The 16th century was a time of global exploration for the Europeans. Although various parts of South America had been occupied by the semi-nomadic tribes that were native to the area for centuries, the 1500’s saw the introduction of other nations, cultures and tongues. Records indicate that the Spaniard, Vicente Yáñez Pinzón, was the first person to explore Maranhão in 1500. However, the area was officially given to João de Barros in 1534 as a Portuguese hereditary captaincy. It was 60 years later, in 1594, that the French established the first settlement in what is today known as Maranhão. In 1612, a French colony was also established on São Luís Island. This was a short-lived victory as the Portuguese ousted the French in 1615 and maintained power until 1641, when the Dutch took over.
While the Portuguese still had control, Maranhão, Ceara and Pará were collectively called Estado do Maranhão. This was a separate entity to the southern captaincies. Subsequently, as a result of civil war and disagreements regarding the slavery of Indians, Ceara was detached. Maranhão stayed a separate entity until 1774, when Brazil regained colonial administration thereof.
Interestingly, Maranhão was not part of the independence that Brazil declared in 1822. It only became part of the Empire of Brazil in 1823, when Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane drove the Portuguese out of the area in an effort to liberate Maranhão.