by Kristen Kelso Pilbrow

     The story of Pedro Álvares Cabral accidentally discovering Brazil in 1500 while seeking a westward route to the Indies is well known to historians of South America. Indeed, many accounts of European expansion into the Atlantic focus on circumstances created by the global trading patterns of the period, including the spices and textiles that drew Europeans to Asia and India. There is a product, however, that is often overlooked in these discussions. European sailors also went east in search of the tree Caesalpinia sappan, the wood of which yielded a red dye used in the manufacture of cloth. When Cabral landed on the Brazilian coast, he must have been delighted to find red-painted natives who led him to stands of high-quality Caesalpinia echinata, a close relative of the Indian tree that shared its dye-making properties.1 Although these trees had been found along the Caribbean coast and in the West Indies, the discovery of a superior supply in Brazil, to which Portugal had gained exclusive rights with the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, was a windfall for the Portuguese crown.

     The Portuguese were quick to capitalize on the discovery of a dyewood (also known as pau-brasil or brazilwood) supply relatively close to home. They established fortified trading posts called factories along the coast, where the heavy prepared logs could be shipped eastward and put on the European market. Since beasts of burden were not plentiful and the processing and transportation of the logs were labor-intensive, the Portuguese relied on native workers to accomplish their enterprise. They traded trinkets for the logs Tupi natives would drag to their factories, a system which worked well because it fit with gender roles that designated communal tree-felling as a normal male contribution to the agricultural process.2 The Portuguese government instituted a royal monopoly on the harvest and sale of dyewood, based on the Treaty of Tordesillas and the papal bulls that placed Brazil within their jurisdiction.3 The approval of the Pope protected Portugal against any Spanish claims to the dyewood trade, but challenges soon came from other quarters.

     French traders became aware of a Brazilian dyewood supply when one of their ships drifted onto the coast in 1504, as Cabral's had done four years earlier. Soon merchants from ports such as Dieppe, Rouen, and Fécamp were trying to take advantage of the new discovery, much to the dismay of the Portuguese. Especially troubling was the fact that the French did not recognize their claim to Brazil, since it was not backed up by effective occupation. At the time, many scholars throughout Europe were advancing a legal system of trade based on a secular law of nations rather than papal authority. This trend weakened the Portuguese claim on Brazil, a country that had not yet been effectively colonized. As a result, French sailors felt free to advance on the dyewood stands there.

     Rather than establishing permanent settlements in Brazil, early French dyewood traders docked their ships along an area of the coast uninhabited by the Portuguese and used native labor to fill them with prepared logs. They formed ready alliances with the Tupinambá, Tamoio, and Potiguar peoples, whose enemies were allied with the Portuguese. Incidentally, the knowledge of Native American culture the French obtained while trading with native Brazilians had far-reaching consequences, as it helped them to excel in the North American fur trade.4 In Brazil, their sensitivity to native culture allowed these sailors to quickly load their ships and to speed their cargo back to France and Belgium, where dyewood was in demand for the manufacture of the luxurious red cloth in favor at court.5

     The French encroachment on the dyewood trade hurt the Portuguese in many ways. Because they did not have to pay a royal fifth imposed by the Portuguese crown, the French could sell their products at lower prices. They also could reach European markets more quickly because they could sail there directly rather than stopping at Lisbon.6 It is not surprising that the Portuguese tried to halt the French involvement in Brazil by dispatching ships to patrol the coasts and through diplomatic efforts, but due to disagreements with the French government and the sheer size of the coastal areas to be defended, neither method was successful. Although the issue became less contentious as sugar, silver, and gold began to dominate the Brazilian economy, the French continued to collect dyewood from Brazil long after the sixteenth century finished. Because it is illustrative of the international conflicts involved in creating the economies of the New World, the example of the dyewood trade should not be disregarded.




   1 Olive Patricia Dickason, "The Brazilian Connection: A Look at the Origin of French Techniques for Trading with Amerindians." Revue Française d'Histoire d'Outre-Mer 71, #264 (1986): 129-131.

   2 Stuart B. Schwartz, "The Economy and Society of Colonial Brazil: A Brief Overview." The James Ford Bell Lectures #12 (1974): 4.

   3 The following discussion of French challenges to Portuguese trading monopolies draws on Leslie Bethell, ed., Colonial Brazil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 10-12.

   4 Dickason, p. 130.

   5 John Hemming, Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians, 1500-1760 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), p. 8.

   6 Arthur Brakel, trans., Chapters of Brazil's Colonial History, 1500-1800 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 30.

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