Judicial conflicts over land rights in northeast Brazil (1750 – 1850)

The Portuguese colonisation of America began in the coastlands. Strategically, occupying these areas facilitated communication, governance, defence and commerce. By the first half of the 17th century, these lands were also the most productive, as the soil was fertile, the water supply abundant, and the temperature milder. With the arrival of enslaved people from Africa to work at the sugar mill plantations, the coastline of northeast Brazil assumed great economic importance for the Portuguese empire, especially after the decline of trade routes in the Indian Ocean during the period in which Portugal was under Spanish domain. After the expulsion of the Dutch from Pernambuco in 1654, Portugal recovered control over one of the most important captaincies of the colony. This encouraged the gradual substitution of an exploratory model of colonisation by an occupational one. In order to support the coastline villages, occupation slowly progressed inland, expanding the frontiers of the empire over the so-called sertões (countryside), originally occupied by different indigenous peoples considered more inclined to isolation.

The relations between persons and the land could differ greatly between the coastland and the sertões, as did the possible grounds for claiming rights over the land. As a result, multiple subjects could share different claims over the same land. Conflicts were, therefore, constant. Judicially, these conflicts mobilised the community through testimonial evidence of possession and pitted against each other countless titles that justified diverse claims of dominium, such as sesmarias, purchases, donations, permutation, datas de terra, leases and judicial demarcation.

Considering these different claims to land and the conflicts that ensued, my project aims to explore the diversity of perceptions of how to own or use land, and how these perceptions were sanctioned by local authorities in the form of judicial decisions and legal instruments capable of securing rights over the land. The project will also investigate how these on-the-ground realities were influenced by European juridical concepts such as possession, dominium and just title, and how these were reshaped to fit the realities on the ground.

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