Throwback Thursday: Why Brazil Speaks Portuguese

Even though Brazil is the largest country in South America (the continent where Spanish is the most common language), it is the only country in the continent where Portuguese is the national language. The explorations of Christopher Columbus did play a role in this language idiosyncrasy, but we can’t give Chris all of the credit. However, in the spirit of Throwback Thursday and the upcoming Columbus Day holiday, we will be going back a few hundred years to look at why Brazilians speak Portuguese.

Before Columbus set out for the New World, other European explorers from Spain and Portugal were discovering islands off the West of Africa, such as the Canary Islands. These explorers were eager to keep sailing, believing more land was located south. In order to prevent conflict, the Treaty of Alcacovas was signed by the two nations in 1479; Portugal agreed to recognize the Spanish possession of the Canary Islands, in return for Spain’s recognition of the Portuguese possession of the Azores Islands, the Cape Verde Islands and Madeira. And just to remind Spain and Portugal of this agreement, Pope Sixtus IV issued a papal bull in 1481 to reiterate the treaty.

This agreement was all well and good until 1493, when Columbus reported all of the new land he found in the west. Because of the Treaty of Alcacovas, all of the new land discovered by Columbus actually belonged to Portugal and not Spain. As Portugal was threatening to sail away immediately and possess “their” land and Spain knew that their military power could not match that of Portugal’s, the two countries decided to turn to Pope Alexander VI.  To make things easy, the Pope just draw a line down the center of a map – unless the territory was already in the hands of another Christian nation, Spain got everything to the west of the line (meaning they had control over Columbus’ discovery), and Portugal got everything to the east of the line. This is known as the Treaty of Tordesillas.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’re probably thinking to yourself: “wait a minute, Brazil is part of the Americas! It’s in South America!” That’s true, although, a significant portion of what is now present-day Brazil fell east of the Pope’s line. Ultimately, this imaginary line was not strictly enforced, and Portugal slowly began to creep west of the treaty line further into Brazil.

While Portugal eventually came to rule Brazil, they did so from afar. However, in 1808, the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil in order to hide from Napoleon. The king at the time, Joao VI, decided he loved Brazil, declaring himself the ruler of the country and Rio the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. Although the monarchy fell in the late 1800s, the Portuguese language (known as Brazilian Portuguese stuck), which is why Brazil speaks Portuguese as its official language.

Cover Photo Source: Toni Genes

Jenny is a Junior Executive at SJG. She earned her BA in Psychology and a minor in Educational Studies in 2014 from Colgate University. Outside the office, Jenny loves to travel (usually to Disney World), bake and watch copious amounts of TLC.