Mem de Sá (1504-1572) was a Portuguese jurist and a governor general of Brazil who served from 1558 to 1572 and helped to bring a new stability and prosperity to Portuguese America.
Mem de Sá was born in Coimbra, Portugal. He studied law at the University of Salamanca. After receiving his law degree in 1528, he served as a judge in several of the highest courts of Portugal. A learned and able jurist, he enjoyed special favor with King João III. The Crown appointed him to be the third governor general of Brazil.
The cultured Sá brought peace and a certain degree of prosperity to Brazil after he assumed his duties in January 1558. Among others, the eminent Jesuit missionary Manuel da Nóbrega sang his praises: "As soon as Mem de Sá took the reins of government, he began to show his prudence, zeal, and virtue both in the good government of the Christians and the Indians by putting everything in order as Our Lord showed him." To increase the base of economic prosperity, Sá encouraged agriculture in general and sugar culture in particular. The number of sugar mills multiplied, particularly in the captaincies of São Vicente, Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo, Bahia, and Pernambuco, where the huge sugar plantations and their mills quickly became powerful agricultural, industrial, and social organizations.
The Indians had proved to be an unsatisfactory answer to the labor shortage which plagued the colony, but they were pressed into service as the only available workers. The Church, most vocally the Jesuits, regarded the enslavement of the Indians as contrary to the Christian intentions of the King, and they intensified efforts to save them both physically and spiritually by gathering them into the Church-administered villages. The colonists loudly criticized the interference with their labor supply. Sá desired to bring the Indians within the pale of empire. On the one hand, he maintained close relations with the Jesuits and approved the continuation of the mission villages. On the other, he fought fiercely to pacify those Indians who had rebelled against Portuguese authority.
The perennial French threat demanded much of the governor's attention and resources. In 1555, Vice Admiral Durand de Villegaignon had founded France Antartique around Guanabara Bay. The French colony there threatened the Portuguese king's claims to the entire Brazilian coast. Sá attacked the French invaders on several occasions. On March 1, 1565, he established Rio de Janeiro as a base to fight against the stubborn French and after prolonged siege expelled them in 1567. After the defeat of the French, Rio de Janeiro grew rapidly in size and importance. The Crown manifested its delight with the accomplishments of Sá by retaining him as governor general long after his 4-year appointment expired. He stayed on until he died in office on March 12, 1572, in Salvador da Bahia.
Further Reading on Mem de Sá
Sá is referred to in several useful background works on Latin America: Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America (1955; 3d rev. ed. 1968); Charles R. Boxer, Four Centuries of Portuguese Expansion, 1415-1825: A Succinct Summary (1961); and Helen M. Bailey and Abraham P. Nasatir, Latin America: The Development of Its Civilization (2d ed. 1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Sá, Mem de, Tempo de lembrar: memorias, Rio de Janeiro: Livraria J. Olympio Editora, 1981.