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Isabel of Brazil (1846–1921)

Isabel of Brazil (1846–1921)

Heiress to the throne of Brazil and regent of the empire, who abolished slavery in Brazil. Name variations: Isabel of Braganza and Orleans (Isabel de Bragança e Orléans); Isabella of Brazil; Princess Royal; Princess Isabel; Condessa or Countess d'Eu; The Redeemer. Born Isabel Cristina Leopoldina Augusta de Bragança on July 29, 1846, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; died on November 14, 1921, in the Castle d'Eu, northern France; daughter of Pedro II of Braganza, emperor of Brazil, and Empress Teresa Cristina of Bourbon (1822–1889); married Gastao de Orléans also known as Gaston of Orleans, Conde or Count d'Eu, in Rio de Janeiro, on October 15, 1864; children: Pedro de Alcantara, prince of Grao Pará (b. October 15, 1875); Luis (b. January 26, 1878); Antonio (b. August 9, 1881).

Regent of the Brazilian Empire (1871–72, 1876–77, and 1887–88); major acts as regent: signed the Free Womb Law (September 28, 1871); signed the Lei Aurea abolishing slavery in Brazil (May 13, 1888).

The role of women in Latin American history as holders of political power and influence has scarcely been explored given the social, cultural, and political constraints placed upon them by Latin American society. The sole exception is Princess Isabel of Brazil. Even this exception, however, continues to be overlooked and her full contribution relegated to the footnotes of history, while her male advisers have received full recognition for the most momentous piece of legislation ever to be implemented in Brazil, the abolition of slavery, for which she was responsible.

Slavery itself, being an attack against human freedom, is repugnant to me.

—Isabel of Brazil

Princess Isabel, as regent of Brazil, was the only woman to have served as chief of state in Latin America in the 19th century, and to have held immense political power. Her high position did not shield her from the most common stereotypes ascribed to women of her era: feeble mindedness, inherent inability to handle political affairs, easily impressionable, in need of being protected and shielded. Educated to rule the Brazilian Empire, she was barely tolerated by the politicians of the period who could not accept a woman at the helm of the state. A devout Catholic, she was suspected of being influenced by her religion, perhaps by the pope, on the affairs of state. Married to a French prince, it was feared she would govern under the influence of a foreigner. When leading decisively, she was seen as willful. Yet, by all accounts, when she governed Brazil in the absence of her father, she displayed an uncommon ability to govern and learned the role of a ruler without allowing herself to be dominated by politicians. As the heiress to the throne of a country with slavery, she became a quiet abolitionist, and when the moment of decision arrived, she used her position to abolish the institution.

Born in 1846, the second child of Emperor Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina , Isabel was not in line to ascend to the throne. The heir was Prince Royal Afonso, born in 1845. In the House of Braganza, however, the first-born male rarely survived to assume the throne, and the Brazilian branch was no different. In 1847, Afonso died, and Isabel, 11 months old, became temporarily the heir apparent. In 1848, a second brother, Pedro, was born, but death struck again when the prince died in 1850. Again, Isabel became the heiress to the throne, and in 1850, at age four, she was proclaimed by the General Assembly heir to the throne of Brazil in accordance with the constitution. But gender became an issue. The death of the second male heir was seen as a calamity for the empire. Many considered the monarchical system weakened for lacking a male heir, and from the beginning Isabel was not seen with the same favor usually bestowed upon a male heir.

Her education, nevertheless, was planned and directed by Pedro II as if she were male, although combined with disciplines appropriate for females. According to historian Lourenço Luiz Lacombe, in a rigorous schedule under the best tutors available in Brazil, she studied languages—Portuguese, English, German, Italian, French, Greek and Latin—and history, rhetoric, geography, philosophy, political economy, chemistry, mathematics, physics, astronomy, geology, mineralogy, botany, mythology, and history of religions, among other subjects, in addition to the regular curriculum offered to females, of music, dance, drawing, stitching and flower-making, photography, a variety of readings on poetry, pious works and the Bible, and instructive pieces. Examinations were taken in the presence of her parents, tutors, and others. Thus, her education was superior to that given to males and far above that given to females. To supervise her education, Pedro II searched for two years for the ideal governess, finally found in the Countess de Barral , a Brazilian living in France, at the court of Louis Philippe I.

