At a low ebb in Lisbon, the Portuguese royal court undertook to move its capital out of Europe to Rio de Janeiro - nothing like this had ever happened before in European colonial history. A move of the Portuguese court to Brazil had been urged on Portuguese kings for years, but they had chosen to remain in Europe.
But in late 1807, Napoleon’s troops were on the march and Portugal was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
By Napoleon’s Berlin Decree of 1806 was an attempt to cripple Britain’s economy by denying the access of British ships to the continent of Europe. By 1807 Britain was left with European toeholds only in Sicily and Gibraltar and she had only a handful of weak allies and pliant neutrals such as Sweden, Portugal and Denmark. Her position was similar to that of 1940, when she alone in Europe faced the power of Nazi Germany.
The port of Lisbon was ideally situated for Atlantic trade and its relationship with British traders made it a glaring anomaly in Napoleon’s ‘continental system’. Lisbon, clearing house for the trade of the Portuguese empire, especially the Brazil trade, was a source of great profit to the British and was therefore a tempting target for the French. Portugal, a ‘small ear of land’ surrounded by France’s ally, Spain, would soon form an unwilling part of Napoleon’s growing European empire. But Britain had other ideas.
In mid-August 1807, Napoleon ordered the Portuguese authorities to fall in line with the Continental System by September 1, or face invasion. Portugal thus faced an unpleasant choice. She must either comply with the French demand and undergo a British naval bombardment of Lisbon and a loss of colonial trade and colonies, or she must defy the French demand and undergo French occupation and the probable overthrow of the Portuguese royal house. While Portuguese negotiators tried to stall the French, a remarkable plan was being hatched. The Royal Navy would transport the whole Portuguese court to Rio de Janeiro, out of the reach of Napoleon. Diplomatic procrastination pushed the French deadline back and the Portuguese Foreign Minister, the Count of Araújo, said a “simulated” war between Portugal and Britain might be necessary to create time for the flight by sea.
On September 25, Lord Strangford met the Prince Regent who agreed in principle to the evacuation but ‘his duty forbade him to abandon his people until the last moment’. The Prince Regent apparently also dreaded seasickness and panicked at the prospect of an Atlantic crossing. Having said that, D João was not naïve and he knew that the price of British help was a preferential trade agreement covering not only Brazil but also Portugal’s other colonies.
Shortly after this meeting, the French and Spanish ambassadors broke off diplomatic relations with the Portuguese court and Portugal was technically at war with France.
D João actually closed his ports to British shipping, hoping to stave off the French invasion and negotiated secretly at the same time with the British. He planned to allow British trade direct with Brazil in exchange for the protection of the Royal Navy should the court be forced to leave Lisbon. A British fleet appeared off Lisbon and a French army under Junot headed through Spain for the Portuguese border. Portugal’s tightrope act was beginning to falter.
D João, having ordered the British out of Lisbon, tried and failed to appease Napoleon with a present of Brazilian diamonds and the offer of his son, D Pedro, for marriage into Bonaparte’s family. On 23 November, D João heard of Napoleon’s decision to usurp the Portuguese throne from the Bragança royal family. D João set the date of November 27, the last possible date, for the court’s exodus to the New World.
Gold, silver, diamonds, paintings, antiques, porcelain and state papers were crated up, the palaces of Mafra and Queluz were cleared and the royal treasury emptied. There was no ceremony for the departing royals as they boarded ship - just a couple of planks of wood laid across the mud. For other members of the court and those who preferred to escape the French troops that were closing in, there was an undignified scrimmage to get belongings and themselves on board. On November 27 there was an onshore breeze which kept the Portuguese fleet immobile while Junot’s invading forces closed in, and it looked as if, despite all their arrangements, the royal court would be trapped, and was bound to be captured. On the morning of 29 November, however, the wind changed direction and at 07:00 the order was given to weigh anchor. The Prince Regent and his court were on their way to the New World.
It is estimated that 10.000 people travelled in 36 Portuguese ships to Brazil in the first wave of evacuation. The fleet was escorted by ships of the Royal Navy, but the royal family sailed in Portuguese men-of-war. José Saramago’s Stone Raft portrayed the whole Portuguese nation afloat in the Atlantic but in those last days of 1807, it was the Portuguese court adrift, abandoning the Old World and heading for the New.
The journey across the Atlantic was hampered sometimes by storms which separated the fleet, sometimes by fog and always by the poor state of repair of Portugal’s once great fleet of ships. Little time had been available to provision the 36 vessels and crates of linen had been left behind on the docks in Lisbon. Many women of the court crossed the Atlantic with inadequate wardrobes and were reduced to wearing sheets and blankets provided by the Royal Navy and many had their hair shorn to deal with infestations of lice. The endless recriminations and saudades (longing for the homeland) were such that D João forbad any complaints or discussion of the decision to quit Lisbon. Amidst illness and squalor, the Portuguese court spent six weeks underway before encountering the doldrums. Some of the fleet put into Salvador de Bahia where on January 22 in 1808, Prince Regent D João was met by a lone official. According to Patrick Wilcken in his book Empire Adrift, “something of the mystery of colonial power was destroyed for ever on that day” as apparently destitute high class refugees arrived in one of their own colonies.
