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Brazil, 1821-1889

Brazil remained a monarchy until 1889. Did this make a difference?

It had an oligarchic political system; the oligarchs did have a real role in decision making. They had power in the national Parliament. Pedro II ruled through the oligarchy.


1847: 7.3 million persons of whom 3 million were black

1871: 10 million persons of whom 1½ million were slaves

Slavery was abolished on the state and local levels long before national law attacked and, finally, ended it.

Generalizations about the entire period

  • The economy remains basically the same.
  • The country was run by a rural agrarian oligarchy
  • The social system was formed by oligarchical control with rigid class lines and an apathetic peasantry
  • The government was highly centralized
  • The Brazilian oligarchy liked to think it was like. the British oligarchy. There was lots of talk about representative government, about parliamentary government but Pedro ruled.
  • The political system did have Liberal and Conservative parties but they were both for the elites and only differed on such issues as the role of the established church and slavery.
  • It had a "colonial" economy, dependent upon the export of raw materials (agricultural and mineral) to pay for manufactured goods.
  • The slave trade did not end until 1850 when the British forced it, threatening to come into Brazilian harbors in pursuit of slave ships.
  • The military was insignificant in political affairs until the end of 1818-1889 period.
  • The was some immigration but it was small. Few people wanted to compete against slaves.
  • Was it a boom or bust economy as sometimes stated? No, there was continuity but Brazilians took advantage of opportunities as they arose.
  • The Amazon Basin was useless. Brazilians, as well as others, got excited about its possibilities but little economic activity occurred there in the nineteen century.
  • The bulk of the population was illiterate

Pedro I, 1821-1831

He was badly educated, learning as much from jockeys as others. Although he could be likable, he lacked ability. He didn't have a reliable instrument of maintaining himself in power in face of strong opposition. His behavior--wenching, drinking, partying--was a source of problems. He had a well-known affair with Domitila de Castro with whom he fell in love and set her up as his mistress. His wife, Leopoldina, an Austrian princess, finds out from the hairdresser they both used. Pedro elevates Domitila to the position of Marquesa de Santos. Leopoldina is humiliated and complains to the Emperor of Austria but, of course, he can do nothing about it. Pedro has other mistresses as well.

The Brazilian upper class disliked the efforts of the Portuguese to subordinate Brazil to Portugal. Then the Portuguese court came to Brazil in 1808, exacerbating tensions. Many Brazilians came to realize how very "foreign" the Portuguese were--and arrogant towards Brazilians, whom they considered inferior. The Crown did, however, elevate Brazil to a kingdom co-equal with Portugal.

On April, 1821, the Portuguese Emperor, Dom Joâo VI, went back to Portugal, taking with him the Brazilian treasury [Bank of Brazil] and four thousand courtiers and hangers on. He left his son, Pedro, as regent with the chief advisor , José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva of São Paulo. Bonifácio was a science professor and royal official. It was quite clear that the Portugese in Portugal were going to reduce Brazil back to full colonial status. The Portuguese government wanted Pedro to return also, but, in September, 1822, he declared the independence of Brazil with the Grito de Ypiranga. In December 1822, he has himself crowned Emperor of Brazil.

A constitution was drawn up by assembly of oligarchs in 1823. Pedro didn't like it because too much authority was given to the assembly. He dissolved the constitutional convention and arrested some of its members.

He promulgated his own Constitution of 1824. It created a government of four branches--executive, legislative, judicial, and moderating power. The moderating power gave the Emperor, who also served as the executive, great power because it allowed him to override decisions of the other three branches. Moreover, the Emperor chose the Senators, could dismiss Parliament, appointed and dismissed ministers of state and lesser officials. For the lower house of Parliament, very few people could vote for representative.

Pedro I tended to see any attack on a position he took as an attack on the dynasty. He tended to act arbitrarily, resulting in dissatisfaction among the political class.


Regionalism was always present in the independence period. The Empire was vast, much of it uncharted and unexplored. The bulk of the population lived in communities which hugged the coast; the landed oligarchy owned vast estates (fazendas) stretching westward into the interior. They were like little kingdoms with the fazendeiros able to rule at will, often paying only lip service to royal authority. In the northeast, slavery and sugar plantations were common; mine owners were powerful in Minas Gerais; and the south was cowboy country.

