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Brazil's nineteenth-century political trajectory was unique in the Western Hemisphere in that it became and remained a monarchy for eighty-one years. This was largely due to a single peculiar event: when Napoleon's armies invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1807, ostensibly to punish the Portuguese for violations of his continental policy, the prince regent, João, the future João VI, decided to retreat to his dominions in South America. Escorted by the British navy, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro with all his court and the royal treasury to begin what became a fourteen-year sojourn. His arrival represented the first step toward independence, since the king immediately opened the ports of Brazil to foreign shipping and turned the colonial capital into the seat of government.

To this end, João installed novelties that until then had been forbidden to the colonials: among them printing presses, schools of higher learning, iron mills, and a gunpowder factory. He established a botanical garden to acclimatize plants that might diversify the economy and contracted numerous foreign scientists and technicians to stimulate mining, metallurgy, and the fine arts. Unfortunately, his reign also intensified most of the policies that had made the colony a hellish place for most of its inhabitants: he permitted the renewal of attacks on native tribal peoples, he condoned the continuation of the slave trade even while signing a treaty to restrict it, he accelerated the bestowal of vast land grants upon courtiers and local notables, he persisted in expansionism in the Río de la Plata, where patriots were seeking to establish republics independent of Spain, and he resisted forcefully the spread among his subjects of the liberal and democratic ideals of the North American and French Revolutions. Dependent on the British for help in regaining his kingdom, João agreed in 1810 to reduce tariffs on British goods and granted British merchants extraterritoriality, a humiliating concession.

João remained in Rio de Janeiro even after the fall of Napoleon. In 1815, Brazil was declared a kingdom, coequal with Portugal, partly to cast a larger shadow among the diplomats assembled at the Congress of Vienna. João's tropical idyll was finally brought to an end by liberal revolutionaries in Lisbon, who in 1820 called together a parliament and demanded his return. Fearing the loss of his European throne, he complied, leaving his son Pedro behind as regent. Soon after, Brazilian delegates to the Portuguese parliament withdrew, incensed at mercantilist proposals that would have returned them to a colonial status.


The drift toward separation accelerated as Pedro gave evidence of his willingness to lead such a movement. For the rich, monarchy offered the prospect of legitimacy and, therefore, stability, qualities frighteningly lacking among the new Spanish American republics but essential in a state that would contain a majority of slaves and their descendants. Independence was declared, by the prince regent himself, on 7 September 1822. The Portuguese garrisons were cut off by sea and nearly all were persuaded to evacuate peacefully, so that the costs of war were small. Brazil was declared an empire, to emphasize again to the Europeans the vast potential of a territory grander than any of theirs, even the czar of Russia's. Pedro's marriage to an Austrian princess, Leopoldina, had already established an impressive dynastic linkage.

Great Britain, which saw an advantage in the establishment of a strong monarchical, liberal state in South America, acted as broker in the delicate issue of recognition. Although the United States quickly recognized Brazil, none of the European monarchies would do so until Portugal had been reconciled to its loss. This was at last accomplished when Brazil accepted responsibility for a part of the Portuguese national debt—even though João had taken the whole of the treasury from Rio de Janeiro when he returned to Lisbon. Brazil, under duress, also renewed the trade treaty with Britain, including its disastrous provisions of low tariffs and extraterritoriality.


Pedro convened an assembly to frame a constitution but, displeased with the result, sent soldiers to close the assembly down and wrote one of his own that reserved the Crown's right not only to executive but also to so-called moderative powers, including those of dismissing cabinets and legislatures and of naming a council of state and the senate. Participation in political life was limited by indirect elections and income qualifications for office holding and voting. The abolition of slavery was proposed by the savant José Bonifácio de Andrada E Silva, Pedro's closest adviser, but it was not given serious consideration, nor did Brazil honor renewed commitments to the British to restrict the slave trade. The legislature abolished royal land grants but could not agree on an alternate means of alienating frontier land; consequently, land began to be usurped on a vast scale, in a contest that excluded prospective farmers of modest means.

Pedro soon wore away his popularity among the Brazilian elite. His bestowed constitution caused a sizable rebellion in the Northeast. He leaned too much on emigré Portuguese cronies of questionable repute. His public affair with a married woman, D. Domitila de Castro, whom he ennobled, scandalized them, and when his wife died, as it was said of a broken heart, he had to settle for a much less advantageous second marriage to Princess Amélia, a niece of the king of Bavaria. Pedro's foreign adventures were even more damaging. He persisted in the campaign to incorporate Uruguay into his realm, but, faced with military defeats, rising deficits, and inflationary pressures, he was forced to recognize its independence, again with the good offices of the British. Finally, after the death of his father João, Pedro used state resources to try to put his daughter Maria on the throne of Portugal, an ambition that looked toward eventual reunification. In 1831, angered by bottle-throwing anti-Portuguese rioters in the capital and seething disloyalty in the army, Pedro abdicated and departed for Portugal.


