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Ilha Grande


Brazil Travel / History – Prior to Brazil's official discovery, Ilha Grande was part of the Tamoio indigenous nation who inhabited the Brazilian coast between todays Cabo Frio and Ubatuba. They called the island (in the Indian language Tupi) Ipaum (Ilha) Guaçu (Grande).

According to the notes of Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the second official Portuguese expedition to Brazil passed Ilha Grande on January 6, 1502 (Three Kings Day in the Roman catholic calender of saints), baptising the bay (angra) of Ilha Grande as Angra dos Reis. Ilha Grande itself wasn´t baptized, probably because the Portuguese didn´t recognize it as an island.

In 1559, Ilha Grande which was part of the captaincy of São Vicente (which belonged to Martim Afonso de Sousa) was donated to Dr. Vicente de Fonseca, a Portuguese nobleman who apparently never took possession of the island.

The first information about European inhabitants at Ilha Grande were due to reports from crew members of the Armada of English corsair Thomas Cavendish who anchored at the island in December, 1591. It is told, that there were five to six houses on the island inhabited by Portuguese and Indians who cultivated manioc, sweet potatoes, banana and created pork and chicken (nothing different than today in Brazil).

With the expansion of the illegal commerce by pirates and corsairs, Portugal finally implemented a coast guard under the command of Martim de Sá who controlled the whole coast between Cabo Frio and Santa Catarina. On all the islands of the region, inhabitation was explicitly prohibited, in order to avoid contact and support from potential inhabitants to pirates, corsairs and other enemies of the Portuguese crown. Accordingly, Ilha Grande practically remained inhabited until mid of the 18th century.

Due to the discovery of gold in Minas Gerais during the 18th century and the implantation of sugar cane and coffee production facilities in the region, Ilha Grande became a center for contraband trade of African slaves. During 200 years, in one of the darkest chapters of Brazil's history, countless ships landed on the beaches of Palmas and Dois Rios with African men, women and children, designated to do the hard work on the nearby sugar cane and coffee plantations.

In order to feed labour demand after the abolishment of slavery in 1850, Brazil opened the door for European, Asian and Arab immigrants. As there had been reported cholera epidemics in some of these countries, Brazilian emperor D. Pedro II ordered to construct a quarantine hospital (Lazareto) in 1886 and an aqueduct for the water supply in 1889. Until today, the ruins of these constructions are visible close to the Preta beach, north of Abraão.

The Lazareto was deactivated in 1893 and, during the military dictatorship, converted into a penitentiary for political prisoners (a second prison of this type was implemented at Ilha Anchieta in São Paulo). The building was partially demolished during the Constitutional Revolution in 1932 and the prisoners were transferred to Colônia Correcional de Dois Rios on the other side of the island.

With the construction of the Instituto Penal Cândido Mendes in 1940, the prisoners capacity was increased to 1.000 people. The prison was deactivated and imploded by the government of Rio de Janeiro in 1994. The detainees were mostly relocated to Bangú I and II, two penitentiaries of maximum security in Rio de Janeiro. The ground and the remaining installations were granted to the University of Rio de Janeiro who converted them into a center for biological science. Some ex-prisoners and ex-employees decided to stay on the island, running today little businesses.

During the 20th century, fishing became the main economical activity on the island. Japanese immigrants coming from São Paulo installed, over time, about 30 fish salting factories at Ilha Grande. Due to the fish decline in the bay of Ilha Grande because of overfishing, the production decreased substantially and was gradually substituted by frozen fish commerce and later by tourism. Some of the fish factories have been converted into hotels. Nowadays, approximately 5.000 inhabitants live on the island, distributed over 20 villages – Rainforest Tours / Brazil.

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