The Brazilian Empire: An Experiment in Liberal Monarchy

In a continent dedicated to republicanism, writes George Woodcock, the Braganza dynasty for eighty years guided the destinies of Brazil.

The tiny company of American monarchs have, for the most part, been figures of melodrama and pathos, ruling briefly and departing in violence. Maximilian and Carlotta; Christophe, the megalomaniac Negro Emperor of Haiti; Augustin of Mexico, proclaimed by a mob in 1822 and shot two years later in an obscure town near the Gulf Coast.

Julian, Emperor of the Huasteca, ruling over the mountain Indians above Tampico in the days of disorder that followed Hidalgo’s insurrection in 1810 and eventually slaughtered in the jungle by the Spanish soldiers—they form a group of exotic figures beside whose tales of high tragedy the long history of the Brazilian Empire seems prosaic and pedestrian indeed.

Yet it was the very duration of this monarchy—from the day in 1822 when Prince Pedro flourished his sword by the brook of Ypiranga and cried, “Independence or death! We are separated from Portugal!” to the dawn in 1889 when his son sailed away after a revolution in which there was only one casualty (and that not fatal)—that made it more remarkable, in a continent dedicated primarily to republicanism, than the reigns that ended in rapid tragedy.

Just as remarkable was the fact that the Brazilian empire lived successfully through several decades of war and internal disturbances, and finally collapsed in the middle of a long period of growing peace, prosperity and enlightenment.

The reasons for these paradoxical elements in the history of the empire are to be found partly, as we shall see, in the social structure of the country, partly in the dynastic concerns of the Braganzas, and to a great extent in the personal character of Dom Pedro II, a devoted liberal who assiduously prepared his subjects for the days when Emperors would be superseded.

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