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On colonial cities of the Portuguese Empire. Themes and debates

Maria Sarita Mota, Cláudia C. Azeredo Atallah
& Rodrigo da Costa Dominguez

As discussed by Sebastian Conrad (2016), Global History can be defined as a type of history reassessment in which “phenomena, events, and processes are placed in global contexts.” The editors wanted to present a volume that could highlight this fundamental aspect of cities: being a reference within empires and societies, serving as “dots” to connect the most remote villages in the hinterlands with their center and with most relevant urban areas. Our objective is to show those “nodes of empires” (Brockey 2016) as something more than places whose own peculiar institutions resulted from the merging of Portuguese society’s urban institutions with local ones. Rather than maintaining the traditional focus on imperial economic dynamics –also present in this volume–, the editors’ efforts were concentrated in emphasizing the importance of urban areas in themselves to tell their own story as a particular societal construction. In this sense, all authors did a great effort to present their case studies on each city as urban development processes, starting from a local perspective, creating connections along and beyond the Portuguese Empire, and telling the stories of the agents involved in each of these processes. Moreover, the main avenues that served as connectors of those spaces were two oceans: the Atlantic and the Indian.

At the same time, those avenues served to add different layers of “globalization” to the Portuguese Empire’s connective capacity, expanded to carry on trade and foster the empire’s economic development in the Early Modern era (De Zwart and Van Zanden 2018). In this regard, much of the trade that linked those urban centers was part of a fundamental structure that enabled the creation of a Portuguese identity, connecting different parts of the globe and bringing together different regions with a diversity of peoples and ethnicities. Between the 1550s and 1570s, the Portuguese had established five major cities in three different continents –some of them approached in this volume–: São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Luanda, Macau, and Nagasaki; “in this pluricontinental amplitude, the empire’s growth was also due to the diffusion of local government institutions, and each important position of the empire had a town hall and a misericordia” (Costa 2014).

This model of an “expansive globalization” during the 1500s and 1600s, as defined by Cátia Antunes (2009), enabled the development of a political, military, and economic expansion, which fostered the communication between different markets and, bottom line, created the conditions for cultural-civilizational contacts that marked the early stage of a Portuguese identity building process. That was strongly shaped by the way cities and villages were conceived and adapted to the multitude of factors, such as geography, trade, capital, human relationships and supply-demand international chains.

Furthermore, the integration of different continents and peoples meant the fusion of different backgrounds regarding the shaping process of urban structures, and even the introduction of new natural microscopical agents. As mentioned by J. H. Elliott, “the conquest of America was a conquest by microbes as well as by men, sometimes running ahead of the main Spanish contingents, at others following in their wake” (1984, p. 182). As one of the effects of globalization and the development of urban structures in colonial territories, the widespread circulation of diseases, science and information became one of the main features in the building process of a modern and more integrated global society. In many ways, this spread of epidemic phenomena and general illnesses is part of a “late organic era” that witnessed the confrontation of “virgin soil” with Old World diseases, “and the disruption and degradation of population ecologies through violent dispossession and enslavement,” challenging native societies and settlers with unprecedented precarious conditions, including poor diets and malnutrition, overworking, and “the disruption of delicate subsistence systems compounding disease to shape the ongoing decline” (Brooke 2014, pp. 413-414; 430-433).

Mother Nature also played a fundamental role in the creation of New World cities and labor relationships, with the reduction of African peoples to slavery. The combination of severe droughts and famines in West Central Africa pushed tribes and other groups to coastal areas, forcing them to accept subservience to wealthier families as transitory slaves, by the time Europeans were finding their way to India and South America. As mentioned by other scholars, climate certainly “did not drive the rise of slave trade, but it set the conditions, encouraging the rise of small warring states and increasing the general stress on the population with crop failure and famine” (Miller 1982, pp. 17-61; Brooke 2014, pp. 443-444). In this sense, the structuring of cities and societies in the New World, based on a logic of “new and complementary biomes” to supply international markets with new commodities –cocoa, maize, spices, sugar, coffee, tobacco, among others–, also applied the use of slavery to the search of gold and silver. Yet, mining –as well as slavery– is tied to the origin of many of those cities and villages all over the Spanish and Portuguese colonial territories in the Americas (Raminelli 2000, p. 119; Mauro 2012, pp. 449-456; Salvucci 2014, pp. 408-417; Irigoin 2019, pp. 274-276), having fostered the urban development and relevant migration flows that gave rise to the populations and urban cultures portrayed in this volume.