Regionalism prompted the Pernambuccan Rebellion of 1817 in the Northeast. Pernambuco, followed by Paraíba do Norte, Río Grande do Norte, and part of Ceará, sought home rule under a republican government. With the arrival of the Portuguese in 1808, power shifted to Río de Janeiro, where the Crown eventually settled. The Northeast had been the locus of power in Brazil, based on its sugar plantations, and Bahía had briefly hosted the Crown. Now, it was clear that Río and the more southern states held the power. The revolt was crushed and the Crown stationed troops in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Recife. When independence was declared, the Northeast was the scene of fighting.

The Imperial government had a tenuous hold on much of the country and had few means of making its will felt. Brazil was like a federation in most respects, a fact recognized by the Additional Act of 1834 which provided some autonomy for the provinces. It was only with difficulty that it put down the numerous rebellions. In Rio de Janeiro alone there were five uprisings in 1831 and 1832. There were also rebellions in Pará in 1835-37, Salvador in 1837-38, Maranhao in 1838-41, and the ones in Minas Gerais and São Paulo in 1842. The Ragamuffins Rebellion ( the Farroupilha Revolution) (1835-45) in Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul was finally put down by Field Marshall Luís Alves de Lima e Silva, the Baron of Caxias. Subsequently called the Patron of the Army, he reorganized the army, making it a more effective fighting force and was very instrumental in preserving the territorial integrity of the Empire.

The regency was ended and Pedro II elevated to full power on July 18, 1841 at age fifteen in hopes that the mystery and majesty of the monarchy would discourage rebellion. It took Pedro II a few years but rebellion became a thing of the past by 1848.

Electoral system

Brazil used an indirect system of election. The size if the electorate was small--in 1881, the country had fifteen million people but only approximately 181,000 could vote. The system used property qualifications and few owned real property. Voters were gathered together by parishes. An electoral committee, under an imperial magistrate as chairman, determined whether a person was eligible. He could close the polls when he wanted to do so. The committee counted the votes and stipulated the number of electors. The Emperor had all the cards in his hands.

Between 1840 and 1881, only one minister defeated at election while he was in office. The Crown decided when one was to be forced out.

Reform Law of 1881, a Liberal measure, attempted to make the lower house more representative of the will of the citizens. It extended the franchise and created a bipartisan committee to supervise elections.

There probably would have been more popular participation if the Emperor had not been around. He did not want to lose control and the majesty of his office awed people.

The members of government were from the oligarchy. There were good men in government, for example Rui Barbosa and Joaquim Nabuco. Nabuco became a leader in the slave emancipation movement but he also believed strongly of importance of oligarchy in government

Slavery issue

The slave trade ended in 1850 but there were one and one-half slavers out of a population of ten million (15% of the total population) in 1871. The campaign against slavery increased. In 1871, Brazil Rio Branco Law (Law of the Free Womb) whereby children born of slaves were automatically free but had to work for their parents' master until adulthood to pay the cost of raising them. The liberals had managed to get this compromise measure passed which, eventually, would have ended slavery through attrition. Nevertheless, liberals continued to press for more immediate emancipation an achieved great success at the local and state levels. Most states had ended slavery before 1889.

The slave oligarchy was opposed to emancipation but it was trying to hold back the tide of history; Brazil was entering the modern Western world.

While Pedro II was in Europe seeking medical treatment and his daughter Princess Isabel was acting as Regent, slavery finally ended. On 13th May, 1888, under pressure from abolitionists, she signed the Golden Law (Lei Áurea) that abolished slavery without compensation in Brazil. Abolitionists argued the slavery was immoral and one should not be paid for immorality; this infuriated the slave owners and much of the upper class who withdrew support from the Emperor. Pedro II's prestige and skills were not able to overcome this loss of support.

The Fall of the Empire

The Golden Law was a proximate cause of the fall of the Empire in November, 1889 but there were numerous underlying factors.

Since the Crown was dominant in the political system, the person who was the monarch was very important. Pedro's health was failing, meaning that Isabel would soon rule. Many objected to the idea of rule by a woman; Brazilian culture, like many others, expected men to occupy the positions of power. Isabel might have been more acceptable is she had been more sensitive to the demands of the oligarchy. She was also hampered by her French husband, who seemed cold and distant. Since some assumed that he, not Isabel, would actually control things, this was an issue. The perception of him as cold and unresponsive was largely the result of his hiding the fact that he was deaf in one ear. If one spoke to him from that side, he didn't respond!

