The virgin Atlantic rainforests of Rio de Janeiro were inhabited by the Tamoio Indians when a Portuguese expedition led by navigator Gaspar de Lemos entered the picturesque Baía de Guanabara in January 1502. Thinking that the bay was the mouth of a river, Lemos baptized it Rio de Janeiro (River of January), and despite his mistake, the name stuck.
It was the colony-hungry French who originally settled the region in the 1550s. After only a decade, they were driven away the Portuguese in 1667, who took control of the region and of the Tamoio as well. Over the next century, the Tamoio were enslaved, rounded up and sent to live in Jesuit reservations, or (most frequently) killed in battle. By the 17th century, the small fortified town on the bay had become Brazil’s third major settlement after the colonial capital of Salvador and the northeastern towns of Recife and Olinda.
Prompted by the booming sugar-trading industry in these regions, Portuguese settlers in Rio also invested in sugarcane plantations—and in the African slaves necessary for their operation. As a result, by the 18th century, the majority of Rio’s inhabitants were of African origin. Despite their servile status, they mingled somewhat freely (and intimately) with their European masters, thus creating a mixed-race society. African religious and cultural customs seeped into the fabric of daily life. They remain strongly present to this day.
In the early 1700s, Rio got a boost when gold was discovered in the neighboring state of Minas Gerais; its port subsequently became the taxation and transportation center from which all Brazil’s wealth was shipped off to Europe. As a result of its growing strategic importance, the colonial capital was transferred from Salvador to Rio in 1763. But despite its growing political and economic prominence, the city remained a muddy backwater until the early 19th century.
In 1808, Napoleon Bonaparte’s army invaded Portugal. Forced into flight, Portugal’s king, Dom João VI, sought refuge in Rio—along with some 10,000 nobles, ministers, and royal hangers-on. The tropics agreed so well with the king and his court that even after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, in 1815, they were loath to go home. Consequently, the king invented the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, the Algarves, and the Guinea Coast of Africa, and proclaimed Rio de Janeiro as its capital. As the seat of the empire, Rio thrived. Royal patronage favored the development of the arts and sciences. Around the court, a sophisticated and cultured Brazilian elite flourished.
Befitting its new status, the city itself—at least the wealthy neighborhoods—finally got a much-needed overhaul. Grand palaces sprang up and the city’s streets were paved and illuminated. Even though the wealth from sugar and gold was dwindling—creating a large class of poor, unemployed slaves that migrated to the city’s mushrooming slums—new fortunes were being made from the coffee plantations that now covered the surrounding hills.
With the arrival of the 20th century, Rio continued to grow and expand. The center acquired a splendid belle epoque makeover with elegant squares, avenues, theaters, and palaces inspired by Baron Haussman’s Paris. Meanwhile, a tunnel blasted through the mountains opened up access to what would become the world-famous beach bairros of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon.
By the 1940s, aided in part by the Good Neighbor Policy propaganda of Hollywood films such as Flying Down to Rio and anything starring homegrown phenomenon Carmen Miranda, Rio had garnered a reputation as a tropical Paris. Its curvaceous deco nightclubs, glamorous casinos, and plush hotels (the most famous being the Copacabana Palace) lured the international jet set.
Meanwhile, the old colonial Centro, with the exception of its magnificent churches, was razed and replaced by high-rise office buildings. As the city grew the lush hillsides filled up with slums known as favelas, where Rio’s poor (mostly black) population built sprawling neighborhoods out of wood and cement blocks.
When the nation’s capital moved to the newly constructed city of Brasília in 1960, Rio didn’t miss a beat. Nor did it bat much of an eyelid as the nation’s economic power became consolidated in São Paulo in the 1970s and ’80s. And even today, in spite of increasing urban violence and the escalating drug wars that pit police against armies of traffickers, through it all, Rio manages to remain a truly marvelous city with an indomitable spirit and an irresistible beauty.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition