Independence or Death: The Bicentennial Anniversary of the Independence of Brazil

September, 08/2022 - 09:30

Invited by Fernando Apparicio da Silva, Ambassador of Brazil to Việt Nam, PhD Lucia Pereira das Neves, Professor of History at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, wrote to Việt Nam News about the uniqueness of the Independence of Brazil:

Invited by Fernando Apparicio da Silva, Ambassador of Brazil to Việt Nam, PhD Lucia Pereira das Neves, Professor of History at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, wrote to Việt Nam News about the uniqueness of the Independence of Brazil.

On September 7, 1822, Brazil became independent from Portugal. At that time, the territory of Brazil corresponded essentially to what it is today. Apart from preserving the colony’s territorial integrity, Brazil became independent as a monarchy that lasted seven decades, while the independence of Hispanic America gave rise to sixteen sovereign republics. This intriguing exceptionalism has always attracted interest. Here follows an account by PhD. Lucia Bastos Pereira das Neves, Professor of History at the University of the State of Rio de Janeiro:

“Independence or Death – this was the Brazilian timbre that, according to current versions, Prince Regent Dom Pedro proclaimed on the 7th September 1822 on the banks of a small river called Ipiranga, which flowed in the city of Sao Paulo. The episode was enshrined as the Cry of Ipiranga, which with time decanted as the founding gesture of the Brazilian Empire. Distinct from the republican emancipations of Hispanic America, the rupture from the old metropole kept the monarchical regime, for it came through the hands of the son of the Portuguese king, Dom Joao VI. How to explain this process?

On the top of Corcovado Hill, the most famous iconic symbol of Rio. Photo Courtesy of the embassy 

Everything started with the establishment of the Portuguese royal family in Brazil in order to preserve the Braganca dynasty from the claws of Napoleon. Dom Joao, then Prince Regent, arrived in Bahia in January 1808, the first sovereign to set foot in the New World, where he was received with ceremonies in the churches and celebrations in the streets. Two months later, the Court settled in Rio de Janeiro, flagging the creation of a new center of power, capable of promoting the happiness and prosperity of Brazil, the richest part of the Empire.

For about thirteen years, Dom Joao remained in Brazil. An authentic civilizing process transformed the typically colonial Rio de Janeiro into the seat of an Empire. Built on swampy lands that surrounded Guanabara Bay, the city had narrow and winding streets, with multitudes of African slaves, houses without facilities and poor public services. Administrative institutions were created; a press emerged; a theater was founded. The population, of approximately fifty thousand at the beginning, began to coexist with the king, the royal family and all the ceremonies of a court society. Rio became a center of attraction and dissemination of European fashions to other areas of the vast territory.

These transformations made Rio de Janeiro a metropolis among the rest of Brazil and even in comparison to Portugal. The Portuguese, in particular, were resentful and humiliated, for, freed from the French in 1811, they were orphans of their king, had experienced a grave economic crisis and were under British guardianship. In this context, while Brazil became more civilized, Portugal was downgraded to the condition of a mere province. In 1818, the acclamation of Dom Joao VI in Brazil only aggravated the situation.

In 1820, a wave of liberal movements in Europe put in question the practices of monarchical absolutism. They were motivated by the nascent liberalism, which advocated the adoption of constitutions. In Portugal, liberalism became the vehicle to claim back its place as head of the Empire. In Lisbon, to where the king had returned, a parliament met to write a constitution, while in Brazil, where the king’s son, Dom Pedro, had remained as Prince Regent, constitutionalist ideas began being discussed in the streets.

In 1821, the prints criticised the absolutist monarchy and explained the principles of constitutionalism. But in 1822, divergences between the Portuguese and the Brazilian elites came to light. For the Portuguese, Brazil was part of a renovated Empire, now under a liberal and fair government. For Brazilians, the union meant an Empire made of two kingdoms, with reciprocal rights and duties. Some arbitrary measures taken by the parliament in Portugal indicated the intention to make the European part of the Empire prevail. A climate of growing animosity came about, which soon converted constitutionalism in separatism, precipitating the events.

Acclaiming Dom Pedro as Emperor in October 1822, the independent Empire was far from unified. Some provinces did not accept the supremacy of Rio de Janeiro, remaining loyal to the government in Lisbon. The unity was achieved by means of civil wars against the defenders of the Portuguese cause – the so-called “wars of independence”.

After the independence of Brazil was internationally recognized in 1825, the unity of the Brazilian Empire was not the result of a national sentiment, as was to happen later in the process of de-colonisation of Afro-Asian nations. Despite the participation of other social strata, the independence in 1822 was the result of the confrontation of interests among the political, intellectual and economic elites of Brazil and Portugal. From then, the nation remained badly defined, unjust and unequal, and based on slave labor until 1888.

Exceptional in the independence of Brazil was the fact of counting on the heir to the Portuguese throne as protagonist – capable of reuniting again, after his father’s death, the two territories that the Atlantic separated – and of giving birth to the sole monarchy in a sea of republics. As was stated later, Brazil emerged as an exotic plant in America.” VNS