Classic and pioneering research since the end of the 1960s has already explored the trade relations between Portuguese America, Africa, the Estado da Índia, and the rest of the empire, drawing attention to the existence of several internal trade circuits. Attentive to a “history of connections and conflicts,” in José Roberto do Amaral Lapa’s words, it has noted the pre-eminence of port cities such as Salvador da Bahia, among other commercial hubs, as stopover points in the Carreira da Índia (Lapa 1968). Since then, the historiography has grown substantially, and it would be impossible to list all the works that have deepened our understanding of the empire’s economy. Of special interest are those which have underlined the interdependencies between its various parts (Fragoso 2001; Costa 2002; Bicalho 2003), the importance of global imperial structures —namely, the role of the colonies and the Atlantic trade of silver, sugar and slaves in the context of the Portuguese Restoration (Schwartz 2008)—, or, more recently, the entangled histories of the Iberian empires and their role in the early process of globalization (Herzog 2015; Polónia & Antunes 2016; Santos Pérez 2016; Yun-Casalilla 2019). These major studies promote debates on specific topics such as sovereignty and property rights, settlement of border regions, movement flows between ports, the diversity of trading, merchant, and trafficking activities, trade routes and areas for attracting investments, or the circulation of people and goods. Certain required subjects linked to political and institutional history, cultural intersections, and, more recently, the environmental and ecological dimension have been incorporated.

As mentioned by Liam Brockey, it has been over five decades since Charles Boxer raised the issue about possibly fitting the study of colonial cities into the broader interpretation of the imperial enterprise (2016: 14). The editors –and authors– of this volume went further and made an additional effort: framing the study of Portuguese colonial cities within the global history approach to underline their insertion into what Wallerstein (2014) called the “historic globalization” and “the modern world-system.” Somehow, we do believe that the goal has been successfully achieved, and the editors are very pleased and proud to deliver the results of such a great collective effort.

It must be mentioned that this volume does not start from a descriptive and normative definition of what are conventionally called “Portuguese colonial cities” (Teixeira & Valla, 1999, Teixeira, 2004; Santos, 1999; Rossa, 2002; Dias, 1992; 2004; Lobo & Simões Júnior, 2012; Carbonessi et al, 2022).[1] It does not address the classification criteria guided by Renaissance urban ideals of territory control and assertion of royal power, or by typologies according to function and locality; neither does it attempt to explain the urban hierarchy of the modern era. The editors resisted the idea of identifying categories to define the city and the urban, as they effectively vary according to place and time and exclude other socio-historical experiences. Our purpose is not to establish new generalizations based on theories about the city and urbanism such as have been developed since the 19th century, for which there is an exhaustive and widely quoted and discussed bibliography also present in some chapters of this book. In this sense, we have adopted the common meaning of the term city to encompass different categories of urban entities that stood out in the formation of the Portuguese Empire, with special attention to those that received the title of towns and cities but exploring the local/global dialectic.[2]

The main objective is to present new case studies based on historiographical themes with a well-defined theoretical-methodological approach; such studies converge or find their specificity or centrality in the city in a broad sense. These texts discuss topics that shaped the history of Portuguese colonization in the tropics, such as forced labor by native populations, slavery, transoceanic trade, cross-cultural contacts, and migration, including the spread of plagues. Those themes make it possible to explore the relational and global dimension of the urban phenomenon in the past, as pointed out by Castells (1996); Sasken (2013); Friedmann (2002), Kwak & Sandoval-Strausz (2018).[3]

Assuming that every empire is a global system, the concepts of “imperial cities” and “colonial cities” have been useful in the study of the territorialization and urbanization of European overseas empires. For a long time, they allowed researchers to focus on a broader urban system, incorporating all the spaces produced by urbanization understood as a social process. However, rather than comparing Early Modern cities, it is necessary to show how the historical trajectory of some settlements was reflected in their organization as a city (which did not always get to materialize), as well as their insertion in the global context of urban networks.

The study of the urban network, or the city’s autonomy beyond its surrounding region, reinforces the non-existence of isolated cities unrelated with the outside world, emphasizing their mutual relations. The change of focus from isolated cities to urban networks reduces the importance of defining the city precisely. In fact, the study of the urban network implies examining the degree of centrality of its different nuclei, thus stressing the concept of centrality in the definition of city. However, if we understand colonial cities as centers of expression of the power and sovereignty of the Portuguese Catholic monarchy over its overseas territories, following the outline of these urban networks —that is, the flow of human creations— will lead us to another possible image of the adopted global perspective.

For Tim Ingold (2012), the flows and counterflows of materials can be understood under the concept of meshwork. In his words, a tangle of things (as aggregates of vital threads) is not a network of connections, but a mesh of interwoven lines of growth and movement. It is an excellent metaphor to understand the creation of urban spaces. However, we can inquire about the geographical concept of meshwork and entanglement in global contexts to understand cultural and commercial exchanges, the flows and counterflows between colonial, imperial, and trans-imperial spaces.

