The Bandeirantes

Modern Brazil owes it extensive frontiers and the discovery of many of its natural riches, to the journeys far inland of Europeans and mixed breed pioneers in search of natural wealth and slaves.

For any but close students of the Portuguese Empire in America this is a legitimate question. Who were the Bandeirantes? Much has been written of the exploits of the Spanish Conquistador’s but less, at least in English, about the Bandeirantes. Yet these national heroes of Brazilian history, known, if at all, only as simple, independent, brutal, ingenious, fearless raiders and slave-hunters, were early and successful practitioners of the art of developing primitive and neglected territories. It may fairly be claimed that their achievements have had more lasting results than anything done by the Spaniards in the New World; for it was the Bandeirantes who moulded the main geographical and economic features of modern Brazil. Nevertheless, these hardy, Europeans and mixed breed pioneers have ridden into history mainly by accident. Their origin is directly traceable to the arbitrary way in which the Portuguese and the Spaniards divided the New World between themselves; to the early lack of interest of Portugal in her Brazilian possessions; to intermarriage between European mercenaries with the colonists and the Indians; and to the pattern of the colony’s early economics. Bandeirantes were members of Bandeiras, or roving bands of explorers, prospectors, and Indian slavers originating principally in the frontier settlement of Sao Paulo in colonial Brazil, beginning around the 1580’s and continuing for the next 150 years or so. The original meaning of the term Bandeira is “flag”, though in medieval Portugal it also came to mean a small autonomous militia. Their primary purpose was to acquire Indian slaves for their Paulista (Sao Paulo) patrons. Some Bandeiras were gone years at a time and traveled thousands of kilometers through the back country. In the process, the Bandeirantes explored much of the vast Brazilian interior; from the jungle and the highlands up north, pushing back the colony’s known frontiers and opening up new paths for settlement and colonization, to the rivers, forests, grasslands (pampas) in the deep south, the wetlands in the west, passing the territory of modern Paraguay and reached the foothills of the Andes. In Brazilian historiography and national culture, Bandeirantes occupy a very important and highly ambiguous position praised for their endurance and discoveries, and condemned for their brutalities and cruelties that were integral to Indian slaving in the back-country.

By 1600, most residents of Sao Paulo (which at the time was a small settlement of only about 120 houses and 2,000 people) the majority were Portuguese, Indian, and racially mixed mamelucos (the Portuguese equivalent of the Spanish term mestizo). The predominant language was Tupi. Their city and homesteads vulnerable to attack, Paulistas initially launched Bandeiras as a defensive measure against hostile natives. By around 1605, Bandeiras had transformed into offensive slave-raiding expeditions. The indigenous inhabitants around Sao Paulo having all but disappeared by this time, victims to enslavement and diseases, the Paulistas found them-selves chronically short of servile labor. The Bandeiras were their effort to remedy this chronic labor shortage.

Most Bandeiras left no written record, though many others did, thanks in large part to Jesuit missionaries and other foreigners who accompanied them through the back-country and reported on their experiences. A classic account is by the Jesuit priest Pedro Domingues of 1613, which described a journey of several thousand kilometers lasting 19 months. Occasionally clashing with Spanish settlements emanating out from the Rio de la Plata, the Bandeirantes helped to define colonial Brazil’s southern boundaries. As time went on, they also clashed repeatedly with the Jesuits, who saw their slave raiding as antithetical to their own goal of converting the natives to Christianity and saving souls. This conflict between Bandeirantes and Jesuits in colonial Brazil can be aptly compared to similar conflicts between encomenderos and religious missions in colonial Spanish America during this same period. By around 1650, there occurred a broad shift among Bandeiras from slave raiding to the search for precious metals.

Greatly extending geographic knowledge of the vast Brazilian interior, the Bandeirantes have come to occupy a position within Brazilian national culture symbolizing the spirit of adventure and independence.

Monumento Bandeirantes Sao Paulo – SP

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  1. May 27, 2015 at 4:23 pm

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