Compared to much of the rest of coastal Brazil, the South’s history is fairly recent. Officially, from 1500 onward, Portugal controlled the Atlantic coastline and interior all the way south to the Rio de la Plata. However, for centuries the area remained largely unsettled by Portuguese colonists.
Aside from the presence of Azorean fishing communities along the coasts Paraná and Santa Catarina, the most significant presence during the 17th and early to mid-18th centuries was that of Jesuit missionaries. Bent on converting local Guarani Indians, they established various missionary communities in the interior, particularly near the border with neighboring Argentina and Uruguay.
By the time the Portuguese crown expelled the Jesuits from Brazil in 1767, much of the grassy highland plains of Rio Grande do Sul (the famous Pampas) had been given over to vast ranches owned by cattle barons of Spanish origin who employed Gaúchos—cowboys of mixed Spanish, Portuguese, and Indian descent—to care for their vast herds.
Large-scale settlement and development of the South as a whole didn’t occur until the mid-19th century, when European immigrants—notably from Germany, Italy, and to a lesser extent Poland and Ukraine—arrived en masse, lured by the promise of fertile land, a temperate climate, and the commercial opportunities provided by burgeoning towns. Armed with advanced farming techniques and industrial know-how, these newcomers quickly transformed the South into a thriving region reputed for its dynamic economy, progressive politics, and clean and efficient cities whose inhabitants enjoy one of Brazil’s highest standards of living.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition