Maranhão is a northeastern state of Brazil. To the north lies the Atlantic Ocean. Maranhão is neighboured by the (clockwise from east) states of Piauí, Tocantins and Pará. The people of Maranhão have a distinctive accent inside the common Northeastern Brazilian dialect. Maranhão is described in books such as The Land of the Palm Trees by Gonçalves Dias and Casa de Pensão by Aluísio Azevedo.
The dunes of Lençóis are an important area of environmental preservation. Also of interest is the state capital of São Luís, designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. Another important conservation area is the Parnaíba River delta, between the states of Maranhão and Piauí, with its lagoons, desert dunes and deserted beaches or islands, such as the Caju island, which shelters rare birds.
The first known European to explore Maranhão was the Spanish explorer Vicente Yáñez Pinzón in 1500, but it was granted to João de Barros in 1534 as a Portuguese hereditary captaincy. The first European settlement, however, was made by a French trading expedition under Jacques Riffault, of Dieppe, in 1594, who lost two of his three vessels in the vicinity of São Luís Island, and left a part of his men on that island when he returned home. Subsequently Daniel de La Touche, Seigneur de La Rividière was sent to report on the place, and was then commissioned by the French crown to found a colony on the island; this was done in 1612. The French were expelled by the Portuguese in 1615, and the Dutch held the island from 1641 to 1644. In 1621 Ceará, Maranhão and Pará were united and called the "Estado do Maranhao," which was separated from the southern captaincies. Very successful Indian missions were soon begun by the Jesuits, who were temporarily expelled as a result of a civil war in 1684 for their opposition to the enslavement of the Indians. Ceará was subsequently detached, but the State of Maranhão remained separate until 1774, when it again became subject to the colonial administration of Brazil.
Maranhão did not join in the Brazilian declaration of independence of 1822, but in the following year the Portuguese were driven out by British sailor and liberator Admiral Lord Cochrane and it became part of the Empire of Brazil. For this achievement Lord Cochrane became 1st Marques of Maranhão and Governor of Maranhão Province.
São Luís is the Brazilian state capital which most closely resembles a Portuguese city. By the early 20th century São Luís has about 30,000 inhabitants, and contained several convents, charitable institutes, the episcopal palace, a fine Carmelite church, and an ecclesiastical seminary. The historic city center was declared a World Heritage Site in 1997.