Isabel's childhood progressed uneventfully and within a rigid schedule prepared by her father, who prescribed every minute of her day. Social engagements and visits were allowed only on Sundays, holidays, and family birthdays, vacations only once a year. To alleviate such a heavy study schedule, at times she performed in juvenile plays staged in the imperial palace with a few of her childhood friends, and played with dolls, but not much time was left for children's play. According to Lacombe, from this developed one of the features of her adult life: that of maintaining a rigid schedule. At age 14, while her parents were on an official visit to the northern provinces of Brazil, Isabel officially received her first royal guest, archduke Maximilian, the future emperor of Mexico.

As she approached marriageable age, the search for a suitable husband became a matter of state and occupied the attention of Pedro II. The requirements for the ideal candidate were many. He had to be Catholic, since the official religion of Brazil was Catholicism; he had to accept residence in Brazil, then a distant and mostly unknown country far from the glitter of European courts; and he had to have his children born in Brazil. Above all, he had to be willing to accept the position of prince consort, that of a life more in the shadows than in the limelight. Pedro II, himself having been forced to marry without first meeting his bride, added one more requirement, that the future couple should first meet to assure a mutually agreeable marriage. Considerations of a political order had to be heeded also. Political and nationalistic sensitivities eliminated Portuguese princes as candidates. Having been a Portuguese colony, Brazilians feared the possibility that dynastic succession might eventually reunite the two crowns. Religion and the constitution eliminated Protestant candidates. Latent Brazilian xenophobia would certainly be exacerbated by the fear that the future empress of Brazil could fall under the influence of a foreign prince. Eventually, an acceptable candidate was found. On October 15, 1864, Isabel married Gaston d'Orléans, Count d'Eu, son of Louis, duke of Nemours, and Victoria of Saxe-Coburg , grandson of King Louis Philippe I of France. The marriage produced a happy and long-lasting union, but some of the worries raised during the search for an acceptable groom were never fully put to rest, resurfacing periodically, some right after the marriage. Eventually, the Count d'Eu himself became one of the issues in the succession of the Brazilian throne.

Teresa Cristina of Bourbon (1822–1889)

Empress of Brazil. Name variations: Theresa; Thereza Christina of Naples; Teresa Christina Maria; Theresa of Sicily. Born Teresa Cristina Maria on March 14, 1822; died on December 28, 1889, soon after arriving in Portugal, having been exiled from Brazil; daughter of Francis I, king of Naples and Sicily (r. 1825–1830), and Marie Isabella of Spain (1789–1848); sister of Maria Cristina I of Naples (1806–1878), queen of Spain; married Pedro II of Braganza (1825–1891), emperor of Brazil (r. 1831–1889), on September 4, 1843; children: Afonso (1845–1847); Isabel of Brazil (1846–1921); Leopoldine (1847–1871, who married August, prince of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha); Pedro also known as Peter Alfons (1848–1850).

In 1865, the couple returned from an extensive honeymoon in Europe to find Brazil immersed in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay. The Count d'Eu, young and in search of military glory, with a previous military career in the Spanish army in Morocco, insisted on leaving for the front. His request caused consternation for many. Isabel, who did not want to run the risk of losing her husband, continuously appealed to her father not to send him to the front. But Pedro II refused to allow his son-in-law to go to war for reasons other than Isabel's pleas. The newly married couple had not yet assured the succession of the Braganza dynasty in Brazil, and the honorary title of marshal of the Brazilian Army given to the Count d'Eu on the occasion of his marriage to Isabel was a major obstacle should he be allowed to go to the front. It would disrupt the military command structure by placing him above the Brazilian generals conducting the war and placing the Brazilian army in the undesirable position of being led by a foreigner. The count's ensuing behavior, insisting on going to war, constantly petitioning Pedro II, ministers, and generals, perhaps not fully appreciating the delicacy of the situation and of the harm that could be done to Isabel, led the Council of State, the advisory Council of the Monarchy, to examine his request and reject it. The episode laid the groundwork for suspicions that should Isabel assume the Crown, the Count d'Eu would become the power behind the throne. Finally, in 1869, with the war coming to a close and the Brazilian army in Assuncion, the capital of Paraguay, the Count d'Eu assumed the command of the Brazilian forces, whereupon he abolished slavery in Paraguay, an act applauded by Liberals and abolitionists but considered a political error by many in Brazil. Indirectly, it was an implied criticism of slavery in Brazil, a political statement coming from the husband of the heiress of the Brazilian Empire, precisely what a prince consort should avoid. For Conservatives, his act reflected adversely on Isabel, linking her and her husband to abolitionism at a time when the thought of abolishing slavery was seldom uttered.

