FORTALEZA is a sprawling city of over two million inhabitants, its centre bristling with offices and apartment blocks. It has, for well over a century, been the major commercial hub of the northern half of the Northeast. More recently it has poured resources into expanding its tourist trade, lining the fine city beaches with gleaming luxury hotels and developing the city centre. Taken together, this means that little trace remains of Fortaleza's eventful early history , the clue to which is in its name, which means "fortress". The first Portuguese settlers arrived in 1603 and were defeated initially by the Indians, who killed and ate the first bishop (a distinction the city shares with Belém), and then by the Dutch, who drove the Portuguese out of the area in 1637 and built the Forte Schoonenborch. In fact the Portuguese were restricted to precarious coastal settlements until well into the eighteenth century, when the Indians were finally overwhelmed by the determined blazing of cattle trails into the interior. Another fort – the Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Assunção – was built by the Portuguese in 1816 on the site of the earlier Dutch one.
The independence movement in northern Brazil was organized in Fortaleza, and the city was one of the few places where the Portuguese actually made a fight of it, massacring the local patriots in 1824 before being massacred themselves a few months later. Largely due to its strategic location at the very western edge of the Atlantic trade winds, the city did well in the nineteenth century as a port city. For decades, though, one of the city's most important exports was the people of the state: shipping lines transported flagelados (poor people uprooted by severe droughts) from Fortaleza to the rubber zones of the Amazon and the cities of southern Brazil. These days, Fortaleza is best known as a base for exploring yet more stunning coastline. It has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, though poverty and begging are rife.