Bandeirantes, Natives, and Indigenous Slavery

The first European settlers who landed on the coast of Brazil in April of 1500 saw not only high round mountains but, almost immediately, people “dark and entirely naked, with nothing to cover their private parts, [carrying] bows and arrows in their hands.” These were tribesmen of the Tupi-Guarani language group, who occupied most of the Southern Cone of South America.

The Tupi lived in small, mobile communities, forced by weak soil that could not last long under their form of slash-and-burn agriculture to move frequently. European observers were immediately impressed by their hunting skills. “They practice with these weapons [bows and arrows] from a very young age and are great archers, so accurate that no bird escapes them, no matter how small,” one chronicler wrote.

Cannibal Conquerors

Just as the first Europeans arrived, the Tupi were in the process of conquering the Brazilian coastline. Different tribes frequently fought with each other for territory or revenge, and the representatives of different European nations found themselves allying with one tribe or another against other tribes and other Europeans. Hans Staden, author of one of the most famous accounts of life among the Tupi, observed their warfare and the complicated alliances between natives and Europeans during the time he was held captive among the Tupinamba.

Now there was a young lad from their people who had been a slave among the Portuguese. The savages among whom the Portuguese live [the Tupiniquins] had traveled to the land of the Tuppin Imba to wage war on them and had captured a whole village and eaten the old people. They had bartered off several of the young people in exchange for goods. Thus, this young lad had also been bartered off to the Portuguese, and stayed in the vicinity of Brikioka with his master, a Galician named Antonio Agudin.

Those who had captured me had captured this slave some three months before me. Now since he belonged to their lineage, they had not killed him. This slave knew me well, and they asked him what kind of man I was. He said that it was true that a ship had run ashore, and that they had called those who had got away [from the shipwreck alive], Castilians. They were friends of the Portuguese. I had been among them, but he knew nothing more about me (Staden 59).

Staden’s True History was widely read throughout Europe, in part due to its arresting accounts of cannibalism among the natives. According to Staden, cannibalism was a form of revenge perpetrated by one tribe upon the captives of another. This excerpt, which follows descriptions of many of the rituals performed before killing a captive, contains the traditional exchange between killer and victim that completed the bloody rite.

This is a great honor among them. Then the one, who is going to kill him, takes back the club and then says [to the captive]: Well, here I am. I will kill you, since your friends have also killed and eaten many of my friends. He answers: When I am dead, I will still have many friends, who are certainly going to avenge me. The executioner then strikes him on the back of his head and beats out his brains. The women immediately seize him and put him over the fire, where they scrape off all his skin, making him all white… (Staden 132-7).


This image of the Brazilian coastline from Maranhão to the Rio de Prata was part of the “Miller Atlas,” a collection of maps attributed to the artist Lopo Homem. It was created in 1519 and is currently in the French National Library in Paris. The miniatures show Brazilian natives, some involved in the business activities of Brazilwood export.

The first contact between settlers and Brazilian natives involved exchange of resources and military alliances, often facilitated by mamelucos, people of mixed native and European origin who often spoke multiple languages and served as translators.

These interactions soon developed into a more organized system of exporting resources, and then a localized industry based on the involuntary labor of natives. The mission villages, or aldeias, established by the Jesuits relied on slave labor from the very people the priests were trying to convert.

While African slavery grew steadily from the middle of the 16th century in Brazil, indigenous slavery remained a source of manpower through the 17th century and even later in more remote regions such as the Amazon basin. Despite the vulnerability of Indian populations to European diseases, these slaves were cheaper than Africans.

Native Men and Women

“Chef Camacan Mongoyo” (1834). From the John Carter Brown’s Archive of Early American Images.

“Femme Camacan Mongoyo” (1834) From the John Carter Brown Library’s Archive of Early American Images.










The first image is a portrait by French artist Jean-Baptiste Debret of a Native American chief, the second a woman of the same tribe.

  • What distinctions are made between them, in their dress, position, and expression?

Bandeiras and Bandeirantes

One of the many myths deeply embedded in Brazilian culture is that of the bandeirante—a swashbuckling native of São Paulo who charged into the untamed wilderness in search of precious minerals and Indian slaves. In modern popular imagery, these heroes are often depicted as white Europeans, but in reality they were often of mixed racial background. In this Jean Baptiste Debret lithograph, indigenous peoples who have been “civilized” by European forces aid in the capture and transport of fellow natives through the wilderness towards populated areas where they will surely become slaves. Many bandeiras (the name given to the westward expeditions of the bandeirantes) included Brazilian natives who saw the slave-hunting missions as less demeaning than agricultural work. Indeed, a 1629 bandeira included 69 whites, 900 mamelucos, and 2,000 Native Brazilians.

“Civilized Indian Soldiers of the Province of Cortiba Bringing the Saved. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library’s Archive of Early American Images.

A caption accompanying one print of this image says the dead-eyed soldiers followed the rivers to find their next victims. After finding an inhabited village, they would reportedly kill all the native men and take the remaining women and children prisoner. By the time of the lithograph’s publication, in 1834, Indian slavery is thought to have ended, but it did persist in some regions, overlapping with the era of African slavery.

The men of diverse backgrounds who participated in the bandeiras were entitled to reap some of the spoils—that is, they received free Indian slaves as payment for their efforts. By the late 1700s, however, bandeiras came to focus on land acquisition rather than capturing slaves. The Indians of Debret’s time, who still had their original lands, were thought to be too resistant for productive slave labor.

This image shows a “Capitão do Matto” or bush captain with a captured slave. From Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny, Voyage pittoresque dans les deux Amériques (Paris, 1836). Copy in Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library.

The mixing of races as it related to slavery can also be seen in “Capture of a Runaway Slave,” an 1826 engraving by Alcide Dessalines d’Orbigny. In this picture a “bush captain” (likely a bandeirante) of dark complexion escorts a recaptured slave back to his master. The prisoner and the bandeirante look quite similar, as was the case in the Debret painting, but it is clear their roles in Brazilian life could not be more different. Without the stark visual cues of their attire and means transportation, it would be easy to confuse the identities of the two men.

Further Reading

  • Hans Staden’s True History gives a full account of the German sailor’s colonial voyage and his time among the Tupi, as well as descriptions of the daily lives of the Indians. His observations are clearly filtered through the lens of his European sensibilities.


  • Staden, Hans. Hans Staden’s True History: An Account of Cannibal Captivity in Brazil. Trans. Neil Whitehead and Michael Harbsmeier. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • University of Virginia Digital Media Lab. Exploring Cultural Landscapes.