When the first Europeans arrived many of the Native Americans were semi-nomadic tribes who survived by hunting, fishing and migrant farming. The Portuguese explorers were stunned by the hundreds of thousands of natives living and thriving along the wide coastline with an overwhelming abundance of natural riches. In the beginning the Portuguese perceived the natives as noble savages living in harmony with the natural world. In their mutual feelings of wonder and friendship interbreeding began immediately producing a new mixed-race generation.
The Portuguese thought that they should civilize the natives because they claimed there was war between tribes, and that the natives practiced cannibalism. Mainly they wanted to harvest the extremely profuse Brazilwood growing along the rivers and coast. In Europe Brazilwood was hard to acquire. It was highly treasured during the Renaissance for its powder which was used as a red dye for lavish fabrics like velvet.
Regrettably, like the Spanish explorers to the north, the Portuguese brought their diseases with them to the new world. The natives had no immunities to the tuberculosis, influenza, measles and smallpox which killed tens of thousands quickly. The diseases spread along their trade routes and whole tribes were obliterated without ever having direct contact with the Europeans.
Like the Spanish colonies, the Portuguese determined to plant sugar cane in Brazil and enslave the indigenous people for the labor. The natives proved to be difficult to capture, while those that were captured soon succumbed to the diseases brought by their captors for which they had no immunity. Since the Portuguese already dominated the African slave trade they used African slaves for the cane field labor.
In 1570 King Sebastian I ordered the release of the captive indigenous people of Brazil and commanded that they not be used as slaves, but slavery was not abolished until 1755. Jesuit priests came to Brazil to provide for the religious needs of the colonists but mainly to convert the pagans to Catholicism. The Jesuits at the request of the Portuguese monarchy, established missions, studied and documented the native languages. They believed that since these native people were human they should not be persecuted. They obtained a papal bull, an official document issued by the Pope. As protectors of the Native Americans, the Jesuits provided an interlude of stability for them.
The best rubber trees in the world grow in Brazil. In the 1840’s the process was developed for vulcanizing rubber and worldwide demand rose sharply. The natives proved to be unsuitable for the labor of tapping rubber trees so thousands of peasants from surrounding areas were brought in to do the work. The indigenous population was constantly in conflict with the peasants because they felt that they were invading their lands for profit. The indigenous people of Brazil, maltreated since the sixteenth century, are still persecuted today.
In the early twentieth century, General Candido Mariano Rondon (May 5, 1865 – January 19, 1958), was a famous Native American defender. He led expeditions through the remote parts of Brazil where the Native Americans lived befriending and trying to help them. Rondon was profoundly shocked by the inhuman treatment suffered by the natives at the hands of the white men. Rondon was a pacifist who fought tirelessly for the native’s right to compassionate and humane treatment. He said that the natives have the right to live their lives according to their beliefs and ancient inherited customs. His famous motto was, “Die if necessary, but never kill.”
Rondon founded the Indian Protection Service (SPI), the first government agency set up to protect and assist the “uncivilized” natives so that they could preserve their culture while living alongside the mainstream population. Rondon is a Brazilian national hero. Thanks to the work of Rondon the Brazilian government embraced a more compassionate attitude and proffered official protection to the indigenous people and established the first indigenous reserves.
Orlando Villas-Boas (Jan. 12, 1914 - Dec. 12, 2002), a Brazilian explorer and activist dedicated his life to the protection of Brazil’s Native American population. Unlike Rondon, Villas-Boas believed that for the natives to survive, they should remain as isolated as possible from the Brazilian mainstream. The idea is to permit the indigenous people to continue to live in their traditional culture while keeping their lands protected. These uncontacted people are particularly vulnerable and deserve to be protected from the outside world.
In the 1960’s it was revealed that Indian Protection Service had become corrupt. Agency officials in cooperation with land speculators and other commercial interests were charged with numerous atrocities such as slavery, sexual abuse, torture and mass-murder. They were methodically murdering the natives by deliberately circulating disease infested clothing. The Indian Protective Service was disbanded and replaced by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) to protect the interests, culture, rights of the Brazilian indigenous people.
In 1961 Villas-Boas helped found Xingu National Park, a preserve for Brazil’s Indians. He served as the park’s first director. Villas-Boas and his brother Claudio wrote twelve books about the plight of the natives of Brazil. The Villas-Boas brothers were nominated for the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1971 and in 1975.
It is clearly recognized that unnecessary contact with the uncontacted tribes causes illness and social dissolution. These tribes are supposed to be protected from any intrusion or interference with their lifestyle, territory and culture. Conversely, the current exploitation of natural resources such as rubber and timber and the influx of cattle ranchers has brought about a new phase of invasion. The uncontacted Native American Brazilians are still being slaughtered to this day.