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The Captaincy System: Differences Between Portuguese Rule and Local Authority in Colonial Brazil Essay

The discovery of Brazil came about in the first half of 1500, when a Portuguese commander named Pedro Alvares Cabral landed on a beach in what is now the state of Bahia. King Manuel of Portugal had commissioned an ocean fleet larger than any of its predecessors, able to carry over a thousand people, and had then offered Cabral the caravels so he could set off with an experienced crew and head to the East Indies. The king expected great riches, since just a year before Vasco da Gama, another Portuguese explorer, had travelled to India and back and brought with him many exotic goods that had marvelled the court.

Almost as soon as Cabral’s fleet set out to sea, however, the lead ship, commanded by Cabral himself, swung off course and into the Atlantic, sailing westwards. Cabral and his crew eventually reached the Brazilian coast. The fleet’s scribe, Pero Vaz de Caminha, wrote to King Manuel depicting a realm in which endless resources were available for the taking, and described the native people they encountered. The Portuguese crew preferred to solidify trade rather than impose formal political authority over the Indians they came across, and soon were trading simple objects such as hair combs and mirrors for precious metals such as gold.

For the first thirty years after its discovery, Brazil was treated as merely another set of trading posts. Portugal had the background of experiences needed for the colonization of Brazil. The century of exploration and settlement in the Atlantic islands and Africa evolved the two systems that were instituted in Brazil, the feitoria (trading post) and the capitania (proprietary grant or captaincy). The feitoria was both a trading post and a fortification for the protection of the colonists, and required a going trade system with political control remaining in the hands of the nationals.

In Brazil, however, where the Indians lacked a political system, the feitoria was both an armed post and a creator of production and trade. By the 1530s, however, with French and Spanish assaults along the coast of Brazil, the Portuguese crown realized it needed to strengthen its foothold in Latin America but lacked the resources to do so alone. So, in 1534 it resorted to a semifeudal system of hereditary land grants that had been put to use in other Portuguese settlements before, the captaincies.

These were given to rich nobles in the hopes that they would exploit brazilwood, a great source of revenue as it was used for the making of textile dye in Europe, and gain personal profit while also serving the crown. There were originally twelve grantees and fifteen separate grants to be distributed amongst them. The grants were Maranhao, another Maranhao, Ceara, Rio Grande, Itamaraca, Pernambuco, Bahia, Ilheus, Porto Seguro, Sao Tome, Sao Vicente, Santo Amaro, another Sao Vicente, and Santana.

These territories were located along the ocean front, bounded north and south by parallel lines running westward to the extent of the king’s conquest. The personal land grant to each donatario (grantee, or those who governed the captaincies) was free and exempt from quitrents, fees, or taxes, and the grantee had twenty years to choose a personal estate in any one area, which he then would have to divide into four or five different blocks. He could rent out his land or distribute it in segments for whatever quitrents and fees he chose, and if such lands were not distributed by the time of his death the income would belong to his heirs.

The Order of Christ, the heritage of the Knights Templar in Portugal, demanded that the grantee pay it its tithe. It was the only payment the grantee had to make: one half of the tithe of fish belonged to the Order of Christ, for example, and the other half belonged to the grantee. The king received no tithe on the ten leagues of land personally granted by him, while the grantee received one twentieth of the proceeds of brazilwood shipped to Portugal and could use however many brazilwood he wanted in Brazil as well.

The grantees, all members of the court, were allowed to found villages along the coast and by the riverside, could nominate their own judges to form a judicial system in their captaincies, and were provided with one tenth of the royal income as well as a certain number of slaves that could then be shipped to Portugal and sold back to the king. This was all written on a charter, which they were presented with when they assumed governance of the captaincies. The king himself handed these charters to the grantees.

Sesmarias also played an important part in the growth of the colonial economy. They were specific plots of land distributed for production, given to the people under the grantee’s rule with the objective of cultivating said land and helping the captaincy prosper, and while neither the grantee’s wife nor his heir could hold sesmarias, his other children and family were eligible to. Still, he could only offer them what the charter dictated and permitted, so his power was in many ways restricted by royal decree.

Convinced of the necessity of this semifeudal organization, however, King Joao III, son of King Manuel, was less concerned with protecting his own authority than arming the grantees with sufficient power to take over future territories. The only royal representatives in the captaincies were scribes and foremen, and even then they were not as important in the colonial life as the grantee-appointed ombudsmen, who occupied a role similar to that of the overseas judges and held high positions in the Brazilian hierarchy.

At the same time, it is incorrect to say the king did not hold any power in his new colony. The slave trade, gold, and other commerce of the captaincies belonged to the monarch. Foreign commerce was limited to merchants, native or foreign, accountable to the king, and he regarded Brazil as his property to give to whomever he wished and in the form he wished. He was simultaneously a great lord of lands and a great merchant – in Portugal and in Brazil. To avoid disputes between the crown and its vassals, restrictions were also put in place.

The grantees could not, for example, divide the captaincy or share their ruling power. They could not ally themselves with another grantee, be it either through marrying a son or daughter off or receiving lands as a gift. The king’s wish was for the grantee and his captaincy to be together at all times, and so did the law – or the relationship between the king and the grantees – mandate. Geographically, the captaincies were very big in size even when compared to the largest domains in Portugal itself.

The development of a captaincy was therefore a very difficult task, and in several cases it proved impossible in the first try. Brazil had no trade of consequence waiting to be shaped, unlike the other places Portugal colonized before. Raw nature had to be developed, and danger lurked in the jungle, which grew extremely thick in some places. Many Portuguese criminals had been sent to Brazil in exile and thus a meaningful percentage of the population was made of lawbreakers, and the Indians, who were willing to cooperate with the Portuguese in the beginning, soon turned hostile.

The grantees were fully responsible for their captaincies – they provided for their territory with their own monetary resources and, if the captaincies prospered and they made a profit, all was well. If they failed, however, their work would have been fruitless and the captaincies would decline and their economy would collapse: with the exception of Pernambuco and Sao Vicente, all of the other captaincies failed. Each captaincy was also independent from the others, and they saw each other as “foreign states. ” There was no sense of unity and crime prospered along with piracy, causing colonial Brazil to become a pitiful anarchy.

King Joao III’s remedy for Brazil consisted of establishing a more rigorous organization, and creating a general government strong enough to guarantee internal order and maintain harmony within the different centres of population. This new regime was founded in 1549, fifteen years after the establishment of the captaincies. It did not abolish the semifeudal system, but instead concentrated and centralized authority and power on the hands of officers appointed by the crown. This new form of government was called General Government.

Despite having thrived for a short period of time, the captaincy system left a deep marks in the division of land in Brazil. The unequal distribution of land posteriorly caused landlordism and created social and economic inequality, the latter of which exists today. The struggle to establish a permanent government in Brazil and the inability of the king to do so caused conflict and many governmental changes throughout the centuries. Until it finally achieved independence from Portugal in the early nineteenth century, the colony of Brazil – now country – felt the effects of the failed captaincy system.


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