Brazilwood is a common name for several trees of the family Leguminosae (pulse family) whose wood yields a red dye called brazilein . The bright red wood, which takes a high shine, is used in carpentry and for making violin bows. Portuguese explorers used this name for a similar South American tree (Caesalpinia echinata and C. brasiliensis), from which the name Brazil for its native land is derived. The name is said to come from "brasa", Portuguese for "ember," owing to its red hue.
Brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata) is also known as "Pau-Brasil" or "Pau-de-Pernambuco".
In the 15th and 16th centuries, brazilwood was highly valued in Europe and quite difficult to get. Coming from Asia, it was used mainly to extract its red dye in powder form, which was used in the manufacture of luxury textiles, such as velvet, in high demand during the Renaissance, When Portuguese navigators discovered present-day Brazil, in April 21st 1500, they immediately saw that brazilwood was extremely abundant in the Brazilian coast and hinterland, along the rivers. In a few years, a hectic and very profitable operation for felling and transporting by shipping all the brazilwood logs they could get was established, as a crown-granted Portuguese monopoly. The rich commerce which soon followed stimulated other nations to try to harvest and smuggle brazilwood contraband out of Brazil, or even corsairs attacking loaded Portuguese ships in order to steal their cargo. For example, the unsuccessful attempt of a French expedition led by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, vice-admiral of Brittany and corsair under the King, in 1555, to establish a colony in present-day Rio de Janeiro (France Antarctique) was motivated in part by the bounty generated by economic exploitation of brazilwood.
Excessive exploitation (it has been estimated that in the first two centuries, more than 50 million trees were destroyed) finally led to a steep decrease in the number of brazilwood trees in the 18th century, causing the collapse of this economic activity. Presently, brazilwood is practically extinct in most parts of the country. The trade of brazilwood is therefore likely to be banned in the immediate future, creating a major problem in the bow-making industry which mainly relies on this wood.