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Transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil

Transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil

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The Royal family embarks for Brazil

The transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil occurred with the strategic retreat of Queen Maria I of Portugal, Prince Regent John, also referred to as Dom João or Dom João VI, and the Braganza royal family and its court of nearly 15,000 people from Lisbon on November 29, 1807. The Braganza royal family departed for the Portuguese colony of Brazil just days before Napoleonic forces invaded Lisbon on December 1. The Portuguese crown remained in Brazil from 1808 until the Liberal Revolution of 1820 led to the return of John VI of Portugal on April 26, 1821.[1]:321 For thirteen years, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, functioned as the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal in what some historians call a "metropolitan reversal", i.e., a colony exercising governance over the entirety of the (in this case Portuguese) empire. The period in which the court was located in Rio brought significant changes to the city and its residents, and can be interpreted through several perspectives. It had profound impacts on Brazilian society, economics, infrastructure, and politics. The transfer of the king and the royal court "represented the first step toward Brazilian independence, since the king immediately opened the ports of Brazil to foreign shipping and turned the colonial capital into the seat of government."[2]

History and transformations

Dom João VI

In 1807, at the outset of the Peninsular War, Napoleonic forces invaded Portugal due to the Portuguese alliance with Great Britain. The prince regent of Portugal at the time, John VI, had formally governed the country on behalf of Maria I of Portugal since 1799. Anticipating the invasion of Napoleon's army, John VI ordered the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Brazil before he could be deposed. Setting sail for Brazil on November 29, the royal party navigated under the protection of the British Royal Navy, and eight ships of the line, five frigates, and four smaller vessels of the Portuguese Navy, under the command of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith. On December 5, almost halfway between Lisbon and Madeira, Sidney Smith, along with Britain's envoy to Lisbon, Lord Strangford, returned to Europe with part of the British flotilla. Graham Moore, a British sailor and career officer in the Royal Navy, continued escorting the Portuguese royal family to Brazil with the ships Marlborough, London, Bedford, and Monarch.[1]:97

On January 22, 1808, John and his court arrived in Salvador, Brazil. There, Prince John signed the "Abertura dos Portos" law which allowed commerce between Brazil and "friendly nations." This was particularly beneficial for Great Britain and can be seen as one of many ways Prince John found to reward the British Empire for their assistance. This new law, however, broke the colonial pact that had permitted Brazil to maintain direct commercial relations with Portugal only. This transformed Brazilian economy, and subsequently, its demographics and society. Secret negotiations at London in 1807 by Portuguese ambassador Domingos António de Sousa Coutinho guaranteed British military protection in exchange for British access to Brazil's ports and to Madeira as a naval base. Coutinho's secret negotiations paved the way for Prince John's law to come to fruition in 1808.[1]:117 Later on, in attempts to modernize the economy and diversify the production of the colony, Dom João allowed for the establishment of manufacturing industries in 1808 through the signing of the Alvará de Liberdade para as Indústrias.[3] This meant that Brazil would no longer only be an agricultural producer. In this decree, he says that in attempts to promote national wealth and recognizing that manufacturing, industrial labor, and multiplication of labor promotes means of subsistence for subjects, Brazil should heavily invest in those sectors effective immediately. He abolished any prohibition to industrial development. This attracted investment from Great Britain and, in a way, did expand the demand for labor.

The Portuguese court arrived in Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 1808. It is crucial to frame the arrival of the Portuguese royal family and court within the Brazilian context to fully understand its impending ramifications. Brazil was very sparsely populated, with a little over 3 million inhabitants.[4] Around one-third of the colony’s population consisted of enslaved peoples, most having been captured and shipped from Africa.[1] The indigenous population at the time was of around 800,000 people[1], having been dramatically reduced and isolated during the first 300 years of exploration and colonization. Population density was concentrated along the Atlantic coastline. Rio de Janeiro, around the start of the 19th century, was experiencing a sizeable population boom. Over the 18th century, the population had increased tenfold due to the discovery of gold and diamonds and the migration of 800,000 individuals that ensued. In addition, it is estimated that 2 million enslaved Africans were brought to Brazil to work in mines and power the sugar industry.[1] Brazilians were illiterate, poor, and lacking several basic needs, including medical care and public health services. Only 2.5% of free men were literate.[5] These changes made the city crammed, the population was displeased, and rudimentary colonial administrations were not enough to ensure progress.

Portrait of Carlota Joaquina

The then small city of Rio de Janeiro was not prepared to welcome the Portuguese court. While the royal family was greeted with cheer and festivities that lasted for weeks, 10,000 houses were branded with the letters ‘PR’ standing for príncipe regente or prince regent, which meant that the homeowners had to evacuate to allow for the nobility to move in. In an almost silent form of protest, Brazilians quickly gave another meaning to the letters. They started to read ‘PR’ as ponha-se na rua, a phrase that directly translates into to “put yourselves out on the street.” Another example of implicit forms of protest or negative reactions of the relocation of the court was the intensified presence of caricaturized depictions of Dom João and Carlota. Making its way through popular discourse and taking stereotypical exaggerations that built up Brazilian folklore, Dom João was a weak, gluttonous, unprepared man who cowardly fled Portugal, where he now was to live a lazy life, unaware of the needs of Brazilians. Carlota, portrayed as a strong, rude, and non-submissive woman to further attack the image of Dom João as an emasculated ruler, had harsh facial features, was moody, and was very open about her infidelity to her husband and lack of love for the colony.

The relocation of the administrative core of the Portuguese Empire to Brazil had several political ramifications. Dom João and the court found themselves charged with the responsibility to please several different groups of people at the same time. For starters, they had to please the 15,000 people who they had somewhat forced to move to Brazil with them. Then, they had to please their hosts: the Brazilians and Portuguese people who had established themselves in Brazil prior to 1808. The British Empire, a long-term ally of the Portuguese and who had played a vital role in the relocation of the court saw benefits in trade with this new administration (refer to the ‘Economic Changes’ sub-section for more details). Furthermore, Austrians, a new ally of the Portuguese Empire were satisfied with the marital connections made with Portugal. Princess Maria Leopoldina of Austria was promised to Dom Pedro I (Dom João VI’s heir) in 1817 and moved to Brazil as a youth.  

Between 1808 and 1821, Dom João VI, serving as prince regent until 1818 and then as king from 1818 onwards, granted 145 nobility titles.[6] During the time that the court was located in Brazil, the Portuguese royal family collectively granted more nobility titles than it had in its past 300 years of existence in Portugal. A lot can be said about the reasons behind the granting of nobility titles and these titles had consequences to the political scene of Brazil, including the systematic isolation of Brazilians from politics. Between 1811 and 1821, a vast majority of nobility titles were granted to those who had travelled with the court in 1807 or had fought the French in Portugal and somehow had made their way to Brazil.[6] Interestingly enough, as an additional way to thank Great Britain for their efforts to protect the Portuguese Empire and their expanding economic relationship with the colony, nobility titles were also given to British individuals. Furthermore, the granting of nobility titles served as a means to consolidate the rule of the Joanine court and confirm the power status of the monarchy in the so-called ‘New World.’ When Dom João elevated the status of Brazil from colony to a co-kingdom as the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves to participate in the Congress of Vienna away from Europe, there was a sharp increase in the amount of titles granted. Not only did this change affect nobility titles, it also increased the power of the Portuguese in Brazilian affairs. Rio became an important center for world trade and grew immensely, having its demographics changed incessantly. The monarchy, as expected, favored the Portuguese to be in command of political offices, and with the creation of new government positions, departments, and military branches, almost every official was Portuguese.

