Empire of Exceptions: The Making of Modern Brazil

Brazil may be one of the 21st century’s emerging superpowers, but its history is a mystery to many. Gabriel Paquette tells the story of its early years as an independent state.

Early evening refreshment in the Praça do Palácio, Rio de JaneiroThe Age of Revolutions largely bypassed the Portuguese empire. By 1783 Britain’s 13 North American colonies had broken definitively with the mother country; France’s wealthy, sugar-producing stronghold of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti) descended into political turmoil in 1791; even Spanish America was engulfed by civil unrest after 1808, the year in which Napoleon’s armies flooded across the Pyrenees and occupied Spain.

The situation in the Portuguese Atlantic world was different. Portugal’s alliance with Great Britain enabled its royal family to escape the French armies and flee to the New World aboard British ships. Portuguese America, modern Brazil, was thus spared the crisis of authority that caused the unravelling of Spain’s dominions in the New World. The future João VI (1767-1826), who ruled Portugal as prince regent in place of his mentally infirm mother, Queen Maria, was the first European monarch to set foot in the Americas, in 1808. He quickly endowed Rio de Janeiro with the institutions befitting its new status as interim capital of a global empire, setting up a parallel administration, as well as theatres, royal palaces, a botanical garden and a bevy of government buildings. The Rio of the time was dubbed a ‘Tropical Versailles’ by the early 20th-century historian Oliveira Lima.

When the royal family disembarked in Brazil they encountered a colonial society in the throes of a great transformation. The extraction of precious metals and diamonds, which had buoyed the economy in the first half of the 18th century, was giving way to a slave-dependent plantation economy based on the culti-vation and export of commodities, particularly sugar, tobacco and cotton. The number of sugar mills in Bahia doubled between 1760 and 1800, while an annual average of 23,500 Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves between 1790 and 1810. Coffee cultivation, still in its infancy, would come to dominate the economy of Brazil’s south-east only later.

Before the royal family’s arrival there was little vocalised discontent with Brazil’s colonial status, let alone open resistance to Portuguese rule. This is perhaps chiefly attributable to the cohesiveness of the ruling elite, conscious of the perils of living in a slave society and fearful of a Haitian-style insurrection. In 1800 Brazil’s population was made up of 37 per cent slaves of African origin; 30 per cent free persons of African ancestry or those of mixed racial background (categorised as ‘mulatto’); 30 per cent ‘white’; and three per cent Amerindian. In such a combustible society elite dissent could produce unintended, revolutionary consequences. It was therefore scrupulously avoided.

But there was also a second reason for the absence of revolution: with the notable exception of the period 1750-80, dominated by Portugal’s iron-fisted first minister, Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, 1st Marquis of Pombal, there had been little effort to centralise authority, thus leaving local elites with ample autonomy, considerable leeway to conduct their own affairs and few reasons to resent metropolitan meddling. The Brazilian viceroy, for example, wielded much less power than his Spanish counterpart. Furthermore the vast physical distances between population centres, hostile topography and climate and sparse infrastructure made local autonomy inevitable. There were also conscious attempts, especially in the final third of the 18th century, to create a transatlantic governing elite. Unlike in Spanish America, where American-born creoles were systematically excluded from consideration for the plum official appointments, Brazilian elites were consciously co-opted by the Portuguese metropole. They routinely sent their children to study at the University of Coimbra in Portugal to be groomed for positions in the imperial bureaucracy, from Goa to Luanda to São Paulo. Discontent was not altogether absent, but the combination of geography, fear of slave revolts and conciliatory policy defused tensions.

Yet the political ideas that inflamed the rest of the Atlantic world eventually reached Brazil’s shores and permeated its political culture. The most famous conspiracy, which was nipped in the bud, took place in the south-western province of Minas Gerais in the late 1780s. This Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Conspiracy) was animated by republican ideas. More alarming was the 1798 Tailors’ Revolt in Bahia in the north-east, when mulatto soldiers and artisans conspired according to the principles of the Haitian and French revolutions. They called for independence, the declaration of a republic based on electoral democracy, the abolition of slavery and full equality between blacks and whites. But neither the Minas Conspiracy nor the Tailors’ Revolt produced widespread upheaval.

In such a dangerous world the presence of the royal family in Rio de Janeiro came to be viewed as a powerful buttress to the existing social, economic and political order, a defence against the chaos enveloping Brazil’s Spanish-American neighbours. Political stability was deemed the indispensable precondition of economic prosperity. Brazil exploited the dislocation caused by imperial crisis elsewhere. The collapse of Haitian sugar exports, for example, breathed fresh life into the Brazilian sugar industry. By 1805 Brazilian sugar accounted for 15 per cent of world output, well above its earlier level.

The transfer of the court was supposed to be a war-time measure, but with the defeat of Napoleon, the restoration of deposed kings to their old thrones and the coming of a general peace in 1815 João showed little inclination to return to Portugal, which had been ravaged by war. Its size and prosperity were vastly inferior compared to Brazil. Some argued that the court should reside permanently in the Americas, with Rio de Janeiro as the new centre of a revamped empire. Such an arrangement would have reflected not only Brazil’s economic might and Portugal’s strategic vulnerability (as the French invasion had shown), but also the burgeoning slave trade, conducted between Brazil and Portuguese coastal enclaves in West Africa, chiefly though not exclusively from what is now Angola.

Dispassionate analysis was not the only consideration in play. Self-interest was intimately involved in such counsel, as the return of the court would have dissipated the parallel capital in Rio de Janeiro and reduced Brazil again to the status of a colony. Yet not everyone was enamoured of the crown’s decision to tarry. Many resented the maintenance of a large, opulent court, for both fiscal and ideological reasons. Provincial elites, long-accustomed to a modicum of self-government (or at least benign neglect), became increasingly alarmed by the unabashedly centralising tendencies of Rio de Janeiro. In 1817 a revolt imbued with republican ideas broke out in Recife, Pernambuco. But it was soon crushed and the court showed few signs of returning to the Old World.

The worst fears of Portugal’s elite, eagerly awaiting the return of Lisbon’s pre-eminence, were confirmed when João raised Brazil to the status of a kingdom, not merely an overseas dominion or colony, co-equal with Portugal. In 1808, as prince regent, he had thrown open the ports and markets of Brazil to merchants of all nations. These free trade decrees had deprived Portuguese merchants of their long-held, lucrative monopoly over Brazilian commerce. It stripped Lisbon and Porto of their cherished position as entrepôts for the re-export of Brazilian commodities to the markets of northern Europe.

In 1820 a liberal revolution erupted in Portugal that sought to establish a constitutional monarchy with Lisbon at its centre. Though João, by then king, was compelled to return to Europe, he left his son and heir, Pedro (1798-1834) behind to serve as a counterweight to any political conspiracies. When the liberal Cortes (parliament) demanded the prince’s return as well, Pedro refused and, following a complicated series of events, declared Brazil independent, an act that probably had his father’s blessing. Pedro thus fashioned himself into the monarch of an independent Brazilian empire. His swift action was prompted not only by disdain for the insolent demands of the Portuguese liberals, but in order to pre-empt revolution. By opting for monarchy, retaining the same European dynasty on the throne and calling their new polity an ‘empire’, Pedro and his supporters guaranteed that Brazil’s future would diverge sharply from that of its republican neighbours.

Not all regions were satisfied with Pedro’s solution. Throughout the colonial period, the northern provinces of Maranhão and Pará had maintained closer relations with Lisbon than with the rest of Brazil due to their greater geographical proximity and their large Portuguese-born merchant communities. Moreover, in northeastern provinces like Pernambuco and Bahia, whose economic halcyon days were long over, the political ascendancy of Rio de Janeiro, where its centralising pretensions combined with the economic efflorescence of the south-eastern provinces in general, caused consternation. There were half-hearted attempts to resist a union with Rio de Janeiro and instead retain a link with Portugal. But the derelict former metropole was in no position to pursue such a course of action with conviction and a vague desire for independence gathered momentum.

Even those Brazilians who welcomed independence were unenthused by its high price: the survival of monarchy and the retention of the ruling Braganza dynasty proved distasteful. The recent precedent of the republican revolutions, from Boston to Buenos Aires, was their preferred model for political change. The stage was set for a showdown between Pedro and the provincial elites of Brazil’s north and north-east. The suspicions of republicans, liberals and proponents of regional autonomy were confirmed when Pedro dissolved the assembly convened to draft a new constitution and issued one of his own in 1824. This ‘gift from the throne’ was explicitly anti-federalist and put in place the legal architecture of the central government’s dominance over the provinces.

