The hereditary captaincies, must first of all be understood within the general context of Portuguese overseas expansion, as a royal policy for colonization that is, the territorial occupation of and establishment of production structures in areas that were unexplored, due either to the complete absence of a native population, as was the case in the islands of the Atlantic, or to very little land being utilized by the natives, in the case of the Brazilian coast and Angola.
Such policy essentially meant transferring responsibility for the colonization of the new areas to subjects who had the necessary recourses for the enterprise, in exchange for a series of rights and advantages that would largely compensate for the risks of the undertaking.
Normally, the hereditary captaincies are associated to the granting of a great expanse of land, but this understanding is incorrect. In reality, reading donation and foral charters, the legal instruments of this institution, clarifies that the Crown granted the donataries civil and criminal jurisdiction, that is the right to govern the territory and its population, granting also a series of royal rights, the material basis of the signorial power that would rise in the captaincy.
In this manner, the jurisdiction granted the donatary could cover territories of variable sizes, larger - for example in the early Brazilian captaincies - and smaller, as is evident in the islands of the Atlantic. The combination of lands, however, should be granted to the recipients, allowing the donatary to maintain as personal property only a relatively small area of the land. The donatary, however, retained a series of signorial rights granted by the monarch on behalf of the crown - for example, the right to collect taxes or foro [annual pension] on mills and sugar mills, or on behalf of the Order of Christ, especially the right to a portion of the tithe collected in the captaincy, the dízimo.
Let us emphasize that in the grant, oversight of justice in the captaincy was delegated to the donatary, who designated a magistrate, clerks, and notaries. The Magistrate´s jurisdiction varied, as appropriate for each specific situation. Entry into the captaincy´s lands of a corregidor or other royal justice officials was forbidden. Additionally, it was established in the grants that the donataries would use the title of "captain and governor" and, among their rights, were included establishing towns as well as designating Chief Alcaides.
From an economic point of view, however, the King reserved for the Crown the right over the exploration of brazilwood, over the dízimo tax and the quinto tax on metals and precious stones, among others, while the donataries had rights to merely a reduced portion of this revenue.
Many historians viewed the extension of the rights granted by the Crown to donataries as the basis for the establishment of a type of feudal system, which went against the process of centralization of monarchical power in Portugal during that era.
The thesis about the feudal nature of the hereditary captaincies inspired animated debate between historians until the mid 20th century; however, it can be said that due to the almost absence of records and to the meager growth of the hereditary captaincies themselves, in great measure such debate was limited to the analysis of donation and foral charters and to the opinions of each author, thus leading to an amount of theoretical schematism, which did not consider the actual insertion of the captaincies in the context of the overseas expansion process.
Initially established during the process of occupation of the Atlantic islands in the 15th century, the captaincies were extended to America and Africa, in the process of the conquest of Brazil and Angola in the 16th century. However, the difficulties encountered by the donataries in these two last areas required the direct intervention of the Crown, which resulted in a gradual decrease of the importance of the hereditary captaincies during the 16th century itself. These were the last captaincies to be terminated, but only by the Marquis de Pombal in the 18th century, and after a prolongued period of decline.
The Case of Hereditary Captaincies in Brazil
After Pedro Alvares Cabral´s voyage in 1500, the American lands that belonged to Portugal according to the Treaty of Tordesillas, were relegated to relative inactivity, being visited mainly by expeditions in search of brazilwood.
In any event, the new lands, called the attention of the French. Their increasingly constant presence raised an issue: the Portuguese would either actually occupy the new areas or lose them.
In this sense, Martim Afonso de Sousa´s armada of 1530 was the first step in this new direction, because it was the basis for both the founding of the first Portuguese town in American soil, and the division of the hereditary captaincies.
Dom João III first followed the suggestion to populate the new lands, so that next he could consent to granting land to his subjects. This decision was made in 1532, in the midst of Martim Afonso de Sousa´s voyage. The King decided to divide the coast between Pernambuco and Rio de la Plata, reserving one hundred leagues for Martim Afonso de Sousa and fifty for his brother, Pero Lopes de Sousa, distributing the remaining lands among persons who were obligated to bear the costs of taking ships and people there.
Thus, between 1534 and 1536, the first captaincies were granted to twelve grantees in fifteen grants; only in eight of them did the first steps of colonization occur.
This initial phase is normally evaluated as a failure, with the exception of the captaincies of Pernambuco and São Vincente. Let us consider, however, that in light of the extent of the task and of the limits imposed by the conditions, it should not be overlooked that despite all the difficulties, captaincies were able to function, even if partially, as an initial step in the disputes over possession of the lands, serving as a support for new ventures, and widening the knowledge base with regard to the lands and their potential uses.
The task of occupation and defense of the new lands required the establishment of a productive structure beyond the extraction of brazilwood, a structure that would render the enterprise economically viable; therefore, both the occupation of the lands and the utilization of a native work force were sought.
The Portuguese reaction to indigenous resistance exacerbated the conflict, as the response to the natives´ refusal to exchange labor for products on a permanent basis, was simply to enslave the natives.
