Coutinho brothers: Gonçalo Vaz Coutinho; João Rodrigues Coutinho; Manuel de Sousa Coutinho (Frei Luís de Sousa)

The journey of the Coutinho brothers reveals a family strategy where trade and services provided overseas became an important factor for social ascension. The brothers consolidated the connections between the Iberian Peninsula and overseas spaces and inaugurated the phase of Atlantic complementarity. The slave trade was a factor in the enrichment and construction of social and political networks for ascension in the kingdom and in the court. They equated Angola’s services and government with those provided in North Africa and the Indies. They took the slave trade to a new level, favoring the indigenous policy in the Americas, and increased production and Atlantic trade.

However, the trajectory of services to the Crown, which included the wars in North Africa and India, followed by military and government positions in the Atlantic, to social ascension in the Kingdom, refers to the paternal history of Lopo de Sousa Coutinho. Son of Fernão Coutinho and D. Joana de Brito, grandson of the 2nd Count of Marialva, D. Gonçalo Coutinho, Lopo was born in Santarém, around 1515. He was a military man, who took part in the capture of Azamor and fought in India, in the government of Nuno da Cunha, where he participated in the siege of Diu, having written a book about this event (Furley, Cremona, 1958: 203-205). 

Nevertheless, Lopo returned to Portugal in 1545, being appointed by the council of King D. João III, captain and governor of São Jorge da Mina where, according to Luiz Felipe de Alencastro (2001: 404, n. 18), he became involved in the slave trade. Lopo de Sousa was married to D. Maria de Noronha (daughter of D. Fernando de Noronha, captain of Azamor), who was a lady to Queen D. Catarina. They had many children, including the eldest, Rui Lopes Coutinho, Diogo Lopes Coutinho, João Rodrigues Coutinho, Gonçalo Vaz Coutinho, born in Santarém in 1556, Manuel de Sousa Coutinho, born in the same city in 1558, Lopo de Sousa Coutinho and André de Sousa Coutinho. Lopo died in an accident: when dismounting his horse, he fell on his own sword.

Gonçalo Vaz obtained a bachelor’s degree in Arts from the University of Coimbra, in 1575, and a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Arts, the following year. He attended the Theology course, but abandoned it in 1577. Manuel de Sousa Coutinho was appointed young nobleman of the Royal House in 1572 for the services rendered by his father and grandfather. On his enlistment to the Order of Malta, he was arrested by the “Moors” on his departure from the Island of Sardinia, in 1577, and taken captive to Algiers. Rescued from Algiers, Manuel lived in Valencia, where he studied under the supervision of Jaime Falcão. He returned to Portugal in 1579 and, in the following year, he was named mayor of the castle of Marialva and captain of the town’s ordinances by the Portuguese governors, while the brothers Rui Lopes and Lopo de Sousa participated in the battle of Alcácer Quibir, where the king D. Sebastião disappeared (Labrador, 2006: 959, 1230, 1267).

Regarding the dynastic succession in Portugal, the Coutinho brothers seemed to be predisposed to support the Filipino cause, and the favors granted by Felipe II confirmed this inclination. The Coutinho brothers represented the interests of a Portuguese nobility that saw an opportunity in the rise of Felipe, favoring this cause in the places and with their networks of relationships and dependents (Bouza, 2005: 58, 99-111). 

Their support for Felipe II immediately gave them a better position with the Portuguese Royal House, and they went to the service of the new king in the Indies – the brothers Rui, Diogo, João and André followed there. Gonçalo did not accompany them because he contracted the plague, which was then raging in Portugal.

João Rodrigues, on his return from India, was appointed captain and governor of São Jorge da Mina, a position he held for over eleven years. In his government, he was accused of looting enemy ships, misappropriating the income of the deceased, and establishing businesses in São Tomé. Gonçalo Vaz, in 1588, was appointed military governor of São Miguel dos Açores, a position he held for a similar time to that of João, being elevated to the noble squire and, at an uncertain date, becoming a State Councilor in Portugal (Labrador, 2006: 1267).

Therefore, the strategic positioning of the brothers in the Atlantic is evident: the first operated in the main Portuguese square on the coast of sub-Saharan Africa, which stood out for its access to gold and Guinean slaves, while Gonçalo ruled on the Atlantic turning plate, in connection with Brazil and the Indies of Castile, with Africa and the Mediterranean (Chaunu, 1980: 61-65). There was a port missing from this story, that of Luanda.