The period between 1824 and 1840 was one in which the political settlement of Brazilian independence was incessantly challenged. That settlement was marked by the apparent (though tenuous) triumph of monarchism over republicanism, of territorial integrity and a centralised administration over dispersed power and provincial autonomy and of the expansion of a slave-reliant economy over free (or at least less coercive) labour regimes. When Brazilian independence was declared the destruction of the old regime was incomplete, perhaps not even yet underway. Independence became decoupled from the dismemberment of the colonial system. In fact independence, with its illusion of change, neutralised such efforts, depriving Brazil of the opportunity to convert the transition from colony to nation into a revolutionary overhaul of politics, society and economy.

The first reaction against Pedro’s high-handed tactics came from Pernambuco, where a segment of its elite rejected the swapping of one master in Lisbon for another in Rio de Janeiro. In 1824 they formed a ‘Confederation of the Equator’. Often depicted as a secessionist movement seeking to establish an independent republic, the Confederation’s aims were at once more moderate and more radical than that. Its president called for the obliteration of the oligarchical institutions of old Europe and for the creation of a federal Brazil, one in which the provinces retained autonomy. They wanted local control over taxation, education and public works. In short they wanted devolution in the context of a moderate revolution. Decentralised constitutional government was their goal.

Perhaps the Confederation’s most influential voice belonged to Frei Caneca (1779-1825), the editor of the newspaper Typhis Pernambucano. He argued that Pedro had usurped Brazil’s independence, implanting tyranny where freedom should have prevailed. He contended that each former province of Portugal’s empire retained and exercised sovereignty until it submitted voluntarily to a mutually beneficial union with the other provinces. He rejected the notion of a primordial union and disputed Rio de Janeiro’s claim to be its natural centre. He regarded it as merely one among many equal and independent states, none of which possessed the right to dictate to any other. Though the Confederation controlled the north-eastern city of Recife and inspired copy-cat, sympathetic and loosely allied rebel governments in other neighbouring provinces, the imperial armed forces soon prevailed. Most of the local elite were pardoned for their insurrection, though little clemency was displayed toward less-connected, more pugnacious, unapologetically outspoken men like Frei Caneca, who was executed.

Pedro’s imperial system escaped relatively unscathed from the Confederation’s direct challenge to his authority, but the remainder of his reign was beset by difficulties. Pedro’s Portuguese heritage and that of his coterie of advisers fanned the flames of nativist disgust. But his problems went deeper than that. Drought devastated the north-east in 1824-25 (and for four years in a row from 1830). Such natural scarcity was compounded by inflation, as price levels rose precipitously, hurting urban wage-earners. Furthermore the Brazilian army was bogged down in an ultimately futile and bloody war with Argentina, a struggle that culminated in the creation of the independent buffer-state Uruguay in 1825. The financial strain of this war was serious: it exhausted the treasury and forced the nascent imperial government to assume a sizeable external debt.

In 1831 Pedro was forced to abdicate in favour of his five-year-old son, also named Pedro, and embarked for exile in Europe. The child-emperor was not ready, of course, to assume the reins of state. The remaining senators and government ministers filled the power vacuum. They created a three-man Regency to govern on an interim basis until Pedro II (1825-91) reached majority. The Regency’s executive power, however, was severely diminished, as the legislature exploited the crisis to appropriate power for itself. But Brazil did not become a republic. There were many reasons why Brazil remained a monarchy in 1831, in spite of pervasive disapproval of the new monarch; perhaps the most important factor was the fear that a slave-based society could not survive without a unifying institution of sufficient stature.

Pedro I’s abdication in 1831 was greeted with anti-Portuguese riots; Portuguese-owned inns, houses and stores were attacked, accompanied by the ubiquitous cry of ‘mata-marotos’ (kill the rascals!). Yet the new political leadership wanted a different sort of monarchy, not just indiscriminate blood-letting. They amended the constitution significantly in order to decentralise power and involve more of the citizenry in the political process. An ‘Additional Act’ of the constitution was passed. It replaced the weak provincial councils decried by Frei Caneca and others with provincial assemblies endowed with substantial prerogatives, including municipal policing and the right to levy as well as to collect certain taxes. Perhaps the most important change was the decision taken in 1831 to weaken the national army, long considered a retrograde bastion of Portuguese power, and create instead a national guard under the control of provincial authorities.