Out of all 145 nobility titles granted, only six were granted to Brazilians.[6] Consistently, Brazilians were given the lowest royal title, that of barão or baron. To somewhat make up for the fact that Portuguese not only got more titles but also got more prestigious titles that made them more influential with the nobility, Brazilians were also granted land and seats in the Conselho da Fazenda.[6] These were surreptitious ways to keep Brazilians content with the monarchy and appeasing that population without jeopardizing Portuguese high society, both in Brazil and in Portugal. The first nobility title granted to a Brazilian was in 1812 to the Baroness of São Salvador de Campos dos Goytacazes. Out of the 26 titles of nobility granted in 1818, only three Brazilian men were graced: José Egídio Álvares de Almeida, Pedro Dias Paes Leme, and Paulo Fernandes Carneiro Viana.[6] So many nobility titles were granted in 1818 most likely because that was when Dom João became de facto king. Power comes into play in situations like this and image is everything. 17 nobility titles were granted on the day Dom João was crowned. As it can be expected, these titles did not benefit Brazilians much and did not create tight bonds between Brazilians and the new nobility. It was a reality unknown to many, even the wealthiest Brazilians. An argument can be made of this: nobility titles were made exclusively for Europeans to preserve the contrast in power and superiority of Europeans in Brazil. By granting titles to Portuguese individuals and those with close ties with Portugal, the court guaranteed the financial support to sustain themselves halfway across the Atlantic.

When talking about the intensification of economic progress, it is important to note that this means an increase in the demand for slave labor. With the end of the colonial pact, the coffee industry boomed and the sugar industry continued to flourish. Now, being able to manufacture goods, the naval and steel industries started to develop. The arrival of enslaved individuals increased dramatically during the period that the court was in Brazil and then during the decade following their absence, with the arrival of approximately 328,000 enslaved individuals to Brazil.[7]This drastically changed the demographics of Brazil and of Rio, where most of these enslaved individuals would arrive and remain at. It is estimated that the enslaved population in Rio, at its height, was more than half of the total population. After the successful slave revolution that took place in Haiti a few years before, the court started to worry the small elites regarding potential rebellion and revolution. This led to the creation of the Military Division of the Guarda Real de Polícia, or Royal Police Guard, in charge of urban policing that before the arrival of the royal family consisted of informal guards, watchmen, and sentinels. This further isolated and oppressed enslaved peoples and was the beginning of a phenomenon that proceeded in the 19th and 20th centuries of the criminalization of poverty. It reemphasized racial discrimination on an official level and associated disorder with lack of money and social ascension. This is also when Dom João VI decreed the establishment of a mounted guard.[3] In addition, the penal system was used to take control of lower classes and minor infractions or public disorder, including “disrespecting curfew, playing games of luck, drinking alcohol and begging”[8] could be punishable by law and prison. Furthermore, while attempts to “civilize” the city were made, it also meant that the biggest difference between the old court and the one in Brazil was that half of it now consisted of enslaved peoples. Slavery was not legal in Portugal but in the New World, it was an option, and if they wanted to break with colonial past, that element would still be held onto.[9]

Beija-mão ceremony

Imperial relocation also meant the stratification of hierarchy. Those who were already rich, usually because of their connections to nobility, got richer (usually for the same reasons they had been rich in the first place) and the poorer got even poorer, now having to compete for resources, services, and physical space. With the Portuguese government now in Brazil, Portuguese immigration retention increased and this led to further disapproval of Cariocas (the term given to those native to the city of Rio de Janeiro). While the court and nobility wanted to portray itself as open to hearing the critiques and desires of the Brazilian population, only a select few could attend audiences with Dom João. He implemented the ceremony of beija-mão, a daily ritual where subjects got the chance to go to the royal residence, kiss the king’s hand, and express their grievances. This practice to supposedly stay in touch with common people allowed for the social elites to voice their agendas, including white men, the nobility, and the clergy.

Map of the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1820, then capital of the Kingdom of Portugal, with the transfer of the court to Brazil.

On December 16, 1815, John created the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves (Reino Unido de Portugal, Brasil e Algarves), elevating Brazil to the same rank as Portugal and increasing the administrative independence of Brazil. Brazilian representatives were elected to the Portuguese Constitutional Courts (Cortes Constitucionais Portuguesas). In 1815, in the aftermath of Napoleon's defeat and the meeting of the Congress of Vienna convened to restore European political arrangements, the Portuguese monarch declared Brazil a co-equal to Portugal to increase Portugal's bargaining power.[2] In 1816, with the death of Queen Maria, Prince John became king of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. After several delays, the ceremony of his acclamation took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1818.

