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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.

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