The Regency that lasted from 1831 until 1840 was one of the most turbulent periods of Brazilian history, characterised by rebellions, revolts and conspiracies of all kinds. Though they were exceptionally numerous, it may be argued that it was the major ones of the early and mid-1830s that most decisively shaped Brazil’s future trajectory. Until recently these movements of defiance were either dismissed as an inconsequential provincial affair, depicted as a political struggle between regional elites and Rio de Janeiro, or as bickering among the regional elites themselves. Now historians call attention to their social aspects, especially to the active participation of slaves, lower classes, free people of colour and Indians. This last aspect deserves emphasis, but the regional-central government dynamic of these conflicts also merits detailed consideration.

Ignominious abdication aside, Pedro did not lack friends in Brazil, many of whom,  until his premature death in 1834, entertained far-fetched fantasies of a restoration. Such support percolated not only at the elite level but also among the more modest classes. As news of his abdication spread and the military reforms gathered pace there were urban uprisings led by disgruntled troops in Bahia, Pernambuco and Minas Gerais. In rural Pernambuco planters fomented a rebellion, mobilising peasants who were uneasy with the land encroachment of the period. Even when elites withdrew their support, frightened by the revolt’s social revolutionary turn, the peasant movement continued. This latter group of people became known as Cabanos, after the humble forest huts or shacks in which they lived. Cabanos, of course, was a derogatory term, with negative connotations of backwardness and poverty. By 1832 the War of the Cabanos, or Cabanada, was raging. A force composed of Indians, runaway slaves and other discontents coalesced around the charismatic figure of Vicente de Paula (1792-1840), a former sergeant in the now-disbanded colonial militia, who assumed the rather grandiose title of General of the Royalist Forces. Paula claimed that the Regency had ‘usurped’ young Pedro’s throne, thus legitimising its struggle against the ‘Jacobins’ of Rio de Janeiro, manipulating the constitution to pursue their personal ambitions and advance their material interests.

The attachment of the rural poor to royalism, it must be emphasised, was not due to any sentimental or ideological feeling. Rather their interests had suffered a severe blow following Pedro’s abdication. The royal monopoly over the forests was repealed, effectively removing their legal protection and facilitating the seizure of vast swathes of land by the local gentry. The frontier zone between the provinces of Pernambuco and Alagoas became the centre of the struggle. It was here that land ideal for sugar cane cultivation remained relatively untapped. Local landlords raised and commanded troops with which to evict peasants and Jacuípe Indians from the coveted lands. These then joined together to oppose the landlords. At the height of the conflict (1833-34) this unlikely multi-ethnic alliance of slaves, peasants and Indians formed a formidable fighting force. With the blessing of the central government, however, a ‘scorched earth’ policy was adopted, as landlords utilised the newly-formed national guard to conduct counter-insurgency operations to starve the Cabanos out of the forests. This tactic worked, with tragic consequences.

The brutal repression of Pernambuco’s Cabanos presaged not the end
of popular resistance but its beginning. Far from Rio de Janeiro, where the state’s tentacles were weakest, discontent continued to boil. Around the northern city of Belém in the province of Pará a serious threat to the integrity of the empire erupted from the ranks of poor, cabana-dwelling people eking out a precarious existence on the margins of urban life. The revolt is known as the Cabanagem, not a term that was used by its participants.

The Cabanagem is unique because the rebels (twice) seized the provincial capital. It began in January 1835 with an amphibious invasion of Belém. The Cabanos emptied the prisons and fomented native violence. They executed the provincial president and held the city for several months before they retreated as imperial troops, despatched from Rio de Janeiro, advanced.  When they retook Belém under the leadership of a 19-year-old landowner, Eduardo Angelim, the fifth Cabano president, they controlled the city for nine months. Angelim contended that ‘the Paraenses are not rebels’; rather, he argued, ‘they sought to become citizens’, to be ‘governed by the rule of law and not arbitrary judgments’. The leaders of the Cabanagem were members of the regional elite who believed that provincial presidents should be nominated from within Pará rather than imposed by fiat from Rio de Janeiro. They did not push for the disintegration of Brazil but sought the end of government by a distant power. The political language they used was that of mainstream liberalism.

