Monday, December 21, 2009

How Brazil Got Its Name

When the early Portuguese explorers first came ashore in what is now Brazil they called their new possession Ilha de Vera Cruz, Island of the True Cross. It wasn’t long, though, before they discovered it wasn’t an island. That’s when they changed the name to Terra de Santa Cruz, Land of the Holy Cross. And so it might have remained. 

But then they stumbled across this tree.
They’re a rarity these days, but five hundred years ago the country was covered with trees just like this one. And before gold, before precious stones, before sugar cane and coffee, they were the source of Brazil’s wealth.

Early on, it was discovered that the wood, ground up very fine, could be used to produce dyes and paints of a unique color. That color was often described as closely resembling red-hot embers. Embers, in Portuguese, are brasas. The tree came to be called Pau Brasil, (very) roughly translated as “wood that produces the color of embers”.Today, English speaking people call it Brazil wood.

Literally millions of trees were harvested over the course of the next four hundred years. Their sawdust was used to color fabrics, but also as a pigment by the great artists of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of whom mixed their own paints. By the nineteenth century such paints were being commercially produced. By then, the painters of Italy had corrupted brasil into verzino, the name by which the color became known. It was available in several different shades, two of which are in the background of this painting by van Gogh.

These days, verzino has largely been replaced by cadmium and azo pigments, which can duplicate the same colors at lesser cost. But if a painting is over a hundred years old, and contains this shade of red, the likelihood is that it has a little bit of Brazil in it.

I know of no other country that got its name from a color. But Brazil did.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Leighton - Your blog reminds me that I suffer from a lack of curiousity, shared I'm afraid, by most others. I take as given the names of places and don't wonder often enough wht they have those names.

    In New England and the Mid-Atlantic states so many place names were just picked up from England and transferred across the ocean. The Pilgrims left Plymouth, England and gave the same name to the place they landed. On occasion, they used Native American words to name the areas but, with singular lack of imagination, they used the names of English locations and stuck "new" in front of it.

    If they really wanted to be creative, they used the names of British rulers. William Penn wanted to name his land grant "sylvania" but the king, who gave Penn the land, insisted it be named after his father, Admiral Penn. Giving away land that isn't really your's is a cheap way of settling a debt.

    It is always so nice to learn something that you didn't know you didn't know.

  2. Thank you for a very colourful and informative post. I enjoyed the bit about the van Gogh painting.

  3. Hi Leighton, I just got your email and jumped on the blog. THIS IS GREAT!! I was very interested to read about Brazil (I didn't know of the colour connection). Now I'm going to write you an email, CARPE DIEM.
    Love from your trusty manuscript printer in Paris..