The History of Sao Paulo

Brazil's Industrial Powerhouse

Sao Paulo from above
Ronai Rocha on Flickr

São Paulo, Brazil, is the largest city in Latin America, edging out runner-up Mexico City by a couple million inhabitants. It has a long and interesting history, including serving as home base for the infamous Bandeirantes.


The first European settler in the area was João Ramalho, a Portuguese sailor who had been shipwrecked. He was the first to explore the area of present-day São Paulo. Like many cities in Brazil, São Paulo was founded by Jesuit Missionaries.

São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga was established in 1554 as a mission to convert Guainás natives to Catholicism. In 1556-1557 the Jesuits built the first school in the region. The town was strategically located, being between the ocean and fertile lands to the west, and it is also on the Tietê River. It became an official city in 1711.


In the early years of São Paulo, it became the home base for the Bandeirantes, which were explorers, slavers and prospectors who explored the interior of Brazil. In this remote corner of the Portuguese Empire, there was no law, so ruthless men would explore the uncharted swamps, mountains and rivers of Brazil taking whatever they wanted, be it native slaves, precious metals or stones. Some of the more ruthless Bandeirantes, such as Antonio Rapôso Tavares (1598-1658), would even sack and burn Jesuit missions and enslave the natives who lived there.

The Bandeirantes explored a great deal of the Brazilian interior, but at a high cost: thousands if not millions of natives were killed and enslaved in their raids.​​

Gold and Sugar

Gold was discovered in the state of Minas Gerais at the end of the seventeenth century, and subsequent explorations discovered precious stones there as well.

The gold boom was felt in São Paulo, which was a gateway to Minas Gerais. Some of the profits were invested in sugarcane plantations, which were quite profitable for a time.

Coffee and Immigration

Coffee was introduced to Brazil in 1727 and has been a crucial part of the Brazilian economy ever since. São Paulo was one of the first cities to benefit from the coffee boom, becoming a center for coffee commerce in the nineteenth century. The coffee boom attracted São Paulo’s first major wave of foreign immigrants after 1860, mostly poor Europeans (particularly Italians, Germans, and Greeks) seeking work, although they were soon followed by a number of Japanese, Arabs, Chinese and Koreans. When slavery was outlawed in 1888, the need for workers only grew. São Paulo’s considerable Jewish community also was established around this time. By the time the coffee boom fizzled in the early 1900’s, the city had already branched out into other industries.


São Paulo was important in the Brazilian independence movement. The Portuguese Royal Family had moved to Brazil in 1807, fleeing Napoleon’s armies, establishing a royal court from which they ruled Portugal (at least theoretically: in reality, Portugal was ruled by Napoleon) as well as Brazil and other Portuguese holdings.

The Royal family moved back to Portugal in 1821 after the defeat of Napoleon, leaving eldest son Pedro in charge of Brazil. The Brazilians were soon angered by their return to colony status, and Pedro agreed with them. On September 7, 1822, in São Paulo, he declared Brazil independent and himself Emperor.

Turn of the Century

Between the coffee boom and wealth coming from mines in the interior of the country, São Paulo soon became the richest city and province in the nation. Railroads were built, connecting it to the other important cities. By the turn of the century, important industries were making their base in São Paulo, and the immigrants kept pouring in. By then, São Paulo was attracting immigrants not only from Europe and Asia but from within Brazil as well: poor, uneducated workers from the Brazilian northeast flooded into São Paulo looking for work.

The 1950’s

São Paulo benefited greatly from the industrialization initiatives developed during the administration of Juscelino Kubitschek (1956-1961). During his time, the automotive industry grew, and it was centered in São Paulo. One of the workers in the factories in the 1960’s and 1970’s was none other than Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who would go on to become president. São Paulo continued to grow, both in terms of population and influence. São Paulo also became the most important city for business and commerce in Brazil.

São Paulo Today

São Paulo has matured into a culturally diverse city, powerful economically and politically. It continues to be the most important city in Brazil for business and industry and lately has been discovering itself culturally and artistically as well. It has always been on the cutting edge of art and literature and continues to be home to many artists and writers. It is an important city for music as well, as many popular musicians are from there. The people of São Paulo are proud of their multicultural roots: the immigrants who populated the city and worked in its factories are gone, but their descendants have kept their traditions and São Paulo is a very diverse city.