As the Cabanagem’s most recent historian, Mark Harris, has noted, it is curious that a movement guided by such principles came to be represented in Brazilian history as one inspired chiefly by ‘race hate’, bent on smashing Brazil’s territorial integrity. Harris argues that the propaganda techniques deployed to discredit the Cabanagem and justify its brutal suppression played a role. To crush it the Regency sent Marshal Francisco José de Soares de Andréa, a brutal specialist in counter-insurgency who led regular troops as well as those recruited heavily from the prisons, pardoning crimes in exchange for enlistment. The Cabanos eventually ran out of gunpowder and again were forced to abandon Belém. They were hounded by Andrea’s army. Suspending all constitutional guarantees, Andrea assumed the post of provincial president. He made no secret of his ambitions, declaring that ‘the state of war gives us the authority to attack the enemy on all fronts until we have annihilated them’. The toll on civilians was ghastly: up to 30,000 deaths from a population of 120,000.

As the Cabanagem raged unabated, a further revolt occurred in Salvador da Bahia in the north-east. A rebellion of African-born Muslim slaves, or Malês, began in January 1835. The perceived danger was plain in the context of Salvador’s demography, where slaves made up 42 per cent of the population. The revolt was not unprecedented: various slave uprisings had flared up periodically across Brazil in the three previous decades. Yet all of these were snuffed out before igniting a larger conflagration. These uprisings, however, had prompted a renewed tightening of the restrictions on slave behaviour: for example, non-Christian religious practice had been made illegal. For this reason, as the historian João José Reis has noted, religion and rebellion were inseparable. Still, though Islam played an instrumental role in the revolt, Reis rejects the notion that the rebellion of the Malês was a jihad in any meaningful sense. One interesting aspect of the revolt, however, was that it was envisaged solely for the benefit of African-born slaves. Not only were whites, whether slave-owners and impoverished labourers, marked for slaughter, but ‘mulattos’ and Brazilian-born blacks, both enslaved and free, were also to be put to the sword.

The repression of the Malês was spectacularly brutal: beyond the 70 participants killed during the revolt itself, in the aftermath 500 were sentenced either to death, severe corporal punishment (whipping), new forms of forced labour (chain gangs), prison or deportation. Brutal suppression, intended as a deterrent, did not bring the tumult afflicting the regency to a close. There was further large-scale defiance of central authority throughout the late 1830s and early 1840s: the 1837 Sabinada in Bahia; the Balaiada, which convulsed the northern provinces of Maranhão and Piauí between 1838 and 1841; and in the provinces of Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina, the war of the Farroupos (Ragamuffins), the so-called Farroupilha, raged from 1835 until 1845.

But the political tide had turned irreversibly against rebellion and ‘disorder’. Conservatives, weary of the incessant tumult threatening social revolution, believed that robust, centralised authority was the sole antidote to it. They convinced the electorate of their views in the late 1830s in a political movement known as the Regresso. As Jeffrey Mosher has argued: ‘The upheavals of the Regency discredited the liberal reforms that decentralised power and provided for greater popular participation.’ Conservatives would aim to insulate power from local politics. Much of the ‘Additional Act’, which had given the provinces greater autonomy, was nullified, suspended or repealed. The imperial army was expanded and improved, no longer playing second fiddle to the national guard. Thereafter local officials were not representatives of the local population, but rather servants of the imperial government. The criminal procedure code was overhauled and local judicial officials (judges and prosecutors) were henceforth appointed from Rio de Janeiro. The central government’s oversight now extended to every municipality and province of the empire.

Support for these new policies gained further momentum when Pedro II’s majority was acclaimed in 1840, when he was not yet 15 years old, three years before it had been scheduled. The young emperor made several conciliatory gestures at the outset of his reign, including the unconditional pardon of all rebels who surrendered within 60 days. To the unrestrained might of the imperial army was now joined the symbolic soft power of monarchy to pacify Brazil. Traditional rituals of court ceremony were revived, including the Beija-Mão, or hand-kissing ceremony, which had fallen into abeyance. Larger-than-life-sized portraits of the young emperor were installed in all of the presidential palaces, assemblies and town halls in the provinces. The Regresso had seen off the threat of social revolution: more Africans were imported into Brazil as slaves in the 1840s than in any previous decade save the 1820s. There would be several revolts in the 1840s, but these were largely elite-led affairs. Brazil’s future trajectory, at least until the abolition of slavery in 1888 and the toppling of the monarchy a year later, had been determined by the repression of the provincial rebellions, slave revolts and political conspiracies of the Regency.

Gabriel Paquette teaches history at The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

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