Converting Land into Property in the Portuguese Atlantic World, 16th--18th Century

Carmen Alveal
History, The Johns Hopkins University - UNITED STATES, 2007
October, 2007
Doctoral thesis

Text in Portuguese


Land was at a premium in Portugal and its colonies. Access to land was conditional upon eligibility of the supplicant and only confirmed after stringent conditions had been met. The allocation of land grants ( sesmarias ) in the colony had to be in accordance with the laws and practices of metropolitan Portugal which dated back to 1375 and which were revised in their final form in the Ordenações Filipinas (1603). One condition for confirmation of such grants was evidence of cultivation. Once this condition had been met, the bureaucratic machinery was set in motion: the land was measured, the grant confirmed, and a document issued confirming ownership. Failure to meet this requirement resulted in reversion of the land to the crown. Land became a vehicle for revenue generation whereby the holder of a sesmaria could acquire not only economic capital but also social capital. A simple act became enmeshed in a complex network of problems associated with eligibility of the supplicant, the precise meaning of ownership, and exactly what constituted legal property. In late medieval Portugal the promulgation of sesmaria laws had as its prime object the ordered allocation of land in an effort to promote settlement by guaranteeing a regular supply of foodstuffs by maximizing cultivation. While there were problems with such matters such as procedures to denunciation for failure to cultivate lands, the nominating process, and the responsibilities of a grantee (including maintenance and control of labor), by and large the social and economic goals of this legislation were met.

This dissertation analyzes the sesmaria in the Portuguese Atlantic world with a special focus on Brazil. Kings, by the granting of sesmarias overseas, had the same objective as in the metropolis: to encourage settlement, promote a stable rural population in a chronically unstable colony, and guarantee foodstuffs for an growing immigrant population. A key aspect of Portuguese empire-building was its conservative character. Laws and processes created for the metropolis were taken overseas. Using sesmarias as a case study, I examine the benefits and shortcomings of this practice. While the laws and processes were viable, so greatly did the social and economic context in Brazil differ from Portugal that the crown lost control over the supervision of such land grants in the colony. Totally undermining the royal authority was a combination of local conditions: distance from immediate administrative centers and officialdom; virtual impossibility of deciding what constituted a satisfactory level of cultivation in soils of various potential; and physical and technical problems of making measurements.