A brief history of Rio de Janeiro

Describing Rio to nonlocals is a quintessential carioca habit. As we prepare for ICM 2018, we will present a series of articles in which we try to make sense of the the Cidade Maravilhosa. This first installment provides a very basic outline of Rio's history.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the area of present-day Rio de Janeiro was inhabited by indigenous people, who subsisted on hunting, fishing, gathering and semi-nomadic agriculture. The first Portuguese expedition to the area arrived at Guanabara Bay in January 1502. At the time the bay was named Rio de Janeiro (or “January River”).

Although formally under Portuguese rule, the area soon became a port for French smugglers interested in brazilwood. As part of a counteroffensive to drive the French out, the Portuguese founded the village of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro in 1565.

By the 17th century Rio had become the third most important Portuguese settlement in the continent, after Salvador and Recife/Olinda in the Northeast. Sugar plantations were the basis of the local economy. In the 18th century gold, silver and precious stones were first discovered in the Minas Gerais region. As the nearest port to Minas, Rio benefited immensely from increased trade, rose in status, and eventually became the colonial capital.

In the beginning of the 19th century, Napoleon threatened Portugal with invasion by French troops, forcing the Portuguese royal family and court to seek sanctuary in Rio. With their arrival in 1808, Rio became the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and Algarve. Important events from the time include the opening of Rio’s Botanical Garden, the reforestation of what is now Tijuca Forest, and the founding of the first local university. Brazil became an independent empire in 1822 and Rio became the capital of the new country, a privilege it retained after Brazil became a republic in 1889.

In the first half of the 20th century, Rio prospered as Brazil’s political and cultural capital and became a favorite destination for Hollywood stars and the international jet set. In the 1960’s Brasília became the political capital of Brazil.

Starting in 1964, a 25-year military dictatorship hindered Brazil politically, socially and economically. Nonetheless, those were thriving times for the arts in Rio, with new artistic movements and a renewed interest in samba, choro and other traditional musical styles.

The 1990’s and the early 21st century have been a time of material progress. Brazil’s economy has recovered from several years of hyperinflation and local businesses are again on the rise. Important investments in infrastructure were made and large international events were recently hosted in Rio, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The local music scene is as vibrant as ever, and the same is true for cinema and the fine arts. Tourism has grown over the last 18 years and Rio is again a top destination for leisure and business travel. Some problems from the past remain to be solved, but things again look bright and promising for the Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City).