The Roman Catholic hierarchy in Brazil also abandoned the Empire. The constitution allowed religious freedom although Roman Catholicism was the official religion. Brazilians tended to be relaxed about religion. In fact, some Catholics, including Pedro II, were also Masons (which the Church considered to be a rival religion). In 1864, the conservative Pope issued an encyclical forbidding Catholics from being in the Mason order. Pedro II, as was his right, refused to allow the encyclical to be published in Brazil. Not much happened until seven years later when a priest gave a sermon on emancipation which was obviously influenced by Masonic doctrine. The bishop of Río de Janeiro castigated him and ordered him to leave the Masonic order. He refused on the grounds that the encyclical was invalid in Brazil. Also in 1871, the bishop of Pernambuco denounced both Masonry and the constitutional provision which allowed the Crown to control the church in Brazil. He tried to get all Masons out of the religious brotherhoods (irmandades). Other bishops joined the fray. Masons in Río de Janeiro retaliated by telling their members to oppose the bishops. The crown arrested clerics who refused to obey the law. The controversy had been elevated into a Church versus State issue.

The issue was taken to the Pope, who, surprisingly, was most conciliatory towards the State. He told the bishops to cease and desist. In return, the Emperor granted amnesty in 1875 to the clergy it had jailed.

Both the pro-Church and the pro-government factions thought that Pedro II had been weak. Some began to doubt the efficacy of having this monarch; some began to oppose monarchy in general.

The Army

The army in the 1880s was doing some striking things; always wanted a more active role in politics. From the coup d'etat of 1889 until now, the military has been the most important institution in politics. The military was decisive in the overthrow of the Empire. The Club Militar was political as well as social. The political party system was extremely weak. Pedro would not let the two monarchial parties, liberals and conservatives, develop as much as they could in the situation.

No one defended the Empire. The ease of coup suggests that, politically, the Empire had not accomplished very much other than holding territory together and enabling some economic development.

Paraguayan War

Argentina and Brazil had long intervened in Uruguayan politics. In fact, the little country was created with British help because its giant neighbors has been contesting control of it for so long. After independence in 1828, Brazil and Argentina continued to intervene in its domestic affairs. By the mid-1860s, Pedro II's government, in alliance with the Argentine government, tried to get the Colorado Party in power in place of the Blancos. The latter then appealed to the Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López. Solano López had long been afraid of the imperialistic intentions of his neighbors. He had the largest army with 64,000 soldiers compared with Brazil's standing army of 18,000. Brazil and Argentina agreed to act if Solano López actively backed the Blancos. In September 1864, the Brazilians invaded Uruguay to put the Colorados in power.

Paraguay seized Brazilian vessels on the Rio Paraguay and by attacked the Brazilian province of Mato Grosso. Solano López thought he would get help from the anti-Buenos Aires caudillos, but didn't. He sent an army into Corrientes state, Argentina, to get at Rio Grande do Sul and Uruguay. By 1858, he was at war with Argentina, Brazil, and Colorado-led Uruguay. the and found himself at war with both Argentina and Brazil.

Faced with such overwhelming force, Paraguay had little chance of winning even though it took time and money until the Brazilians could field a large army and many Argentinians did not support the war. They fought a very good fight ion their own territory. The loyalty of Paraguayans to Francisco Solano López was strong. They were willing to die for him. However,

"the war left Paraguay utterly prostrate; its prewar population of approximately 525,000 was reduced to about 221,000 in 1871, of which only about 28,000 were men" --

In 1870, the Brazilian army finally trapped Solano López and killed him. Brazil occupied Paraguay until 1878.

The Empire fell because it was dependent upon the personality of one man, Pedro II, who, as intelligent and learned as he was, was handicapped by his own limitations. He could not know or understand everything. He did not prepare his daughter well enough to assume rule or the powerful to accept her rule. He underestimated the strength of republican sentiment, military ill will towards him and his government, and the pro-slavery sentiment in the country. No one defended the Empire. He and his family were politely sent into exile.

by Don Mabry