Spatial Genealogies: Mobility, Settlement, and Empire-Building in the Brazilian Backlands, 1650–1800

Abstract: This study examines the territorial expansion of Portuguese colonization in South America by analyzing the spatial practices of Luso-Brazilian families in the captaincy of São Paulo, Brazil during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the 1690s, successive discoveries of mineral wealth lured thousands of colonists to scattered settlements in the interior of the continent, challenging the long-established maritime orientation of the Portuguese empire. Given obstacles posed by distance and lack of infrastructure as well as the near absence of formal institutions, this study asks how the Portuguese extended the occupation into the backlands and what mechanisms enabled the integration of these new pockets of settlement into the rest of the empire. It combines different computational methods, such as text mining, data modeling and analysis, and digital mapping to examine a large corpus of genealogical writings about prominent families of colonial São Paulo, reconstituting patterns of geographic mobility of more than 3,000 individuals. These patterns indicate that mobility was shaped by family ties, which allowed colonists to marshal resources, share geographic knowledge, and forge alliances for travel and exploration. Because kinship was an enduring form of social relationship, it provided lasting linkages that connected distant settlements to the consolidated areas of occupation and gave a sense of spatial cohesion that sustained the empire inland.