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Duarte Coelho

Duarte Coelho Pereira, the first to be granted with the captaincy of Pernambuco, is a fairly mysterious figure. Few things were ever written about him.

Duarte Coelho

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Last update: 05/09/2013

By: Maria do Carmo Gomes de Andrade - Librarian of the Fundação Joaquim Nabuco

Duarte Coelho Pereira, the first to be granted with the captaincy of Pernambuco, is a fairly mysterious figure. Few things were ever written about him.

According to some sources, he was born at the end of the 15th century, near the beginning of the 1480s, in the Province of Miragaia, Portugal.

He was the bastard son of Gonçalo Coelho, registrar of the Royal Farm and commander of the Portuguese expedition to Brazil of 1503, a descendent of the ancient Coelho family of Portuguese agrarian nobility, and of a commoner, Catarina Ana Duarte.

Without having a home setting, he would have been raised by a maternal aunt who was the prioress of the Vila Nova de Gaia Monastery.

He enlisted in the Portuguese Navy and, with the Armada of Dom Fernando Coutinho, in 1509, sailed to the Orient for twenty years. After serving in Africa and the Atlantic Ocean islands, he exchanged the life of a soldier for that of a settler and administrator of land.

When he was almost seventy years old, he received the captaincy of Pernambuco from King Dom João III, through a letter of donation dated 10 March 1534 and signed in Évora, Portugal.

He could have remained in his country and attempted to administrate the captaincy from afar, but he preferred to move to Brazil and run it personally, confronting all the difficulties that existed in the young Portuguese colony.

He arrived in Brazil on 9 March 1535, accompanied by his wife, Brites de Albuquerque, his brother-in-law Jerônimo de Albuquerque, and some families from the northern Portugal. He also brought several Jewish settlers to construct sugarcane factories and foremen with experience of sugarcane plantations on Madeira and São Tomé, as Pernambuco – with its warm, even climate, without great variations in temperature and with regular rain – was a perfect location for the cultivation of sugarcane.

Duarte Coelho Pereira, on his arrival to Pernambuco, entered through the sand bar of Itamaracá island and disembarked on the Igarassu River at an old trading post called “Marcos”.

With time he saw that the place was inappropriate to be the seat of government. Despite being sheltered from the effects of high tides, the place was not safe, as it could easily be held captive in the event of a siege from the sea, by simply blocking the northern and southern entrances at the two extremes of Itamaracá Island. He then moved to the south and established the seat of government in the area which the city of Olinda is now found, possibly a little before 12 March 1537, considered to be the date of the Donation Letter known as Foral de Olinda.

The Captaincy of Pernambuco territory, named New Lusitania by Duarte Coelho, covered all of the current state of Alagoas, going to the São Francisco River, on the border of the current state of Minas Gerais. It was the captaincy that had the largest territorial area among all those granted by King Dom João III.

Duarte Coelho greatly expanded the sugarcane culture in his captaincy, generating a lot of wealth and work, enabling the exportation of sugar to Portugal in a short time.

He was an excellent administrator and organiser of a patriarchal economy, based on sugar and black people. He encouraged the population to plant sugarcane by giving them tax exemptions for setting up factories and the rights to export sugar.

In the beginning his relationship with the Indians was peaceful, but later had to face problems with the natives. He was able to pacify them, however, through skill and the helps of his friend, Vasco Fernandes de Lucena and his Indian wife.

He did not allow the deportation of convicts to his land, which made him strong enemies.

He developed commerce, constructed dockyards to build carvels and ships to transport produce and police the coast of the captaincy, expelling French ships that had come to illegally trade Brazilwood.

His enemies created much intrigue, resulting in the king, when Duarte Coelho returned to Portugal, receiving him with a very cold manner, despite all his effort and the esteem the monarch had previously held him in.

This injustice deeply rocked him. Being an elderly man, his health was greatly affected by the heartbreak, which led to his death, probably on 7 August 1554, according to historian Pereira da Costa.

Recife, 23 August 2005.
(Updated on 9 September 2009).
Translated by Peter Leamy, January 2011.

sources consulted

MELLO, José Antônio Gonsalves de. Duarte Coelho e a colonização de Pernambuco. Biblioteca virtual José Antônio Gonsalves de Mello. Disponível em:<>. Acesso em: 15 ago. 2005.

PEREIRA DA COSTA, Francisco Augusto. Anais pernambucanos. Recife: Arquivo Público Estadual, 1951.

SILVA, Jorge Fernandes da. Vidas que não morrem. Recife: Secretaria de Educação de Pernambuco. Departamento de Cultura, 1982.

how to quote this text

Source: ANDRADE, Maria do Carmo. Duarte Coelho. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009.