Written by Josue Santiago Thursday, 17 September 2009 18:42
The History of Brazil
On September 7th, Brazil celebrated its Day of Independence. You know from our past editions that we’re ready to party for all our Latin American home countries’ birthdays. Let’s take a quick peek at Brazil today and some of its colorful history.
Over the past two years, Brazil’s currency, the REAL, has gained value in world markets. Everyone in the world is talking about the BRIC countries, Brazil, Russia, India and China, being THE place to be at the beginning of a new age of international development and cooperation. Brazil is the country where IBM and Caterpillar, great icons of American commerce have built new campuses for the training of the next generation of international leaders. It is also where American farmers are tilling the soil and new oil discoveries off our coasts shows promise for an oil thirsty world. Brazil’s exports to the world and the US surged in 2008. The northeastern coast of Brazil is suddenly on the world map as the next big thing in undiscovered amazing beach resorts. Brazil has the second highest Gross National Product in the hemisphere, second only to the US. And while the US imports much more than it exports, Brazil seems to have balanced imports and exports to ensure continued growth and prosperity. It’s almost sweet victory to celebrate our independence this year, not just from a colonial past but also as a confident step onto the world stage.
But it is Brazil’s colorful colonial history that is the basis for the National Day of Celebration, so let’s have a look at that exotic past. Where did this modern nation begin?
Spanish explorer Vicente Yáñez Pinzón drifted ashore in northern Brazil on January 26, 1500. He saw the Amazon, he discovered the Rio Oiapoque, but couldn’t claim it for Spain according to the terms of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided not just the Americas, but the whole world, between Spain and Portugal. Instead, it was Portuguese explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral, who landed a few months later in May 1500, on the right side of that treaty, who became recognized as the discoverer of Brazil. Also as a result of that treaty he brought the Brazilian language, embracing the softer sounds of Portuguese. How times have changed since then! Can any of us imagine today a world where two small countries on the Iberian Peninsula could decide how to divide it?
In colonial Brazil, as in most of the America’s, the local people were beaten back and displaced over the following centuries. But in Brazil it was Portuguese colonists who planted sugar, imported slaves from Africa, and exploited the vast stands of lumber. In those early centuries they built cities and mined gold, minerals and other gemstones. They sent vast riches of all kinds back to Lisbon.
When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and occupied Spain and Portugal in the Peninsular Wars, Dom João VI, the seventeenth king of Portugal, fled Lisbon and established his court with great pomp and ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. For 13 years, he ruled Portugal’s Asian, African, and American colonies. Although Dom João VI (1769-1826) never ruled over an independent Brazil, historians call him the "Founder of the Brazilian Nationality." While Brazil was not free of the monarchy, he did open our ports to free trade with friendly nations. He signaled an opening in trade and commerce, which resulted in improvement in the circumstances of Brazil and the Brazilian people. Dom João VI pushed to found the Academia Naval (Naval Academy), Hospital Militar (Military Hospital), Arquivo Militar (Military Archives), Jardim Botânico (Botanic Garden), Intendência Geral de Polícia (Police Commissariat), Real Biblioteca (Royal Library) and the Banco do Brasil (Bank of Brazil). So it was a king who was responsible for many of the institutions, schools and historic places so famous and honored in modern Brazil. Even after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, Dom Joao thought it safer to remain in Brazil and created a kingdom equal to Portugal. Was it the climate, a secret lover or maybe the vitality of a new world? No, actually it was political intrigue.
The establishment back home in Portugal did not agree with his decision and in 1820 sent troops to hustle him back to Portugal, where the military lead a revolution which established a constitutional monarchy, with Dom João as figurehead. When Dom João was returned to Portugal he left his 23 year old son, Pedro as prince regent of Brazil. Pedro engaged the support of not only his father’s former advisors, but also the diverse people of Brazil.
Pedro realized, as he heard news of revolutions and independence coming to other Latin American countries, that Brazil would soon demand the same. The Brazilian Senate bestowed on him the title of Defensor e Protetor Perpétuo do Brasil, Protector and Perpetual Defender of Brazil. With the support of the Senate and the Brazilian people, he defied an order to return to Portugal. When the Portuguese parliament tried to force Brazil back to colonial status, Pedro seized the moment. On September 7, 1822, after receiving orders from the Portuguese parliament limiting his powers in Brazil, Pedro declared Brazil’s independence from the tyranny of a colonial power across the Atlantic. Tearing the Portuguese blue and white insignia from his uniform, Pedro drew his sword, and swore, "By my blood, by my honor, and by God, I will make Brazil free!" He cried, “Independência ou Morte”, Independence or Death! This statement known as the Grito do Ipirang, is familiar to all Brazilians.
Pedro de Alcântara Francisco Antônio João Carlos Xavier de Paula Miguel Rafael Joaquim José Gonzaga Pascoal Cipriano Serafim de Bragança e Bourbom became Dom Pedro I, the first emperor of Brazil. That title was chosen so he did not seem to usurp his father’s title, King of Portugal. He ruled uneasily for nine years.
Dom Pedro hired Admiral Thomas Cochrane, one of Britain's most successful naval commanders, known as “the sea wolf”, to command the Brazilian Navy and drive the Portuguese out of Bahia, Maranhão, and Pará, forcing those areas to recognize his rule and his authority based in Rio de Janeiro.
After delays and political setbacks, Brazilian independence was finally recognized when Portugal and England signed a treaty on August 29, 1825. However, Brazilians were disappointed as their hopes for a successful constitutional monarchy were declining. Some of Dom Pedro’s moves, like signing the treaty with Portugal in which he committed Brazil to paying Portugal’s debts to England were understandably unpopular. A war with Argentina over the fate of Uruguay, the revolt of Irish and German mercenaries who had been badly treated and (there always has to be some sex in the story) his adulterous relationship with Domitila de Castro all made the situation worse. When revolution erupted in France in 1830, many Brazilians were very sympathetic. Dom Pedro traveled to Minas Gerais to try to win back the heartland. His cool reception there and the deteriorating situation in Rio was all too much for Dom Pedro who abdicated in 1831 and sailed for Portugal, leaving his five year old son, Pedro II (1825-1891), in the care of three regents.
The regency began uneasily when Dom Pedro de Alcantara João Carlos Leopoldo Salvador Bibiano Franciso Xavier de Paula Leocadio Miguel Gabriel Rafael Gonzaga de Bragança e Borbón was crowned emperor on July 18, 1841 at the age of 14. His august (and long) name attests to his high and noble birth. But, despite his lofty ancestors, the time of kings was passing. His earliest and best advisor was a groom from the stables. The appointed regents fought and disagreed with one another and corruption was widespread. Dom Pedro II “reigned” for 49 years and became an educated and enlightened man. But finally the tides of history and the military and republican sentiments were not to be denied. He was forced to abdicate, just like his father. Dom Pedro II died in Paris in 1891. Over the years Brazilians came to recognize his enlightenment and contributions to our nation. Finally in 1971 his remains were returned with honor and the son of a new world “emperor” who declared Brazil’s independence from the European empire was home at last.