Facing this challenge, the chapters of this book discuss how the political categories of Portuguese urbanism, such as lugares, arraiais, fortalezas, praças-fortes, povoações and vilas[4], connected in some cases to imperial and trans-imperial spaces, hiding much more complex dynamics. Understanding that these dynamic spaces are not peripheral in the framework of colonialism as a global project[5], we propose to look at them as part of an “entanglement of cities.”[6] This allows to delineate a comparative perspective between different spatial scales, moving from the local to the global and across seemingly distant regions. We hope that reading this edited volume will reveal a part of this plot of local autonomies and broad imperial exchanges.

This volume is structured in 5 parts that incorporate historiographical themes and debates which, far from exhausting the rich complexity of the Portuguese colonial cities, provide more comprehensive approaches to understand the empire and the cities within broader dynamics, with different centers and interactions between the local and the global.

The studies attempt to transcend the experience of specific local urban communities by rehearsing general comparisons based on a set of central themes in the governance and maintenance of the Portuguese empire’s sovereignty: forms of organization of conquered or shared territories, justice administration, work organization, the centrality of the slave trade that established a transoceanic bridge between Portugal, Africa and Brazil, the development of trans-imperial trade, and the issue of public health in the fight against that plagues and epidemics that devastated the empire’s population. Some important themes, such as demography and religion -especially the role of the Misericórdias in the Portuguese empire- could not be incorporated into this volume. However, we include the theme of the presence of indigenous and African peoples (whether enslaved or free) in the cities, especially performing high-skilled work in royal service, reinforcing their role within the intricacies of commercial exchanges in the modern oceanic circuit.

The studies gathered here emphasize the multiple spatiality of townships, villages, fortified cities, port cities, “royal” or “imperial” cities, that is, the different networks capable of operating through the Atlantic from a strong local rooting, connecting them with global developments. This socio-economic and political history written on the ground floor, based on documents from provincial and national historical archives and combined with a review of relevant international historiography, allows us to better understand the changes and continuities of the Atlantic system and historical capitalism.

The texts can be read in the devised thematic sequence, following the approaches and comparisons between what we call “hubs of empires.” Alternatively, by reading individual chapters, the reader can identify these cities and trace the connections initiated from important urban centers and their immediate and wider links, exchanges, and reciprocal actions.

From this perspective, Part 1 brings together studies centered on two cities created in the economic space of the Atlantic during the 16th century, Rio de Janeiro and Luanda, analyzing the dynamics of work, circulation, mobility, and inequality that defined the Portuguese societies of the Old Regime in territories conquered during the Portuguese expansion. The texts review the classic literature on the subject and present new points of view on the forced labor of Amerindians and enslaved African populations. The issue here concerns the role of those Atlantic cities in the formation of diasporic cultures[7] and in the survival of native populations integrated via forced labor to the Portuguese empire. This topic allows us to understand how violence and inequality mechanisms shaped the formation of colonial cities.

Part 2 explores the power relations established in the urban formation of the Portuguese Crown’s overseas territories, together with the setting up of the complex structure of administrative and judicial control imposed on the main cities located on the shores of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The imperial experience of cities such as Lisbon, Luanda, Goa, and Salvador da Bahia, analyzed in the sphere of local administration and Atlantic bureaucracy, reveals imperial patterns of information circulation and government.

Part 3 considers the multiple geographies of the Portuguese empire and brings together works that delve into the theme of frontiers and the interiorization of hinterlands and spaces considered uncivilized, exploring economic dynamism and the various political and legal statutes. These regions far from the sea are less contemplated in urbanism studies, so here we introduce some villages created in the hinterlands of Bahia and Minas Gerais, between the 18th and 19th centuries, to analyze less visible connections.

The experiences of colonial frontier towns in the Amazon are mapped in Part 4. The objective is to show, simultaneously, the frontier as a zone of diverse contacts, the formation of an urban network based on cities like São Luís and Belém, and the insertion of economic river routes in the Equatorial Amazonian Forest. Dynamics beyond the local and regional levels are emphasized to show these cities’ various types of connections in the economic space of the Portuguese-Spanish Atlantic and in the imperial context.

Part 5 observes the global scope of slavery from the urban networks that constituted the aftermath of transatlantic trade and the exchange of other goods. Both Recife and Luanda capture the dynamics and transnational nature of slave trade. In addition, it considers ecological-biological phenomena, such as the spread of plagues and epidemics in the process of modern globalization.

