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Bandeirantes were the organizers of bandeiras (bandeira is the Portuguese for "flag"; the bandeiras used to carry a flag to identify them), private expeditions which explored the interior lands of Brazil during the century 17 and in the early years of century 18.
Portugal had a limited interested in exploring the vast lands of Brazil; for decades after the discovering, all that Portugual did was to establish some trading points along the coast, barely enough to store the goods (mostly wood, minerals and stones) which would be sent to the metropolis. Besides, Portugal was restrained by the Treaty of Tordesillas, which determined the boundaries between Portuguese and Spanish domains; the bandeirantes had no limits to respect.
The bandeirantes were, above all, greedy men. They wanted the wealthiness that the Portuguese didn't bother to explore. Their goal was not to conquer land (as it was happening in the US), but to find gold, stones, and to imprison indians which would be sold as slaves.
A typical bandeira would consist of 2-3 hundred men, who would stay for months or years exploring the wild forests and fields. Each bandeira had to be organized and paid for by someone who had to be rich and bold; on return, these men would become richer and more respected by the community.
The bandeiras were essential in the territorial formation of Brazil. Many modern cities grew around the mines that the bandeirantes discovered. Besides, knowing in advance that the scarceness of food and other resources would be a problem, it was not uncommon that small communities were created with the purpose of serving bandeirantes in transit.
In 1750, by force of the Treaty of Madri, new borders were adjusted; according to the treaty, the land would belong to whoever occupied it. So, all those villages founded by the bandeirantes became Portuguese possessions, and eventually Brazil; some of the modern States which
Brazil owe to bandeirantes: Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Amazonas, Pará, Tocantins.
Most bandeiras started in Sao Paulo; the
flag of the State of Sao Paulo carries the inscription "Non ducor, duco", latim for "I am not lead, I lead", a reference to the bandeirantes. There are several other monuments all around the State, including the government palace, called Palacio dos Bandeirantes, and most of the highways going to other States.
Some of the most famous bandeirantes: Bartolomeu Bueno da Silva, Fernao Dias Pais, Antonio Rodrigues Arzao, Antonio Pires de Campos, Bartolomeu Bueno de Siqueira. The boldest of all bandeirantes was Raposo Tavares; from 1649-1651, he lead a bandeira which reached was today is Paraguay, then moved up across the Amazon forest, and ended up reaching the Amazon river.
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