Once word got around Salvador, colonists thronged the streets, everyone desperate to see the royal family, this completely unexpected apparition from Portugal. D João stayed for a month in Salvador, which had been the capital of Brazil until 45 years before in 1763, and had strenuously to resist pressure from Salvadorians to set up his court there. Whilst in Salvador, D João issued the decree by which he paid for British help and protection during the royal flight - Brazil’s ports were to be opened to the trade of all friendly shipping. The only nation which could immediately take advantage of this concession was, in fact, Britain!
Moving on, D João arrived in Rio on March 7 that year to the sound of booming salutes, the joyful pealing of church bells, spontaneous applause, music, fireworks, the air scented by petals, cinnamon strewn across the streets and a triumphal arch. The colonial capital had suddenly become an imperial capital. The joyous welcome was soon followed by the reality of an absolutist monarchy. Rio’s population jumped from 60.000 to 70.000 virtually overnight and accommodation had to be speedily found for the additional 10.000 people.
A law had already been passed allowing officials to sequester lodgings, and royal officials toured the city simply chalking PR (Príncipe Regente) on the doors of the houses they fancied. To the cariocas (residents of Rio) PR soon signified ponha-se na rua (get out) and they adopted this phrase as a self-derogatory nickname!
As well as the mass ‘re-colonisation’ of properties, it was necessary to find jobs for the thousands of refugee royal bureaucrats. There was intense jockeying for position within the ranks of corrupt government ministers.
The puppet masters
The opening of Brazilian ports to international competitive trade soon brought dozens of British merchants who imported everything from Cheshire cheese to furniture, pianos, woollens and glassware. In 1810, the decree was formally ratified as a treaty, under which British citizens in Brazil gained the right to be dealt with under British law; British warships were to have unlimited access to Brazilian waters; the Royal Navy was granted the right to use Brazilian wood for shipbuilding; Britons were granted unlimited trading and property rights; and lastly, Britons were granted freedom of worship. Rights for Portuguese in Britain were not reciprocated and the treaty was to apply for ‘an unlimited time’.
A British army under Wellington was already fighting in the Peninsula, and was reorganising and re-equipping the Portuguese army and as D João was totally reliant on British military protection, he had no alternative but to sign. Now Britain had unlimited access to Brazil, the jewel of the Portuguese empire. British troops had occupied Madeira, Goa and Macau and Portuguese slave trading centres in Africa were under threat from the British movement for the abolishment of the trade. By 1819, Rio was host to an Anglican church, 60 British firms, a British cemetery, a British hospital, shops, an English language library and numerous British pubs. The ubiquity of British produce, the drunken sprees of the sailors and a casual disregard of local sensitivities earned resentment and antagonism from the cariocas.
Another French invasion
The failure of the French invasion on the Iberian front and the defeat of “the Monster” were followed by the peace of the Congress of Vienna, and a new invasion of Brazil. This time it was the French, lately confined to the Europe of their imperial master, who came in large numbers and soon outnumbered the British. With the French came goods such as jewellery, silk shoes, lace and perfume. Brazilians loved the new Paris fashions and hair styles. Coiffeurs, milliners, dressmakers and language teachers rapidly based themselves in Rio and were followed by French architects and painters who also established a continuing major influence in the Brazilian way of life.
People of other nationalities soon followed in their droves and D João encouraged musicians to visit and contribute to the growing cultural life in his New World Empire. Performances of Haydn’s Creation and Mozart’s Requiem took place against the backdrop of Rio’s magnificent bay.
D João founded the royal gardens in Rio and took a great interest in them and, in this tropical paradise, it appeared that the Prince Regent, now D João VI of Portugal, had no thought of returning to Lisbon. D João was much keener to secure the southern border of Brazil to the River Plate. The possession of this area was hotly disputed by the Spanish Viceroyalty based in Buenos Aires and the Banda Oriental (now Uruguay) had been an issue between Spain and Portugal for over 100 years. But D João’s preoccupation was quickly interrupted by rumblings from Pernambuco in the northeast.
Hotbeds of revolution
The people of Pernambuco had a reputation for agitating for more autonomy and in March 1817 there were rumours of an anti-royal conspiracy led by army officers and freemasons. The rumours became a certainty and a revolt spread northwards. At this point, the enormous country we know as Brazil could easily have gone the way of the vast Spanish possessions in South America and fragmented into many different parts. The king ordered a military force to the north but already the loyalists were taking control.
The revolt lasted just 75 days and it represented an expression of a growing dislike of the high taxes needed to sustain the extravagance and corruption of a royal court whose lifestyle was worlds away from the conditions of the rest of the country. Feelings were running high in Portugal too.
By 1820, the court had been away from Europe for 12 years and although the war with Napoleon had ended five years previously, there was still no sign of the return of D João to Europe. Portugal had faced the hardships of French occupation and now that the Portuguese army was run by a British Commander-in-Chief it appeared that the whole country was still under foreign domination. The country was impoverished and heavily militarised - a dangerous combination.
