When Brazil was first discovered in1500, by the Portuguese captain Pedro Alvares Cabral, thinking that the new found land was an island, he named it Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross). Considering that the Feast of the Cross was around the corner on the liturgical calendar, May 3, it’s possible that Cabral named it that to honor the Cross.
Soon after realizing that Brazil was not an island, the name was changed from Ilha de Vera Cruz to Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross). However, due to the strong religious practice of the time, the reference to the cross was considered blasphemy and the name was dropped.
In spite of Brazil’s natural resources, Portugal didn’t seem very excited about it because they didn’t want to make big investments to exploit the hidden treasures. It was easier to sail to India for their spices, precious stones, and luxurious artifacts. So between 1502 and 1512, the Portuguese crown leased their claim to Brazil to a Lisbon merchant group for commercial exploitation.
The first thing this group started harvesting was a red wood which Brazil had plenty of. This wood produced a deep red dye which was already in demand by the European cloth industry and was previously imported from India at high prices. Now, Brazil would be the provider at much cheaper prices.
At the exploration period, whenever a country discovered a new land, they claimed it and moved in. But as Portugal took three decades to do that, Brazil had many visitors from different lands including Spain, France, and Holland. And the French harvested a lot of dyewood illegally.
This tree was called pau-brasil (brazilwood). As the wood was coming to Europe in great quantities, people started referring to the new land as the land of Brazil. Later, it became just Brazil.
Unfortunately, the extreme redwood harvest which was done both legally and illegally brought it close to extinction.