Guerra dos Bárbaros Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Brazilian-Portuguese frontiersmen fought indigenous populations in the northeast interior of Brazil in a series of battles called the Guerra dos Bárbaros, the war of the barbarians. The frontiersmen conquered vast stretches of arid land and transformed them into cattle ranges.

Summary of Event

The Portuguese, who first settled Brazil Brazil in the early sixteenth century, established sugar plantations on fertile lands along the Atlantic coast. An arid hinterland that is beyond a mountain range extending along the coast dominates the Brazilian northeast and extends for thousands of miles, descending to the Amazon River basin. [kw]Guerra dos Bárbaros (beginning 1680’) [kw]Bárbaros, Guerra dos (beginning 1680’) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárboros[2700] Economics;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] Agriculture;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] Environment;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] Expansion and land acquisition;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] South America;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] Brazil;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] Portugal;Beginning 1680’: Guerra dos Bárbaros[2700] Guerra dos Bárboros (1680’-1716)

Two linguistically distinct groups of indigenous peoples occupied the coast and highlands of Brazil at the time of the Portuguese conquest. Along the coast were tribes of Tupi Tupis Indians, an indigenous group whose language was part of the Tupi-Guaraní language family. They formed the vast majority of the indigenous population in eastern South America. The interior highlands were occupied primarily by the less-numerous Gě-speaking peoples. The Tupi gave the name Tapuya Tapuyas to the upland indigenous who did not speak the Tupi language.

To obtain fertile coastal land for sugar plantations, the Portuguese first battled the Tupi. Occupying much of the northeastern coast during the sixteenth century, the Portuguese traveled over the mountains for more land during the following century. In the southern province of São Paulo, bands of mixed-race Portuguese and indigenous peoples, known as bandeirantes Bandeirantes , hunted for precious metals and stones and for indigenous people to enslave.

With few Portuguese women in Brazil, the white male colonists coupled with indigenous women or black slaves from Africa, thereby producing children who were indigenous Brazilian and Portuguese. Moving into the northeastern highlands, the Brazilian-Portuguese confronted desperate indigenous resistance, initiating a long series of wars known as the Guerra dos Bárbaros, or war of the barbarians. The movement of the Portuguese into the northeastern interior was delayed during the first half of the seventeenth century because of the Dutch invasion and occupation of coastal land. Only after the Dutch were defeated and driven out by the middle of the century could the Brazilian Portuguese concentrate on moving into the interior. In the northeastern interior, the vast reaches of arid land were useful for cattle raising only.

Corrals of several hundred head of cattle were set up in the spare river valleys of the region. As the corrals grouped into ranches, tens of thousands of cattle came to occupy and range over the interior. They competed for its sparse sustenance with the indigenous populations, for whom the area was their last source of food. Cattle were of value to the Portuguese not only for beef but also for hides, suitable for clothing as well as packing and preserving material. Cattle ranching, Brazil

By the 1680’, cattle grazers were occupying the interior of Bahia, the principal northeast province, which was south of the São Francisco River. The indigenous populations fiercely resisted these advances, slaughtering pioneer inhabitants in their isolated settlements and capturing or killing their cattle. The earlier inexperienced frontiersmen were no match against indigenous resistance, so the colonial authorities called upon the experienced bandeirante, indigenous fighters of the south. The authorities contracted with one of fighters’ principal leaders, Domingos Jorge Velho, Velho, Domingos Jorge who had moved northeast to establish a frontier ranch.

Cattle ranchers sought to advance westward. After Bahia, they moved into the river valley terrains of Rio Grande and the provinces to its west. Ranchers and some civil authorities wanted to exterminate the indigenous, since they began to revolt with greater and greater ferocity against the advancing ranchers and their hordes of cattle. However, religious authorities emphasized that the indigenous threat could be curtailed by evangelizing the indigenous and by settling them in villages. A key issue among ranchers and colonial authorities was the concept of a “just war.” Indigenous resistance to conversion and village settlement was considered sufficient reason to engage in a just war to eliminate the threat.

