Brazil, Independence Movements

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Brazil, Independence Movements

Unlike Spanish America, which experienced a long and at times bloody struggle for independence from Spain, Portuguese America was emancipated from European domination in three distinct steps: (1) in 1808 the prince regent and his court were established in Rio de Janeiro, and the ports of Brazil were formally opened to international commerce, ending the old mercantilist system; (2) in 1815 the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil was proclaimed; and (3) in 1822 the heir to the Portuguese throne, Dom Pedro I, declared Brazil's independence and became the first emperor of a new world monarchy. Much institutional and dynastic continuity was thus preserved in Brazil, and while there were separatist revolts (most significantly in Pernambuco in 1817), the transition from colonial to national status was considerably less traumatic than it was elsewhere in the hemisphere.

This outcome was partly the result of international circumstances and the particular relationship that the Portuguese Empire had with respect to the great naval power of the period, Great Britain. Yet the failure of a series of nationalist plots in Brazil in the last two decades of the eighteenth century also played a significant role. The most important of these conspiracies were in Minas (1788–1789) and Bahia (1798). Each was very different in composition, objectives, and consequences. The Minas conspiracy was republican in inspiration and looked to the newly established United States as a model. Involved in this plot were leading members of the regional oligarchy, including magistrates, priests, landowners, and businessmen, as well as the commanding officer of the local professional military and members of the officer corps, including the Alferes Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (Tiradentes). The Minas plotters wanted independence for Brazil but they equivocated over changes in Brazilian society and were divided in their attitudes toward slavery. The Bahian plot involved shopkeepers, soldiers, and even slaves, who, unlike the white elite members of the Minas group, were in the main African Brazilians and pardos (in colonial terminology, persons of mixed racial origins, originally applied to the offspring of African women and European men, but by the late eighteenth century this group encompassed almost a quarter of the population in many areas). The Bahian conspirators wished to see a revolution in social relationships and the elimination of discrimination based on skin color. They were more concerned with social reform than with independence and took as their model the revolution in France. But like the Minas plotters they were uncovered and imprisoned before they were able to act. The Portuguese authorities dealt with both plots harshly. Tiradentes was hanged and quartered and his co-conspirators exiled. The Bahian plotters were executed or abandoned along the African coast.

Enlightened members of the Portuguese government, however, used the failure of the two plots to co-opt leading younger Brazilian intellectuals by granting them access to government patronage and exploiting Brazilian elite fears of racial upheaval (something well demonstrated by the slave revolt in Haiti). Thus, young Brazilians like José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva received a government scholarship for study and travel in Europe, high positions in the administration in Portugal, and membership in the Lisbon Academy of Sciences. Men like Andrada e Silva would later play key roles in the emergence of an independent Brazil, ruled by monarchical institutions and led by the Bragança dynasty.

See alsoInconfidência dos Alfaiates; Inconfidência Mineira.


Kenneth R. Maxwell, Conflicts and Conspiracies: Brazil and Portugal, 1750–1808 (1973).

A. J. R. Russell-Wood, From Colony to Nation: Essays on the Independence of Brazil (1975).

Neill Macaulay, Dom Pedro: The Struggle for Liberty in Brazil and Portugal, 1798–1834 (1986).

Additional Bibliography

Barman, Roderick. Brazil: The Forging of a Nation, 1798–1852. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988.

Barman, Roderick. Citizen Emperor: Pedro II and the Making of Brazil, 1825–91. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

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

Graham, Richard. Patronage and Politics in Nineteenth-century Brazil. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990.

Janscó, István. Independencia: Historia e historiografia. São Paulo: Editora Hucitec, 2005.

Malerba, Jurandir. As independencia brasileira: Novas dimensões. Rio de Janeiro: FGV Editora, 2006.

Maxwell, Kenneth. Naked Tropics: Essays on Empire and other Rogues. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Maxwell, Kenneth. Why Was Brazil Different? The Contexts of Independence. Cambridge, MA: David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard University, 2000.

Schultz, Kirsten. Tropical Versailles: Empire, Monarchy, and the Portuguese Royal Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1821. New York: Routledge, 2001.

                                          Kenneth Maxwell

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