In Part 1, Silene Orlando Ribeiro’s chapter explores an aspect that remains insufficiently studied by the historiography of labor in the colonial period: the presence of indigenous populations in Brazilian colonial cities and the various services they performed in typically urban institutions. Focusing on the recruitment of indigenous workers for the Navy Arsenal in Rio de Janeiro, from the late 1760s towards the 1820s, the author recovers the local experience to show the functioning of a colonial port as an economic center, as well as the emergence of a new profession: indigenous customs rowers. In fact, the transfer of the capital from the city of Salvador da Bahia to Rio de Janeiro, in 1763, and the elevation of Brazil to Viceroyalty mark the end of the General Government period, revealing Portugal’s valorization of commercial and military expansion and this port city’s primordial role as a strategic point that articulated the territorial and Atlantic borders of the vast central-south region of Portuguese America (Alencastro 2000; Bicalho 2003). As Silene Orlando argues, various official sources, such as correspondence between local agents and royal magistrates, indigenous legislation and, above all, petitions (both from settlers seeking greater control over the workforce and from indigenous people claiming labor rights), certify the ability of the indigenous labor and their own experience of late 18th-century/early 19th-century urban life. These sources also reveal their role in the construction of the city and how they were captured by the Atlantic economy.

Frequently, indigenous labor proved to be a more viable economic alternative than the acquisition of African slaves. In fact, indigenous villagers (índios aldeados) were divided into groups and took turns in His Majesty’s service in the construction of the city and urban infrastructure maintenance. Acting as porters, fletchers, hunters in rescue expeditions, and rowers employed by Customs, they were underpaid compared to workers from other ethnic groups. Channeling this workforce was a means for the desired acculturation and civilization of native peoples. The growth of the city of Rio de Janeiro, driven by its connection to the mining regions and with the Atlantic, increased the demand for these indigenous workers in royal service in the port area. This is the limit of indigenous freedom: being available for recruitment by missionaries, settlers, or the Portuguese Crown, and required to serve.

The next chapter, by Roberto Guedes and Ana Paula Bôscaro, reassesses a classic topic among scholars: the transatlantic slave trade. Working from the perspective of an intersection between religion, trade and slavery, the authors debate the relationship that constitutes the history of Brazilian labor supply by comparing both sides of the Atlantic –Luanda and Rio de Janeiro– from the late 1790s to the 1830s. Using the comparative approach with sources from both cities, such as baptism records and registries of arrived slaves, they argue that, though there was a large number of slave market operators, the activity was concentrated in a restricted group. Moreover, this group developed its own logic of hierarchies and inequality among traders and other free men involved in this activity; ultimately, it was also related to well-structured networks and streamlined access to credit, in order to finance their own businesses and ensure slave supply in both coastal and hinterland cities.

In Part 2, using the Marques de Pombal’s reforms in the mid-18th century as a motto, along with their impact on the colonies’ everyday life, José Subtil presents, in his text entitled “The political apparatus of Luanda and Lisbon at the end of the Ancien Régime,” a comparative study of these city councils with a focus on the public health problems that involved the royal service in the capitals, and the articulations of local powers. The author has vast experience studying the impacts of the Pombaline reforms on the kingdom and its conquered territories. This article emphasizes the mostly unsuccessful efforts undertaken by the administration of Luanda to adapt to the reforms promoted by the Marquês de Pombal. Disease, unsanitary conditions on the Atlantic crossing, and a high death rate hampered the city’s political and economic stability. More structurally, the inevitable ethnic and social miscegenation caused by the transit of people from all parts of the empire would have prevented the formation of a strong white elite loyal to the monarchy. Professor Subtil also observes the horizontal movement of royal agents who, once completed their office terms in Angola’s capital, did not return to the kingdom but settled in Luanda or crossed the Atlantic to assume other positions in the name of the king.

This section also includes the chapter by Nuno Camarinhas, who had previously published works on the circulation of royal agents of justice throughout the Portuguese empire (2013) and on the complexity of these judiciary networks (2018). In “Lisbon, Goa, and Bahia: Imperial cities in the construction of a Portuguese multicontinental judicial system (16th-18th centuries),” the author presents a well-founded discussion of the concept of city in the modern era. Camarinhas starts from the initial idea of the project “Imperial Cities: local dynamics, global flows,” coordinated by the editors of this collection, where the concept of city included those settlements which held the title of “imperial,” had consolidated themselves as seats of political, military and economic power, and were characterized by the interconnections between the local and the global. From there, he seeks to identify the general traits of administrative plurality adopted by each of the listed urban centers (Lisbon, Goa, and Bahia). His aim was to re-signify a notion that has illuminated studies on the modern era (Alencastro 2000): the Atlantic Triangle, an image that had controlled Southern Atlantic economic activities since the 16th century, formed by the connection of Europe to South America and the West Coast of Africa via the Iberian Peninsula. In this scenario, the author uses the notion of regional political-administrative centers —but not less important for the imperial articulations with Lisbon—, drawing our attention to the symbioses established between different parts of the empire. The culture of royal political practices is intertwined with local customs, the dynamics of native peoples, and the structuring constitution of slavery.

