Today, September 7, marks Brazil’s Independence Day. 189 years ago today, Dom Pedro I declared independence in the Grito de Ipiranga, liberating Brazil from Portugal once and for all (although, in good old colonialist fashion, Brazil’s independence wasn’t recognized for another 3 years).
Throughout the colonial period Portugal had basically allowed Brazil to remain a colonial backwater. For the first 50 years of Portuguese control (1500-1550), Portugal barely gave any attention to Brazil, focusing instead on its spice- and slave-trade exploits in Africa and India, which were the major sources of income for the Portuguese empire. As the French and Dutch threatened Portugal’s holdings in Brazil in the mid-16th century, Portugal finally began focusing a bit more heavily on populating and defending its lone holding in the Americas. At first, Portugal exploited the pau-brasil (a tree with a red trunk used to make dye in the 16th century) for its income; however, as indigenous people died and the trees became scarcer, the Portuguese colony switched to producing sugar, and, later, mining diamonds and gold found in Minas Gerais and São Paulo, relying heavily on African slave labor in both cases. For centuries, the Portuguese Crown’s presence in Brazil was limited, particularly compared to the complex and competing hierarchies of power in Spanish America. The Crown mostly manifested itself via extraction of resources for profit and in heavy-handed attempts to control the colony through decrees; for example, Brazil wasn’t allowed so much as a printing press under Portuguese rule (though, paradoxically, the colonial state did not have nearly the presence in Brazil that it had in Spanish America). In an effort to make sure that all the profit to be wrought from the Brazilian colony went straight to Portugal, the Crown also forbade trade with any foreign power (especially England) other than Portugal.
However, with Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808, regent João VI (acting as regent for his mother until 1816, when he became king of Portugal), the Portuguese court picked up and relocated to Rio de Janeiro, making Brazil the seat of the Portuguese Empire; this marked the first (and only) time a European colonizing power’s government actually operated out of one of its colonies. It was a remarkable shift for Brazil, during which the printing industry boomed (it would be hard for the Portuguese crown to outlaw printing presses in its own country), education began to flourish, and cultural production blossomed. The Rio de Janeiro merchants, businessmen, and politicians (and much of the Brazilian elites) were thrilled and proud, and not without reason – never before had an Eurpoean monarch visited a colony in the Americas, much less make it his or her home. (And this re-location no doubt is one of the several factors as to why Brazil would gain its independence peacefully, in comparison to the Spanish-American countries).
With the defeat of Napoleon, it was safe for the Portuguese crown to return to Portugal. However, a funny thing happened. João VI liked it so much in Brazil, he didn’t really want to go back to Portugal. Only in 1821 did he return to Portugal when the nobility threatened to remove him from the throne if he did not return. Joao left Brazil, and his son, Dom Pedro I, remained in Brazil to serve as regent. However, after 13 years of serving as a political center, Brazilian elites and politicians did not want to return to being a colony. Thus, in 1822, Pedro I formally broke with Portugal, creating the Empire of Brazil (it’s most likely he did so after being pressured by Brazilians interested in breaking with Portugal, though some biographers insist he did it of his own free will and his love of freedom – either way, the thought of being emperor of Brazil instead of waiting for his dad to die so Pedro could ascend to the Portuguese throne must have seemed like a pretty nice idea). Portugal offered no resistance, and in one of its many anomalies, Brazil became one of the only Latin American countries to peacefully gain independence rather than through warfare and uprisings.
And so it went. Brazil remained an empire until 1889, with Pedro I serving as emperor until his abdication (in the wake of political and economic crises) in 1831, and his son, Pedro II, all of five years old at the time, became emperor (with regents ruling for him until 1840). Brazil would abolish slavery in 1888 (the last country in the Western Hemisphere to do so), and would declare the end of the Empire and the beginning of the Republic on 15 November 1889 (another national holiday). But none of it would have happened (except maybe the very-late slavery abolition) without Pedro I’s “Grito de Ipiranga” (Cry of Ipiranga), declaring Brazil a sovereign nation on 7 September 1822, a day that will be marked today, as usual, as a federal holiday, with military parades in Brasília, Rio, and elsewhere.
(For those interested in the Portuguese Court’s time in Brazil, see Kirsten Schultz’s Tropical Versailles: Empire, Monarchy, and the Portuguese Royal Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1821.For some good essays on independence, see A.J.R. Russell-Wood’s From Colony to Nation: Essays on the Independence of Brazil.)