History of South America


Sesmarias were abandoned land belonging to Portugal and handed over for occupation, first in Portuguese territory and then in the colony, Brazil, where it lasted from 1530 to 1822. The system was used since the twelfth century in common, communal or community lands.

The name sesmaria derives from sesmar, to divide. Under this system, the land cultivated in the communities was divided according to the number of inhabitants and then randomly selected. The objective was to ensure the cultivation of the areas , which were called sesmo because they corresponded to the sixth part of the value of each land.

Each sesmaria had about 6,500 square meters. The same measure adopted in Portugal was also later applied in Brazil.

The sesmarias system was adopted by the kingdom of Portugal after the expulsion of the Arabs, a process that began in the 11th century and was only completed in the 15th century. The distribution of land was based on the law of Dom Fernando I, in 1375, and was also maintained in the kingdoms of Filipe, Manuel and Afonso.

Many of the sesmarias were under the control of the Order of Christ, heir to the Knights Templar and later baptized as the Order of Christ.

It contributed to the consolidation of Portuguese territory, helping to expel the Moors and contributing to overseas navigation activities.

Sesmarias System in Brazil

In Brazil, the sesmarias system was applied as a way of guaranteeing the possession of the territory, already divided into Hereditary Captaincies. The captaincies guaranteed the possession and did not represent expenses for the Crown, however the territories suffered from invasions.

The first distributions of sesmarias were promoted by Martim Afonso de Souza and consisted of the subdivision of captaincies. The system provided the necessary colonization support for the Crown. The distribution of land was aimed at attracting Christian settlers, who had the right to enjoy assured through letters of donation. These were called sesmeiros.

Whoever received the sesmaria would not, however, have full administrative dominion and remained subject to the Crown. The captains donated to the captaincies held 20% of the territory and were obliged to distribute the remaining 80% in a sesmaria system.

Among the main problems faced by the Crown to regulate the sesmarias was the obligation of cultivation and the establishment of territorial limits, many times disobeyed by the squatters.

The squatters, to whom the sesmeiros leased the land, began to cultivate it and demand recognition of the right over the territories. The Crown made numerous attempts to regulate the problem and it was only in 1822 that the sesmarias system was abolished, benefiting the squatters.

Hereditary Captaincies

The hereditary captaincies consisted of the first territorial division of Brazil. There were 14 units of land divided between 1534 and 1536 by King Dom João III.

The grantees received a donation letter and a charter letter. Ownership of captaincies could be passed on to children, but never sold, because they belonged to the Crown. To guarantee the right to exploitation, the grantees should implement the infrastructure of villages, build equipment, such as mills and guarantee justice.

Among the powers granted to the owners of the captaincies was the decree of death penalty to free men, Indians and blacks, the exemption from taxes and the receipt of contributions made to the Crown.

Donatories were also responsible for distributing sesmarias to Christian men and guaranteeing colonization.

Complement your research by reading further :

  • Colonial Brazil
  • Gold Cycle
  • Agrarian Reform

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