The author argues that the demarcations of the Portuguese overseas territory encountered severe implementation difficulties. The strategy pursued by the Crown to enforce the kingdom’s laws consisted in an ever-increasing circulation of royal agents of justice, which made the processing of cases more complex. Nuno Camarinhas maps the tangle of bureaucratic networks formed early on and extended throughout the modern era, interconnecting these agents with local peoples and colonial authorities in the Luso-Brazilian Atlantic space, within so different dynamics that absorbed the local elites.

The articles in Part 3 follow the “paths of the sertões” (hinterlands), the land and river routes of the great São Francisco river basin (in the Northeast) and of Paraíba do Sul (in the Southeast), which increased trade flows in the Atlantic, highlighting the importance of local networks in building the Portuguese Empire. These works focus on the creation of villages in the sertões of Minas Gerais and Bahia between the 17th and 19th centuries, showing how the mercantile flow of gold and livestock favored the integration of gold-producing villages into the empire’s geopolitical map. Later on, coffee would also be traded across transnational borders. These studies evince the complexity of the notions of town and city in the vast domains of Portuguese America.

The chapter entitled “Arraial do Tejuco: the multiple geographies of a colonial urbe,” by Junia Ferreira Furtado, analyzes the various territorial demarcations of Tejuco, an important district for gold and diamond prospecting. During the 18th century, the region demanded strict surveillance from the metropolitan power, which led to the creation of the Royal Extraction of Diamonds in 1771. The numerous demarcations caused an imbalance in population and extraction control in the region and were not efficient in controlling contraband (extravio) or the entry and exit of intruders. To analyze this chaotic conjunction, the author uses district censuses and cartographic sources dating from the last quarter of the 18th century. Her intention is to compare these strictly spatial sources with other elements of social history to assess the multiple cartographic representations produced in this period. Such profusion of maps was intended to control the activities of this important diamond district and its relations with the surrounding villages, as well as the wider connections with Lisbon. With such meticulous analysis of cartographic production in the mid-18th century, she draws our attention to those paths cut through townships and villages which, from the metropolitan point of view, threatened their regional control over population movements and diamond extraction, from the mines themselves to the Lisbon-bound ships.

Next, the chapter by Judy Bieber and Hélida Santos Conceição studies the creation of villages in the central lands of inner Bahia and Minas Gerais, dedicated to gold prospecting, in the 18th century. The authors expose the complex interaction of different agents (residents, merchants, ordinance officials and, specially, the sertanistas) that shaped local hierarchies and customs based on connections with the overseas empire. Using a vast collection of documents —including census sources and administrative correspondence from the Secretariat of the Estado do Brasil, such as letters (notícias) sent by sertanistas to the kingdom and to local powers—, the authors analyzed the political vocabulary that shaped the construction of villages in the interior of Brazil. A central argument of this study concerns an assumption of the Old Regime government, in which justice was one of the main prerogatives attributed to the agents who ruled in the name of the King. In the political-administrative entanglement of the Portuguese empire, several other agents whose jurisdiction was guaranteed by statutes or regulations saw their power spheres under constant confusion and/or prone to overlapping due to the lack of definitions in these documents and their inability to avoid the conflicts.

Mapping the political practices of the Portuguese crown, Bieber & Conceição argue that such conflicts were daily and clearly marked the empire’s political-administrative fragmentation. Royal officials, local members of government, city council agents responsible for managing the common good, all interfered with each other’s jurisdictions and made use of clientele networks to maintain their positions and power status. In this study, the importance of municipal archives and colonial collections is fundamental to understand the role of local politics in promoting the formation of villages in the interior, especially in the hinterlands of Minas Gerais and Bahia, under the logic of the Portuguese Old Regime society.

Going beyond the “golden century”, and unveiling the tenuous border between rural and urban, Vitória Schettini’s chapter presents a study of the sertões of southern Minas Gerais during the 19th century. For decades, the historiography on the subject accompanied contemporary documentary records that described the sertões as areas without control, inhabited by “brave Indians” and criminal lords who, whether due to the absence of laws or the royal agents’ fear to enforce them, were considered the kings of the sertões. This chapter, anchored in a consistent historiographical debate, reveals another face of the Zona da Mata hinterland in Minas Gerais: the passageways between the Atlantic coast and the various interior villages erected with the progress of mining. These terrestrial arteries spurred the process of urbanization and integration for indigenous peoples, settlers, and outsiders, boosting the urban network of commercial activities and land occupation. According to the author, agriculture and trade, in addition to mining, were important factors for the development of settlements. Furthermore, this transience gave rise to an economic diversity capable of meeting regional demands. In fact, the Zona da Mata’s proximity to the city of Rio de Janeiro enabled it to meet the imperial court’s supply needs in the tropics.[8]

Further on, the collected texts turn to the formation of the Amazonian Atlantic territories in the context of the union of Iberian crowns, focusing on the different connections during the nascent globalization of trade routes and the circulation of people and goods. This part explores the idea that border cities can be an empire’s first line of defense rather than a peripheral region. It sets about to explore the last frontier of the Portuguese empire —the Amazon— as an object of self-perception for the region and its insertion in the modern global production circuits. In this sense, Belém and São Luís, cities created from the ground up, constitute an urban rearguard since the beginning of the 17th century, as demonstrated by the analysis of cartography and studies on the integration of these cities to trans-imperial trade.