Isabel assumed the regency for the first time on May 20, 1871, when Pedro II departed for Europe immediately after the end of the War of the Triple Alliance. Her accession to the regency caused much debate and opposition, in part due to her gender, in part due to the unpopularity of her husband, some politicians even suggesting legislation to deny the regency to princesses married to foreigners. Finally, after the Council of State ruled that the constitution assured her accession, she assumed the office in a ceremony that excluded her husband. As regent, Isabel was in constant communication with her father, punctiliously keeping him informed of all affairs of state and asking for suggestions. The first regency was her apprenticeship in government. It coincided with the tenure of the most successful cabinets of the Brazilian Empire, that led by the Visconde de Rio Branco, one of the most talented politicians of the Second Reign, who also served as her mentor. As regent, she presided over the meetings of the Cabinet and of the Council of State where all the matters of state were examined and discussed. As regent, she also signed the Law of Free Womb of 1871, that decreed free all children born of slave mothers. Although the legislation had been developed and introduced to the Parliament under the auspices of her father before she assumed the regency, it fell to her to sign into law the first piece of legislation in the gradual abolition of slavery in Brazil. She returned the reins of government to her father on March 30, 1872, at which time even her critics recognized that she had governed with "justice, prudence, dignity." Twice again, she would be called to be at the head of the government.

As she was being introduced to the art of high government, a campaign began to develop against her, one that resurfaced each time she assumed the regency and that reached its peak in 1888. Among the major complaints was her Catholic faith. In a country where the Church was not present at the high councils of government, and where a crisis had developed over Church and State prerogatives in 1873, she was sought after by Catholics to intercede with her father in favor of the Church. As a result, she began to be labeled as a religious fanatic. Another complaint was Jacobinism, centered on the fact that her husband was a foreigner. Her assertive personality and expansiveness, which some described as willfulness, also caused discomfort among politicians, many of whom, used to the reserved demeanor of Pedro II, were unable to accept orders and judgments from a woman in the highest office. She placed morals and values above compromise, a trait that, in her position of heiress to the throne in a society where women were expected to be subservient, won her the reputation of being headstrong.

Her second regency, from March 26, 1876, to September 26, 1877, passed without major event. With her constitutional right to assume the regency well established, her accession was automatic. As regent, Isabel was far more self-confident, having been left practically on her own by her father, who, during his second trip abroad, communicated neither with Princess Isabel nor with the ministers, which led the ministers to have to work with her, and her to have to make all of the decisions in the government.

Between regencies, Isabel and the Count d'Eu led an active social life of receptions, balls, concerts and feasts. It was at her residence in Rio de Janeiro, not in the imperial palace of Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina, known for its austerity and somber atmosphere, that the social life of the Braganza Court took place. A talented musician, Isabel entertained nobility, politicians, diplomats, and commoners in a swirl of gaiety that often times included her parents. A practicing painter, she exhibited three of her works. Above all, she was dedicated to the academic and religious education of her three sons. Throughout her life, Isabel had almost a dislike for the exercise of power, a characteristic that she shared with her father. She would much rather be with her family on long visits to Europe, educating her children, or leading the social life of the Brazilian court. The strong presence of her father, the peace and order of the empire due to his long reign (1840–89) that provided Brazil with an uninterrupted period of stability, might have contributed to her attitude. Or, perhaps, she internalized the attitude of her father, who always displayed a certain degree of detachment from power to the point of being almost fatalistic. But her attitude was not due to the lack of resolve, as her third regency demonstrates.

By 1887, the atmosphere in Brazil had changed. The country was in ferment. The issues of abolitionism and direct elections dominated the political debate, and Pedro II's delicate health required a visit to Europe for medical treatment. Princess Isabel, on a European trip with her husband, was recalled home to assume the regency at a time when the question of abolishing slavery was being pushed by Liberals and abolitionists without the opposition of the northern provinces of Brazil, now with few slaves. Upon touching Brazilian soil, Isabel was enjoined to end slavery. On July 30, 1887, she assumed the regency for the third time. From the beginning, her attitude was different from the previous two regencies. She started by moving into the imperial palace and by setting a heavy schedule for herself.

