was very opportune for the economic interests of the region to the extent that the port of Rio de Janeiro received goods from Europe and the fiefdoms of Africa that were destined for Buenos Aires, from where they continued to upper Peru, enabling the growth of the mercantile volume operated through the city’s port (Sá, 2017: 52). Thus, Rio de Janeiro gradually stood out as a commercial center par excellence (Wehling; Wehling, 1994: 97). This characteristic of emporium was accentuated in the eighteenth century, when its port became the main outlet for gold from Minas and receiver of European products, turning this captaincy into one of the most important in the Portuguese empire.


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  • Thevet, Fr. André (1944). Singularidades da França Antártica, a que outros chamam de América. São Paulo: Companhia Editora Nacional. 
  • Wehling Arno; Wehling Maria José C. de. Formação do Brasil colonial (1994). Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira.
  • Staden, Hans. Duas viagens ao Brasil (1974). Belo Horizonte; São Paulo: Itatiaia; Edusp.


Helena de Cassia Trindade de Sá (Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro)

How to quote this entry:

Sá, Helena de Cassia Trindade de. “Captaincy of Rio de Janeiro“. In: BRASILHIS Dictionary: Biographic and Thematic Dictionary of Brazil In the Spanish Monarch (1580-1640). Available in: Date of access: 13/04/2024.

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