Helidacy Muniz Corrêa and José Damião Rodrigues, in the chapter entitled “São Luís in Imperial Iberian Politics. From conquered land to seat of the State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará (Brazil),” use the historical cartography of colonial Maranhão to reflect on the role of Amazonian cities within the dynamics of the Atlantic empires. Initially, the Fort of São Luís, founded by the French on the island of Maranhão in 1612 and designated as “State and Colony”, reinforced the ideas of Equinoctial France. In 1615, the Portuguese reconquered the territory, integrating the new fortress city into the Iberian imperial policy. The privileged geographical location of São Luís, inserted in a gulf between two bays (São Marcos and São José) connected to the Atlantic by its vast river network, allowed a broad commercial and urban development. The authors consider the city of São Luís to be a “border city”, a place of intermediation of Iberian politics, but also a territory whose possession was disputed between the French and the Dutch (invaders from 1641 to 1644). This allows us to think of the empire as part of a continuous expansion of war and expropriation, and to understand the transformation of São Luís as a local and regional center of power, finally emerging as an “imperial city”. Its connections with Africa and Europe were much closer than with the other captaincies of the State of Brazil.

As a rule, urban studies do not treat indigenous populations as protagonists in the construction of cities. By observing cartographic representations, it becomes clear that Tupinambá logic also contributed to the urban transfiguration of the 17th century, shaping the creation of villages and the city itself. In this sense, “The design acquired by Brazil throughout its colonial period must not be attributed to the Europeans, but to the multiple forms of interaction between Europeans, indigenous peoples and mestizos” (Ramalho et al., 2020).

But the uniqueness of São Luís also exemplifies the projection of colonial urbanism to other parts of the Portuguese empire. The disputes between São Luís and Belém (founded in 1616, to the west of São Luís) for the seat of government of the State of Maranhão and Grão-Pará (created in 1621), as well as the search for urban nobility, honors and privileges, unite these Amazonian twin cities, counted among the most important of the Portuguese pluricontinental monarchy. Supported by an extensive documentation comprising chronicles and testimonies from clerics and Portuguese royal agents, the authors compare the urban plans of São Luís and Belém, following the rhythms of interiorization towards the hinterlands and revealing the transformation of these fortress cities into port cities integrated to the Northern Atlantic commercial routes.

The chapter by Raphael Chambouleyron and Alírio Cardoso, entitled “São Luís do Maranhão and Belém do Grão-Pará. Cities and the territorial and economic expansion of the Portuguese colonial Amazon region,” continues the comparison between these Amazonian cities that, in the mid-17th century, represented “the vanguard of territorial expansion” into an almost unknown world. São Luís and Belém ensured the political and military governance of the vast Amazonian territory and played an important economic role for the region’s insertion into the Luso-Spanish Atlantic production circuit. Marked by peculiar physical characteristics, these cities founded on the delta of the Amazon River assumed a strategic position for several economic agents who soon understood their significance: a connection of trans-frontier spaces between the kingdoms of Portugal and Spain. Furthermore, the authors state that “the conquest and foundation of cities in the Portuguese Amazon is, in itself, a connected history”; in fact, they also consider some village creation projects designed by the Portuguese, and their French, English and Dutch competitors. Understanding São Luís and Belém as port structures, the authors analyze the migrations, the expansion of the agricultural frontier, the types of connections with other centers of the Iberian monarchy, and the integration with other regions of the Atlantic.

Closing the volume, we introduced two studies that assess slave trade, with special attention to urban growth and connections between the cities of Recife and Luanda, and several colonial ports. Here, it becomes necessary to read against the grain and remember that these networks are not particularly reasons for celebration, given their use for the trafficking of enslaved people. Another point of interest is the spread of plagues and epidemics in Portugal, seen from a global perspective.

Also related to the slave trade topic, Gustavo Acioli discusses in his chapter the status of Recife and Pernambuco “in between” different levels of globalization, as regards the range of their different economic activities from the 1500s to the 1700s. The author suggests that the northeastern Brazilian city is in a particular spot that allowed for an increasingly prominent economic role since the end of the “early globalization,” as defined by de Zwart and van Zanden (2018). Recife’s position would be considered “regional”, in terms of the reach of its commodities and the scope of action of its businessmen and economic agents. Based on the analysis of the sugar exporting business, and as one of the main ports of entry for African slaves into Brazil, the author demonstrates that Recife is a major outlet for the Brazilian northeastern hinterlands, serving as a fundamental “connecting hub” between local and international markets and fostering the Atlantic economic region.

