Brazilwood, classified by botanists in the genus caesalpinia, was found in abundance in the easternmost part of the American continent (Varnhagen, 1877:1) by the Portuguese as soon as they arrived in 1500. This type of wood was not totally unknown to the Europeans since there was in the east the Caesalpinia sappam lam which had the “same dyeing function for wool, silk and cotton fabrics” (Rocha, 2004:24).

Backed by the legal principle of mare clausun, a doctrine that granted possession to those who set out to discover the seas, the possession over the lands in the new continent overseas was confirmed by what was determined by the treaty of Tordesillas (Siqueira, 2011: 75). Such a tree, spread over a large part of the Brazilian coast, from Rio de Janeiro to Rio Grande do Norte penetrating even a little into the backlands, besides naming the conquest that became known as Terra do Brasil or just Brazil, was soon exploited, since it could reach high prices in Europe (Schwarcz; Starling, 2015). Originally called ibirapitanga by the Tupi Indians who inhabited the coast, the species reached a height of fifteen meters and had trunks, branches and pods covered with thorns. Its wood was widely used in the construction of fine furniture and a reddish resin was extracted from its interior that was used as dye for textiles, known by different names such as: brecillis, bersil, brezil, brasil, brazily ((Schwarcz; Starling, 2015). As there were no artificial anilines for dyeing fabrics, its pigment was excellent for dyeing woolen cloths and silks and for making other paintings, as attested by chroniclers of the time (Siqueira, 2011: 75). Thus, the trade of brazilwood was the main economic activity developed by the adventurous Lusitanian sailors since the arrival of Pedro Alvares Cabral until about 1530.

The attractions of this business resulted early on in the first disputes over the coast, in this case by the Portuguese and the French (Vainfas, 2000: 472) who trafficked intensively along the Brazilian coast. It was a rudimentary exploitation, which, according to Caio Prado Junior, left “no appreciable traces, except for the merciless destruction on a large scale of the native forests from which the precious wood was extracted” (Prado Junior, 1994:25). The traffickers relied on the Indians who had an important participation, since they cut the trees, then transformed them into one and a half meter logs that could weigh up to thirty kilos each and carried them to the ships (Vainfas, 2000: 472). In view of the possible profitability of the product, the Portuguese Crown soon made brazilwood extraction a royal monopoly. To engage in this activity, the monarch’s authorization was necessary, and this system was employed by Portugal in relation to all overseas commercial activities (Prado Júnior, 1994: 26). The lease was made by rich Portuguese merchants, usually New-Christians, for a period of three years, and in 1504, by Fernando de Noronha. They had the obligation to pay the expenses of the venture, building forts and sending ships to explore and for this they enjoyed exemption from royal tax in the first year of the contract and also rebates in the following years, having to pay only one-sixth of the royal tax in the second year and a fourth in the third year (Siqueira, 2011:76). Despite all these bounties made to the contractors, the Crown still counted profits from the contracts. From 1500 to 1532 this form of exploitation seems to have been profitable for the Portuguese Crown. As an example, in the year 1506 a revenue of four thousand ducats can be accounted for as rent from the monopoly, for the removal of twenty thousand quintals of brazilwood (Siqueira, 2011: 76). However, over time the activity ceased to be profitable for both parties due to the increased presence of foreigners who invaded the land to smuggle the logs of wood due to the ever-high price of the product in foreign markets. The unbridled exploitation resulted in the devastation of the forests. With the establishment of the hereditary captaincies, the king delegated powers to the donatários, whose attributions were to stimulate the occupation of the land, the development of farming and trade.

In the letter of donation given to Duarte Coelho there were guidelines on how to administer the captaincy and in relation to brazilwood it was determined that the product could not be commercialized and explored without prior royal authorization. It was manifested in the text of the document the concern of the metropolis in losing the business to smugglers and also with the preservation of forests in the colony by establishing a quantity to be removed, care with the cutting of wood to allow the recomposition of the plant and the prohibition of burning that would prevent the trees to sprout again (Siqueira, 2011: 80). Still in the sixteenth century, the system of hereditary captaincies was replaced by the general government, but there was not much difference with regard to the extraction of brazilwood. In article 34 of the regiment given to Tomé de Souza the subject was dealt with. However, the king’s ownership of the wood was reaffirmed, establishing the competence of the provedor-mor da Fazenda Real to grant people the right to exploit the extractive activity.

In the beginning of the 17th century, with the Portuguese Crown under the Spanish monarchy in what became known as the Iberian Union and during the reign of Philip III of Spain (1598-1621), due to the precarious state of the brazilwood forests, the Regiment of brazilwood was elaborated during the government of Diogo de Botelho (1602-1608). In its very first article it was established that no person could cut, or order the cutting of brazilwood by himself, or by his slaves or foremen, without the express written permission of the provedor da Fazenda Real of each captaincy. This license would be granted to honest people who had no suspicion of embezzlement. Differently from what had been established until then, in the Pau Brasil Regulation, the king ordered a better evaluation by the local authorities for the exploration to take place. In this sense, he oriented that the provedor would be responsible for deciding who would receive the concession. In addition, he limited the period of exploration. The objective was to put an end to the unbridled exploitation of wood on the coast, and for this it was imposed the equal division of the cut according to the quantity and possibilities of the local inhabitants, the obligation of registration in a specific book of those contracted, the choice of the place to be exploited, and also the estimation of the quantity to be delivered to the contracting party. In this way sustainable exploitation was aspired to, with the protection of the forests and the interests of the Crown.


Prado Junior, C. (1994). História econômica do Brasil. São Paulo: Brasiliense.

Schwarcz, L. ; Starling, H. (2015). Brasil: uma biografia. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.

Tavares Rocha, Y. (2004) Ibirapitanga: história, distribuição geográfica e conservação do pau-brasil (Caesalpinia echinata lam, leguminosae) do descobrimento a atualidade (Tese de Doutorado), São Paulo, Universidade de São Paulo.

Siqueira, M. I. (2011). O Direito e o Estado no Brasil filipino: inovação ou continuidade legislativa? Jundiaí: Paco Editorial.

Vainfas, R. (2000). Dicionário do Brasil colonial. Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva.

Adolfo de Varnhagen, F. (1877) História Geral do Brasil. Rio de Janeiro: Em casa de E. e H. Laemmert.


Maria Isabel de Siqueira (Universidade Federal do Estado do Rio de Janeiro)

How to quote this entry:

Maria Isabel de Siqueira. “Brazilwood“. In: BRASILHIS Dictionary: Biographic and Thematic Dictionary of Brazil in the Spanish Monarch (1580-1640). Available in: Date of access: 25/06/2024.

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