What country was named after a dyewood?: Information Roundup
Contrary to what one might naturally suppose, Brazil was named after brazilwood, not the wood after the country. Long before the discovery of America, brasil (variously spelled) was the commercial name of sapan, an East Indian tree from which a red dyewood was obtained. Writing about 1300, Marco Polo said the islands oK the coast of India produced large quantities of sapanwood for dyeing. Of the kingdoms of Lambri and Fanfur he wrote: "They sow brazil and when it springs up and begins to throw out shoots, they transplant it to another spot, where it is suffered to remain for three years. It is then taken up by the roots and used as a dyestuff." Marco Polo brought some of the seeds of this plant with him to Venice and sowed them there, but "the climate not being sufficiently warm, none of them came up." Chaucer, writing in the latter part of the fourteenth century, spelled the name of the dyewood brasile, which is the modern Italian spelling of the name of the South American country. In the sense of a dyewood the term is of unknown origin. Some etymologists derive it from Portuguese braza, "burning coal"; others from Arabic bakkam, "red dye-wood,"[page 49] and still others from beas and ail, two Gaelic syllables applicable to man or island and highly commendable in connotation. It has been argued, but not very convincingly, that Brazil is merely corruption of Brendan or Brandon. According to a medieval story, regarded as legend by some and as history by others, an Irish abbot now known as St. Brendan sailed west from Ireland in the sixth century in quest of the land of promise and returned after an absence of seven years with reports of an earthly Paradise that he had visited. this land of mystery in the Atlantic is supposed to have been an island or a part of the American mainland. Pre-Columbian maps show an island called St. Brendan or St. Brandon in the Atlantic midway between Africa and the islands east of Asia, and this island was often confused with another legendary island—the Island of Brazil. Even the Roman writer Pliny had referred to a source of dyewoods in the western ocean by the name of Insulae Purpurariae. On the map made at Venice in 1436 Andrea Branco designated one of the larger Azores Ide Brazi. When the Azores became better known this island was renamed Terceira and the Island of Brazil was indicated on maps several hundred miles westward. John Cabot, seeking Asia by sailing westward in 1497, had hoped to stop at the Island of Brazil. There are those who believe that this imaginary island was called Brazil, not because it was reputed to be the source of brazilwood, but because it discovered or reported to have been discovered by an Irish navigator named Brazil, O'Brassil or some such name. The mysterious Island of Brazil seems to have been gradually pushed westward in the imagination until it was identified with Newfoundland or the neighboring shores of the continent. Columbus was on the lookout for Brazil-wood in 1492 and he agreed to reserve for the crown all such timber in the lands that he might discover. In 1496 the Adelantado Don Bartholomew Columbus, the admiral's brother, actually found great quantities of a kind of brazilwood in the West Indies. The region now known as Brazil was first sighted by a European in 1500 when Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, who had commanded one of the three vessels of the first Columbus expedition, visited that part of South America. Later in the same year the Portuguese Pedro Alvarez de Cabral, sailing under directions drawn by Vasco da Gama, bore so far westward on his way to India that he touched the coast of Brazil. Since this region lay clearly within the zone allotted to Portugal by a papal bull and a treaty with Spain, Cabral claimed the territory for his country. The Portuguese, who supposed the mainland to be an island and who established their first permanent settlement there in 1501, at first called the [page 50] new colony the Island of the True Cross. Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant after whom the New World was later named, visited Brazil in 1501 and 1503. In the latter year he left a garrison of twenty-four men behind and returned to Europe with a cargo of dyewood that was called brasilwood because it was very similar to the sapanwood imported from the East Indies. According to tradition, King Emanuel himself changed the name of the new colony from the Island of the True Cross to the Land of Brasil or Brazil after he learned that it abounded in the valuable dyewood. Whether the Portuguese were influenced by the legendary Island of Brazil in naming the colony is unknown. They must have known of the island and it is quite possible that, if they did not actually borrow the name from that source, they were influenced by the legend. The region is so vast and the settlements on the coast were so scattered that formerly the country was referred to as the Brazils. Brazil began as a colony of Portugal, and Portuguese is still the official and prevailing language of the country—the only nation in the Western Hempishere in which this is so. In 1807 King John VI of Portugal fled from Lisbon before Napoleon's army and took refuge in Rio de Janeiro. That has been the only time in history that a European nation was ruled from the New World. King John returned to Portugal in 1821 and left his son Pedro as regent in Brazil. The next year Brazil declared its independence of Portugal and became an independent kingdom with Pedro as the first emperor. In 1831 he abdicated in favor of his five-year-old son Pedro II, who was emperor for fifty-eight years. A revolution in 1889 overthrew the monarchy and established a republic officially styled Estados Unidos do Brasil, "The United States of Brazil." Four of the twenty states of Brazil are larger than Texas. Nearly half of the area and population of South America are in Brazil. It has an area of 3,275,000 square miles—greater than the continental United States exclusive of Alaska—and in 1947 its population was estimated at more than 45,000,000. Brazil is touched geographically by every other South American country and colony except Chile. Rio de Janeiro (literally "River of January"), the capital and the second largest city in South America, took its name from the bay that an early Portuguese explorer is reputed to have so named because he thought it was a river and because the date was January 1, 1502. Brazil and Portugal have had many difficulties over their common language. In 1946 the two governments agreed to let the Academy of Letters in each country sponsor a system of pronunciation and spelling of Portuguese to be accepted as standard for both Portuguese and Brazilians. The conventional English spelling of [page 51] the name of the South American republic is and always has been Brazil. any years Brasil and Brazil were used interchangeably by the Brazilians themselves. It was not unusual to see the word spelled with a z in one government document and with an s in another. Numerous and articles were written with a view of putting an end to this graphic anarchy and getting the government to adopt an official spelling. Finally a decree was issued fixing Brasil as the official and correct spelling of the name in Portuguese.