On the African front of the slave trade business, Maximiliano Menz and Wolfgang Lenk examine the growth of Luanda as a city and as a global market. They inspect different aspects of its economic activities and social indicators, dividing them into three different “flows” –migration, commodities, and capital– to understand how the city developed into the great capital of the Western African slave trade and one of the main ports of the Portuguese empire. Moreover, the authors highlight how Luanda’s economy was intertwined with Brazil by studying official Portuguese government correspondence, and the payments and actions of slave traders and businessmen operating between the major Brazilian port cities (Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, and Pernambuco) and Lisbon. Their work emphasizes a strong and sophisticated level of connection between those cities and the international financial markets during the 1700s, which afforded them various types of capital, especially from Italian entrepreneurs, during the 1700s.

Within the domain of health, epidemics and the dissemination of science, Matheus Duarte da Silva offers the readers a comprehensive view of the Plague in Portugal, between the 1700s and the 1900s. Using secondary sources, the author reconstructs the logics and dynamics behind the “old” and “new” plagues, illustrating the connections between different levels of the Portuguese Empire –local, regional, national, and transoceanic– and the need of global structures, i.e., both colonial and metropolitan urban spaces, for the circulation of knowledge. Another relevant aspect highlighted in this article is how the geographical component can play an active role not only regarding the disease itself and its medical solutions, but also in terms of the speed of information circulation: something essential to combat the health problems that have afflicted humanity during modern and contemporary times.

Finally, considering that these studies follow the main lines of analysis proposed by the international agenda, they allow the reader to do comparison exercises. Indeed, we intend to validate the status of the arraials, as provincial or port towns that require a spatial and economic link between the port and the city, and which had a strong influence in the organization of remote regions with verifiable long-distance connections. Therefore, the texts gathered here are not restricted to cities properly qualified as such; they also cover other interior spaces (sertões), criticizing the idea that they were merely peripheral in the Portuguese empire’s process of territorialization and urbanization in the modern era.

Portuguese Colonial Cities presents consolidated research results by specialists interested in the study of mercantile, political, and legal networks derived from the administrative dynamics of the empire. Drawn from collections of Portuguese, Brazilian and African national archives, as well as regional archives comprising a great diversity of notarial, municipal, and local judicial documents, the empirical findings suggest a scenario of circulating royal agents, goods, documents, and ideas that shape the Portuguese empire’s specificity. As previously discussed by Dale Tomich (2004), the sea is the historical space where agents interact and, at the same time, the historical agent that promotes the teleconnections between those cities, enabling “the structural relationship between the continents bathed by the Atlantic,” in political, economic, and social terms.

Unveiling the levels of interaction between the local and the global, this volume is an invitation to understand how each of the colonial cities had a special performance within the Portuguese Empire. Together, the collected essays bring an up-to-date historiographical debate on the first modern cities in Latin America and Africa.


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Antunes, C.; Fatah-Black, K. (Eds) (2016). Explorations in History and Globalization. New York-London, Routledge.

Antunes, C. & Polónia, A. (Eds) (2016). Beyond Empires: Global, Self-Organization, Cros-Imperial Networks, 1500-1800. Leiden-Boston, Brill.

Araújo, E. A. de; Santos Júnior, J. J. G. dos. (2018). História Urbana e Global: novas tendências e abordagens. Fortaleza: Editora da Universidade Estadual do Ceará.

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Bieber, J. (1999). Power, patronage, and political violence: state building on a Brazilian Frontier, 1822-1889. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press.

Brockey, L. M. (2016). “Introduction,” in ___. (ed.). Portuguese Colonial Cities in the Early Modern World. London-New York, Routledge, 1-14.

Brooke, J. L. (2014). Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Bueno, B. (2012). “Introdução,” Anais do Museu Paulista, Dossiê – Caminhos da História da Urbanização no Brasil-Colônia, v.20. nº 1, 11-40.

Camarinhas, N. (2013). “Justice administration in early modern Portugal: Kingdom and empire in a bureaucratic continuum,” Portuguese Journal of Social Science, vol. 12, nº 2, 179-193.

Camarinhas, N. (2018). “Lugares ultramarinos. A construção do aparelho judicial no ultramar português da época moderna,” Análise Social, Vol. 53, nº 226, 136-160.

Cañizares-Esguerra, J., Breen, B. (2013). “Hybrid Atlantics: Future Directions for the History of the Atlantic World,” History Compass, 11/8, 597-609.

Cañizares-Esguerra, J, Childs, M. D., Sidbury, J. (2013). The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade. University of Pennsylvania Press.