Some of the most intense battles of the Guerra dos Bárbaros occurred in the valley regions of the Açu River in western Rio Grande and the Jaguaribe River in the eastern part of the neighboring province of Ceará. Indigenous peoples along the Açu River valley formed a federation led by the Janduin Janduins tribe and its chief, Canindé Canindé , who destroyed cattle and settlers in the late 1680’. With other ranchers and indigenous hunters, Velho succeeded in capturing Canindé and more than two thousand of his followers by the end of the decade.

Extraordinarily, Canindé and his lieutenants journeyed to the capital, Salvador, to negotiate a treaty of surrender with the colonial authorities. By the treaty, the rebellious indigenous agreed to convert to Christianity and the authorities agreed to recognize indigenous land rights in restricted villages. However, anticipating the outcome of nearly all such treaties between indigenous populations and invading ranchers in the Americas in the centuries to come, the “reserved” indigenous lands were reduced and absorbed through the years.

A notorious massacre of indigenous peoples occurred along the Jaguaribe River in 1699, under the instigation of the Brazilian-Portuguese fighter Manuel Álvares de Morais Navarro Morais Navarro, Manuel Álvares de , who had been attempting to stir up hostility between settled tribes. He also hoped to pacify the region to reduce indigenous occupation. The indigenous resisted, and then attempted to welcome him to their settlement. Nevertheless, leading a small contingent of troops, he massacred several hundred individuals, wounding and maiming several hundred more. Outraged missionaries had him prosecuted and jailed, but he ended his days as a colonial administrative authority. By 1716, northeastern Brazil was so pacified that the colonial government could remove its last contingent of bandeirante troops against the now vanquished “barbarian” indigenous peoples.


At the beginning of the sixteenth century, the indigenous population of northeastern Brazil amounted to several million inhabitants. Two centuries later, because of disease, massacres, and coupling within populations (interbreeding), they numbered a fraction of that number. The territory of Brazil essentially had reached the dimensions to which it extends today. A significant indigenous population would remain in the Amazon River basin, but only because of its hostile environment, which made the area safe from early colonial settlement. During the twentieth century, this territory came under government control and also suffered outside invasion.

Ultimately, treaties had little to do with preserving indigenous lands. At most, treaties delayed the reduction or absorption that is inevitable with every population. The cattle wars in colonial Brazil for the lands of the indigenous presaged events in the rest of the Americas in following centuries, particularly during the nineteenth century. Demands for grain and meat in industrial and urban regions of the world required that vast territories in southern Argentina and the western United States be opened to agriculture and ranching. The Argentine pampas and the American plains would soon witness the last of indigenous populations in their native lands as well.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dean, Warren. With Broadax and Firebrand: The Destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. Dean reviews human intervention in the ecological and environmental history of colonial Brazil.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hemming, John. Red Gold: The Conquest of the Brazilian Indians. Rev. ed. London: Pan, 2004. An authoritative work on the history of the indigenous peoples of Brazil during the colonial period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morse, Richard M. The Bandeirantes: The Historical Role of the Brazilian Pathfinders. New York: Knopf, 1965. A classic study of the expansion of the Brazilian frontier from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Puntoni, Pedro. A Guerra dos bárbaros: Povos indígenas e a colonização do sertão nordeste do Brasil, 1650-1720. Estudos históricos, vol. 44. São Paulo, Brazil: EDUSP, 2002. An unpublished doctoral dissertation that provides updated, detailed research on the cattle range wars against the indigenous in northeast Brazil. Reviews events regionally and chronologically.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richards, John F. The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. Richards’s work includes the chapter “Sugar and Cattle in Portuguese Brazil.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weber, David J., and Jane M. Rausch, eds. Where Cultures Meet: Frontiers in Latin American History. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 1994. Weber examines bandeirante pioneers and Amazon indigenous populations.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Piet Hein; António Vieira. Guerra dos Bárbaros (1680s-1716)

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