Skip to content


Free World Class Education
FREE Catholic Classes


A vast republic of central South America covering an area larger than that of the United States of America (if Alaska and the Philippines are not included). It extends from 5° N. to 33° 41' S. latitude, and from 35° to 73° W. longitude. Its greatest length is 2,500 miles, its greatest breadth 2,600 miles, and it has an area of 3,218,130 square miles. It borders every other country on the continent of South American except Chile, being bounded on the north by Venezuela, British, Dutch, and French Guiana, and the Atlantic Ocean, on the east by the Atlantic Ocean, on the south by Uruguay and the Argentine Republic, and on the west by Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

Brazil lies entirely east of the Andean mountain system. The basin of the Amazon occupies the northern and western portion of the country, and nearly the whole of this section is a vast plain, called the Selvas , which is, for the most part, less than 500 feet above sea level, and never exceeds 1,000 feet. The southern and eastern parts are plateaux, rising to heights of from 2,000 to 4,000 feet. Upon these plateaux are situated many mountain ranges. (This is said to be geologically the oldest part of the continent.) The mountain ranges of Brazil may be grouped into three systems, the most important of which is the Serra do Mar, which begins immediately north of the bay of Rio Janeiro, where the Organ mountains rise to 7,500 feet. This forms the southeastern slope of the plateau to the narrow strip of coast along the Atlantic. In this system, to the west of Rio de Janeiro, is the highest peak in Brazil, Itatiaia, which has a height of nearly 10,000 feet. Connecting with this range near Rio de Janeiro, and stretching northward, is the Serra Central, while a third system stretches northwestwards, separating the headwaters of the Sao Francisco and Tocantins Rivers from those of the Paraná.

The Atlantic coast line of the republic is about 4,000 miles long. North of Cape St. Roque it is low, and the slope towards the sea is gradual, but to the south of this cape the coast line is more elevated, the slope to the sea is steeper, and in the extreme south it becomes abrupt. The northern coast is but little broken, thus having few good harbours and not many islands, but along the southern coast there are many fine harbours. The system of rivers is perhaps unequalled for their number and the length of their courses in any part of the world. They are especially important in the north of Brazil, where they constitute the chief means of travel through a region rich in natural resources. Owing to the copious rainfall, most Brazilian rivers are navigable throughout the year. The principal ones are the Amazon, which is 2500 miles long and is navigable throughout almost its whole length, the Tocantins, and the Sao Francisco.


Covering so large an extent of territory, Brazil naturally has variations of climate. In the lowlands of the north, which are within the tropics, there is great heat, and the year is divided between the rainy and dry seasons of tropical regions. The rainy season begins in December or January and lasts until May or June. The rest of the year is generally dry. However, dry periods frequently occur during the rainy season, and rainy periods during the dry season. In the highlands of the central and southern portions there are four fairly well marked seasons. The vast Amazon basin is remarkable for its small seasonal variation of temperature; the thermometer rarely rises above 90° or falls below 75°. In the two southernmost States, Rio Grande do Sul and Sao Paulo, the temperature at times goes to the freezing point, especially in the highlands. The prevailing winds are the trade winds from the east. These are the strongest in the valley of the Amazon from July to November, and thus the heat of the dry season is somewhat mitigated. The country is generally healthful, with the exception of the marshy banks of some of the rivers, the swamps, and regions where drainage is poor ; in these places intermittent fevers are very common. Yellow fever has appeared at times, but has always been confined to the coast.


Brazil has extensive tracts of fertile land, especially along the Amazon and in the south-eastern portion; but the greater part of the plateaux is fit only for grazing. By far the most important product is coffee, of which Brazil produces more than any other country in the world. The principal coffee regions are Sao Paulo, Minas Geraes, Espirito Santo, and Rio de Janeiro. Sugar, the next product in importance, is extensively produced in Pernambuco, Bahia, and Ceara, tobacco in Bahia, and cocoa in the lower Amazon. Maize, beans, rice, and tropical fruits and vegetables are grown, but more for home consumption than for export.


In mineral resources Brazil is probably the richest country in the world, but scarcity of population and capital have retarded its progress. It is rich in gold and diamonds, especially the State of Minas Geraes, which is to Brazil more than California and Pennsylvania together are to the United States. Gold-mining is carried on to a limited extent in Minas Geraes and Bahia, chiefly with British capital. These same two states were at one time the world's chief producers of diamonds, but the discovery of the South African mines has great depreciated the Brazilian product, which amounts to about 40,000 carats per year, and it is estimated that since the discovery of diamonds in Brazil (1723) the total yield has been 12,000,000 carats, valued at $100,000,000. Besides gold and diamonds, Brazil is rich in iron, lead, copper, zinc, manganese, and quicksilver, but the mining of these is impeded by the lack of cheap fuel and labour.