As the crescendo for abolition increased and the Church joined in the calls for emancipation, Isabel felt that the government should make at least a gesture toward abolition, but the Conservative Cabinet led by the Barao de Cotegipe and installed under Pedro II, resisted taking any step. As she later recounted the events leading to abolition, after a delay Isabel let it be known to the prime minister that the Cabinet could not continue unless it acted on the issue of slavery. As the agitation for immediate abolition increased and the army sent her a memorandum asking to be excused from apprehending fugitive slaves, Isabel decided to ask for the Cabinet's resignation, for in her view it no longer served the interests of the nation. To the contrary, its lack of action was pulling the country into chaos. She perceived clearly that, unless the Crown acted to abolish slavery, slavery would be abolished by other means. The issue was no longer one of political parties or cabinets. Using as a pretext a blunder by the chief of police of Rio de Janeiro, she forced the resignation of the Cotegipe Cabinet, and, going one step further, broke with tradition by naming her choice for the next prime minister, instead of accepting the suggestion of the departing prime minister. Her choice was Joao Alfredo, a well-known abolitionist politician.

Her actions took both Liberals and Conservatives by surprise. By most, used to the long tradition established by Pedro II of alternating political parties in the government, of accepting from the departing prime minister a nomination for the next head of Cabinet, and of impartiality on issues, her actions were construed as an unacceptable exercise of personal power and willfulness in a constitutional government. On the other hand, the entrenched self-interests of slavery were failing to recognize that this time the mood of the country on slavery had changed. Isabel perceived this mood, that the atmosphere of suspense and unrest leading to a clamor for the immediate abolition of slavery could not be contained much longer without serious consequences for the political system. If the Crown did not take the initiative, perhaps a revolution would occur. Since the Crown was still the only national institution to command the necessary prestige and power to act on such a momentous issue, Isabel made the decision of selecting as prime minister a politician willing to form a cabinet for the specific purpose of introducing to the General Assembly legislation to abolish slavery.

By her own account, she had no idea of how precisely the event should occur, preferring to leave the decision to the discretion of her prime minister. One of the proposals circulating was emancipation with a two-year requirement concerning the place of residence of freed slaves, but Prime Minister Joao Alfredo was for immediate abolition, with no qualifications. She learned, from a member of the Cabinet, the precise contents of the project of law to abolish slavery during the inaugural ceremonies of a railway. The project contained two articles, one declaring slavery abolished, the second revoking all laws regarding slavery. On May 10, 1888, the legislation, known as the Lei Aurea, was approved in the Chamber of Deputies, on May 13, in the Senate. Isabel signed it into law on the same day, thus bringing to an end an institution that had survived in Brazil for nearly 300 years. The law provided for no compensation for slave owners.

After signing the Lei Aurea, Isabel's popularity soared. Now called "the Redeemer," she received special recognition from the Catholic Church when Pope Leo XIII sent a special envoy to Rio de Janeiro to present her with the Rosa de Ouro, a unique gift of a vase and roses made of gold. But clouds were gathering over the empire. After Pedro II's return from Europe in August 1888, it became clear that he was no longer in condition to rule effectively as he had done for the past 48 years. The possibility of Isabel continuing as regent was discussed but rejected by Pedro II, who reassumed the government immediately. Isabel, however, was not totally removed from the affairs of state, as had been the case in her previous regencies. Given her father's health, she continued to assist him behind the scenes. As his health deteriorated and it became obvious that her reign would soon start, her enemies stepped up their campaign to prevent her from ascending the throne by reviving all the old charges: her Catholicism, abolitionism, and her marriage to a foreigner who not only never stopped being a French prince but also never fully spoke Portuguese without a French accent. Xenophobia against the Count d'Eu was combined with the inherent prejudices against her gender, that women were emotionally weak and impressionable and in need of protection and guidance, awakening fears of Isabel, as queen, being guided behind the scenes by a French prince. As historian Hermes Vieira stated, there were rumors that she was "not emotionally capable of assuming the throne." For others, the decisive manner in which she acted to abolish slavery was a foreboding of the woman about to occupy the throne, an authoritarian and assertive empress.

