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How Brazil Came to Speak Portuguese and the Rest of South America Spanish

Updated on May 19, 2020
Sandra Miliers profile image

Sandra was born in Toronto, but with a swedish mother. Came to Europe for university and ended up travelling the world.

Have you ever wondered... or why it is that Brazil is the only Portuguese speaking country in south america, while the rest all speak Spanish? I have the answer.

The background

Like most things during this time period, it all started in Europe, in the very late 14-, or very early 1500's. 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and discovered what he thought was the sea route to India. He didn't really have it all together, as in reality he was in the Bahamas, and had discovered a new continent.

Although Columbus was Italian, according to sources, born in Genua, it was the Spanish royals Isabella and Ferdinand that sent him on a journey to discover the sea route to the tempting spice lands, India. Before going to Spain, Columbus had been to Lisbon, Portugal, (his first wife was portuguese nobility) trying to convince the king of Portugal to sponsor him on a journey, but had been rejected. As the king of Portugal and Isabella were related (both came from the same family, Trastamara), Isabella soon heard the news that the portuguese had said no, and convinced her husband to sponsor the voyage when Columbus arrived.

Isabella convinced her husband Fernando to sponsor Columbus' trip.
Isabella convinced her husband Fernando to sponsor Columbus' trip.

Finding the new continent.

When both countries realized, thanks to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, that this was a new continent, they of course had to start fighting eachother over the territories.

7th of June 1494, the catholic kings (Isabella and Fernando) met with the portuguese king Joao II of Portugal in a tiny place called Tordesillas, today situated in the province of Valladolid, Spain. Why they decided to meet there, history does not tell us, but there was probably a reason behind that as well.

In Tordesillas, they signed a treaty, which would define the new world.


Treaty of Tordesillas

Signing the treaty, they also without knowing it, laid the foundations for the language barriers in the southern part of the new world.

The treaty states that everything found within 370 leagues out in the then more or less unknown Atlantic ocean, was portuguese territory, and beyond the 370 league line, everything was Spanish territory. The Spanish were not allowed to dock in a portuguese port, and the portuguese had to stay away from the Spanish settlements.

Division between Spanish and Portuguese territories after signing the treaty of Tordesillas.
Division between Spanish and Portuguese territories after signing the treaty of Tordesillas.

Off we go.

So now the exploration war was in place, with the newly signed rules to play after. While the Spanish sailed right into what later became the mexican gulf, the Portuguese decided to go northwards towards modern day Newfoundland, where they met some locals and started a not so lucrative fur trading business.

The Spanish had now gone through Mexico, and latin america, and were working their way into the northern part of south america. The portuguese followed, trying to search their luck in the parts that they were able to dock in, what was within the 370 league line.

They ended up docking in the part that later became Brazil and Uruguay, but at the beginning, they were not to interested in this area either, saying it was all jungle, no area to grow any agriculture on, and no people to trade with. Let's abandon our "american adventure", said the portuguese, and decided to put priority on continuing to explore Africa.

Pedro Alvarez Cabral.

But one man was about to change everything. Pedro Alvarez Cabral. He had sailed as an apprentice with the Spanish ships, and got the taste for exploring what the portuguese could explore of the new territories. The year 1500, he went on an expedition and claimed the mostwestern territories to Portugal. It was then, that the colonization of Brazil began. With time, the "inner territories" of Brazil was aquired with the trading of Uruguay to the Spanish, forming the Brazil that we know today.

Replica of the portuguese boats that crossed the Atlantic ocean.
Replica of the portuguese boats that crossed the Atlantic ocean.

Summing up. It was thanks to Isabella.

So, in reality, it thanks to the Queen Isabella and the fact that she couldn't get along with her family, that Brazil ended up being the only Portuguese speaking nation on the american continent.


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    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      11 months ago from UK

      I always thought the explanation had something to do with the explorers, but your article explains a lot.


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