These are generally on a comparatively small scale. The most important is the production of cotton goods, especially in the northern cities. In 1899 there were 134 cotton factories within the republic. Boots, shoes, cord, twine, hempen cloths for coffee sacks, furniture, saddles, and hats are also manufactured.


Railway enterprise has made some little progress. In 1899 there were 8723 miles of railroad in operation, 4992 miles in course of construction, and 8440 miles projected. The most complete railroad systems are in the coffee regions of Sao Paulo, Minas Geraes, and Rio de Janeiro. A considerable proportion of these roads was built with a government guarantee of interest on the outlay. The rivers have steam navigation through many miles of their courses, and there are several Brazilian lines of coasting steamers.


The foreign commerce of Brazil is quite large and is increasing yearly. Coffee is the staple article of commerce, constituting about sixty per cent of the total exports. Most of it finds a market in the United States. Sugar is second in importance, and then come rubber, cotton, hides, tobacco, dye and cabinet woods, gold, and diamonds. The imports consist of all kinds of manufactured goods, cotton and woollen clothing, machinery, ironware, coal, petroleum, and foodstuffs. Great Britain controls about forty per cent of the import trade. Germany and France are next in importance, and the United States is next.


The population of Brazil, according to the official returns of 1890, was 14,333,915. A later census, taken in 1900, was rejected by the legislature as inaccurate. The population in 1903 according to an unofficial estimate was 19,500,000. According to the official figures of 1890, there were 14,179,615 Catholics ; 143,743 Protestants ; 3300 of other creeds ; and 7257 who professed no religion. It will thus be seen that the country is overwhelmingly Catholic. The population is composed of: (1) people of pure Portuguese blood, who form a large percentage of the total; (2) full negroes ; (3) native Indians; (4) people of mixed race (the most numerous of all); and (5) a few European immigrants. The Portuguese portion of the population, as they constitute the wealthy and educated class, have made Portuguese the national language. Most of the semi-civilized Indians, particularly in the eastern States, speak the lingua geral , a language adapted by the Jesuit missionaries form the original language of the Tupinambaras, one of the largest of the eastern tribes. There are many different tribes, among which the chief are the Tupi, the Guarany, and the Amagua.


Brazil is a federal republic of twenty States, with a Federal District. The constitution is modelled upon that of the United States. The legislative power is vested in the president of the republic and a national congress consisting of a Senate and a House of Representatives. The Senate consists of 63 members, three from each State and the Federal District, elected directly by the people for a period of nine years. The House of Representatives consists of a number of members elected by the people for a term of three years, one representative for each 70,000 inhabitants, but with a minimum membership of four for any State. All who are legally citizens of the republic exercise the right to vote, except beggars, illiterates, soldiers receiving pay, and those who for any reason may have lost their rights as citizens. The executive authority is exercised by the president, or in his absence or disability, a vice-president. The president is elected by popular vote for a term of four years, and he cannot serve for two successive terms. He is assisted by a cabinet, the members of which he appoints or removes at will. The cabinet ministers preside over the following six departments: (1) finance; (2) war ; (3) industry, railways, and public works; (4) interior and justice ; (5) Navy; (6) foreign affairs. The president, by virtue of his office, is in supreme command of the Army and Navy. He possesses the veto power over legislation, but his veto may be overruled by a two-thirds vote of both Houses. The judicial power is vested in a federal supreme court consisting of fifteen members who are appointed for life by the president with the approval of the Senate. The States enjoy a greater measure of autonomy than those of the United States of North America . They are governed by their own legislatures and governors and have their own judicial systems. Each State is divided into municipalities; each municipality controlled by a council and a prefect.


