The Strange Tale of How Brazil Became A Country

FIFA World Cup 2014 image from GazzToday

We are just days away from the most famous soccer tournament in the world, and boy am I excited! This year, the tournament will take place in Brazil, arguably the best soccer-playing nation in the world! (I say ‘arguably’ because Argentina fans are sure to disagree with me on this.) It’s looking like this year’s tournament is going to be a fun thrill ride, with everybody already placing bets and making predictions on who will win and who will fall.

This week, in honor of Brazil’s hosting of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I have decided to spend a little time talking about the history of Brazil. It seems to me that here in the United States, most people really don’t know that much about this country apart from its soccer reputation, the Amazon rain forest, and Rio. I feel this is a real shame, since there are so many fascinating stories in the history of this largest South American nation. Therefore, it’s high time I told you the strange, convoluted, unbelievable tale of how Brazil became an independent country. I dare you to tell me that this tale couldn’t make a great Hollywood movie.

The Discovery of Brazil image from Wikipedia

Our story begins with Brazil as a Portuguese colony. In the year 1500, Pedro Alvarez Cabral sighted the land and claimed it for Portugal. He named the country after the Brazilwood tree that he and his men discovered there, a tree that can be used to make a type of red dye. Gradually, Portuguese settlers took possession of the land from the Indian natives, planting acres and acres of sugarcane fields worked by African slaves. Later, gold mining would also become an important part of the colony’s economy.

Then, in 1807, something happened that shook up the Portuguese Empire: Portugal was invaded by France. This was a major problem, since, you know, Portugal isn’t very big.

The French army didn't have to march very far to take the whole country, is what I'm saying.

The French army didn’t have to march very far to take the whole country, is what I’m saying.

When the French invaded, the reigning Queen of Portugal, Maria I, was mentally ill and unfit to make crucial decisions in a crisis like this, so it fell to her son, Prince John, to take charge. Seeing the writing on the wall, Prince John gathered up the royal family and 15,000 loyalists, put them on all the ships he could find, and set sail for Brazil.

From Prince John’s point of view, this decision only made sense. He was preserving his dynasty and government from being completely overthrown, and from Brazil he could continue to govern the vast Portuguese Empire that included not only Brazil, but also colonies in Africa, India, and the East Indes. On the other hand, if you think about it, this decision was a HUGE game-changer. Suddenly, Brazil went from being just another colony to being the center of a global empire.

This had a huge impact on the Brazilian people’s daily lives. Well, actually, I take that back. For the slaves, nothing really changed, since they were still slaves. The Indians also didn’t see any change to their status as a people struggling to survive in Brazil’s margins. However, for middle-class and elite Brazilians, being the new center of the empire brought huge advantages.

Before, Brazil could only legally trade with Portugal; now that this was impossible, Brazil’s ports were opened up to the world. Prince John also began passing new laws that helped the country become much more economically self-sufficient and business-friendly. A new Bank of Brazil was created, as were military and medical academies, newspapers, and book publishers.

Then, in 1815, everything changed again when France was defeated and Portugal regained its independence. One would expect that this would be the signal for the royal family to return home triumphantly and turn everything back to normal. Instead, Prince John decided he liked Brazil better, and would stay where he was.

Who can blame him?

Who can blame him?

Instead of returning to Portugal, Prince John declared that Brazil would now be a part of the new United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil, and he would continue to govern from Rio de Janeiro. In case his decision wasn’t clear enough, when his mother finally passed away and he became King John VI of Portugal, he held his coronation ceremony in Brazil.

To say the least, this really upset the Portuguese people. Whether he had intended to or not, the new King John had effectively made Portugal a Brazilian colony instead of the other way around. After a few years of this, the Portuguese people felt they had been neglected for too long. In 1820, they rose up in revolt. The rebels demanded three things. First, they demanded the return of their king to Portugal. Second, they demanded the creation of a constitutional monarchy with an elected government. Third, they demanded that Brazil be made into a “proper” Portuguese colony again.

The rebels got their first demand, at least: King John was forced to return to Portugal to deal with the crisis. He left his son and heir, Prince Pedro, in charge of Brazil while he was away taking care of matters back home.

The Brazilian elites and middle class were upset by this new turn of events. They didn’t want to see their home country revert back to a colony, not after all they had gained in the past few years. Luckily for them, Prince Pedro was not a fan of the revolutionary movement in Portugal, either. When the prince was ordered to return to Portugal in 1822, he decided to ignore the order and remain in Brazil. Over the next few months, as Portuguese authorities tried to strip him of his power, Prince Pedro became more and more receptive to those Brazilian voices that called for independence. Eventually, he thought to himself, “Why should I remain a mere prince when I could be Emperor of Brazil?”

On September 22, 1822, Prince Pedro declared Brazil’s independence, and on October 12, he proclaimed himself Emperor Pedro I of Brazil. A brief war followed, as forces loyal to the new emperor fought those who remained loyal to Portugal. While all of this was going on, Portugal itself was helpless to prevent Brazil from leaving, as they were too busy fighting each other. By 1825, Portugal recognized Brazil’s independence.

"Now we're finally free to start our own soccer team!"

“Now we’re finally free to start our own soccer team!”

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Less than a year later, King John VI of Portugal died. In spite of his actions in Brazil, Pedro was still rightful heir to the Portuguese throne, and so he was now both Emperor of Brazil and King of Portugal at the same time. This was to be the beginning of one of history’s most violent family squabbles.

King/Emperor Pedro knew that if he accepted the Portuguese crown, the people of Portugal would mistrust him for his rebellion against their authority and the people of Brazil would fear that he was trying to turn Brazil back into a colony again. Instead, he decided the safest decision was to place his daughter, Maria II, on the Portuguese throne in his place.

But he just couldn’t leave well enough alone. Even though he faced rebellions in various parts of Brazil, criticism for his desire to abolish slavery (wait, isn’t that a good thing?), and the death of his wife, Emperor Pedro just could not leave Portugal alone. He forced Portugal to adopt a constitution he had written for them, meddled in the selection of Portugal’s top officials, and arranged for his daughter to marry his brother (Ewwww!).

Inevitably, all this meddling led to a political crisis in Portugal, as the emperor’s brother Miguel decided to take the Portuguese throne for himself. King Miguel wanted to restore an absolute monarchy and get rid of the constitution. In response, those who supported a more democratic government rose up in rebellion. Emperor Pedro found himself unable to sit idly by as all of this was going on.

In 1831, facing a Parliament that struggled with him for power and ever-mounting protests against his rule in Brazil, Emperor Pedro decided to resign. Leaving for Portugal to fight to restore his daughter to the Portuguese throne and support the pro-democracy faction, he was succeeded in Brazil by his son, who became Emperor Pedro II. At long last, Brazil had truly broken free from Portugal and become an independent nation.

So there you have it, Cat Flaggers. Brazil: host of the World Cup, and also the country that found the most roundabout route to independence ever.