With the incorporation of Portugal into the Hispanic domain, the donatary captain of Angola, Paulo Dias de Novais, and the Jesuits addressed the new king to guarantee the continuity of their rights over that conquest. In 1583, still in Portugal, Felipe II dispatched Corregidor João Morgado and a military force to Angola. With the death of Paulo Dias, in 1589, he set in motion the resumption of the captaincy, sending D. Francisco de Almeida as its first governor who, however, did not assume the position, being arrested by a conspiracy in which the conquerors and the Jesuits participated. In 1593, Felipe II designate João Furtado de Mendonça to the government of Angola, a position he assumed in 1595 and which he held until 1602, passing it on to João Rodrigues Coutinho.

In 1601, the experiences and money acquired in Africa, and the association with the Crown, allowed João Rodrigues Coutinho to lease the contracts in Angola (referring to the collection of royal rights), that of slaves, and that of the silver mines. The period of asiento and that of government extended for nine years (May 1600 to April 1609). João Rodrigues landed with the most significant expedition seen in Angola, and according to Father Fernão Guerreiro, at the time of his arrival, no other native leader was subject to the Crown. The reason for this desolation was that the sobas, removed from the control of the Jesuits and the conquistadors, had rebelled against the Portuguese and the king. 

For Father Fernão Guerreiro, the arrival of João Rodrigues restored Portuguese authority over Angola. João Rodrigues Coutinho restored that system of dominion through alliances with friendly chiefs and in wars of subjection, placing new African chiefs under the royal rule with the protection of lay and religious years.

While João Rodrigues Coutinho fought in Angola, Gonçalo Vaz returned to work in the Atlantic islands, signing a contract with the council of war, and with the approval of Cristóvão de Moura, for the provision of the prison of Angra, in the Azores, and the supply of the military contingents in Madeira and Terceira, as well as the maintenance of fortresses (Schaub, 2014: 89-92). Manuel de Sousa was the brothers’ representative in Spanish America. His base of operations was the port of Cartagena de Indias, where he was João Rodrigues “general manager of the seat income”.

As soon as the news of the death of João Rodrigues reached the king and based on a report made by the licensee Hernando de Villagómez, inspector of the Consejo de Indias, Felipe III had João Rodrigues’ goods sequestered and seized in the provinces of Rio da Prata, by the debts he had with the royal estate and to prevent his brothers and heirs from claiming such assets (Registro, I, 1860: 14).

Then, the Junta de Negros defined the new conditions of the contract, which significantly increased the control exercised by the Crown. The asiento was signed in May 1604, with an expected duration of five years, being readjusted to 32 contos de réis per year. Gonçalo should settle the debt related to the four years of his brother’s contract, guaranteed by a guarantee. All licenses sold were to be registered at the Casa de Contratación in Seville and the money placed in the Crown’s coffers. Even licenses sold in America were supposed to be deposited in the royal coffers. Profits from trafficking would be administered by the Crown, of which it would pocket 8% (Scelle, 1906: 30-31, 392-396). 

In 1606, from Rio de Janeiro, Manuel de Sousa asked to be appointed governor of Angola, while Gonçalo appeared on two lists, that of governor of Mina and that of Brazil. The fact reinforces the idea that Manuel was the American branch of the Buenos Aires-Rio-Luanda circuit established by the Coutinhos, trading slaves, silver, and horses.

The king vetoed the new pretensions of government, the document that registers Manuel’s request has the following annotation on the side: “D. Manoel Pereira has already been appointed and ordered that the conquest cease, and the rights are contracted on account of his Royal farm, and provision of that Kingdom.” The annotation reveals preparations for a change in the conduct of Angola’s dealings and government, which should be put into practice by sending a new governor.

The field of action of the Coutinho brothers in Spanish America was extremely wide. Their field of operation included the Caribbean islands, with emphasis on Cuba and Santo Domingo, and on the continent, Cartagena, Guatemala, New Spain, Buenos Aires, La Plata (current Sucre) and Potosí. In these spaces, they also established relationships that were beyond the control and interests of the Crown. The economic and political potential of that trade stoked the interests and ambitions of different networks that were established between Europe and overseas. It is noted that the questions about the conduct of the asiento by the Coutinho brothers, by the Crown, and other groups, began shortly after the signing of the contract, however, discontent and pressure on the asiento increased from 1608 forward.