Under the Empire the Catholic was the only recognized Church, and it was supported by the States. Other religions were tolerated, but the Catholic was the official church. After the revolution of 1889, however, the separation of Church and State was decreed. The Provisional Government issued, 7 January, 1890, a decree proclaiming the separation of Church and State, guaranteeing freedom of worship, and declaring that no church thereafter should be subsidized by the government, nor in any way receive support either from the federal government or from those of the individual States. By the terms of this decree public officers were forbidden to interfere in any way with the formation of religious societies, and it was declared to be unlawful to stir up religious dissension among the people. Every religious body was at liberty to worship according to its own rites, while each individual could live according to his belief, and unite in societies with others, and build churches if he chose The salaries of those in the service of the Church were ordered to be discontinued at the expiration of a year. The existing churchyards were secularized, and the question of the establishment of new cemeteries was left in the hands of individual communities. Religious bodies, however, could choose separate burial places, though always subject to the laws. The existing religious holidays, except Sunday, were abolished by another decree, and nine new ones established commemorating secular events. Later, a civil marriage law was passed, somewhat resembling those of the United States and France, and also a divorce law. This latter, however, bore the stamp of the religious training of the people, for by its terms, neither party was permitted to marry again during the life of the other.

The conversion of Brazil, beginning about the middle of the sixteenth century, was brought about by the Jesuits, after whom came the Franciscans, and these were followed by the Benedictines. The country today is almost entirely Catholic. Of the nineteen and a half millions, over eighteen millions are of the Catholic faith. There are 5127 churches and chapels, 2067 secular and 559 regular clergy ; 2083 nuns engaged in hospitals and educational institutions ; 524 schools, 12 large and 17 small seminaries.


The entire republic is divided into the two ecclesiastical provinces of Sao Salvador da Bahia and Sao Sabastiao (Rio de Janeiro). Each province containing nine suffragan dioceses, as follows: Province of Sao Salvador da Bahia (diocese created 1552, archdiocese 1676); suffragan dioceses of Olinda (1676); Sao Luis do Maranhao (1676); Belem do Para (1719); Goyaz (1826); Fortaleza, or Ceara (1854); Manaos (1893); Parahyba, (1893); Alagoas (1901); Piauhy (1902). Province of Sao Sebastiao (diocese created 1675, archdiocese 1893); suffragan dioceses of Cuyabá (1745); Marianna (1745); Sao Paulo (1745); Sao Pedro do Rio Grande do Sul (1848); Diamantina (1854); Curityba do Parana (1893); Petropolis (1893); Espirito Santo (1896); Porto Alegre (1900). Brazil has received a great honour at the hands of the present pope, that of having the first South American cardinal ever nominated chosen amongst its clergy.


During the three centuries of colonial rule, Brazil made very little progress in the education of its people. There were few schools except the Jesuit colleges, and whatever libraries there were belonged to private individuals. The wealthy classes sent their children to Portugal to study, while those who could not bear this expense remained ignorant. After the declaration of independence, in 1822, conditions were somewhat improved, but the educational system was so crude that little progress was made until 1854, when the whole school system was reorganized. Since then there has been good progress in education, literature, and science, especially in the large cities. In the interior education is in a backward state, owing to the isolation of the inhabitants, and to lack of facilities of communication. For this reason the percentage of illiteracy for the entire country remains high (above 84%). At the present time Brazil has a system of elementary, secondary, and higher education. Congress has the sole power to create institutions of higher instruction and secondary, and secondary, or high-school, education throughout the country, as well as of primary education in the Federal District. The Constitution provides that instruction given in public institutions shall be secular, and that primary education be free and at the expense of the States and municipalities. In most of the States primary education is compulsory. The schools are generally well equipped with libraries, laboratories, and appliances and furniture of different kinds. The primary schools are divided into first- and second-grade schools. Secondary education is also organized on a good basis. At the head of these secondary schools stands the Gymnasio Nacional at Rio de Janeiro, which was formerly Pedro II College. The national institutions devoted to the higher, or university, education are: two law schools at Pernambuco and Sao Paulo; two medical schools at Rio de Janeiro and Bahia ; a polytechnic school at Rio de Janeiro; a mining school at Ouro Preto, in the State of Minas Geraes; a school of fine art at Rio de Janeiro. There are some excellent public libraries throughout the country, the largest being the National Library at Rio de Janeiro, which contains 235,000 printed volumes, 182,000 manuscripts, and 100,000 iconographical pieces. This institution was begun with the historical library which King John VI brought from Portugal and presented to Brazil, and it was greatly augmented by the collection of the great Portuguese writer Barbosa Machado .


Brazil was discovered on the 26th of January, 1500, by Vicente Yanez Pinzon, a Spaniards who had been a companion of Columbus. Two months later Dom Manoel, King of Portugal, fitted out a squadron for a voyage around the southern end of Africa to the East Indies under command of Pedro Alvares de Cabral. Contrary winds, however, drove him far out of his course, and after drifting about for some time he came upon an unknown land. He cast anchor in a haven which he called Porto Seguro, on Good Friday, 24 April, 1500. On Easter Sunday an altar was erected, Mass was celebrated, and Cabral formally took possession of the country in the name of Portugal. He then continued on his way to India, but first dispatching one of his ships to Portugal to report his discovery. Cabral named the newly discovered land Vera Cruz (the land of the True Cross ), but the king in notifying the sovereigns called it Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). Very shortly thereafter it began to be called Brazil , from the name of a wood which grew in that region, and the name ha been retained ever since.

Although the country had been discovered by a Spaniards, Spain could make no claim. According to the Bull of Alexander VI (4 May, 1493), the dividing line between Spanish and Portuguese possessions had been fixed at a meridian 100 leagues west of Cape Verde. All discoveries east of this line were to belong to Portugal ; those west of it to Spain. But in the year following, by the Treaty of Tordesillas, the dividing line was extended to 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, and Spain was thus barred from the eastern portion of South America. In order to encourage colonization, grants, or "captaincies", were given to prominent Portuguese who were willing to settle in the country. The grants comprised not less than fifty leagues of sea coast, wit feudal powers and the privilege of extending their possessions as far inland as the grantees desired. Thus nearly the entire Brazilian coast was before long dotted with Portuguese settlements more or less skilfully administered. The first of these was established in 1532, at S. Vicente, within the present State of S. Paulo, by Marinho Affonso de Souza, and the others at intervals thereafter. Cattle and sugarcane were imported from Madeira, and the systematic cultivation of the latter began.

But these early settlers had great troubles--with the Spaniards, who sought to gain a foothold east of the line of demarcation; with the French, who were trying to establish themselves on the coast; with the natives who were antagonistic to all Europeans. So that, for their common protection, it was deemed expedient that the "captains" should forego some of their prerogatives, and concentrate all the Portuguese power into the hands of a Governor General appointed by the Crown. The first Governor General was Thome de Sousa, who came over in 1547 and placed his capital at Bahia. The College of Sao Paulo was established in Piratininga soon after the arrival of the first Bishop of Brazil, in 1552, and of a number of the Jesuits in 1553. These first missionaries became friendly with the natives, and their college soon became a centre of influence. In 1555 Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, aided by Coligny, the French Huguenot leader, settled with a few Frenchmen on a little island in the bay of Rio de Janeiro. But these French settlers were driven away by the Portuguese in 1560, and France was ever after unable to gain a foothold in Brazil. The settlement, however, was made permanent by the Portuguese who gave it the name of Sao Sebastiao, and to this day Rio de Janeiro is officially called Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro.

From 1580 to 1640, Brazil, as a dependency of Portugal, was in the hands of Spain, and during the latter part of this period Holland, being at war with Spain, seized a good portion of the country. A long struggle between Portugal and Holland for the possession of the country followed later, lasting until 1654, when the Dutch surrendered the places they held, and the Portuguese were rid of all European rivals In 1763 the capital was changed to Rio de Janeiro, and the Governor was given the title of Viceroy of Portugal.

In 1807 Napoleon's troops invaded Portugal, with the intention of seizing the royal family. The prince regent, Dom João, fled, with the royal family, and under an English escort set sail for Brazil, where he was enthusiastically received. Here Dom João instituted several reforms, notable among which were the opening of all Brazilian ports to the commerce of the world and the decree of 16 January, 1815, declaring Brazil to be no longer a colony, but an integral part of the Kingdom of Portugal. Soon after this, the prince regent succeeded to the throne as Dom João VI. Revolutionary troubles in Portugal, in 1820, making it necessary for Dom João to return thither, he appointed his son Dom Pedro, a young man of twenty-three, "Lieutenant to the King" and set sail for Portugal in 1821. From that time the Portuguese Cortes began to regard Brazil with anxiety; Dom Pedro was considered as more Brazilian than Portuguese. Revolutionary disturbances, moreover, had broken out in several of the provinces, notably in Pernambuco and Bahia. To check the growing power of Brazil, measures were passed detrimental to her interests, and tending to a revival of colonial conditions. As the Brazilian members of the Cortes were greatly in the minority, their resistance could not be effective. Matters came to a crisis when the Cortes finally ordered Dom Pedro to return to Portugal. The Brazilians rallied and besought him to ignore the order. Realizing his opportunity Dom Pedro struck the first blow for independence, his decision being received with the greatest enthusiasm. The few Portuguese troops stationed in the country made but a half-hearted resistance, and on the 12th of October, 1822, Dom Pedro was proclaimed Emperor and Perpetual Defender of Brazil.

A popular assembly was convened in May, 1823, and a message from the emperor was read proposing many liberal ideas to be embodied in the forthcoming constitution. But discontented spirits raised such bitter opposition in the assembly that the emperor dissolved it. He later appointed a committee of ten to draft the constitution, and it was finally adopted 24 March, 1825. Dom Pedro's popularity, however, soon began to wane. He produced the impression of not being truly Brazilian at heart, by his employment of a foreign force, by his continual interference in the affairs of Portugal, and especially by his appointment of Portuguese to the highest offices, to the exclusion of the natives. The Brazilians became disgusted at seeing their government conducted by foreigners, and soon they were in open rebellion. After vain attempts to suppress the revolution, the emperor abdicated (7 April, 1831) in favour of his six-year-old son, Dom Pedro de Alcantara, and sailed away to Portugal.

The government was now placed in the hands of a regency, consisting at first of three members and later of a single individual. In 1840, when the young emperor had reached the age of fifteen, it was proposed by those who had become disgusted at the abuses of the regency, that the minority of Dom Pedro II be declared expired, in spite of the fact that the constitution had fixed the minority of the emperor at eighteen years. After a heated and acrimonious debate, the regency was abolished, and the young emperor placed in full possession of the throne (23 July, 1840). The new government had trouble at intervals with the Republican party, notably in 1848; but these risings were easily suppressed. In 1851 Brazil took an active part in thwarting the designs of the Argentine dictator, Rosas, who sought to seize Uruguay and Paraguay. Rosas was driven from the country and had to take refuge in England. In 1853 a decree was issued forbidding the importation of slaves. Yellow fever, until then unknown in Brazil, had made its appearance a short time before, and it was thought that the disease had been brought into the country by the slaves. In 1855 a fleet was sent to settle a dispute with Paraguay, concerning Brazil's right of way upon the Paraná River, the claim of Brazil being based upon the fact that the river has its origin within her boundaries. The expedition was unsuccessful, and for ten years thereafter Brazil was hampered by many restrictions. In 1864 an outrage against Brazil on the part of Senor Lopez, the dictator of Paraguay, precipitated a conflict between Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay on one side and Paraguay on the other. A bitter struggle now ensued, Paraguay offering a stubborn resistance which ended only with the death of Lopez in battle in 1870. Brazil, bearing the brunt of the war on her side, lost many thousands of men and a vast amount of money.

In 1871 the death-blow was given to slavery in Brazil by a decree providing that every child thereafter born of slave parents should be free. Slavery had been greatly checked since the decree of 1853 prohibiting the importation of slaves, so that, with this new law in force, it was not long before slavery came to an end in the country. On 1 May, 1886, the Princess Isabelle, regent of Brazil while the emperor was in Europe, proclaimed the abolition of slavery.

The fact that Dom Pedro reigned for nearly fifty years would indicate that he was liberal-minded, progressive, and enlightened, and that he was well liked by the people. But the work of freemasonry and the loss the planters suffered by the emancipation of their slaves created a spirit of disaffection. The outcome was that, after a bloodless revolution (15 November, 1889), Dom Pedro was deposed, and a Republic was proclaimed, with General Deodoro da Fonseca as head of the provisional government. A decree was issued continuing the imperial civil list and granting Dom Pedro a subsidy of $2,500,000, both of which offers were refused by him. On the following day (16 November) Dom Pedro and his family set sail for Portugal. The new Constitution, modelled upon that of the United States, was promulgated 23 June, 1890, and in February of the following year General Fonseca was elected president of the new republic. But before the end of that year his arbitrary methods precipitated a revolutionary movement in Rio de Janeiro, and he was compelled to resign. He was succeeded by the vice-president, General Peixoto. In 1893, a revolt, headed by Admirals Da Gama and Mello, was started; but it was of short duration. Rio de Janeiro was blockaded by the rebels, but the revolution collapsed soon after. In 1894 Peixoto was succeeded by Dr. Prudente de Moraes, who was called upon to face still another uprising, in 1897, under the leadership of Antonio Conseilheiro. After a few months this trouble also was crushed. In 1898 Dr. Campos Salles, who had been active in republican politics, succeeded to the presidential chair; Dr. Francisco Rodrigues Alves succeeded him 15 November, 1902, and Affonso Penna assumed office 15 November, 1906.

Join the Movement
When you sign up below, you don't just join an email list - you're joining an entire movement for Free world class Catholic education.

Saint of the Day logo
Prayer of the Day logo

Catholic Online Logo

Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2024 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.

Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.