When Pedro Alvares Cabral discovered Brazil in 1500 and hoisted the Portuguese flag, he confronted a vast land with a variety of exotic features. Aside from the parrots, monkeys, and macaws, the colonists were impressed by the quality and elasticity of the wooden objects brandished by the friendly Tupinambá Indians.

Thus the Portuguese discovered brazilwood (Caesalpina echinata Lam), trees that were part of the natural vegetation of the Atlantic Forest stretching thousands of kilometers along the ocean coast.

King Dom Manuel in 1503 named the country Brazil and its inhabitants Brazilians as a tribute to the abundance of the versatile tree and its wood, which added to the Portuguese treasury for hundreds of years. However, this extraction began the devastation of the natural resource, now on the endangered species list.

The very reddish heartwood of the tropical tree was used to make dye and the lumber served well for shipbuilding and furniture. The Indians and later slaves were used to extract the trees, which did not grow in clusters or groves, along the coast and further inland.

The harvesting of brazilwood was relatively easy to integrate into the traditional patterns of the collective Indian activities. Wood was traded for cloth, knives and trinkets.

To complicate matters, France did not recognize the Treaty of Tordesillas dividing New World Spanish territory from that of the Portuguese, and occupied stretches of the Brazilian coastline both North and South. They too traded for the noble wood and practiced piracy, thus depleting even more the native natural resource.

Brazilwood came to be known as pernambuco wood in Europe because most shipments carrying the precious wood embarked from the northern port of Pernambuco, the current state encompassing that harbor. That name has held until today.

John (Vermelho)
John (Amarelo)