Delays in paying the contract were frequent, smuggling increased and the connections of the colonial powers, which were established in the Atlantic, were consolidated. The smuggling of slaves drained an essential part of the Potosí silver. In a report from 1604, the king says he had news that many more slaves were taken than stipulated in the asiento, who came without licenses and were paid in silver, which was hidden in sacks of wheat flour from Córdoba (Registro, II, 1860: 63-64). 

In Santo Domingo, the Crown accused different authorities of being accomplices of Gonçalo Vaz Coutinho, who charged excessive fees for licenses in the slave trade. From Guatemala, the treasurer Melchor Ochoa de Villanueva and the accountant Pedro del Castillo Becerra sent a letter to the king with the records of witnesses regarding the confiscation of the assets of João Rodrigues Coutinho, Gonçalo Vaz, and Juan Núñez Correa. In 1608, Manuel de Sousa Coutinho returned to Almada, from where he gave a power of attorney to Francisco Pires to defend his interests in the West Indies (Castro, 1984: 13). 

Thus, the plan of favoring an alliance with the Coutinho brothers was in crisis, stimulated by the strong interests of the merchants of Seville, linked to the Casa de Contratación, the Consejo de Indias, and the Consulate, and related to the changes in the composition of the Junta de Negros and the Council of India. In the first, through the actions of Melchor Maldonado, treasurer of the Casa de Contratación and judge of the Consulate, future administrator of slave licenses on behalf of the Crown, and President Pedro Fernandez de Castro y Andrade, the Count of Lemos who, as president of the Consejo de Indias, had been a key person in the development of indigenous policy in the reign of Felipe III. His performance reinforced the idea that the African slave trade was, in addition to an important business, a political instrument, which favored the deployment of royal authority in the Americas.

Manuel de Sousa Coutinho and his wife, Madalena de Vilhena, entered religious life between 1613 and 1614, he is in the convent of São Domingos de Benfica, and she is in the one of Sacramento, both in Lisbon. Upon becoming a friar, he adopted the name Friar Luís de Sousa, in honor of his nephew, son of Gonçalo Vaz, who died in Angola (Alencastro, 2000: 81). He died in Lisbon in 1632 (Labrador, 2006: 1230). 

Gonçalo Vaz was also appointed to the government of Angola, in 1613, which shows that the break with Felipe III was not absolute, however, he did not hold that position, appearing later in charge of the Mazagão trading post, in Morocco (Alencastro, 2000: 81). The other son of Gonçalo, D. Francisco de Sousa Coutinho was the most important diplomat of the Portuguese restoration, who highlighted the strategic place of Angola in its complementarity with Brazil and as one of the foundations of the Bragantina monarchy. A third son of Gonçalo, Lopo, married the daughter of Manuel Pereira Coutinho, governor of Angola between 1630 and 1635. His grandson, and namesake, married Bárbara da Veiga, daughter of Diogo da Veiga, an influential Christian merchant, associated with bankers from the court of Madrid, who controlled businesses in Brazil, Peru, Angola, Portugal, and Flanders (Alencastro, 2000: 82). 

The trajectory of the Coutinhos reveals a family strategy where trade and services provided overseas became a significant factor for social ascension. The interest of the Hispanic Crown in having greater control over the slave trade and, consequently, over the colonial trade, in addition to the recognition that the massive importation of African slaves favored its policy towards the Amerindians and the construction of its sovereignty over the Americas, made Felipe II and Felipe III encourage a family of the Portuguese nobility to lead this trade.

The slave trade was part of the political framework that involved power relations at the Court, in Portugal, and overseas. However, the association between the Crown and the Coutinhos was subject to colonial practices, the lobby of Seville merchants, and different Ibero-Atlantic imperial perspectives. On the first point, the Coutinho brothers reinforced the centrifugal logic of power: encouraging the dominance of the conquistadors and Jesuits over the chiefs of Angola, engaging with the social forces of commerce, legal and illegal, and colonial production.


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Rodrigo F. Bonciani (Universidade Federal de São Paulo)

How to quote this entry:

Rodrigo Faustinoni Bonciani. “Coutinho brothers: Gonçalo Vaz Coutinho; João Rodrigues Coutinho; Manuel de Sousa Coutinho (Frei Luís de Sousa)“. 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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