How Brazil Acquired Its Name

In the 15th and 16th centuries, wealthy Europeans dressed in rich fabrics dyed with bright colors, while ordinary folk were clad in dull grays and browns. Red was especially popular, not least because the dye, derived from the wood of the sappanwood tree (Caesalpinia sappan), was so expensive that sporting a red coat or gown was an ostentatious display of wealth, the equivalent of driving a Cadillac or Rolls Royce today. The dye, with the color of burning coals, was imported from southern Asia and reached Europe in powder form. The Portuguese called the tree pau-brasil, pau meaning “wood” and brasil meaning “ember.” In English it was known as brazilwood.

On April 22, 1500, Portuguese sailors reached the coast of South America. When they went ashore they saw trees that had dense, orange-red wood and soon discovered that the wood yielded a red dye. These pau-brasil trees (Caesalpinia echinata), also known as pernambuco and every bit as good as sappanwood, grew abundantly along the coast and beside river courses extending far inland. The explorers sent samples back to Europe, and within a few years the trees were being felled and shipped across the ocean in large quantities. It proved such a highly profitable industry that ships laden with pau-brasil timber were at risk from pirates, and in 1555 a French expedition of two ships and 600 men led by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon (1510–71), vice-admiral of Britanny, attempted to establish a French colony they called France Antarctique at Rio de Janeiro, partly in order to gain access to this priceless timber. The territory from which pau-brasil was gathered became known in Portuguese as Brasil and in other languages as Brazil.

Brazilwood is still used as the source of the dye brazilin, and the timber is also used to make bows for stringed instruments. The brazilwood industry collapsed in the 18th century because so many of the trees had been felled that they were becoming rare. The species is now classed as endangered.