One hundred and ninety years ago today, Dom Pedro I declared independence in the Grito de Ipiranga, liberating Brazil from Portugal once and for all.
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 opted to remain in Brazil rather than return to Portugal. With an increasingly irritated nobility in Portugal threatening to remove him from the throne, he returned only in 1821. His son, Pedro I, remained as regent in Brazil, but after years of being Portugal’s equal, its status was reduced as the Portuguese elites tried to reassert imperial authority over the former colony. This change did not sit well with Brazilian elites who had been at the political center of the empire for thirteen years. With pressure mounting within Brazil, and with a wave of independence movements finding success throughout Spanish America, Brazil followed its own peculiar path, and on September 7, 1822, Pedro I formally broke with Portugal, allegedly proclaiming “Independence or Death!” Although most visual accounts (like the one above) portray the declaration in typically-heroic terms, the proclamation itself was probably less exciting; indeed, Pedro I was apparently suffering from a fierce bout of diarrhea when he made the declaration, giving the otherwise-momentous occasion a rather scatological (and human) context. Regardless of the glory (or lack thereof) in the declaration itself, Portugal offered no real resistance. Thus, in one of its many points of divergence with its Spanish American counterparts, Brazil became one of the only Latin American countries to peacefully gain independence rather than through warfare and uprisings, as well as becoming the only monarchy to emerge in Latin America after independence.
[This is a slightly-updated reposting from last year].