A Brief History of São Paulo

I often used to wonder as to how and why the site of the current mega metropolis of São Paulo actually came into being. After all, the city doesn’t have a lot of natural beauty in comparison to other areas of Brazil, there’s barely a river over here and it rains a heck of a lot. Why this place for the site of South America’s largest and most economically important city?

It turns out that in 1554, two Jesuit priests named José de Anchieta and Manuel da Nóbrega founded a mission station by the Rio Tietê river in an effort to convert the native Tupi-Guarani indigenous tribes to Christianity. They called their modest settlement São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga. Hard to believe by the urban jungle that the city has become, at that time, São Paulo was smack in a large forest with trees extending beyond which the eye could see.

Italian immigrants in São Paulo
Italian immigrants in São Paulo

The settlement soon grew as groups of bandeirantes used it as a launching pad for excursions into the interior of Brazil. As the newfound wealth of the interior was being discovered, the settlement gradually increased in population and started to take on the trappings of a small city. In 1681, São Paulo became the seat of the regional government and 30 years later in 1711, a municipality of the Portuguese Crown.

Coffee plantation outside São Paulo at the turn of the century
Coffee plantation outside São Paulo at the turn of the century

The city’s importance also expanded with the growing and harvesting of coffee in the nearby areas west of Rio de Janeiro and in the Paraibá Valley. Many of the owners of coffee plantations set up residence in São Paulo and also set up other businesses and industries nearby, especially those dealing with textiles and manufacturing. The increased prosperity of the region as well as the availability of new and high-paying jobs attracted immigrants from all over the world, especially southern Europe and Japan. The city’s population grew exponentially, from a mere 69,000 in 1890 to over two million in 1950. Today with nearly 20 million people living either in the city or in its surrounding metro areas, São Paulo is the seventh-largest city in the world and the largest both in South America and the in the southern hemisphere.

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