Brazil is in the news these days with the approach of World Cup 2014. Brazil, the land of Rio de Janeiro, the Samba, caipirinhas, and beautiful people.

But what do we really know about Brazil? For instance, where did the country’s name come from? Officially, the nation is known as the Federal Republic of Brazil. The land now called Brazil was claimed for the Portuguese Empire on 22 April 1500, with the arrival of the Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral. I have found no record of what the area was named before the arrival of the Portuguese.

But the nation became famous for its enormous native trees with their red wood: the brazilwood tree, or Pau-Brasil, as it was called.

Paubrasil

This plant has a dense, orange-red heartwood that takes a high shine, and it is the premier wood used for making bows for stringed instruments.

cellobow

The wood also yields a red dye called brazilin, which oxidizes to brazilein.

brazilwood_dye_01_320

When Portuguese explorers found these trees on the coast of South America, they used the name pau-brasil to describe them. Pau is Portuguese for “stick” (or “wood” in general), and brasil is said to have come from brasa, Portuguese for “ember,” meaning “emberlike.” The wood of this tree has a deep red hue, which may be why it received this name. In time, the land where the wood of these trees came from was referred to as “o pais do Pau-Brasil,” “the country of the brazilwood tree,” which was soon shorted simply to Brasil (Brazil, in English).

pau-brasil

When Portuguese navigators discovered present-day Brazil, on April 22, 1500, they immediately saw that brazilwood was extremely abundant along the coast and in its hinterland, along the rivers.

Brazilmap

In a few years, a hectic and very profitable operation for felling and shipping all the brazilwood logs they could get was established, as a crown-granted Portuguese monopoly. In the 15th and 16th centuries, brazilwood was a rare commodity and was highly valued in Europe.  A red dye from the tree was converted into a powder and used in the manufacture of expensive textiles, such as velvet, which was in much demand during the Renaissance. 

db_natural-dye-extract-brazilwood-01671

Excessive exploitation led to a steep decrease in the number of brazilwood trees in the 18th century, causing the collapse of this economic activity. Presently, the species is nearly extinct in most of its original range. Brazilwood is listed as an endangered species, and it is cited in the official list of endangered flora of Brazil.

Now you know where the country got its name. Share this knowledge as you travel, and amaze your listeners.