On New Year’s Day 1820 a small contingent of Spanish troops in Cadiz mutinied against their reimposed absolute monarch and the revolt spread across Spain and into Portugal. Commander-in-Chief Beresford sailed to Rio to acquire an extension to his authority but D João VI was more interested in military success in the Banda Oriental than in problems in Portugal, and he kept Beresford dangling. By the time Beresford had received his new authority and returned to Portugal, there had been rioting in Oporto which had rapidly spread to Lisbon. The Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Beresford, was denied permission to land, and sailed on to England.
The return of the king
D João while Prince Regent looked to form dynastic marriages for his two middle daughters. He planned a double union with princes of the recently liberated Spanish court. Dona Maria Isabel was to marry her uncle Fernando VII (and become queen of Spain) and Dona Maria Francisca was to marry her uncle Don Carlos.
D João was not keen to abandon Brazil, even to promote the interests of his daughters, but his wife, the redoubtable Dona Carlota, was desperate to return to Europe. She had always been the centre of intrigues against D João and it seemed that she would succeed in the power game if she could return to her native Spain.
The old demented Queen D Maria I died in 1816, and it now became impossible for the new king D João VI to return to Europe for the marriage of his daughters without returning permanently to his European kingdom. D João VI seized this opportunity to insist that his presence was required in Rio.
In December 1820, facing revolts in both Portugal and Brazil, D João VI declared the revolts in Portugal illegal but recognised the need to call the Cortes. At this time Portuguese troops on service in Brazil responded to calls from the homeland and they proclaimed a constitutional revolution. The king issued two decrees, the first ordering D Pedro, his elder son, to Lisbon and the second creating a consultative assembly in Rio. Further unauthorised troop movements led to a third royal decree in which D João agreed to the constitution drawn up in Lisbon and gave an undertaking to return to Portugal.
D João was so far out of touch with his subjects that he expected to be lynched after this third decree - he was in fact applauded. The following day he announced that he would leave for Lisbon and he would leave behind D Pedro as Regent in Brazil. D João VI arrived in Lisbon on July 4, 1821. The square was strewn with flowers but flanked by regiments of soldiers. The delegation of revolutionaries knelt before their king and performed the beija mão (the kissing of the king’s hand).
The Cry of Ipiranga
Back in Rio, D Pedro faced enormous pressures. First, the Lisbon constitutional government wanted to curb the rights granted in Brazil during the time of the royal presence in Rio, and also wanted D Pedro to return to Portugal. Second, he had to deal with the conflicting demands of different Brazilian provinces. Third, he had to deal with a revolt by Portuguese troops in Rio, who reduced his position to that of a figurehead.
He heard in mid-1822 that his mother, Dona Carlota, was supporting her favourite younger son, D Miguel, in a bid to claim the Portuguese throne. D Pedro toured widely on horseback in the surrounding provinces to gain support for his administration and on his way back to São Paulo he was met by a messenger with the news that the Lisbon government was preparing an expedition of 7.000 troops whose purpose was to reimpose Portuguese authority over the colony of Brazil.
As a direct consequence, on September 7 D Pedro tore the Portuguese insignia from his uniform and threw it to the ground. Drawing his sword he proclaimed: “Independência ou morte (Independence or death!) We have separated from Portugal”. This was the famous Cry of Ipiranga, and Brazilian independence is dated from that moment.
The loss of Brazil as a colony was a major blow to Portugal and a direct outcome was that the Liberal constitutional government fell before the first of many counter-revolutionary uprisings led by D Miguel but engineered by Dona Carlota. D João VI required an audience with D Miguel who surprisingly broke down and begged his father’s forgiveness before being sent abroad.
Portugal refused at first to recognise Brazilian independence but eventually agreed that Brazil would compensate Portugal for its loss of the colony and D João VI would retain the title Emperor of Brazil. The office would in fact be devolved onto his eldest son, D Pedro, with succession through his descendants.
Four months after signing the treaty in 1826, D João VI died. The now Dowager Queen Dona Carlota continued to intrigue. Supported by his mother, the exiled D Miguel illegally returned to Portugal and declared himself king, exactly counter to his father’s last express wishes. Dona Carlota enjoyed the success of her favourite son for two years before she died. In 1831 D Pedro returned to Portugal to lead the constitutional liberals in a civil war to oust the Miguelista absolutists.
Instead of having no king in residence, Portugal now found itself burdened with two warring contenders to the throne, D Pedro IV and D Miguel I.
The promised land
The willingness of the Portuguese Court to relocate to Brazil en masse was reflected in the views of royal advisers on Portugal’s colonial expansion over the years. Portugal itself was considered the Achilles’ heel of the Empire. The Jesuit priest António de Vieira was a key adviser to D João IV (1640 - 1656) and had long advised a new administrative centre in Brazil and he urged that the Portuguese empire would be everlasting as long as it renewed itself through relocation to America.
The gold rush in Brazil brought a new urgency to discussions of reorganisation of the Empire and during the reign of D João V (1705-1750), the diplomat Luís da Cunha stated that Portugal was an ‘ear of land’ drained by the influence of the church and unproductive properties. He believed that the colonies should be developed and the Court moved to Brazil where the king would be proclaimed Emperor of the West.