Beyond having to go through infrastructural expansion to accommodate for the arrival of 15,000 people, Rio continued to be modified and upgraded in the early stages of the transferring of the court. The city lacked basic sanitation and structured sewer systems. There were very few roads. The goal was to “construct an ideal city; a city in which both mundane and monumental architecture, together with its residents’ social and cultural practices projected an unequivocally powerful and virtuous image of royal authority and government.”[9] The city had to reflect the flourishing of the empire and institutions like public libraries, botanic gardens, opera house, palaces and government buildings were created. Rio was to be modern and secure. Architecture physically changed to reflect modern times.

Furthermore, before the arrival of the royal family and court, Brazil consisted of very disconnected conglomerates of people. Vast amounts of empty land and dense tropical forest separated cities like Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Salvador, Pernambuco, Rio Grande, and Porto Alegre. Needing to create a unified way to control the state and effectively manage territory, the government put in efforts to connect city centers through road development. The monarchy also encouraged internal trade. The isolation of cities was once used by the Portuguese Empire to maintain Brazilians subordinate and unable to organize against the crown. Now, having to manage the territory directly, that was no longer useful. It goes without saying that all of these infrastructural developments came at the cost of slaves’ hard work and lives. It is estimated that between 1808 and 1822, “Rio’s slave population increased by 200 percent. As a consequence, remaking Rio de Janeiro into the court meant reconciling the larger quest to metropolitanize the city with slavery and with the African and African-Brazilian residents who made up the majority of its population.”[9]

Among the important measures taken by John VI (in attempts to Europeanize the country) were creating incentives for commerce and industry, allowing newspapers and books to be printed, even though the Imprensa Régia, Brazil's first printing press was highly regulated by the government, establishing two medical schools, establishing military academies, and creating the first Bank of Brazil (Banco do Brasil). In Rio de Janeiro, he also established a powder factory, a botanical garden, an art academy, and an opera house. All these measures advanced Brazil's independence from Portugal. Less beneficial were the crown's policies continuing the African slave trade, attacks on indigenous peoples, and land grants to court favorites. He blocked the entry of ideas of political independence expressed in the U.S. and the former Spanish American colonies, now independent republics. Britain's influence in Brazil increased, with favorable terms of trade, but also extraterritoriality for British merchants.[2]

Owing to the absence of the king and the economic independence of Brazil, Portugal entered a severe political crisis that obliged John VI and the royal family to return to Portugal on April 25,1821, otherwise he risked loss of his Portuguese throne.[2] The heir of John VI, Pedro I, remained in Brazil. The Portuguese Cortes demanded that Brazil return to its former status as a colony and the return of the heir to Portugal. Prince Pedro, influenced by the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Senate (Senado da Câmara), refused to return to Portugal during the Dia do Fico (January 9, 1822). Brazil declared its independence on September 7, 1822, forming the Empire of Brazil, ending 322 years of colonial dominance of Portugal over Brazil. Pedro was crowned the first emperor in Rio de Janeiro on October 12, 1822, taking the name Dom Pedro I.


The Portuguese court’s tenure in Rio de Janeiro created the conditions which led to Brazil’s independence. With the court’s arrival, Rio de Janeiro saw an immediate increase in its population.[10] This, coupled with increases in trade and subsequent immigration, transformed the city into a major economic center in the New World. In 1815, this resulted in Brazil being declared a co-kingdom with Portugal, raising it from its former colonial status.[11] This was an embodiment of Brazil’s growing independence from Portugal, a growth that led to the creation of a written constitution for Brazil in 1820, and intensified after the royal family’s return to Europe a year later.[9][11]