Carbonesi, J.; Rocha, N.; Gil, T. (2022). “Historiografia sobre a América Portuguesa em diálogo: vilas e cidades no período colonial,” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos. https://bit.ly/3YqeGeb

Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Conrad, S. (2016). What is Global History? Princeton-Oxford, Princeton University Press.

Costa, J. P. (2014). “As contradições de um Império pluricontinental pujante,” in ____. (coord.). História da Expansão e do Império Português. Lisboa, A Esfera dos Livros, 144-167.

Costa, L. F. (2002). Império e Grupos Mercantis. Entre o Oriente e o Atlântico (século XVII). Lisboa: Livros Horizonte, Coleção “Temas de História de Portugal”.

De Zwart, P., Van Zanden, J. L. (2018). The Origins of Globalization: World Trade in the Making of the Global Economy, 1500-1800. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Dias, P. (2004). História da Arte Luso-Brasileira. Urbanização e fortificações, Lisboa, Almedina.

Dias, P. (1992). As primeiras construções portuguesas na costa oriental de África e no Golfo Pérsico (1503-1515), In Actas do IV Simpósio Luso-Espanhol de História da Arte, Instituto de História da Arte da Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Coimbra, Coimbra, 25-41.

Domingos, N., Peralta, E. (Orgs). (2013). Cidade e Império: dinâmicas coloniais e reconfigurações pós-coloniais. Lisboa, Edições 70.

Elliott, J. H. (1984). “The Spanish conquest and settlement of America.” In Bethell, L. (ed.). The Cambridge History of Latin America – vol. 1: Colonial Latin America. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 147-206.

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Fridman, F. (2010). Breve história do debate sobre a cidade colonial brasileira, in Fridman, F.; Abreu, M. Cidades latino-americanas: um debate sobre a formação de núcleos urbanos. Rio de Janeiro, Casa da Palavra.

Friedmann, J. (2002). The Prospects of Cities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesotta Press.

Gould, E. (2007), “Entangled Histories, Entangled Worlds: The English-Speaking Atlantic as a Spanish Periphery,” AHR 112/3, 764-786.

Herzog, T. (2015). Frontiers of Possession: Spain and Portugal in Europe and the Americas. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

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Ramalho, J. P. G., Neto, M. R., Maluly, V. S. Gil, T. L. (2020). “Os grupos nativos e a morfologia da conquista na América Portuguesa,” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [Online], 2020. https://bit.ly/3uTC8De

Raminelli, R. (2000). “Cidade”, in VAINFAS, Ronaldo (org.). Dicionário do Brasil Colonial (1500-1808). Rio de Janeiro, Objetiva, 118-120.

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Vidal, L. (2005). Mazagão, la ville que traverssa l’Atlantique. Du Maroc à l’Amazonie (1769-1783). Aubier, Paris.

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  1. The bibliography on Portuguese urbanism is vast. For a summary of Portuguese America, see the Guide to colonial towns and cities: https://bit.ly/3FU8qUP
  2. Recent studies on the city and the urban within the scope of Global History can be mapped in the Global Urban History project: http://www.globalurbanhistory.org
  3. For an overview of the reception of these works in Brazil, see Araújo & Santos Júnior (2018). For Portugal, a perspective of postcolonial studies can be found in Domingos & Peralta (2013).
  4. In the case of Portuguese America, the dispute for the status of “imperial city” dragged on over time, materializing, in some cases, in the post-independence period. For a bibliographical debate within the scope of the Portuguese empire, see Vidal (2005), Fridman (2010), Bueno (2012).
  5. For a detailed discussion of the Portuguese case, see the introductory study carried out by Domingos & Peralta (2013).
  6. By entanglement we mean the complex situation that defines reciprocal articulation, interrelation, integration, mutual dependence in relationships between people, things, and places within a system. In the field of Social Sciences, the concept has been widely used, see Thomas (1991), Gould (2007), Cañizares-Esguerra and Breen (2013).
  7. This issue was discussed in a pioneering study carried out by the authors of the collection The Black Urban Atlantic in the Age of the Slave Trade, edited by Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Matt. D. Childs, James Sidbury (2013). In this book, in addition to the black African experience, we also include the indigenous experience of urban life.
  8. In fact, some authors —notably Eduardo França Paiva (2009)—, following the classic studies of Roberto Borges Martins, Robert Slenes and Douglas Cole Libby, had already highlighted the importance of establishing connections between locus and orbi in the research on Minas Gerais’ history, incorporating international political setbacks —especially the transmigration of the Royal Family to Brazil— and their impact on the economic dynamics of Minas Gerais. Schettini, Lamas & Silva (2017) also follows this path and have organized collections which include more recent themes from the perspective of the Global Commodities Chains, contributing to the renewal of historiographical debates.

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