Rio Grande do Norte (lit. "Great Northern River", in reference to the mouth of the Potenji River) is one of the states of Brazil, located in the northeastern region of the country, occupying the northeasternmost tip of the South American continent. Because of its geographic position, Rio Grande do Norte has a strategic importance. The capital and largest city is Natal. It is the land of the folklorist Luís da Câmara Cascudo and, according to NASA, it has the purest air in the Americas. Its 410 km (254 mi) of sand, much sun, coconut palms and lagoons are responsible for the fame of beaches. Rocas Atoll, the only such feature in the Atlantic Ocean, is part of the state. The main economic activity is tourism, followed by the extraction of petroleum (the second largest producer in the country), agriculture, fruit growing and extraction of minerals, including considerable production of seasalt, among other economic activities. The state is famous for having many popular attractions such as the Maior cajueiro do mundo (world's largest cashew tree), the dunes and the dromedaries of Genipabu, the famous beaches of Ponta Negra, Maracajaú and Pipa's paradise, the Carnatal the largest off-season carnival in Brazil, the Forte dos Reis Magos is a sixteenth-century fortress, the hills and mountains of Martins, the Dunas Park the second largest urban park in the country, and several other attractions. The state is also closest to the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha.
The first European to reach the region may have been the Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda in 1499. The northeastern tip of South America, Cape São Roque, to the north of Natal, was first officially visited by European navigators in 1501, in the 1501–1502 Portuguese expedition led by Amerigo Vespucci, who named the spot after the saint of the day. The Vespucci expedition also named the Potengi (Tupi for "River of Shrimps") river, whose considerably large mouth contrasted with the nearby bodies of water, "Rio Grande" (Portuguese for "Great River"), after which the Captaincy, Province, and State were named. For decades thereafter, no permanent European settlement was established in the area, inhabited by the Potiguar tribe.
In the 16th century (between 1535 and 1598), it was explored by French pirates in search for brazilwood. In 1598, the Portuguese built the Forte dos Reis Magos and, in the following year, founded the city of Natal. Rasing cattle and sugarcane plantation lifted the local development and economy.
In 1633, the area became a battleground between the expansionist Portuguese, seeking to take more land for their Brazilian territories, and the Dutch, who gained a foothold in South America.
After a short period of peace and prosperity in Olinda and Recife, the sugar prices went down in the market of Amsterdam and the region entered into a serious economic crisis. The economic problems led the Portuguese settlers and native Brazilians to revolt against the Dutch in what is known today as the massacres of Cunhaú and Uruaçu.
The religious confrontations (the Portuguese-Brazilian Catholicism and the Dutch Calvinism), Portugal's restoration of the throne in 1640 and the reconquest of Maranhão in 1643, lead the Portuguese-Brazilians to undertake the 1645 uprising, led by André Vidal de Negreiros and João Fernandes Vieira. The governor of Bahia promised new Portuguese troops, but most of the rebels were Africans and Amerindians. In 1654, the Dutch were finally cast out.