Brazil is an enormous country roughly the size of the continental United States. Despite this, the vast majority of Brazilians live 300 km from the coast, and most of these have never even set foot into the interior of Brazil. Much of modern Brazil’s interior is sparsely populated, if even at all.
If this is the case now, then imagine what it must have been like centuries ago when Brazil was still just a colony and its population was a fraction of what it is today. The Portuguese had stumbled upon this massive continent and barely knew what lied just beyond its shores.
That’s where the bandeirantes came in. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, groups of armed men ventured into the interior of Brazil, ostensibly to explore and settle it. In reality, the bandeirantes were looking for gold and indigenous peoples to capture and sell as slaves. These men were called bandeirantes due to carrying banners, called bandeiras in Portuguese. Though they set out every few months from many different cities, São Paulo was the most popular launching pad for these “adventurers.”
A typical group of bandeirantes was made up of a several different types of people who often had different motives for joining. Most were mixed Indian/Portuguese men conscripted to explore the interior in an effort to find gold and capture indigenous tribesmen to be used as slaves. Many of these men were former soldiers, farmers, bounty hunters, criminals, colonial elites looking for a little adventure and, surprisingly, priests. Yes, despite many (if not most) of them being cutthroats and mercenaries, they still had spiritual needs and required someone to perform their last rights should they die on the road. Thus, most groups of bandeirantes had at least one man of the cloth to accompany them on their travels. The bandeirantes carried with them guns, chains, collars and other weapons, both for protection as well as to intimidate the indigenous and rival groups that they eventually would have come across.
Their motives ranged from the mundane to the sublime. Several were in search of gold and other riches. Some were in it for the thrill of setting foot where no European had gone before. Others were trying to escape from society or jail. A few wanted to sleep with indigenous girls before baptizing them. It all varied.
The adventures of the bandeiras were epic. There were many hardships, but in this was necessary to cover the vast distances where really any natural obstacle could present itself. There were mountains, rough waters and waterfalls, noxious insects, reptiles and other unknown creatures, hostile tribes of indigenous peoples angry at strangers intruding on their lands and of course, the ever present diseases such as malaria and typhoid. Though controversial and not always the most scrupulous of individuals, the bandeirantes were vital for the new Portuguese colony as they expanded the borders of Brazil well beyond the boundaries set by the Treaty of Tordesillas. They also set the path open for future settlers and traders to solidify Portuguese control over nearly half of South America.
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