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The accident of independence: 1807-1825

As it turns out, Brazil is the only Latin American country in which there is no need to deter revolutionaries. The colony drifts into independence in almost complete unanimity, and with the minimum of disruption.

The catalyst, as elsewhere, is Napoleon's invasion of the Iberian peninsula. But whereas the Spanish colonies in Latin America are confronted with a complex choice of allegiances (to a deposed Bourbon monarch, to a usurping Bonaparte monarch, or to neither), the Portuguese in Brazil have no such problem. Rio de Janeiro finds itself, unexpectedly, the centre of the Portuguese empire.


The reason is the flight of the court from Lisbon, in 1807, to escape the approach of a French army. The royal party (headed by the mad queen Maria I and her son Dom John, the regent) stays briefly in Bahia and reaches Rio de Janeiro in March 1808.

The prince regent immediately takes measures to improve Rio's status and economy. Portugal's commercial monopoly is ended, bringing much new trade to the city - particularly from British merchants. Appropriate institutions are founded (royal treasury, national bank, printing office, library, military academy, court of justice) in keeping with a royal capital. In 1815 Brazil is even given equal standing with Portugal, as a kingdom in its own right.


In 1816 the regent succeeds to the Portuguese throne, as John VI. His initial popularity in Brazil has by now faded. The extravagance of his court arouses republican opposition, fuelled by the example of the neighbouring Spanish colonies - all of which fight vigorously for their independence during this same decade.

An uprising in 1817 in the north of Brazil, in the province of Pernambuco, is only suppressed after a three-month military campaign. But it is a revolution across the Atlantic, in Portugal, which transforms the situation. John VI hurries home in 1821 to confront this threat to his crown. He leaves his 22-year-old son, Dom Pedro, as regent.


From this point events in Brazil move quickly, but again they are driven by politics in Portugal. The Cortes in Lisbon takes steps to reduce Brazil to its former colonial status. In Rio de Janeiro this causes outrage and an upsurge in republican sentiment. Fearful that the young Dom Pedro might be persuaded to lead Brazil into independence, the Cortes now makes a fatal mistake. It orders the regent to return to Portugal 'to complete his political education'.

This provokes precisely what was feared. Defying the Cortes, Dom Pedro stays in Brazil and forms a ministry. His chief minister is José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, a keen advocate of Brazilian independence.


In September 1822, in a great open-air assembly at Ipiranga (today a suburb of São Paulo), Dom Pedro proclaims the independence of Brazil. Three months after this grito do Ipiranga (cry of Ipiranga) he is crowned emperor, as Pedro I. During 1823 the practical necessity is undertaken of driving out of Brazil the various Portuguese garrisons. With the help of Admiral Cochrane, recently arrived from Peru to guard the coast against relief from Portugal, this task is largely completed by the end of 1823.

With independence now an accomplished fact, the United States becomes the first nation to recognize Brazil - in May 1824. Portugal follows suit as early as 1825. The prize has been won with astonishing ease.


Pedro I: 1822-1831

The early years of this inexperienced empire are politically difficult. The problems are predictable. One question, in a continent elsewhere coming out in a rash of new republics, is the extent of the emperor's personal power. The other is the clash between native-born Brazilians of European stock and newly arrived Portuguese (the equivalent of the rivalry in the Spanish colonies between Creoles and peninsulares).

The Brazilian royal court, which has itself arrived from Portugual as recently as 1807, tends to favour the Portuguese - inevitably causing local resentment.


The issues come to a head within the first twelve months. In 1823 the constitutent assembly, under the leadership of the liberal José Andrada, puts forward a constitution reducing the powers of the emperor and of his Portuguese advisers. In response Pedro I dissolves the assembly and exiles Andrada.

Nevertheless the emperor soon recognizes that absolutist rule along European lines is impossible in Brazil. In 1824 he accepts a liberal constitution. It serves very effectively as the basis of the country's government until the end of the empire in 1889.


The second half of the 1820s is a period of mounting difficulties for the emperor Pedro. In 1826, on the death of his father John VI, he succeeds to the throne of Portugal. His attempt to rule his European kingdom without returning from Brazil proves disastrous; in 1828 his younger brother Miguel seizes the throne.

Meanwhile Brazil becomes involved in a war with Argentina over the disputed region known to the Brazilians as the Provincia Cisplatina (this side of the river Plate, on the Roman analogy of 'Cisalpine'). A defeat of the Brazilian army in 1827 leads to the loss of this neighbouring area, which becomes the republic of Uruguay.


Pedro II: 1831-1889

Overwhelmed by these difficulties Pedro I abdicates in favour of his five-year-old son, also Pedro, and returns in 1831 to Portugal. Against all the odds the dynasty in Brazil somehow survives a chaotic ten-year regency, interrupted by frequent disturbances and civil war in the provinces. In 1840 parliament decrees that the 14-year-old Dom Pedro has come of age. In 1841 he is crowned emperor.

During the next half-century Pedro II proves the very model of a constitutional and conscientious monarch. He is modest in his personal life (he is even credited with the remark 'Were I not a monarch, I would be a republican'). He is modern in his passionate interest in developing Brazil's industries, banks, railways and telegraph network.


Even Brazil's military adventures go well under this mild monarch. Brazilian involvement in the War of the Triple Alliance leads to the toppling of the Paraguayan dictator López in 1870 and the annexation of a large slice of Paraguay.

A major issue throughout Pedro's reign is slavery. African slaves have been brought to Brazil in large numbers, from the 17th century onwards, to work in the sugar plantations. At the time of independence, in the 1820s, the slaves comprise half the population (of nearly four million, about 52% are black, 24% European, 17% mestizo, 7% indigenous Indian). With these numbers Brazil ranks second only to the USA on the most urgent moral topic of the times, slavery and the slave trade.


Pedro is firmly on the side of abolition, but the influence of the plantation owners means that progress is slow. However the slave trade is finally ended in 1850. Attention then moves to freeing the existing slaves. An act of 1871 liberates all slaves owned by the state and all slave children born from this date onwards (liberty being granted when they reach the age of twenty-one).

Many plantation owners follow the government's example, but in 1888 some 700,000 African-Americans are still enslaved in Brazil. In that year Pedro passes a law emancipating these remaining slaves. Done without compensation to their owners, this act of emancipation becomes a contributing factor in the sudden end of the Brazilian empire.


Though revered by most of his subjects, to whom his long reign has brought a great increase in prosperity, there are significant and powerful pockets of opposition to Pedro's rule. Republicans find imperial Brazil an embarrassing anomaly in Latin America. High-ranking army officers resent Pedro's determination to keep the military out of politics. The clergy are unhappy with his measures to limit the influence of the church. Now, in addition, the pockets of powerful plantation owners have been hit by the emancipation of the slaves in 1888.

The result, in 1889, is a military coup bringing a very sudden end. Pedro accepts the situation and abdicates. He and his family go into exile in Europe.


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