The consequence was a growing native resistance to colonization, whether or not it was supported by the aliance with the French, which began to threaten Portuguese conquests with increasing vigor, until it came near altogether eliminating Portuguese presence between Pernambuco and São Vicente in the 1540s, as the Portuguese in almost all the captaincies came under attack.
The most serious cases occurred in 1546 in Bahia, where Francisco Pereira Coutinho´s Portuguese were forced to take refuge in Porto Seguro, being scattered later with the death of the donatary, and in São Tomé or Paraíba do Sul, currently the Norte Fluminense [geographical region in the state of Rio de Janeiro], where the Indians destroyed the village named Vila da Rainha, forcing the residents to flee to Espirito Santo.
At the end of the same year, symptomatic of the desintegration that plagued the first population centers, the donatary of Porto Seguro, Pero do Campo Tourinho, was arrested by a movement that involved a good number of the residents, being sent to Lisbon to be tried by the Inquisition.
As of 1546, the Indian attacks reached São Vicente, gaining strength the following year and forcing the residents to engage in a defensive war, which would be maintained until the establishment of the general government.
In 1548, the situation deteriorated rapidly; the attacks reached Pernambuco, Ilhéus and Espirito Santo. The Portuguese were cornered; the towns of Iguaraçu and Olinda were surrounded, in Espirito Santo a good number of the improvements were destroyed, along with the death of many residents; a similar situation in Ilhéus would continue in the years that followed.
The donataries gave the alarm in the letters sent to the monarch, in which they reported not only the loss of Bahia, but also the growing strength of the French presence and of the threat posed by the natives, besides the general climate of lack of control along the coast.
These events forced the Crown to assume a larger role in the colonization of Brazil than had previously been the case, establishing the so called General Government at the end of 1548, with an immediate objective: to defend Portuguese presence in American lands.
The new system of government was superimposed on the one that had previously been in place, the hereditary captaincies. Although this system was not terminated, it gradually lost importance. Headquarters of the General Government, the scattered Captaincy of Bahia, was purchased by the Crown from the heirs of Francisco Pereira Coutinho, becoming the first royal captaincy. Therefore, after 1549, a political and administrative reorganization took place, and the captaincies were of two types: private or Crown-owned and, the structure of the General Government was above them.
The institution of a General Government defined some needed adaptations. The greatest changes were especially related to the restriction of the jurisdiction of the justice officials nominated by the donatary: the entry of a Corregidor of the Crown into the captaincies, which previously had been forbidden, was allowed, and the new overall relationship of the donataries and residents to the Crown, was to be mediated to a large extent by the Governor General, who was present in Brazil.
Thus, when Portuguese colonization resumed the offensive and new areas along the coast were conquered, these conquests were organized as royal captaincies. At the end of the 16th century, the Crown already counted five captaincies against six private ones and, thirty years after, the count was eight royal captaincies and six private ones.
Additionally, the royal captaincies developed at a faster pace than the private ones, so that at the beginning of the 17th century, while Bahia, Paraiba, and Rio de Janeiro were developing freely, the private captaincies, with the exception of Pernambuco and Itamaracá, were either stagnant, as was the case with São Vicente or Espirito Santo, or in decline, like Ilhéus and Porto Seguro.
Because of all this, the perspective that captaincies such as Pernambuco enjoyed autonomy from the General Government does not correspond to reality. The captaincy of Duarte Coelho was able to maintain certain autonomy only during the life of the first donatary. After that, the Crown via the General Government, began interfering increasingly in local administration by nominating various governors during the minority of the donatary, between at least 1593 and 1614, or with the the General Governors remaining in the captaincy for many years at the beginning of the 17th century, causing the donatarial family to engage in a major battle, not so much to defend autonomy, as simply to guarantee their basic prerogatives.
The high point of this battle occurred in the second half of the 1610 decade and beginning of the following one, when Matias de Albuquerque retook government of the captaincy for the donatarial family, entering into conflict with the General Governor and his representatives in Pernambuco. However, the Dutch invasion would bring this dispute to an end. In 1654, with the expulsion of the Dutch, the captaincies of Pernambuco and Itamaracá were incorporated by the Crown, but the final blow to the system would only occur in the 18th century, when they were terminated permanently.
DIAS, Carlos Malheiro (Dir.), História da Colonização Portuguesa do Brasil, 3 vols. Porto: Litografia Nacional, 1922. Doações e Forais das Capitanias do Brasil (1534-1536), Apresentação, transcrição e notas de Maria José Chorão. Lisboa: Arquivo Nacional da Torre do Tombo, 1999. MERÊA, Paulo, "A solução tradicional da colonização do Brasil". DIAS, Carlos Malheiro, "O regimen feudal das donatárias", respectivamente nas pp. 165 e 219 do III volume. SALDANHA, António de Vasconcelos, As capitanias do Brasil, 2a ed. Lisboa: CNCDP, 2001. VARNHAGEN, Francisco Adolfo de, História geral do Brasil, 5a ed. 5 vols. São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 1956, especificamente no vol. I, da p. 136 e seguintes. Translated by: Maria João Pimentel