The history of Brazil  began in Bahia . It was on April 22, 1500, that Portuguese navigator Pedro Alvares Cabral accidentally landed on the shores of southern Bahia, after being blown off course on his way to India. The Portuguese disembarked in the harbor known as Porto Seguro  (Safe Port) and spent 10 days exploring. Aside from the Tupi Indians, the only thing that sparked their curiosity was a tree with a glossy hard wood that yielded a red dye, known as pau brasil (brazilwood). Before setting sail, the Portuguese planted a cross in name of the King Manuel I. With the Tupi in attendance, they celebrated a mass at a spot they baptized Terra da Vera Cruz (Land of the True Cross).
Intrigued by Cabral’s discovery, Manuel I sent navigator Amerigo Vespucci back to the new land to explore it further. On November 1, 1501, Vespucci’s fleet entered the Baía de Todos os Santos , which he christened with the name of his arrival date (All Saints Day). For a few decades, there was a haphazard attempt to administer the new colony by doling out territories throughout the Northeast (including Bahia) to be administered by wealthy settlers.
However, this strategy proved inefficient, and in 1549 the king sent Tomé de Souza to Bahia with the title of first governor general, and the mission of building a settlement on the strategically sheltered bay that would serve as capital for the Brazilian colony. Souza arrived with settlers, builders, merchants, soldiers, and Jesuits. The former set about building the city of São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos  (which today has been abbreviated to Salvador), while the latter set about converting and pacifying Bahia’s Indian population.
In the beginning, the Portuguese had a rough time of it. The local Caeté Indians killed various troops and feasted upon the Bahia’s first bishop (whose appetizing name, Sardinha, is Portuguese for sardine). However, they were soon overcome by the Portuguese. Meanwhile, within decades the Portuguese had exhausted much of the supply of brazilwood and had turned their attentions to sugar, which was being successfully introduced throughout the Northeast.
Tomé de Souza incentivized the cultivation of sugar in Bahia. To work the great plantations that sprang up amidst the rolling hills surrounding Salvador, slaves were brought from the coasts of Portugal’s African colonies to serve as labor. The entire Northeast grew rich from “white gold” (as sugar was known), and as Brazil’s colonial capital, Salvador , with its elegant praças and richly adorned baroque churches, became the sparkling jewel in the Portuguese imperial crown. For close to three centuries the city boasted the biggest and most bustling port in the South Atlantic. During this time, Bahia became the biggest importer of African slaves in the New World.
Aside from a lasting legacy of social and economic inequality, the arrival of the African diaspora in Bahia also created a fantastically rich culture that permeated every aspect of society, including religion, music, cuisine, and language. To this day, Salvador is Brazil’s most “African” city, with around 85 percent of the population proudly declaring themselves Afro-Descendentes.
Bahia ’s fortunes took a turn for the worse in the 19th century. In 1822, with the arrival of the Portuguese crown, Brazil’s capital was transferred from Salvador  to Rio de Janeiro . Around the same time, São Paulo ’s coffee boom eclipsed the northeastern sugar trade, which received its final blow with the abolition of slavery. Its baroque grandeur fading fast, Salvador fell into a certain abandon, although it never lost its provincial charms and unique traditions.
It wasn’t until the 1980s and ’90s that oil, industry, and, later, tourism gave Bahia a new lease on life, accompanied by rapid modernization and favela-ization (in the last 30 years the population has quintupled to 2.6 million). Today, while many of the treasures of its past are being carefully preserved (while others are shockingly neglected), the city is striving to assert its identity as an increasingly modern city without losing its traditional jeito baiano or “Bahian way.”