The Brazil that Bernardo O'Brien visited during the early part of the 17th century was much less settled than the coastline of North America. Brazil was first discovered in 1499 by Spanish explorer Vicente Yáñez Pinzón (who could not claim it due to the Treaty of Tordesillas, 1494). It was claimed in 1500 by Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, who landed on the far eastern tip of Brazil. Cabral had had not been searching for land in that direction; he was actually intending to sail to sourthern Africa. The Portugese had found that the best way down the African coast was to sail far out toward the western Atlantic. Cabral had merely been blown further west than usual and thus struck the coast of Brazil. Though this was only eight years after Columbus, colonization did not develop as rapidly in the south as it did in the north. The early years of Brazil's history is that of Portuguese exploration more so than colonization. One of the first valuable commodities the Portuguese began to take home were red and purple dyes from Brazilian wood, which the Portuguese called pau-brasil, thus the origin of the country's name.
|University of Georgia Library
An early map of the Brazil region of South America
In early years of European involvement, Brazil was plagued by numerous groups or marauding bands called bandeiras, who made a living rounding up Indians for sale as slaves on the few European mines, plantations and farms. The most effective enemy of these slave traders were Catholic missionaries, especially those from The Society of Jesus, the Jesuits. Their Indian settlements, known asreducciones, were often the safest places for the native population. It was not until the 1530s that the Portuguese first began to colonize the coastline of Brazil. By then, other European nations, most notably the French, were attempting to exploit some of the riches of the Brazilian coast, as well, and the Portuguese needed to think of solidifying their claims on the rich natural resources of this emerging area. By midcentury the Portuguese had developed a system of political control, with the settlement of Salvador in the Bahia region as its capital. In 1580, the Portuguese and Spanish kingdoms were merged under Philip II of Spain. This union would last until 1640, which encompasses the period leading to and including the time when Bernardo O'Brien was in Brazil. These years were marked by increasing conflict between Philip's combined kingdom and other Europeans, with the English and Dutch, who were their traditional enemies on the continent, now presenting the most serious problems.
Though the English had a presence in Brazil, it was by far the Dutch who would be the biggest thorn in the side of Spanish/Portuguese Brazil. Through the 1620s and '30s, the Dutch would send many strong forces to Brazil and would seize large portions of the country at various points. The Dutch would finally be defeated in Brazil, but not until 1654. All of these countries will come into play on the pages of the The O'Brien Chronicle. O'Brien first comes to Brazil with an English expedition and later is in contact with the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, English, and other Irishmen; soldiers, explorers and colonists of these countries move through his narrative at various points. Like so many Irishmen forced to leave their country and use their wits to make a new life, O'Brien must keep those wits about him on many occasions, playing one side off against another in the shifting tides that sweep him off in one direction and another throughout his narrative.
This then is the Brazil of Bernardo O'Brien's world. A region that is ostensibly owned by the recently merged Spanish/Portuguese Empire, but one which is highly coveted by the English and Dutch, who will take it by force, if possible. It is a dangerous world, indeed, for this son of Erin, a world in transition, where friend and foe are never certain, but it is a world he seems highly adept at negotiating.
Read a short biography of Martin McDonnell here.
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