At the beginning of the 16th century, Brazil had only just been discovered by the Portuguese, and the area atop the Serra do Mar mountain range in the southeast of the country, now occupied by São Paulo, was inhabited exclusively by the indigenous Guaianás. The first Caucasian man to settle there was the Portuguese sailor João Ramalho, stranded by a shipwreck on the São Paulo coastline in 1510. Ramalho married Portira (or Bartira), the daughter of the local chieftain Tibiriçá, and the couple soon started a family. In 1532, João Ramalho helped Lord Martin Afonso de Souza, commander of the first Portuguese colonial expedition to Brazil, to establish the Piratininga village in the upland region; in 1553 the village was renamed Santo Andre da Borda do Campo.
The main goal of the Jesuit priests who accompanied the first Portuguese colonists in the 16th century was to convert the local indigenous inhabitants to Christianity. In 1553, the senior Jesuit in Brazil, Manuel da Nóbrega, drew up an ambitious plan to reach the banks of the Paraná river, and convert the fierce Carijós inhabitants to the new religion. For this end he needed an inland base, and so São Vicente (the future state of São Paulo) was chosen to harbor the priests as they prepared to initiate the conversion process. On January 24th 1554, a group of 13 clerics under the commanded of Jose de Anchieta, began to build a settlement on the banks of the Tamanduateí river, next to the Vale do Anhangabaú (now the centre of São Paulo). The name chosen for this place at the time was the “Colegio São Paulo”, and from that humble beginning, the largest city in South America, and one of the biggest in the world, slowly grew.
In 1560, the neighboring inhabitants of the settlement of Santo Andre da Borda do Campo were ordered to move to the Colegio São Paulo. They were sent there to help ward off a possible attack by the indigenous Tamoios, then allies of the French, who had just invaded Rio de Janeiro. Santo Andre da Borda do Campo was abandoned, and the Colegio São Paulo practically converted overnight from a village into a town. It was a poor town, however, at least during the 16th and 17th century. Remote and relatively untouched by developments taking place in the rest of the colony, the small population survived on subsistence farming.
During those early years, many expeditions set off from São Paulo into the Brazilian heartland in search of gold and precious stones, and to capture and enslave more native inhabitants. These expeditions were called entradas e bandeiras (entrances and flags). However, when gold was found in the State of Minas Gerais, the Portuguese Crown suddenly took a keen interest in the colony, purchased the capitania (the governorship) of São Vicente, and handed it to the descendants of its first colonial owners; henceforth called the Capitania de São Paulo e Minas Gerais, the power-centre of the region was established in the town of São Paulo.
In 1711 the town was awarded city status. The gold rush in Minas Gerais, very similar to that which was to take place in California some years later, brought money to the São Paulo region for the first time. From the second half of the 18th century onwards, sugar-cane production was developed and the first processing plants were built. Due to the turmoil in Europe caused by the Napoleonic wars, the Portuguese Royal family were obliged to move to Brazil in 1808. After their arrival, and several constitutional and political crises later, the Prince Regent D. Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence from Portugal; the event took place in 1822, on the banks of the Ipiranga river in São Paulo. According to French naturalist Saint-Hilaire, who was visiting the city at the time, São Paulo had more than 4000 houses and a population of around 25,000 people. However, urbanization of the city proper did not really take off until the 1870s, stimulated by the huge industrial growth that had taken place in the first half of the 19th century, itself partly due to the enormous profits generated by coffee production.
During the early 19th century, two events significantly changed São Paulo. The first was the declaration of Brazilian independence, which led to the city becoming a provincial capital. The second occurred a few years later with the founding of the Law Faculty, which attracted a new, transient population of students and intellectuals. As a political and intellectual center, São Paulo became a leader both in the campaign to abolish slavery and in the founding of the republic. The last decades of the 19th century brought dramatic change. The rapid expansion of coffee cultivation in the state, the construction of railroads and the influx of millions of European immigrants caused the city to grow rapidly. São Paulo’s industrial base began to form, and the import restrictions caused by WWI meant rapid industrial expansion and population growth, which continued after the war. The city’s population reached 580,000 by 1920, 1.2 million by 1940, two million by 1950, 3.1 million by 1960 and 5.2 million by 1970.
Today São Paulo is the industrial engine that powers the Brazilian economy, though in recent years the shift has been towards more service and high-tech industries. São Paulo is also Brazil’s financial center and home to Latin America’s largest stock exchange.
Brazil’s tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity can be seen at its best in São Paulo – a place that’s been dubbed ‘the city of the future’ by some researchers. Sampa is a living petri dish, they say, thanks to the various races that have been mixing it up for several generations now. The results certainly are breathtaking and today some of the most beautiful people in the world, it seems, can be found strolling the city streets.