Left behind was his son, Pedro II, who was too young to take the throne. A regency was formed, at first a triumvirate. Its agenda was decidedly liberal and decentralizing, a reaction to the authoritarian emperor. New laws were passed or old ones newly enforced to create provincial assemblies, to turn much of the administration of justice to locally elected or nominated judges, and to guarantee jury trials and habeas corpus. The Council of State, considered too much an arbitrary instrument of monarchical power, was abolished. Entailed estates (of which there had been few) were abolished. None of these measures could have any effect, however, upon the informal institutions of elite power, the ties of kinship, loyalties, and connections that underlay party membership and penetrated the bureaucracy. Arranged marriages, dowries, godparenthood, nepotism, and clientelism all stood as respected social bulwarks against the penetration of individualism, competition, and social mobility.

The regency carried out similarly ineffectual forays against the institution of slavery. Indian slavery was abolished and the African slave trade declared illegal. Unfortunately, many of the semisedentary tribes that might have served the purpose of steady labor had already disappeared. Along the frontier settlers thereafter followed their own policy of extermination of tribal peoples who chose resistance over retreat. The regency took no effective measures to enforce its ban on the African trade, which only intensified under the threat of the new law.

The interim government's greatest threat, however, was that of regionalism, unacknowledged during the first reign. Support for the throne waned the greater the distance from Rio de Janeiro. Despite the Additional Act of 1834, the central government appointed the provincial presidents and judges and controlled most sources of tax revenue. In the southernmost province of Rio Grande do Sul, the policy of low tariffs ruined beef jerky producers, who could not compete in the domestic market with those of Buenos Aires. This conflict, and continued cross-border involvement in the affairs of Uruguay, led to the Farroupilha Revolt (1835–1845). In the north, the bloodiest rebellion, the Cabanagem revolt (1834–1840), broke out in Pará province, where struggles between political factions led finally to an uprising by the enslaved Indian and African masses. Indeed, the threat of social revolution everywhere forced the liberal regency to reimpose central authority, accompanied by ferocious reprisals against lower-class participants.


These troubles were a mirror of those of the former Spanish viceroyalties, which fragmented further during this period. It is remarkable that Brazil weathered this storm and remained intact. At court, the more conservative faction sought to put a stop to the decentralization and liberalizing tendencies of the regency—policies which it supposed would eventuate in a republican revolution—by bringing Pedro II to the throne before the age of constitutional majority. The precocious Pedro himself agreed to this measure, a veiled sort of coup d'état, and took the throne in 1840.

Pedro II turned out to be an ideal monarch for balancing his country's political and economic forces. He favored the most gradual of reforms, so that, until the end of his reign, he appeared to their proponents, including the slaves, to favor them, and to those opposed to reform, including the slave owners, to protect them from the reformers. Two law schools, founded in 1831 in Recife and São Paulo, provided the empire a class of loyal bureaucrats who staffed the state administration. The factions of the regency evolved into Liberal and Conservative parties, which Pedro balanced against each other through the use of the moderating power. The army's senior general, the duke of Caxias, Luís Alves de Lima E Silva, was a close friend of the emperor, and the leading officers associated themselves with one party or another, which guaranteed their advancement as ministries succeeded each other. The emperor used his power to appoint councillors and senators and to bestow honors and lifetime peerages to reward service and loyalty within the established order. The ministry came to be directed by a prime minister, responsible to his party, so that for all the world the second empire resembled Westminster.

The empire interfered very little in the rights of citizens: freedom of speech, the press, and association were openly exercised. But the legislature did not end income requirements on the right to vote, and indirect elections and the lifetime senate were preserved. Unhappily, elections were an entire fraud, engineered by whichever ministry had been called to power. Local party leaders, furthermore, frequently resorted to election-time violence.

The reign of Pedro II, given these arrangements, could not be entirely tranquil. Regional rebellions, however, did come to an end. Liberals rose up in 1842 and 1848, briefly and unsuccessfully. The mass of the population, however, remained entirely alienated from government and its decisions. The squatters' rights of frontier dwellers were continually ignored, those among the poor who had not sworn fealty to an elite family risked impressment into the army—the equivalent of a death sentence—and everywhere intermittent unrest and flight among the slaves demanded much of the attention of the police and militia. On occasions these outrages caused open rebellion.

The government nevertheless was much fortified by the appearance of a profitable export to replace the decadent gold mines—coffee. Conveniently for taxation purposes, coffee was produced in the region surrounding the capital of Rio de Janeiro. Coffee was well suited to local soils and climate and in demand by the rapidly growing urban markets of the industrialized countries, especially Germany and the United States. Coffee was the salvation of a moribund plantation system. Sugar had gone into decline as more fertile areas came into production and Europeans began growing beet sugar.