Yet in retrospect, many of these charges could not be further from the truth. Isabel needed no guidance from her husband in directing the affairs of state. The abolition of slavery was her idea after she correctly read the political and emotional condition of the country, a reality missed both by seasoned politicians, so addicted to the notion of gradual abolition that they still wanted to temporize and extend it for a while longer, and by obdurate Conservatives, bent on derailing any measure bringing slavery to an end. The charges against the Count d'Eu were equally malicious. Although he never lost his French accent, he eventually came to understand the political and social culture of Brazil and made a genuine effort to make contributions in his areas of expertise by being interested in the modernization of the armed forces. On the most important act of Isabel as ruler, the abolition of slavery, despite the well established suspicion that the Count d'Eu would be the power behind the throne, his advice to her was quite conservative. As reported by Hermes Vieira, when Isabel received the draft of the Lei Aurea, she read it to the Count d'Eu, who advised her not to sign, with the admonition: "It is the end of the Monarchy." But Isabel had made up her mind. In a letter penned to her sons in December 1888, Isabel explained the reasons why she decided to abolish slavery, among them, the level of agitation in the country in favor of abolition, the reality of the slaves running away and the impossibility of having the army bringing them back to their owners, the idea that abolition was humanitarian, moral, and supported by the Church, and the fact that the slave owners had had time to prepare themselves for this natural consequence since the law of Free Womb in 1871. With a clear conscience, she decided she could not "fail to act for fear of displeasing a few, or even many," that her obligation was to the motherland, and to clear the throne of this blight. All considered, the idea of abolition finally won her over. Compensation for the owners was never part of her plans. In her view, slave owners, who had refused to free their slaves, had already profited enough and should not be recompensed. Moreover, new taxes would be borne by those who had not profited from slavery. Her decision was political as well as moral.

In the aftermath of abolition, a military crisis led to the overthrow of the monarchy on November 15, 1889. Pedro II refused to take measures that might have averted the fall and, true to his lifelong detachment from power, accepted all the events as a fait accompli. Not so Isabel, who wanted action and measures and insisted that her father act until nearly the end. But, barred by precedent from overruling her father, she capitulated. Could events have been different had she continued as regent? Perhaps so. The monarchy still had prestige in Brazil, Isabel still had her supporters, and the military coup was organized by a small clique of Positivists in the army in an action that took most by surprise. The Republican government banished the Braganza family and confiscated all their property in Brazil after offering Pedro II a generous sum to settle in exile, an offer that was rejected by the deposed emperor, leaving the royal family living in exile in France in a state of near poverty. Isabel bore exile and privation with resignation. Only after the death of his father, the duke of Nemours, did the Count d'Eu inherit the castle d'Eu, where he and Isabel lived their last years and where she ended her days.

The Republican government lifted the banishment of the Braganza family in 1920 and allowed the repatriation of the remains of Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina. Isabel's delicate health prevented her from accompanying her parents' remains to Brazil, a role fulfilled by the Count d'Eu. Isabel died on November 14, 1921, in the Castle d'Eu. News of her passing was received in Brazil with gestures of respect and reverence and recollections of her role as regent and in abolishing slavery. In recognition, the Republican government ordered the three days of mourning due to a chief of state and repatriation of her remains in a Brazilian man-of-war. In 1971, the remains of Princess Isabel and of the Count d'Eu were finally repatriated to Brazil, receiving full honors in Rio de Janeiro from civil, military, diplomatic, and ecclesiastic authorities before being taken to the city of Petrópolis, where they were laid to rest by the side of the remains of Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina. On that occasion, the president of Brazil, having taken into consideration the role of Princess Isabel as regent and her role in ending slavery, granted her the honors of chief of state, and to the Count d'Eu, the honors of commander-in-chief of the Brazilian armed forces for his services in the War of the Triple Alliance, the lack of which had been the source of many of her sorrows. In death, Princess Isabel finally received the recognition that in life had been denied to her, partly as result of the prejudices against women. The same prejudices have prevented a full assessment of her role as a ruler, and of her role in abolishing slavery in Brazil, where she is portrayed as an onlooker rather than as a principal actor in the event.


Lacombe, Lourenço Luiz. Isabel, A Princesa Redentora. Petrópolis: Instituto Histórico de Petrópolis, 1989.

Princess Isabel, Account of the Cotegipe Cabinet and the issue of abolition, December 1888, Doc. 9030, Maço 199, Arquivo do Museu Imperial, Petrópolis. "Notas da Princeza sobre os acontecimentos de Novembro de 1889," Arquivo Particular do Barao de Muritiba, AP 19, Caixa 3, Doc. 13, Arquivo do Museu Imperial, Petrópolis.

Vieira, Hermes. Princesa Isabel, Uma Vida de Luzes e Sombras. Sao Paulo: Ediçoes GRD, 1990.

suggested reading:

Calmon, Pedro. A Princesa Isabel "A Redentora." Sao Paulo: Nacional, 1941.

Isabelle, Comtesse de Paris. Tout m'est Bonheur. Paris: Roberto Laffont, 1978.

Valadao, Alfredo de Vilhena. Campanha da Princesa. Vol. 2. Rio de Janeiro: Leuzinger, 1940.

Lydia M. Garner , Associate Professor of History, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas

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