Brazil: A Name in Search of a Country Edgard Leite, PhD, Rio de Janeiro State University

JU IS-361 Latin America Studies

Edgard Leite

Brasil is an old name. According to Celtic traditions, the name was given to a mythical island allegedly located off the coast of Ireland. The island was constantly covered by fog and hardly ever visible.

The first docum ented account of this mysterious place is on a map made by Angelino Dalorto in 1325.

According to Pereira Ferraz, old maps, such as the Medicis Atlas (1339), pointed at two islands with this name. One, in fact, located on the Irish coast, and the other near Saint Vicent's Cape in Portugal.

In 1347, the Pzigani brothers gave the same name to another island near Brittany.

The name was spelled in a variety of ways: Brazil, as in the Catalan Map from 1375; Brazie, Bracie or Bracir, in Pzigani's map.

The etymology of the word is obscure. Some defend that it derives from Celtic and Gaelic languages meaning "grandeur" or "beauty", and others maintain that it comes from the Latin brasas meaning "flames". Others say the word evokes an old Irish clan.

Humboldt thought these islands were part of the Azores. And, in fact, in Third Island there is a mount called Brazil, which maybe evokes old names.

The sailors who ventured the ocean had no doubt the place was mythical. Many, like Jay Junior, in 1480, and John Cabot, in 1497, endeavored to locate it in the North Atlantic, without success.

In 1500, Juan de La Cosa thought he had found them in the Antilles, near the Pearl Coast (Venezuela). In 1499, there was a port called del Brasile in the Hispaniola (Haiti).

In Schõner's map (1515), the term did not refer to an island, but rather to a whole continent called Brasilie Regio. It was located to the south, apparently mistaken for the Terra del Fuego (now Argentina), or the distant Antarctica.

What is for sure, however, is that the Portuguese sailor Pedro Álvares Cabral, after hitting the Atlantic coast in South America in 1500, named the region Santa Cruz, "Holy Cross".

It was probably named after the Order of Christ, the company that financed the travel, whose symbol is a cross. The Order of Christ was a religious and military order, heir of the estate and privileges of the Knights Templars.

Island of the Cross is the name given in documents dating from the first decade of the Sixteenth Century to that part of the Atlantic coast of South America. In other documents it is called Terra de Santa Cruz, "Land of The Holy Cross". On maps made between 1520 and 1525 the region is called the Land of the Parrots, or Terra Papagalli.

It is true, however, that a tree which grew across the region, as well as all along the South-American Atlantic coast, was later called Pau-Brasil (Caesalpinia echinata Lam). The indigenous peoples called it Ibirapitanga.

A dye of a nice red color was taken from the tree, which Europeans soon came to appreciate and which was used for dying luxury fabric, among other things.

Thus, as from the second half of the Sixteenth Century, maps started naming the region Terra Brasilis, Terra do Brasil.


The dye extracted from Pau-Brasil had enormous commercial success.

Until that time, verzino or berzi (as they were called in the Italian market) were used in Europe. It was a red tint obtained from various vegetable elements that had been used since old times. It came from the East. it was called brezil, bresillum or brasil in French, Spanish and Portuguese markets.

As it had dominated the whole market, the South-American product took on the already known name. It was cheaper, abundant and had a unique and peculiar color tone.

In America, the brasis, as they came to be called, were the indigenous people who cut down trees to be shipped abroad, and the dealers were called brasileiros, "brazilians".

The historian Capistrano de Abreu (1853-1927) say the word Brasil is "a name in search of a place".

As we have seen, two different phenomena were associated with the term brasil.

The first was a mythical island, a legendary land, which originated in Celtic legends, and supposedly existed in a remote place in Ireland or Europe. Sixteenth-century navigators sought or thought to find such mysterious place on their journeys across the Atlantic.

The latter was a dye with different hues of red that was extracted from a tree and traded in Europe since ancient times. A tree, known as Pau-Brasil, from which a dye equally red was extracted, was found on the South-American coast.

In 1627, Friar Vicente de Salvador, who was one of the first to reflect upon the subject, regretted that the land, which had originally been named after the "divine wood of the cross", "Santa Cruz", had its name later replaced by "Brasil, just because of a wood thus called, a wood of a brazen red hue used to dye fabric".

He had no doubt it had been a "devil's deed". The replacement of a name derived from a holy wood for another derived from a mundane wood was, for him, one of the reasons for Brazil's failed settlement, its social indigence and economic setbacks.

Friar Vincent from Salvador ignored that old barbarians used the word to refer to a remote land that existed for centuries in imagination only.

It was thus that the name Brasil came to refer to a region, a colony, an Empire and, eventually, a Republic. For lack of an original date for its establishment, such denomination, which originated in a remote past, continued being used through the centuries.

The name encapsulates nearly lost Celtic traditions, fleeting sensations embodied in the reddish hues of old lost fabric, and memories of extinct forests.

The Brasis, that is, the indigenous peoples who cut down trees for export, have long disappeared from producing regions.​​

Brazilians, "Brasileiros", that is, Pau-Brasil dealers, remain in their descendants, in those who still carry the name of commercial agents of a product, a no longer marketable and almost extinct tree.

The name Brasil, therefore, has an obscure origin, and it comes as no surprise that it is linked to an obscure national identity.

Its permanence as a geographic, territorial and national denomination expresses the same nebulous puzzle that is part of the history of the society that it identifies.