Belem History Facts and Timeline

(Belem, Pará, Brazil)

Belem's history dates back to 1616, when the Kingdom of Portugal founded this city and in turn, made it the first European colony to reside alongside the Amazon River. The Igreja do Santo Alexandre, the settlement's earliest church, remains standing to this day and was actually built in the city's first year.

The city was originally called Feliz Lusitania, before changing its name to Nossa Senhora de Belem do Grao Para, which translates as 'Our Lady of Bethlehem of the Great Par'. It was later renamed once more, becoming Santa Maria de Belem or 'St. Mary of Bethlehem'.

The Early Years

Due to its location on the Amazon, just 100 km / 62 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Belem has historically played a key role in Brazilian trading, thus making it an extremely important location. Steady growth, trading and expansion saw the town rewarded for its efforts in 1655, when it was designated as a city.

Trading and Economy

The area around Belem was largely dependent on the well-supported sugar trade during the 17th century, but after that period, the economic importance of the city would suffer mixed fortunes. Ranches were set up with large herds of cattle and these played a key role until the early years of the 18th century, when the production of cotton became more profitable, along with both coffee and rice farming. However, with more people settling in the south of the country, where it was easier to produce these crops, Belem went through a period of gradual decline.

In the year of 1772, the city's spirits were lifted when it was awarded the status of the Para state capital, after Para split from the north-eastern state of Maranhao. The early years of the 19th century were not a good time in the history of Belem, as it suffered widespread political instability. The troubles, which included mass uprisings, finally came to an end in the mid-1830s, but not before many lives were lost.

Belem changed its focus to become the Amazon's principal exporting port for rubber. The rubber era waned rapidly, following the boom years around 1910, although Belem remained as northern Brazil's main commercial hub, being a key trading post for both imports and exports within the Amazon Valley. Later, aluminium and ore mining would replace rubber as valuable naturally occurring export commodities.

Recent History

The Japanese started to immigrate to the region from the 1930s onwards and were pivotal in developing the pepper and jute (rough fiber) trade, particularly at the town of Tome-Acu, located roughly 180 km / 112 miles to the south of Belem.

The city continued its development through the 20th century, with the Federal University of Para (Universidade Federal do Para) opening in 1957 and now boasting more than 35,000 students. The city also witnessed the arrival of a number of additional educational establishments in the ensuing years.

During the history of Belem, the products exported from the city have constantly changed. These days, the exports from the Amazon via Belem tending to generate the greatest profit-margins are iron, aluminium and a number of further metals. Other products include a variety of exotic fruits, such as pineapples, cassava (tuberous tropical tree roots), nuts and timber.