Brazilian Independence

views updated

Brazilian Independence

When Brazil declared its independence on September 7, 1822, it had traversed a truly unusual path. Once a conventional colony, it had evolved into the seat of the Portuguese empire by 1808, only to be declared a kingdom, equal in status with Portugal, in 1815. The Portuguese royal family, fleeing before the Napoleonic troops that had entered Portugal in late 1807, were the only European monarchs to ever see their American colony, and they were the only ones to rule their empire from the colonies. Last but not least, for much of the nineteenth century Brazil was the only American colony to have become an independent monarchy. Yet independence, declared in 1822, did not fully signify Brazilian sovereignty. The Portuguese crown had needed help in order to relocate before the advancing French troops and later to recover their throne in Portugal, help that Great Britain had agreed to provide—in return for generous commercial advantages in Brazil. Nor did independence mean freedom for slaves, the mainstay of the Brazilian labor force.

As Napoleon's troops closed in on Lisbon in late 1807, João VI, the Portuguese king, after much hesitation decided against joining France's continental blockade of Great Britain, and instead availed himself of the British offer to protect the Portuguese monarchy. Hurriedly, the entire court, including part of the army and navy, along with the royal treasury and several libraries, relocated to the most important Portuguese colony at the time, Brazil. All in all, an estimated ten to twenty thousand people moved to Brazil. Once the royal family arrived in Rio de Janeiro, it set up its court in the colonial capital, and began expanding the existing institutions to develop a functioning state in the place of a formerly dependent colony.

The royal family and particularly the prince regent (soon to become king João VI) quickly came to consider Rio de Janeiro as more than a temporary place of exile. In 1815 João VI raised Brazil to the status of a kingdom on equal footing with its former mother country, which was governed at the time by the Council of Regency and protected by the British army. The new kingdom carefully kept its distance from the turbulence of European warfare. For Brazilians, the presence of the Portuguese court in Rio meant a growing identification of royal policies with Brazilian interests. At the same time, however, it meant that Portuguese took up some of the political offices previously open to Brazilians while relying almost entirely on the Brazilian economy for government revenues. Thus the relocation of the Portuguese court produced mixed responses among the Brazilian elites. It did, however, provide the country with a recognizable and generally accepted center of power that fostered stability and thus helped Brazil maintain its territorial integrity while other Latin American nations fragmented.

Brazil's political independence was hastened by the political events in Portugal after 1820. Liberal-nationalist revolts in the cities of Oporto and Lisbon led to the establishment of a junta provisória (provisional assembly) in Portugal, replacing the Council of Regency that had been presided over by Field Marshal Beresford, an Englishman. The Junta demanded the king's return to Portugal, and began to put together a cortes (constituent congress) with the purpose of writing a constitution. When João VI and the royal court returned to Portugal in 1821 due to increasing pressure by the Cortes, João left his son, Pedro I, as prince regent in Rio de Janeiro.

Initially, Brazilians seized on the opportunity of sending delegates to the Cortes, which they assumed would recognize Brazil's status as equal to that of Portugal, and which they hoped would incorporate Brazilian interests into Portuguese policy to a hereto-fore-unprecedented degree. Instead, the Cortes's policy toward Brazil revealed itself as an attempt to return the country to its former status as a colony. It limited the jurisdiction of Pedro I to southern Brazil, and dispatched governors to other provinces. Furthermore, in 1821, the Cortes demanded the return of prince Pedro I to Lisbon, where he was to finish his education.

By now, Brazilian nationalists had transferred their allegiance from João VI to Pedro I, and exercised pressure on the prince to remain in Brazil. On January 9, 1822, the prince officially declared his intentions of staying in Brazil. From May 1822 onwards, no decision from the Cortes was implemented in Brazil without the explicit approval of the prince regent. Following the receipt of correspondence from the Cortes reaffirming its demands, Pedro I, on the advice of Brazilian nationalists, such as José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, and his wife Leopoldina, declared Brazil's independence on September 7, 1822. At the banks of the river Ipiranga, he exclaimed the famous words, "Independence or Death," which, together with British navy and commercial backing, sealed Brazil's separation from Portugal. On December 1 of the same year, Pedro I was crowned "Constitutional Emperor and Perpetual Defender of Brazil." Not all provinces recognized Brazil's independence, and in northeastern and southern Brazil Pedro I had to use military force to quell several regional revolts against his rule following the declaration of independence.

Political independence for Brazil was not tantamount to economic independence. Prior to 1822, the Portuguese court in Brazil had continued the country's economic dependence on the export of primary goods to generate revenue (and thus in fact finance the royal government). This pattern continued after 1822. Moreover, in return for Britain's speedy assistance in relocating the court and protecting Portugal, King João VI, upon his arrival in Brazil, declared all Brazilian ports open to trade with friendly nations—which in reality meant Great Britain—effective January 28, 1808. While the declaration ended Portugal's colonial monopoly on trade with Brazil, it transferred, rather than ended, the former colony's commercial dependence. Great Britain quickly became the main recipient of Brazil's primary exports, at the same time that Brazil's importation of manufactured goods from England increased. In many ways, the declaration simply eliminated Portugal's role as the commercial entrepôt between Brazilian planters and British manufacturers.

In 1810 a treaty between Brazil and Great Britain cemented this shift in economic dependence. British merchants received special trading privileges, including a maximum tariff of 15 percent on their merchandise, in comparison to the 24 percent tariff levied on imports from all other nations. Moreover, the treaty granted England jurisdiction over British merchants living in Brazil. As a consequence of the favorable economic treaty and Great Britain's exclusion from the European market due to the Continental Blockade, Brazil by the 1820s had become Great Britain's third-largest export recipient. In fact, the growth of commerce between the two nations became so important that Great Britain applied diplomatic pressure on Portugal in 1825 to recognize Brazil's political independence, despite the fact that this might jeopardize British trading interests in Portugal itself. It was only in 1844, when the 1810 treaty expired and the Alves Branco Tariff more than doubled the duties on British goods, that Brazil regained a greater degree of economic independence from Great Britain.

Nor did political independence produce any fundamental changes in the structure of the Brazilian economy and society. Although manufacturing, previously forbidden in the colony, was encouraged once the royal court arrived in Brazil, the mainstay of the Brazilian economy remained the export of primary goods. Indeed, the Brazilian elite that had come to support independence by no means endorsed a more profound restructuring of the social and economic foundations of the newly independent nation. Thus slavery remained in place, and large estates focused on growing export crops such as sugar and increasingly coffee continued to dominate the economy. This left Brazil at the mercy of often unstable world market prices for its exports and dependent on the import of manufactured goods from Europe and, increasingly, from the United States.

see also Minas Gerais, Conspiracy of.


Bethell, Leslie. "The Independence of Brazil." In Brazil: Empire and Republic, 1822–1930, edited by Leslie Bethell. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Boxer, C. R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire, 1415–1825. New York: Knopf, 1969.

Burns, E. Bradford. A History of Brazil, 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Cavaliero, Roderick. The Independence of Brazil. London: Tauris, 1993.

Graham, Richard. Independence in Latin America: A Comparative Approach. New York: Knopf, 1972.

Russell-Wood, A. J. R., ed. From Colony to Nation: Essays on the Independence of Brazil. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

Viotti da Costa, Emília. The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

About this article

Brazilian Independence

Updated About content Print Article