It is remarkable that this vast subcontinent was unable to produce any significant amount of any other commodity for world trade. For a brief period during and after civil war in the United States, cotton became an important export, fostered by British agents. In the final years of the empire, rubber, gathered from wild trees in the Amazon basin under conditions differing only superficially from slavery, grew rapidly in value and volume. Unfortunately, it was destined to be cultivated as an exotic in southeast Asia, just as coffee had been transferred to Brazil. Coffee profits made possible the replacement of mule trails, which had been the nearly exclusive means of transport, with railways, at least in the southeast, beginning in 1867. The first steamboat braved the currents of the Amazon in 1853, and Brazil was connected with Europe by telegraph cable in 1874.

The second reign increased the empire's range of economic independence when, upon the lapse of its commercial treaty with Great Britain, it refused to renew on the same terms. Brazil soon began to increase its tariffs, achieving protection for a number of locally manufactured products, including Rio Grande do Sul's jerky. In retaliation, the British began to press much harder for the abolition of the slave trade, a business that now was entirely in the hands of local or emigré merchants, well connected at court. When the British squadron went so far as to sail into Brazilian harbors to capture slavers, however, the government decided in 1850 to enforce the law of 7 November 1831 that abolished the African slave trade rather than admit its inability to defend its waters against superior forces.


At mid-century a reform ministry undertook a number of measures designed to overcome the country's more and more evident backwardness relative to the industrializing countries. A commercial code based on the British model was implemented to foster foreign trade. Increased banking activities were authorized, as well as guarantees of interest on railroad bonds. The anomalous lack of a law on the alienation of public lands was at last resolved with passage of the Land Law of 1850: In the future they were to be sold in lots, the better to stimulate smallholding. Unfortunately, the law also permitted the legalization of past usurpations of crown lands, which, because surveyors were not contracted to demarcate remaining crown lands, stimulated continued usurpations. The government failed to recognize Indian rights to tribal lands excepting those bestowed upon them by its own acts. These were limited to missionary villages—the empire turned over to Italian Capuchin Friars the task of acculturating tribal peoples on the frontier. Even these grants were nearly always encroached upon and extinguished.

Also during this period slaves on a few plantations were experimentally replaced with wage workers. Since native-born Brazilian country people were accustomed to squat on free frontier land or to receive customary rights of tenure on the lands of estate owners in return for minor responsibilities, they were not expected to take up wage work, nor were slaves expected to remain on the plantations once freed. Planters, therefore, desired European immigrants, who were preferred because they were white. Unfortunately, a group of Swiss and German plantation laborers imported in the mid-1850s proved intractable, principally because the immigrants were saddled with the cost of passage and because the landowners were unable to deal with workers who insisted on equal social treatment. There were, however, a few colonization projects that offered European immigrants smallholdings on frontier lands. Although abandoned to their own devices, these pioneers managed to survive and multiply in Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Espírito Santo provinces.

The empire resolved several border disputes, but at considerable cost in blood. In 1852, having invaded Uruguay and put a puppet in charge, the empire, then in league with Argentine rebels, gained a major victory over the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. In 1864, it again invaded Uruguay, provoking the Paraguayan dictator, Francisco Solano López, who feared for the survival of his own country, to invade both Argentine and Brazilian territory. The ensuing War of the Triple Alliance (Uruguay, again under Brazilian control, joined the allies) lasted five years, killing off much of the male population of Paraguay. The slices of territory gained from Uruguay and Paraguay also cost the empire its stability. The war had been fought largely by troops of mixed race, some of them slaves recruited with the promise of freedom, who, in Argentina and Paraguay, had encountered societies free of the taint of slavery; it had been extremely expensive, making necessary a large increase in the foreign debt; and the officer class had grown and become a formidable and potentially challenging political force.

A postwar Conservative cabinet undertook to carry out further structural reforms in response to the weaknesses revealed by the wartime crisis. A census was carried out for the first time: 10 million inhabitants were counted, an increase of 7 million over the estimates of the turn of the century. The budgets of scientific and educational institutions were much increased. Obstacles to the organization of corporations were partially removed. Most important, the government at last sought to transform the aging slave labor force, which had declined to 1.5 million in 1872. (Some slaves had children, but most were single African males.) Pressed by foreign opinion, the threat of slave rebellion, and the realization that wage labor had to be gradually introduced, the legislature passed a law in 1871 (the Free Birth Law), freeing the children of slave mothers. This was a very gradual measure, since the children were obliged to work for their keep until age twenty-one. Coffee plantation owners, meanwhile, had been trying to stave off inevitable collapse by importing young male slaves from the economically stagnant Northeast.


