Salvador and the Bahia Coast Feature

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A Bit of History

Portuguese navigator and explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral's first sight of Brazil—on Easter Sunday, April 22, 1500—was an isolated mountain of about 530 meters (1,600 feet) immediately named Monte Pascoal (Mount Easter), 750 km (466 miles) south of Salvador. The Portuguese flotilla soon dropped anchor most likely at what is now the fishing village of Curumuxatiba. The explorers were met by the native Tupinambá tribe, who were welcoming and eager to accept gifts and provide food and water. Proceeding up the coast about 130 km (81 miles), the ships landed at what is now Santa Cruz de Cabrália. On a knoll on the Coroa Vermelha beach, the first mass on this new-found land was held. In his journal, the journey's log keeper, Pero Vaz de Caminha, extolled the future colony—"where the land is so fertile that all that is sown will give a bountiful harvest." Within a few years more Portuguese expeditions arrived to comb the coastal forests for highly prized pau-brasil (brazilwood) trees, the first of many natural resources to be exploited by the colonial landlords.

In 1549 Tomé de Sousa was appointed Brazil's first governor-general, with orders to establish the colony's capital in Bahia. The deep waters at the mouth of Baía de Todos os Santos (All Saint's Bay) and the nearby hills, which provided a commanding view of the region and protection in case of attack by pirates, indicated a favorable site. Within a few decades the city of Salvador had become one of the most important ports in the Southern Hemisphere, and remained so until the 18th century. In 1763 the capital was moved to Rio de Janeiro, and the city lost part of its economic importance and prestige.

Due to its continental dimensions, Brazil has a diverse culture that is sometimes a mosaic but more often a blend of European, African, and indigenous backgrounds. But in Bahia the historical and cultural influence is predominately African. The large African-Brazilian population (comprising more than 70% of the population), the rhythms with mesmerizing percussion, and the scents on the streets of Salvador immediately evoke the other side of the Atlantic.

Until slavery ended officially in 1888, it's estimated that more than 4 million slaves were brought to Brazil from Africa, and the port of Salvador was a major center of the slave trade. By contrast, only around 600,000 slaves were brought to the United States. The large African slave population here and the generally lenient attitude of Portuguese masters and the Catholic Church led to a greater preservation of African customs in Brazil than in other countries. The indigenous tribes, forced to work with the Portuguese to harvest pau-brasil trees, either fled inland to escape slavery or were integrated into the European and African cultures.

Today Bahia faces several challenges. As Brazil's fourth-largest state, it's struggling to juggle population growth and the economic boom that started 50 years ago when oil was found in its territory. The race is on to preserve its way of life and its landscapes, especially the remaining patches of Mata-Atlantica Rain Forest, coral reefs, mangroves, and interior sierras.

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