• es
  • pt-br

Rio de Janeiro History

Rio de Janeiro History

One of the most diverse cities of the world, Rio de Janeiro has a rich history. Did you know it was the capital of Brazil for almost 200 years? Or that the Portuguese Royal family moved to Rio 1808 making it the first European capital outside of Europe? Read here about Rio de Janeiro History, and understand more about the Marvelous City! Do you want to go back in time and live the history instead of only reading? Join one of our Free Walking Tour Rio de Janeiro  


FREE e-book of Rio de Janeiro

We answer the most asked questions about Rio de Janeiro in this FREE e-book to help those coming to the city!

Find out the best ways to go to Christ the Redeemer and the Sugar Loaf, as well as what to do in other interesting areas, such as the charming neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Get practical tips about customs, nightlife, restaurants and a lot more to make the most of your days in Rio!

[cp_popup display=”inline” style_id=”8523″ step_id = “1”][/cp_popup]



Rio de Janeiro pre-colonial – Rio de Janeiro History

The first Portuguese arrived to Brazil more than 500 years ago, in 1500. The first excursion headed to the northern coast of Brazil, where today locates the state of Bahia. Rio’s de Janeiro history started two years later in January 1502 a Portuguese sailor called Gaspar de Lemos sailed past the Sugarloaf mountain, entering to the Guanabara Bay. That’s when a place we today call as Rio de Janeiro was “found”.

Actually, we have to be careful using the term “find” when talking about the excursions of colonialists. It’s really not like they found anything new, since the continent was already existing, and people inhabiting it!

It’s difficult to tell when the first person stepped in Brazil. Reserches prove that the first habitants of Brazil existed here 12 000 years before the arrival of the Portuguese. But a Brazilian archeologist Niède Guidon though has found proves that in Northern Brazil already existed human life 35 000 years ago!!

In the zone of Rio de Janeiro state, the indigenous tribe that were inhabiting the area was called the Tupinambás. They had been around 2000-3000 years before the Portuguese arrived! Before 1500, relying on some historians, in Brazil were living approximately 2-4 million natives! Today the number is approximately 900 000. The indigenous of Brazil didn’t really leave us anything written, so the studies about them most rely on the stories of portuguese colonialists.


Colonial Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro got it’s name because of a misunderstanding as well! The Portuguese confused the Guanabara Bay with a river, and the month happened to be January. So, creative as they were, they started to call the new zone as “January River”, “Rio de Janeiro”.

Portuguese though were not the only Europeans that had their interest on Rio. Also the French had their foothold on the city all the way until 1567, when the Portuguese succeeded to expose the French, and Rio de Janeiro was officially founded.


Capital of the colony

The city itself started to grow in between of four major hills, that later were demolished to create space for the city to urbanite. Until late 17th century, Rio was a tiny city that didn’t have much to offer. It was basically a place to cultivate sugarcane, and a port for African slaves to disembark on South American continent.

During 17th century also the first churches were built.   But something significant happened the end of 17th century and changged Brazil’s and Rio’s history. The Portuguese discovered gold in Minas Gerais, which is Rio’s neighbor state. As you can imagine, finding gold was extremely important for Portugal. After that, Brazil’s, and especially Rio’s population started to grow very fast. In 1763 Rio became the capital of the colony, and stayed as a capital for almost 200 years, all the way until 1960!

Main reason for moving the capital from Salvador de Bahia to Rio de Janeiro was the gold. The gold needed to shipped to Europe, but the port city Salvador was very far from the gold mines. So it would be easier to bring the capital and the port closer to the gold, and then ship it to Europe.

Rio de Janeiro was one of the main ports to receive African slave ships. Approximately 3-4 million Africans passed through Rio’s ports! Rio’s population was growing, but still, it was a city without much construction. There were no universities, no national security, no much culture as well. All these changed in 1808!


Imperial Rio de Janeiro

To talk about Rio’s history, we also need to talk about the history of the Brazilian Empire.   Napoleon was on power in early 19th century in Europe, and started to invade and conquer many neighbor countries. One of the few countries Napoleon wasn’t able to conquest was England. So, 1807 he decided to force a commercial blockade on all European countries: it was forbidden to sell or buy anything from the UK.

Yet Portuguese economy was completely dependent on the commerce with the English, and end with it would mean a huge economic recession. Pressed by the English, they kept the commerce until the day Napoleon ordered: “if you don’t stop the commerce with England now I will invade Portugal and kill all the Royal Family”. But this basically would mean the sink of Portuguese economy. What would you have done as a Portuguese Royal family member in this situation?

Capital of European country, outside of Europe

The Portuguese Royal family decided nothing less but to escape. They left Europe behind, and embarked from Lisbon towards Rio de Janeiro in November 1807. Navies full of books, art and important archives from Portuguese society. Between 10 000 to 15 000 Portuguese high society people disembarked to Rio in the beginning of 1808.  This was one of the biggest economic growths of the history of Rio de Janeiro.

The Regent Principe, Dom João VI was the man in charge of Portugal on that time. His mother, Maria I was considered as mentally crazy person, so she couldn’t do this kind of plans for the country. The escape obviously was a secret plan. England helped Portugal, but with a little price. This price was to open Brazilian ports for the commerce for England as well.

Before 1808, no other European country could do commercial in Brazil. This changed 1808 after the arrival of the Royal Family.   Portugal’s whole government was here in Rio de Janeiro, which basically meant that Portugal was governed from here. Can you imagine how this worked more than 200 years ago? For example, the communication between Brazil and Portugal was very slow. A simple letter across the Atlantic took almost 2 months to arrive!   The Portuguese founded here the Botanical Gardens, Banco do Brasil and the School of Real Arts.


Independency of Brazil and its effects in Rio de Janeiro

Principe Dom João VI stayed in Brazil for 13 long years, before returning to Portugal in 1821. Main motives for him to back was the big pressure from the Portuguese population, that was basically abandoned in 1808. Portugal was a country in deep problems, full of revolutions and separate movements. Dom João moved back to Europe and left his son Pedro I as the regent prince of Brazil.

Pedro I came to Rio 9 years old in 1807. He was a Portuguese man, that spend big part of his life in Rio de Janeiro. He was very passionate about Brazil. A year later, in January 1822 Dom João called Pedro to move back to Lisbon, the idea was to retrieve the governance of Brazil from Portugal. But, Pedro really loved it here. He denied the invitation, and decided to stay in Rio. This day, 9th of January we know today as “Dia do Fico“, or “Day of Stay”. This is one of the most important days of our history. Seven months of this day, Pedro I declared independency for Brazil.

Independency on Brazil is a very specific event, since here we didn’t really have independency wars or revolutions. Neither it was a movement that the population was fighting for. Independency here was a dream of part of the élite. There aren’t official numbers, but studies say that the moment Brazil became independent, Brazil’s population was about 4,6 million. Numbers vary from 15% to 1/3 of African slave.


FREE e-book of Rio de Janeiro

We answer the most asked questions about Rio de Janeiro in this FREE e-book to help those coming to the city!

Find out the best ways to go to Christ the Redeemer and the Sugar Loaf, as well as what to do in other interesting areas, such as the charming neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Get practical tips about customs, nightlife, restaurants and a lot more to make the most of your days in Rio!

[cp_popup display=”inline” style_id=”8523″ step_id = “1”][/cp_popup]



Emperors of Brazil

When Pedro I declared independency, Brazil became an Imperium. A big difference such as if compared to neighboring ex-Spanish colonies, such as Argentina, Peru, Colombia etc..When these countries got their independency from Spain, they proclaimed a Republic.   First emperor of Brazil, was a Portuguese man, Pedro I, son of Portugal’s king Dom João. He was known of his strong opinions, and disrespect towards women. The Brazilian population was not very content during his period. He stayed in Rio until 1831 before moving back to Portugal.

Pedro I left his son Pedro II to be the second emperor of Brazil. Pedro II in 1831 was a 5-year-old kid. How is a tiny kid going to be an emperor? Of course it’s impossible, so the following 10 years Brazil was waiting Pedro II to grow up, and went through Regency Period, during which different politicians were on power. When Pedro II made 15 years, he stepped on throne, and became the second emperor of Brazil.

A biggest difference between him and his father was, that Pedro II was actually Brazilian.   Pedro II travelled a lot and made the international relations of Brazil to grow up a lot. Until today, Pedro II is considered as one of the most important politicians of the history of Brazil. he was the second, and the last emperor of Brazil. Until 15th of November 1889, when Brazil finally proclaimed as Republic.






Two days later of proclamation of Republic, the Imperial Family left Brazil and travelled to Europe. This was when one very important moment of Brazilian history happenned: Brazil got its first president, an army man Deodoro da Fonseca. Brazil becoming a Republic was a cause of a strong military movement. Slavery was abolished just a year earlier, in 1888 and huge part of the ex-slaved joined the army.

Almost nobody really believed to the Imperium anymore. Almost all the neighboring countries also already were republics for more than half a century.   Since 1889, until today Brazil has seen 40 presidents, one women and 39 men. Until 1960 presidents residence located here in Rio, after the capital moved to Brasília.

The Marvellous City changed a lot during the Republic. In the starting point of the Republic, remember that we had just abolished slavery. All these ex-slaves didn’t necessarily have any places to live. Many ended up living on the streets or huge communities that were shred with thousands of people. The city was suffering on lack of hygiene and sanitation system was non-existent. Rio was a city that smelled really bad!

Early 20th century Rio had a major called Pereira Passos. He was a man who wanted to organize and clean the city. All these ex-slaves that were living in big community houses, had to move away and make space for new construction sites etc. This is when favelas of Rio became bigger!

Pereira Passos wanted to bring Paris to Rio, building parks, squares and the cultural area of Cinelandia. For example the Municipal Theater, National Library and the Fine Arts Museum are all from his period!


Rio de Janeiro Contemporaneous

Today Rio is known for beaches, Christ the Redeemer, Carnival, heating sun & welcoming people! But behind all this, is a long and rich history that perfectly explains the city and it’s habitants.

For us, in Free Walker, Rio is one of the most diverse cities in the planet. The rich and the poor live right by side of each other. When you go to the beach, you will find people from all social classes, and from all over the world. Rio is also a home for two biggest urban forests of the world. If you get tired of the busy city life, just hop into bus and in 30 minutes you’re in the middle of the Atlantic Rainforest spotting for wildlife!

Share: Facebook Twitter Google