In 1868, the emperor expelled the Liberals from power. Although this action was constitutional, some Liberals interpreted it as a coup d'état, and they reacted by forming, in 1870, the Republican Party. In its principles it was decidedly ideological, a clear alternative to liberalism, and most of its leading members were inspired by Comtian positivism, secularism, and social Darwinism. Unlike that of other Liberals, their position on slavery was muted, but they were greatly concerned with the question of decentralization, or federalism. Their insistence on devolution of powers and revenues to the provinces (to be called states when the republic was at last formed) was an expression of the annoyance of the southeastern and southern provinces at the overre-presentation of the economically decadent and traditional Northeast, a circumstance that caused them a net loss of tax revenues. Republicanism also appealed to opportunism, as the more prosperous and politically ambitious foresaw a decline of a dynasty that lacked a male heir. Even so, it won few local or provincial elections during the 1870s and 1880s, and only in São Paulo, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul did its candidates gain enough votes to represent a margin of victory in its coalitions with the major parliamentary parties.

One of the more contradictory aspects of the monarchy was its relation to the Catholic Church. Catholicism remained the official religion, and the empire retained powers over it that the Portuguese crown had gained centuries before. Close church-state ties proved to be a hindrance to the residence and immigration of Protestants and Jews. Only tardily did the legislature act to reduce the disabilities that non-Catholic citizens suffered. In 1874, Pedro exercised his constitutional power to forbid the application of the pope's condemnation of the Masons. He then jailed two bishops who refused to obey this order. Curiously, his intent was to defend the right of free association of influential members of the elite, some of whom were priests, but he employed an archaic prerogative to do so. The case embarrassed the throne, while failing to gain the sympathy of Liberals and Republicans who favored the separation of church and state.

The movement toward abolition of slavery was only briefly turned aside by the 1871 Free Birth Law. Adherents multiplied among middle-class townspeople and especially among the free working class, which consisted largely of persons of color, many of them former slaves. Brazilian slavery had permitted manumission, and freedom through flight was becoming easier to achieve. In São Paulo, coffee planters contemplated final abolition as they observed that their slaves were willing to accept labor contracts and as the evident truth finally struck them that European immigration could be achieved only after slavery had been done away with. In 1885, sexagenarian slaves were freed, and finally, in 1888, Brazil became the last country in the Western world to abolish slavery entirely.

Had the franchise been in the meantime extended, and its free exercise guaranteed, this act would have granted the empire many more years of existence. The act was signed by Princess Isabela, daughter of the emperor, acting as regent while her father was ill. She immediately became the idol of the freedmen and freedwomen. The empire, furthermore, while far from colorblind, had permitted the rise of many persons of color in the ranks of the bureaucracy. As it happened, the franchise had been further restricted by "reform" in 1881 and the empire was doomed. The instrument of its overthrow was the army. The inevitable cuts in its budget after the war had caused great anguish, which was exacerbated by Pedro's inability to deal tactfully with an officer class that prided itself on its pridefulness. Unfortunately, the duke of Caxias, upon whom the emperor had depended for this chore, had died in 1880. The Republican Party used every opportunity to heighten these tensions, and some of its leaders called openly for an army coup to bring about the downfall of the empire.

Many among the ruling elite did not expect the empire to deal effectively with the very rapid social and economic changes of the 1880s: urban growth (the city of Rio de Janeiro reached half a million by 1890), the beginning of mass immigration, the enlargement of the free population of color, and the increase in factory production. While these underlying forces may have been influential, it was an army general of limited political and economic awareness who, on 15 November 1889, packed the imperial family off into exile. The republican era had begun.

See alsoAgriculture; Cities and Urbanization; Economic Development; Military Dictatorships: 1821–1945; Slavery: Brazil; Tenentismo.


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Stanley Stein, Vassouras: A Brazilian Coffee Country, 1850–1900 (1957).

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Anyda Marchant, Viscount Mauá and the Empire of Brazil (1965).

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Barbara Weinstein, The Amazon Rubber Boom, 1850–1920 (1983).

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Additional Bibliography

Baer, Werner. Brazilian Economy: Growth and Deveopment. Boulder, CO: L. Rienner Publishers, 2007.

Barman, Roderick. Citizen Emperor: Pedro II and the Making of Brazil, 1825–1891. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999.

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Malerba, Jurandir. O Brasil Imperial, 1808–1889: Panorama da história do Brasil no século XIX. Maringá, Brazil: EDUEM, 1999.

Naro, Nancy Priscilla, ed. Blacks, Coloureds and National Identity in Nineteenth-century Latin America. London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 2003.

Riviére, Peter. Absent-minded Imperialism: Britain and the Expansion of Empire in Nineteenth-century Brazil. London; New York: Tauris Academic Studies; St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Tosto, Milton. The Meaning of Liberalism in Brazil. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2005.

Viotti da Costa, Emilia. The Brazilian Empire: Myths and Histories. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

                                        Warren Dean

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