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In the Spanish South, Why Do Brazilians Speak Portuguese?

Brazil is the only country on the South American continent which has Portuguese as its official language. This may seem odd, since it is the largest country on a continent where Spanish is the most populous language. A good guess why Brazilians donít speak Spanish would include the colonizing which took place after Columbus "discovered" the New World. While this would be in the right direction, you have to add two other seemingly unconnected facts to the mixture to get the right answer: the Popes used to have more influence in world political events than they do today, and Brazil sticks out further east than any other South American country.

Any discussion of this matter must begin before Columbus. He was the first European to reach the New World, with its numerous islands in the Caribbean. Yet Europeans had already discovered islands located to the West of Africa, islands such as the Canary Islands and Cape Verde islands. Due to these earlier explorations, Europeans believed more islands were located further south of these islands. Therefore, in order to calm colonizing conflicts amongst seafaring European nations, Pope Sixtus IV in 1481 had decreed in a Bull that all lands south of the Canary Islands belonged to Spain. (A "Bull" is an official papal declaration.)

This worked until Columbus came back in 1493 with his report of new lands in the West. In May of 1493, Pope Alexander VI released a Bull (called "Inter Caetera") which changed the rules. It reads in part as follows: "by the authority of Almighty God conferred upon us in blessed Peter and of the vicarship of Jesus Christ, which we hold on earth . . . [therefore] all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered towards the west and south, by drawing and establishing a line from the Arctic pole, namely the north, to the Antarctic pole, namely the south, no matter whether the said mainlands and islands are found and to be found in the direction of India or towards any other quarter, the said line to be distant one hundred leagues towards the west and south from any of the islands commonly known as the Azores and Cape Verde." (One hundred leagues are approximately 300 miles.) Therefore, all lands west of this line would belong to Spain, and all lands east to Portugal.

For various reasons, both Spain and Portugal did not like this arrangement. One theory for the dissatisfaction is that, since this line of longitude extended over the North Pole and to the other side of the world, Spain would not control as much of the Orient as it desired. So, in 1493, representatives from Spain and Portugal met in Tordesillas, Spain and agreed the line 100 leagues west of Cape Verde should be moved to 370 leagues west of Cape Verde. This would take land away from Spain in the New World, but would give Spain additional land in the orient. (Look on a globe and it will make more sense.)

Alexander VI did not approve this plan, but Pope Julius II agreed to it in 1506. Moving this line further west toward the New World gave Portugal a large portion of land in the eastern part of South America, most of which is present-day Brazil. Eventually Portugal moved further West into Brazil than the line agreed upon by Spain, but Spain did not object. One reason was probably that Spain had control of (or worked to control) the other countries in South America.

And now you know why Brazilians speak Portuguese instead of Spanish, like most of the other countries of South America. (Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, just above Brazil, speak English, Dutch, and French, respectively.)

©2004 Mark Nickens

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