SOUTH AMERICA: Chapter XVIII

(by William Henry Koeber)

Brazil: From Colony to Empire


Until the period of Napoleonic chaos which overwhelmed the two westernmost countries of Europe, the South American colonies of Spain and Portugal had continued their existence on similar lines. Both had been entirely subservient to the Mother Country.

The laws which governed Brazil and the Spanish colonies were framed on the same model, and the disadvantages under which the colonists of either nation had laboured from the start had been practically identical.

With the upheaval which occurred at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a new order came into being, so far as the Spaniards and Portuguese were concerned. The parting of the ways was now marked.

It is, indeed, curious to notice that, while Spanish South America was strenuously engaged in transforming itself from the status of a royal colony to that of a group of independent republics, an operation was being carried out in Brazil, the effect of which was precisely the reverse.


Brazil, in fact, in place of the neglect of centuries from which she had suffered, now underwent a sudden, dazzling, and altogether unexpected shower of honours and distinctions. That this did not come about spontaneously affected the colony but little; the fact remained that she was destined in a remarkably short space of time to rise from a colony to a kingdom, and from a kingdom to an empire.

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The circumstances which led to this transformation were sufficiently dramatic in themselves.

In order to preserve the thread of these rather complicated events, it is necessary to transfer the scene for a short while to Western Europe, where at the moment the armies of Napoleon were sweeping all before them.

In 1807, when the French troops under Junot were on the eve of entering Lisbon, the Portuguese Royal Family embarked on a Portuguese man-of-war, and, escorted by a Portuguese fleet, sought the protection of the British Fleet under Sir Sidney Smith.

The move was effected only just in time, and the Prince Regent's confidential servant, who embarked just after the rest, left his departure so late that he was obliged to forsake some of his papers, his money, and even his hat, on the beach.


Sir Sidney Smith convoyed the fleet as far as latitude 37° 47' north, after which he left them under the protection of the Marlborough, the London, the Monarch, and the Bedford. Almost at the same time Sir Samuel Hood and General Beresford took possession of the Island of Madeira, holding it in trust for Portugal.

The royal party landed at Bahia on January 21, 1808. So enthusiastic was their reception that they remained in the town for a month.

While at Bahia the Regent gave promise of his future good-will and liberality by promulgating a carta regia, dated January 28, by which he opened the ports of Brazil to general commerce, levying on imports only a moderate duty, and permitting exports of all articles under any flag, with the exception of one or two articles which still remained royal monopolies.

The departure of the Royal Family from Bahia was rendered necessary by strategic considerations, for, owing to its peculiar situation, the town could easily have been cut off from the rest of the mainland by hostile forces. The royal party therefore sailed south, and arrived in Rio de Janeiro on March 7.

The joy in the port at the arrival of the Regent and his party manifested itself in an excitement approaching delirium on the part of the officials and populace.


The mountains and the waters of the bay were illuminated night after night with Bengal fires, rockets, and similar fireworks, and every possible demonstration of joy known to the colonists was continued unbroken for nine days. In the meanwhile the inhabitants were preparing the beautiful site of the town for its promotion as a capital city of a kingdom and the residence of a King.

Indeed, in material advantages Brazil benefited almost immediately from the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family. In the first place, as has already been explained, on January 28, 1808, the Prince Regent abolished the old exclusive system, and opened the ports of Brazil. A local writer, referring with enthusiasm to this, said the edict "ought to be written in letters of gold."

New desires, new habits, and new objects, were now introduced, and came crowding one after the other in haste into the wonderful tropical regions of the Bay of Rio de Janeiro.

Printing was legalized with the arrival of the Prince Regent, who brought over with him his library, and this, in 1814, was thrown open to the public.


The progress of science went hand in hand with that of the rest, and in 1811 vaccination was introduced. The pleasant arts were not left out in the cold, since, in 1813, the first regular theatre was opened. In 1814 the French were invited to come over as residents, and they accepted in numbers.

The old Criollo families now mustered about the royal representatives of Portugal, and rubbed shoulders with the nobility, who had come out in attendance, taking no little pride in the contact, and desirous only of exhibiting to the utmost possible extent the depth of their loyalty.

The character of the Regent was such as to warrant the fervent loyalty displayed by his American subjects. Although set free by the mental disease of Queen Francisca Isabel, his mother, to the exercise of almost despotic authority from his earliest years, he had developed very few of the vices usually resulting from such lack of control and training.

He is described as having been "mild and just" in temper, and of comparatively pure moral character. He was, however, called to the exercise of authority in troubled times, and had not the balance which makes the perfect statesman.


To Joćo VI. the nearest trouble was always the greatest, and the courtier at hand, able to gain the royal ear, had far more chance of success with him than the one who proffered his request by letter. Joćo found it difficult to refuse, disagreeable to inquire, and laborious to discuss. He was, in fact, an amiable man, but not a strong one.

Joćo used the best measures at his command for the prosperity of his adopted kingdom, and he carried out reforms as far as he could or dared. Free trade was completely established; foreign settlers were invited, and artisans and mechanics encouraged in every way.

