On This Date in Latin America – January 13, 1825: The Execution of Frei Caneca

One hundred and eighty-eight years ago today, Joaquim da Silva Rabelo, a leader of multiple revolts in the early Brazilian Empire better known as “Frei Caneca” (“Father Mug”), was executed by firing squad.

Born in 1779 to Portuguese parents, Rabelo entered the clergy early on, joining the Carmelites at the age of 17 and  becoming an ordained priest in 1801. While working at the seminary in Olinda in the early-1800s, he spent much time at libraries and in salons, where he read and discussed Enlightenment ideas and the events of the French Revolution. Embracing republicanism and liberal thought, Frei Caneca became increasingly critical of the Portuguese Crown and its control over Brazil. The Napoleonic invasion of Portugal led to the royal family’s exile to Brazil in 1808 [the only time in history that a European monarch took up permanent residence in a colony], leading to Brazil gaining new stature, and in 1815, Emperor João VI, hesitant to return to Portugal in the face of British pressure after the Napoleonic wars, declared he was now the king of the Kingdom of Brazil and Portugal, providing a justification for remaining in Brazil and making the colony the equal of its former metropole.

While many in Brazil were thrilled at the declaration, some who looked to the liberal ideas of the French Revolution (and the independence struggles taking place throughout Spanish America) felt that the declaration was not enough. They did not want a monarch; they wanted a republic. As a result, in 1817, a revolt broke out in Recife, which had previously been one of the key economic centers of the early colonial era and a major sugar producer. Intellectuals, including clergy, began discussing plots to establish popular sovereignty in the northeast. Before the plans could coagulate into anything concrete, however, the royal governor of Pernambuco (of which Recife was the capital) heard of these discussions, and decided to preemptively arrest the participants. His plan backfired, however, as a liberal army officer involved in the discussions killed the royal official who tried to kill him and raised the cry for revolution, with his troops following him. The elites, intellectuals, merchants, plantation owners, and clergy who had embraced liberalism, including Frei Caneca, quickly rallied to the clause, proclaiming an independent republic of Pernambuco. The new republic announced citizens would refer to one another as “patriot” and that class distinctions (but not slavery) would be abolished. They also lowered taxes, increased military pay, emphasized anti-Portuguese rhetoric to build a sense of unity, and destroyed images of João VI, not unlike their Spanish-American counterparts. Unfortunately for them, since Brazil was now a kingdom, João VI was far closer to the revolt than Spanish monarck Fernando VII, and the Portuguese king rapidly suppressed the movement, sending troops throughout the new kingdom to discourage similar movements. In the aftermath, several leaders were arrested, including Frei Caneca, who was sentenced to four years in prison in the former colonial capital of Salvador, Bahia.

After his release in 1821, he returned to Pernambuco, where he continued to work towards republicanism. He supported the creation of a junta that pushed for greater autonomy and freedom from the monarch in 1821-1822, akin to movements that had established a constitutional monarchy in Portugal in 1820. However, in September 1822, Pedro I, the son of João VI (who had been forced to return to Portugal the previous year) proclaimed Brazilian independence, establishing the Brazilian empire. The movement in Pernambuco began to establish a greater degree of self-rule, but Pedro I unilaterally issued the Constitution of 1824, which dissolved the elected assembly and seemed to assert a degree of monarchical absolutism (though in practice, Brazil’s empire would come to resemble a constitutional monarchy for much of the nineteenth century).

However, the absolutist tenor of the proclamation of the constitution led to anger and concern in the Northeast, which had been seeking autonomy and advocating liberalism and republicanism for nearly a decade. Indeed, even before the new constitution, Frei Caneca had published a newspaper critical of Pedro I in 1823 and 1824. In the wake of the new constitution, Frei Caneca and others of a like mind rose up again, and in July 1824, Pernambuco once again declared its independence from Brazil. Other provinces in the Northeast were quick to follow suit, leading to the temporary establishment of the Confederation of the Equator. Unsurprisingly, like his father before him, Pedro I was not interested in the republican ideals coming from the Northeast, and quickly mobilized the military to suppress the revolt, even hiring English and French mercenaries and ships to help suppress the revolt. At the same time, internal divisions tore apart the Confederation itself; while some leaders called for the abolition of slavery, many others were hesitant to embrace total equality; as had been the case in Spanish American Independence movements a decade earlier, many of the intellectual and economic elites of the Confederation were fearful of the lower classes mobilizing for greater equality and social justice than the elites were willing to concede. With external military pressure and internal divisions, the movement fell apart by October 1824, with several leaders dying in battle or being assassinated by their own supporters. Frei Caneca himself was arrested and a military court tried him for sedition, proclaiming him one of the leaders of the movement. He was quickly found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, one of eleven leaders sentenced to death. Although he was set to be hanged, three hangmen refused to hang a priest (even though the church had stripped him of his orders); as a result, he was hastily executed by firing squad on January 13, 1825, with his body quickly being taken away and buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in Recife.

Though the public executions of Frei Caneca and his co-conspirators were intended to prevent further such revolts and to make an example of the rebels, the Confederation of the Equator was far from the last movement to resist imperial rule. Nearly twenty more regional and local rebellions would erupt throughout the remainder of the Brazilian Empire, which finally ended in 1889; even during the First Republic (1889-1930), regionalism and federalism were the dominant trends, and Brazil’s nation-state would only see successful concerted efforts towards centralization and consolidation during the government of Getúlio Vargas. As for Frei Caneca himself, his leadership in one of the earlier and larger regional rebellions ultimately led to him becoming a symbol for independence and republicanism in Brazil, and his name is found on streets and in public settings, including Frei Caneca street and Frei Caneca Shopping Mall in São Paulo, an LGBT-friendly area of the city (itself an ironic fact when one remembers Frei Caneca was a Catholic priest and considers the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality).

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About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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