The relocation of the Portuguese nobility and administrative core to Brazil in 1808 had tremendous ramifications and resulted in a multi-faceted approach to change. Brazilian politics were initiated and affected, society and demographics were altered, the economy developed, and the city of Rio de Janeiro physically changed. The impact was felt in different ways and degrees by different sections of the population: nobility, wealthy families, Brazilians, indigenous peoples, and enslaved Africans or Afro-Brazilians. The stability and prosperity of the Brazilian state, resulting from the royal court’s presence, allowed for it to declare independence from Portugal without the violence and destabilization characteristic of similar movements in neighboring countries.[11] This was in part because its burgeoning independent identity had had an effect on Pedro, King John’s oldest son and first emperor of Brazil. Pedro was nine years old when the family fled Portugal, meaning he was raised in Rio de Janeiro. Coming of age in Brazil rather than Portugal led to Pedro identifying as a Brazilian, a sentiment which influenced his defiance of the Cortes in 1821.[12] Due to his position as heir of the Portuguese crown, Pedro was able to prevent any serious efforts on the part of the Portuguese to retake Brazil. The relatively smooth transition into independence, along with the economic and cultural strides made since the royal court’s first arrival, resulted in a thriving time for the young nation. Throughout the royal court’s stay in Rio de Janeiro and during the early part of its independence, Brazil saw a huge influx of immigrants and imported slaves.[10] The immigrants were largely young Portuguese, the majority of which elected to stay in Brazil permanently, rather than return to Portugal. This migration also mirrored a period of political upheaval in Portugal, wherein the loss of Brazil started a series of revolts.[11] The retention of immigrants demonstrated the newfound economic opportunities of the newly independent Brazil, while waves of anti-Portuguese sentiment among the masses of Rio de Janeiro revealed the nation’s lingering resentment towards its former rulers.[10]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f Gomes, Laurentino (2007). 1808: The Flight of the Emperor (in Portuguese). Planeta. ISBN 978-85-7665-320-2. 
  2. ^ a b c d Warren Dean, "Bazil: 1808–1889" in Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture, vol. 1, p. 420. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1996.
  3. ^ a b Amaral, Roberto (2002). Textos Políticos da História do Brasil. Senado Federal. pp. 412–413. 
  4. ^ 1956-, Gomes, Laurentino, (2007). 1808 : como uma rainha louca, um príncipe medroso e uma corte corrupta enganaram Napoleão e mudaram a história de Portugal e do Brasil. São Paulo: Editora Planeta do Brasil. ISBN 9788576653202. OCLC 180190498. 
  5. ^ Skidmore, Thomas (2003). Uma história do Brasil. Paz e Terra. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Garcia de Oliveira, Marina (2013). "Entre nobres lusitanos e titulados brasileiros: práticas, políticas e significados dos títulos nobiliárquicos entre o Período Joanino e o alvorecer do Segundo Reinado". Universidade de São Paulo. 
  7. ^ Curtin, Philip (1975). Economic Change in Pre-Colonial Africa: Senegambia in the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison. 
  8. ^ Ashcroft, Patrick (February 18, 2014). "Rio On Watch". Rio On Watch. 
  9. ^ a b c d Schultz, Kirsten. Tropical Versailles: Empire, Monarchy, and the Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–1821. New York: Routledge, 2001.
  10. ^ a b c Barbosa Nunes, Rosana. "Portuguese Migration to Rio de Janeiro, 1822–1850". The Americas, 2001.
  11. ^ a b c d Wilcken, Patrick. Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro 1808–1821. Bloomsbury, 2004.
  12. ^ Dale Pappas, The Napoleonic Wars and Brazilian Independence. The Napoleon Series, 2009.

Further reading

  • Dias, Maria Odila da Silva, "The Establishment of the Royal Court in Brazil". In From Colony to Nation: Essays on the Independence of Brazil. A. J. R. Russell-Wood, ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.
  • Haring, Clarence H. The Empire in Brazil. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Macaulay, Neill. Dom Pedro: The Struggle for Liberty in Brazil and Portugal, 1798–1834. Durham: Duke University Press 1986.
  • Manchester, Alan K., "The Transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil". In Conflict and Continuity in Brazilian Society, ed. Henry Keith and S.F. Edwards. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1969.
  • Manchester, Alan K. "The Growth of Bureaucracy in Brazil, 1808–1821". Journal of Latin American Studies 4, 1 (1972): 77–83.

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