James Ford Bell Library

Brazilwood: A Brief History

by Chris Allan

Cutting Brazilwood: from André Thevet, Les singularitez de la France Antartique, Paris, 1557, leaf 177.Cutting Brazilwood: from André Thevet, Les singularitez de la France Antartique, Paris, 1557, leaf 177.

In 1500, when Pedro Álvares Cabral and his crew, having been blown off course en route to India, chanced upon an unfamiliar shore Cabral prudently claimed the land for the Portuguese Crown and ordered his crew to take on board examples of flora and fauna that showed commercial potential. Cabral ordered a supply ship, Lemos, to be loaded with the trunks of numerous brazilwood trees, which would be sent back to Portugal immediately.1 Brazilwood (often known simply as “brazil”) is a tropical hardwood of the family Leguminosae whose core yields a brilliant red pigment ideal for dyeing cloth. Brazilwood is a creamy color when first cut, but once it has been reduced to sawdust and soaked in water for several weeks, the dyestuff leeches into the solution and can be used to produce the fashionable red clothing particularly favored in the French court.2 Although the name is of uncertain origin, “brazil” is thought by some to be derived from brasa, the Portuguese word for a red-hot coal. More likely the term was adopted from the common name for an East Indian dyewood called “bresel wood” which was first imported to Europe in the Middle Ages.3

      Although the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had granted Portugal control of Brazil’s Atlantic bulge, the Iberian kingdom was already struggling to maintain forts on the African coast and toexploit their new-found route to the East Indies, leaving King Manuel I few resources to devote to Cabral’s discovery. However, the presence of valuable dyewood attracted eager Portuguese merchants, who soon obtained royal trade concessions, and French entrepreneurs who likewise could not resist the temptation to profit from trading for brazilwood with the Tupinamba Indians of the Brazilian littoral. By the 1550s both Portuguese and French ships prowled the coast between the present-day states of Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro looking for Tupinamba tribesmen willing to chop and haul the heavy trunks in exchange for barter goods.4 Jean de Léry, a Huguenot taking part in an attempt to establish a French fort in Rio de Janeiro Bay, wrote (not surprisingly, with brazilwood ink) in detail about the manpower needed to harvest and transport the dense, heavy wood:

As for the manner of loading it on the ships, take note that both because of the hardness of this wood and the consequent difficulty of cutting it, and because, there being no horses, donkeys, or other beasts [of burden] … it has to be men who do this work: if the foreigners who voyage over there were not helped by the savages, they could not load even a medium-sized ship in a year.…for some frieze garments, linen shirts, hats, knives, and other merchandise that they are given, the savages not only cut, saw, split, quarter, and rould off the brazilwood.…but also carry it on their bare shoulders, often from a league or two away.5

Clearly trade in the valuable dyestuff would not have been possible without the labor, proffered or forced, of the Tupinamba. Because there were great fortunes to be made supplying dyewood to the European textile industry, competition for the loyalty (or bondage) of the native population caused regular clashes between Portuguese traders and the persistent French interlopers.

      The Portuguese, bent on subduing the native population and establishing coastal factories for the collection of brazilwood, were forced to look on as the French, who quickly established friendly relations with the tribes, moved freely in and out of Tupinamba villages and collected logs with relative ease on ships anchored off the coast. Though at first the Portuguese explorers described the Brazilians as unspoiled children of nature, this notion was soon replaced by the conviction that the Tupinamba were unrepentant cannibals sem fé, sem rei, sem lei (without faith, without king, without law.)6 The French took another tack. Most contemporary reports describe congenial relations and an active flow of trading truck between French traders and native Brazilians. Some adventurers from Normandy, acting as agents for ship owners, even learned local languages, cohabited with Tupinamba women, and (it was whispered) adopted the native lifestyle — including ritual cannibalism.7 During the first decades of European activity along the Brazilian coast the Portuguese may have had legal rights to the region, but the French were spending even more time camping along the coast and negotiating for trimmed and rounded logs. Léry tells of an unwelcome surprise that demonstrated to the French loggers the power of their exotic dyestuff; after building campfires of brazilwood scraps, a sailor of his party decided to wash clothes with soap made from ash and lye: “instead of whitening them, he made them so red that although they were washed and soaped afterward, there was no means of getting rid of that tincture, so that we had to wear them that way.”8

      Not until 1567 were the French finally ousted from Brazil by Mem de Sá, the governor general of Brazil, at which time the Portuguese began a three centuries-long monopoly on the supply of brazilwood. Not long after Portugal had begun its colonization efforts in earnest the informal “terra do brasil” or “land of brazilwood” was simplified as “Brasil” and made the official name of the Portuguese New World possession. The trans-Atlantic trade in brazilwood climaxed before 1600 and was followed by a sharp decline due to over-harvesting and the decimation of the native population by disease and mistreatment. The demand for dyewoods like Nicaragua wood, the source of a less intense and less durable red dye, and logwood, used as a fixing dye for other colors, also plummeted as Mexican and Guatemalan cochineal emerged as a less expensive alternative to wood dyes. Exports of brazilwood in the seventeenth century averaged only 100 tons annually, even less in the eighteenth century, and ceased altogether in 1875, by which time synthetic dyes dominated the textile industry.9

      The trade in brazilwood would not be the last boom and bust in Brazil’s tumultuous history, but it was the first and most dramatic frenzy of commercial activity, drawing merchants, colonists, and missionaries to the jungle-world of tropical South America. Brazilwood set the stage — literally and metaphorically — for the drama of Brazil’s first uneasy contacts with Europeans and for the exploitation of the country’s peoples and natural resources. When in 1550 Henry II paid a state visit to Rouen, the king was presented with an exotic New World pageant: in a meadow bordering on the Seine a dense forest landscape, inhabited by parrots and monkeys, had been created as a backdrop for a mock Brazilian village peopled by fifty Tupinamba tribesmen, recently imported for the occasion, and two hundred-fifty sailors, merchants, and adventurers, naked but for their black and red body paint. The members of this absurd troupe engaged in a mock battle or sciamachy, they hunted imaginary prey, frolicked among the trees, and, to ensure the king would recognize the economic potential of their distant Eden, they hewed brazilwood trees and carried them to the banks of the Seine.10


      1. Alexander Merchant, From Barier to Slavery: The Economic Relations of Portuguese and Indians in the Settlement of Brazil, 1500-1580 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942), pp. 28-29.
      2. John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500-1760 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 8.
      3. Columbia Encyclopedia, 5th ed. (1993), s.v. “Brazilwood,” p. 360.
      4. Merchant, pp. 28-29.
      5. Jean de Léry, History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, trans. Janet Whatley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 101.
      6. C.R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825 (New York: Knopt, 1969), p. 85.
      7. Janet Whatley, “Introduction” to History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil, p.xix.
      8. Léry, p. 101.
      9. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, 4th ed. (1983), s.v. “Lumber Industry,” by Robert Naylor, p. 472.
      10. Stephen Mullaney, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” in Representing the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 70-71.


Boxer, C.R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415-1825. New York: Knopt, 1969.
Columbia Encyclopedia. 5th ed. (1993), s.v. “Brazilwood.”
Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. 4th ed. (1983), s.v. “Lumber Industry.” By Robert Naylor.
Hemming, John. Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500-1760. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978.
Léry, Jean de. History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil. Translated by Janet Whatley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Merchant, Alexander. From Barter to Slavery: The Economic Relations of Portuguese and Indians in the Settlement of Brazil, 1500-1580. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1942.
Mullaney, Stephen. “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance.” In Representing the English Renaissance, edited by Stephen Greenblatt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at ragn0001@umn.edu.

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