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Natal was built on the right bank of river Potenji, right where the river meets the Atlantic; the soil is very sandy, with dunes and bays protected by reefs which appear all along the shore line.
In December of 1597, a fleet commanded by Jeronimo de Albuquerque arrived to the river Potenji, with the assignments of founding a new city and building a fortress to protect the Portuguese settlement and keep away the Frenchmen, who were trying to do business with the potiguares, native indians. At the same time, by land, arrived to the region a group chiefed by the governor of Pernambuco, Manuel Mascarenhas Homem. On January 6th 1598, those men began to build the Fortress of Three Wise Kings; on December 25th of 1599, a small village was founded one mile away from the fortress; the village was named Natal (Natal is the Portuguese word for Christmas), after the date it was founded.
The city developed very slowly; differently from Pernambuco, the sandy soil of Natal was not adequated to cultivate sugar cane (which was by then the main source of wealth that the Portuguese explored from their colony). In 1,633, the Dutch took over the city; the fortress was renamed to Keulen, and so it was until 1,654, when the Portuguese reclaimed it. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch didn't see much interest in developing the region; again, the situation was very different in Pernambuco, which the Dutch also dominated but developed, leaving traces visible until today, like in the city of Olinda.
The sugar cane was largely cultivated from Bahia to Paraiba, just crossing the southern border of Rio Grande do Norte; after the sugar cane, Portugal explored the gold which was found in Minas Gerais; when the Portuguese kingdom moved temporarily to Brazil, the king settled in Rio de Janeiro. In 1817, provinces from the Northeast attempted a revolution (Revolucao Pernambucana) to try go gain independence from Portugal (the revolution failed, the independence was proclaimed in 1822).
So, Natal was much less of a colony than the rest of the country; this fact (along with the American presence during WW II, see below) possibly contributed to make Natal one of the most libertarian regions in Brazil; the state was the first to abolish slavery, ten years before the rest of the country; the first Brazilian woman to take office as a mayor was elected in a small city near Natal.
In the beginning of 19th century, Natal was still a small village, divided in two main regions: the lower city (Cidade Baixa), close to the pier, concentrated the commerce; the higher city (today, Cidade Alta), on top of a hill, had the main church and the government office. Only in 1,922, in the government of Pedro Velho, did the city begin to modernize. The ancient atmosphere was maintained until 1,930, when urbanization started.
During World War II, Natal saw rapid changes in its lifestyle, when the airport was used to harbor a military basis which supplied the needs of Allied troops in the north of Africa; thousands of American soldiers spent the years of war in Natal. The Americans changed profoundly the way of life in Natal; besides bringing new products (Natal was the first Brazilian city to see chewing gum), their democratic and libertarian visions have influences to date in the life of Natal.
After the war, much of the wealth derived from the exports through the port; main items were xelita, a tungstenium ore, cotton and carnauba wax. The main industrial sectors were textile and civil building.
In recent decades, tourism became the major industry in Natal. The sun shines all year, the heat is reliefed by the alisium winds, temperature ranges between 20 and 33 C.
The urbanization being recent allowed for a planning of streets and traffic flow; the city didn't grown too fast, as it happened in the bigger cities of the south or even regional metropoles like Recife, and Natal managed to keep the tranquil atmosphere along with the comfort of a modern city.
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