January 8, 1822: Pedro’s Independence Day
Would you rather be Crown Prince of Portugal or Emperor of Brazil? True, it is a hypothetical question because neither position is now available. In 1822, however, that was the actual choice and the dilemma forced upon Pedro Braganza. Through an astute choice of parents, he already was the Crown Prince of Portugal. Even by the usual standards of royalty, Pedro was unfamiliar with his realm. The twenty-three year old had last seen his birth place in 1807, when the royal family fled an invading French army. A squadron of British ships was awaiting the fugitives. Since the French Revolution and Napoleon, the British navy had a sideline in transporting dispossessed dynasties to genteel exile. Most went to England, where these royal refugees would be threadbare guests in some spare country manor. The accommodations, if not the food, were still preferable to a French prison. But Portugal’s House of Braganza did have an alternative, a land an ocean away but where the family would rule rather than beg: Brazil.
On a map, Portugal might look like the backyard of Spain; and much of Portugal’s history was dissuading Spain of that impression. A few successful wars and a number of dynastic marriages had obliged Spain to acknowledge its neighbor as a tolerated in-law. If Portugal was just an enclave in Iberia, it was an empire around the world. The Romans had appreciated its navigable coasts and accommodating bays; the country was named for its ports. Venturing forth, the Portuguese pioneered European exploration and exploitation: Africa, India, Indonesia and Japan. But Portugal’s greatest possession–in size and wealth–was Brazil. The colony was an empire in itself, encompassing half of South America; its economy buoyed by gold, diamonds and sugar. And, in 1807, Brazil was comfortably far from Napoleon.
The Braganzas arrived in 1808 and established themselves in Rio de Janeiro. The royal family was both pessimistic and practical about the likelihood of returning to Portugal, certainly not in Napoleon’s lifetime. So Rio would be the new capital and it underwent a building boom befitting this privilege. The city soon boasted palaces, government ministries, parks and boulevards. Rio would have an European veneer; but the charm and pleasures of the New World could not be denied. Ruling this luxuriant realm, the Braganzas were seduced. However awkward, they preferred Brazil to Portugal. So long as the French were in Iberia, the Brazangas enjoyed a tacit abdication.
Napoleon probably would have preferred Brazil, too. Iberia had proved a catastrophe, the French armies trapped in a savage guerrilla war. (In fact, the term “guerrilla” originated there.) The French were also losing a conventional war to a British army. Napoleon was too vain to pick capable subordinates, and his generals in Iberia were consistently humiliated by the British general Arthur Wellesley. An exasperated Napoleon evidently thought that invading Russia would be a pleasant distraction. By May, 1814 Wellesley was the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon was the proprietor of Elba. A liberated Portugal now awaited the return of the royal family…and waited.
The excuse from Brazil was that the Queen was too ill to travel. That happened to be true, and no one would drag the Braganzas from a death bed vigil. Ironically, when the Queen died in 1816, her body returned to Portugal but the rest of the royal family did not. Portugal was not simply snubbed; it had been demoted. In December, 1815 a royal edict from Rio had redefined the basis of the realm. What had been Portugal was now the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil. If, as the edict decreed, Portugal and Brazil were equal and indistinguishable, then the King could rule from Rio instead of Lisbon.
In fact, King John VI did not care who ruled in Lisbon. The British had liberated Portugal; they could administer it. Yes, to London’s surprise, Portugal was a foundling on the doorsteps. Britain certainly was not adverse to governing other peoples’ countries; just ask any Indian rajah. But there is an etiquette to Imperialism, and the flippant Braganzas had flouted it. Britain was stuck with Portugal; the alternative was letting the war-ravaged, impoverished country descend into chaos and revolution. Britain would try to maintain an affable stagnation. After some belated diplomacy, Rio did agree to subsidize the cost of the British administration. Furthermore, this whole arrangement was supposed to be temporary. London meant it; Rio did not.
The administrative chores fell to William Beresford, the British general who had commanded Portugal’s troops against the French. Now he was to defend Portugal against the Portuguese. Neglected and shunned by their royalty, the Portuguese were not in a passive mood. Some plotted the overthrow of the monarchy; but Beresford made a diligent policeman and those aspiring Jacobins were dissuaded with gallows. However, the more popular sentiment was for a constitutional monarchy with an elected legislature. In 1820 protests in one city soon spread throughout Portugal, and the overwhelmed regency simply conceded. The bloodless coup is remembered as the Liberal Revolution. At the time Beresford was in Brazil, once again haggling with the Braganzas over the terms of the British mandate. He returned to Portugal to find a provisional government with no desire for his further services. In fact, he was not even permitted to land. Portugal declared herself free of the British, but Britain did not mind at all. The Braganzas could deal with their own people. For Beresford’s six years of aggravation, Britain solaced him with a Viscount’s title.
The provisional government demanded the royal family’s return. If King John rued having to live in Portugal, at least he was spared having to work there. An elected assembly was establishing a constitutional monarchy. With the governance primarily left to the legislature, the monarch would reign rather than rule. John might have appealed to the more reactionary powers of Europe; but neither Hapsburg nor Bourbon had any sympathy for an absentee monarch who only wanted to prolong his vacation. Once, the Braganzas were back in Lisbon, however, their sovereign cousins would have accepted an invitation to invade. To John’s credit, he preferred Portuguese liberals to foreign reactionaries. (The same could not be said of all the royal family but that is another story and an ensuing civil war.) So, in 1821, after 14 years in Paradise the Braganzas reverted to Portugal. Only Crown Prince Pedro remained in Brazil, serving as regent.
While the Liberal Revolution guaranteed Portugal all the promises of the Enlightenment, that liberality did not extend to Brazil. The new government did not like the King’s idea of a bipolar empire. This was a Portuguese empire, and Brazil was merely its colony. Brazil did not appreciate its demotion, and there was an increasing sentiment for independence. At this very time, most of South America was in rebellion against Europe. All Brazil lacked was its own Bolivar, and Prince Pedro was more than willing. He had been ordered to return to Portugal, but he did have Braganza gift for delay. Still Lisbon insisted; and on March 8, 1822, Pedro officially refused. He was in rebellion against Portugal, and the rest of Brazil soon joined him. He was the acknowledged if untitled sovereign; on September 7th, he formally declared Brazil’s independence. Pedro would be the emperor of this new country.
Portugal did not graciously accede to this independence; but if it had exerted the full force of its army and navy on Brazil, would anyone have noticed? Worse for Portugal, Britain was supporting Brazil. Free of its French nemesis, Britain could now pursue its mercantile interests. Trading with Brazil, without a Portuguese middleman, appealed to London. British officers “took leave” to command Brazilian forces. (With that sniff upper lip, British diplomacy could keep a straight face.) Portugal made some effort at resistance; its garrisons in Brazil managed to be annoying before they finally surrendered. In 1825, Portugal finally conceded the obvious. Brazil was independent.
Dom Pedro I was not. As it turned out, the renegade prince was still heir to the throne of Portugal. When King John died in 1826, Lisbon declared Pedro the successor. He begrudging accepted the throne, and within two months abdicated in favor of his seven year-old daughter. Of course, Pedro would have a nasty younger brother who also wanted the throne. There inevitably was a coup and a civil war. Pedro would be embroiled in Portuguese politics for the remaining eight years of his life. He ended up having to abdicate the Brazilian throne, leaving it to his six-year old son.
The reign of Pedro II lasted from 1831 until 1889, when Brazil politely declared itself a Republic. For his exile, the second and last emperor of Brazil prudently avoided Portugal.