English mechanics and shipwrights, Swedish ironfounders, German engineers, and French artists and manufacturers, crowded to this new field of action, so suddenly opened up. In the meanwhile schools and hospitals were founded throughout the country, and the new commerce, consequent on unrestricted trading, was watched and regulated. Inspectors of ports and customs were appointed to prevent fraud; Rio was made a bishopric, and the ecclesiastical establishments of the country were carefully regulated, while many new tribunals were established.


The vast increase of population and trade caused a corresponding increase in the buildings of the central and southern cities, more especially in those of the capital. New streets and squares and magnificent country houses rose up on all sides, while the presence of a brilliant Court necessarily altered many of the habits of the people.

The fashions of Europe were introduced, and the Empire gained a breadth of outlook that no mere colony of the period could ever possess. The introduction of the Court brought to Brazil a new life and activity, new luxuries, increased and increasing trade, a vigorous and growing population, fresh public and private undertakings, and all the vigour of a rising community.

Rio de Janeiro was now the head-quarters, not only of Brazil, but of the whole Portuguese Empire.The Papal Nuncio had taken up his residence at the spot; Lord Strangford, the British Ambassador, and other diplomatic representatives of the various European countries, had arrived; while Sir Sidney Smith hovered about as a naval guardian angel. Rio, in fact, opened its astonished eyes to a world of fashion and to functions such as it had never known.


As could scarcely fail to prove the case in the circumstances, it was not long before jealousies arose between the Portuguese and the colonists; but it was some time before these appeared on the surface, and in the first place the atmosphere of feasting and rejoicing dissipated all other considerations.

One of the effects of the advent of the royal party in Brazil may easily be conceived. The Court had always been somewhat prodigal of its Orders and Decorations. The appetite in the Peninsula for these insignia had always been sufficiently keen; among the cruder Brazilians the greed for any distinction of the sort became quite overwhelming.

The most popular Portuguese Order has always been and remained so even until the recent ending of the Monarchy that of Christo, and the effective state dress of this Order, the long white robe with the great cross, has always had a wide appeal.

In Rio de Janeiro during this period this was only one of the Orders which were scattered broadcast, and which, after a short while, could be obtained at an increasingly cheap rate. Eventually every tradesman in Rio was wont to appear at the official gatherings, and, indeed, at the others as well, with his breast covered with a blaze of Orders, all of which had been paid for, if not in actual cash, in goods delivered.


The tremendous enthusiasm of the colonists bade fair to add an element of pure farce to the situation.

At this period, moreover, various negro battalions were raised, and it is noted by travellers that the black faces of the negro officers were wont to mingle with those of the courtiers at royal functions a very strange and new situation for those, many of whose relatives were undoubtedly slaves in the same country.

But in return for these advantages a bill - and a heavy bill at that - mounted up steadily. As a colony Brazil had been governed simply and inexpensively.

After awhile the colonists found that a Queen, a Regent, and a Court, were expensive luxuries. In addition to the Royal Family there came over from Portugal more than 20,000 nobles, knights, and gentry, each expecting to be supported out of the revenues of the colony in the same state and circumstance as had been his own in Europe.

In order to provide for these hosts of dependents, offices and places were created, and endowed with the most liberal salaries.


On the arrival of the Court there were already four Ministers, four offices, and four staffs of officials in existence.

These were continued, and to them were added a Supreme Court of Law and Equity; a Board for the simultaneous management of the affairs and property of the Church and of the military Orders, with the power of suspending laws; a secondary Court of Appeal, but still a superior Court to those of Brazil; a general Board of Police; a Court of Exchequer and the Treasury; a mint, with a large staff of officials; a bank; a royal printing-office; large mills and factories for the manufacture of arms and ammunition; and a supreme military court.

These new posts and offices were filled throughout by European officials, and the expenses of the Court itself, added to them, made up a burden which the new trade and increased population failed to compensate.

In order to meet the cost of these many new appointments the Government had imposed new taxes and duties. Tobacco, cotton, sugar, hides, and other exports, were taxed; and 10 per cent. was levied on house rent, on the sale of real property, and harbour dues.

All this, however, was insufficient, and as a last resort the expedient of tampering with the currency was tried. Dollars were sent into circulation at 20 per cent. above their commercial value.


Money was borrowed from the bank, which was in close connection with the mint, and taxes were mortgaged in advance; while even the royal regalia was pledged as security. Notes were issued far beyond the amount of cash available for redemption, and a few years later the bank, its affairs brought to irremediable confusion, stopped payment.

While these things were occurring, public discontent was growing; and in order to divert the attention of the populace from internal troubles, a war was determined on. French Guiana was near, and provided an admirable object for the purpose. In 1809, when France was fully engaged in European struggles, Guiana was attacked and captured with little trouble.

The colony capitulated, and remained Brazilian for six years, when the Treaty of Vienna restored it to French rule.

The conquest was of great indirect value to Brazil, in that it led to the introduction and free cultivation of agricultural products which had either been non-existent in Brazil up to that time, or extirpated by the crippling policy which Portugal pursued towards her colonies.

Cinnamon, for instance, had hitherto been destroyed wherever found in Brazil, being regarded as a monopoly of the East Indies.


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