Brazil was officially "discovered" in 1500, when a fleet commanded by Portuguese diplomat Pedro Álvares Cabral, on its way to India, landed in Porto Seguro, between Salvador and Rio de Janeiro. (There is, however, strong evidence that other Portuguese adventurers preceded him. Duarte Pacheco Pereira, in his book De Situ Orbis, tells of being in Brazil in 1498, sent by King Manuel of Portugal.)

Brazil's first colonizers were met by Tupinamba Indians, one group in the vast array of the continent's native population. Lisbon's early goals were simple: monopolize the lucrative trade of pau-brasil, the red wood (valued for making dye) that gave the colony its name, and establish permanent settlements. There's evidence that the Indians and Portuguese initially worked together to harvest trees. Later, the need to head farther inland to find forested areas made the pau-brasil trade less desirable. The interest in establishing plantations on cleared lands increased and so did the need for laborers. The Portuguese tried to enslave Indians, but, unaccustomed to toiling long hours in fields and overcome by European diseases, many natives either fled far inland or died. (When Cabral arrived, the indigenous population was believed to have been more than 3 million; today the number is scarcely more than 200,000.) The Portuguese then turned to the African slave trade for their workforce.

Although most settlers preferred the coastal areas (a preference that continues to this day), a few ventured into the hinterlands. Among them were Jesuit missionaries, determined men who marched inland in search of Indian souls to "save," and the infamous bandeirantes (flag bearers), tough men who marched inland in search of Indians to enslave. (Later they hunted escaped Indian and African slaves.)

For two centuries after Cabral's discovery, the Portuguese had to periodically deal with foreign powers with designs on Brazil's resources. Although Portugal and Spain had the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas -- which set boundaries for each country in their newly discovered lands -- the guidelines were vague, causing the occasional territory dispute. Further, England, France, and Holland didn't fully recognize the treaty, which was made by Papal decree, and were aggressively seeking new lands in pirate-ridden seas. Such competition made the Lusitanian foothold in the New World tenuous at times.

The new territory faced internal as well as external challenges. Initially, the Portuguese Crown couldn't establish a strong central government in the subcontinent. For much of the colonial period, it relied on "captains," low ranking nobles and merchants who were granted authority over captaincies, slices of land often as big as their motherland. By 1549 it was evident that most of the captaincies were failing. Portugal's monarch dispatched a governor-general (who arrived with soldiers, priests, and craftspeople) to oversee them and to establish a capital (today's Salvador) in the central captaincy of Bahia.

At the end of the 17th century, the news that fabulous veins of emeralds, diamonds, and gold had been found in Minas Gerais exploded in Lisbon. The region began to export 30,000 pounds of gold a year to Portugal. Bandeirantes and other fortune hunters rushed in from all over, and boat loads of carpenters, stonemasons, sculptors, and painters came from Europe to build cities in the Brazilian wilderness.

In 1763, the capital was moved to Rio de Janeiro for a variety of political and administrative reasons. The country had successfully staved off invasions by other European nations and it had roughly taken its current shape. It added cotton and tobacco to sugar, gold, and diamonds on its list of exports. As the interior opened so did the opportunities for cattle ranching. Still, Portugal's policies tended toward stripping Brazil of its resources rather than developing a truly local economy. The arrival of the royal family, who were chased out of Portugal by Napoléon's armies in 1808, initiated major changes.
The Empire and the Republic

As soon as Dom João VI and his entourage arrived in Rio, he began transforming the city and its environs. Building projects were set in motion, universities as well as a bank and a mint were founded, and investments were made in the arts. The ports were opened to trade with other nations, especially England, and morale improved throughout the territory. With the fall of Napoléon, Dom João VI returned to Portugal, leaving his young son, Pedro I, behind to govern. But Pedro had ideas of his own: he proclaimed Brazil's independence on September 7, 1822, and established the Brazilian empire. Nine years later, following a period of internal unrest and costly foreign wars, the emperor stepped aside in favor of his five-year-old son, Pedro II. A series of regents ruled until 1840, when the second Pedro was 14 and Parliament decreed him "of age."

Pedro II's daughter, Princess Isabel, officially ended slavery in 1888. Soon after, disgruntled landowners united with the military to finish with monarchy altogether, forcing the royal family back to Portugal and founding Brazil's first republican government on November 15, 1889. A long series of easily forgettable presidents, backed by strong coffee and rubber economies, brought about some industrial and urban development during what's known as the Old Republic. In 1930, after his running mate was assassinated, presidential candidate Getúlio Vargas seized power via a military coup rather than elections. In 1945 his dictatorship ended in another coup. He returned to the political scene with a populist platform and was elected president in 1951. However, halfway through his term, he was linked to the attempted assassination of a political rival; with the military calling for his resignation, he shot himself.

The next elected president, Juscelino Kubitschek, a visionary from Minas Gerais, decided to replace the capital of Rio de Janeiro with a grand, new, modern one (symbolic of grand, new, modern ideas) that would be built in the middle of nowhere. True to the motto of his national development plan, "Fifty years in five," he opened the economy to foreign capital and offered credit to the business community. When Brasília was inaugurated in 1960, there wasn't a penny left in the coffers, but key sectors of the economy (such as the auto industry) were functioning at full steam. Still, turbulent times were ahead. Kubitschek's successor Jânio Quadros, an eccentric, spirited carouser who had risen from high school teaching to politics, resigned after seven months in office. Vice-president João "Jango" Goulart, a Vargas man with leftist leanings, took office only to be overthrown by the military on March 31, 1964, after frustrated attempts to impose socialist reforms. Exiled in Uruguay, he died 13 years later.

Humberto Castello Branco was the first of five generals (he was followed by Artur Costa e Silva, Emílio Médici, Ernesto Geisel, and João Figueiredo) to lead Brazil in 20 years of military rule that still haunt the nation. Surrounded by tanks and technocrats, the military brought about the "economic miracle" of the 1970s. However, it did not last. Their pharaonic projects -- from hydroelectric and nuclear power plants to the conquest of the Amazon -- never completely succeeded, and inflation soared. Power was to go peacefully back to civil hands in 1985.

All hopes were on the shoulders of Tancredo Neves, a 75-year-old democrat chosen to be president by an electoral college. But, just before his investiture, Neves was hospitalized for routine surgery; he died of a general infection days later. An astounded nation followed the drama on TV. Vice-president José Sarney, a former ally of the military regime, took office. By the end of his five-year term, inflation was completely out of hand. Sarney did, however, oversee the writing of a new constitution, promulgated in 1988, and Brazil's first free presidential elections in 30 years.