Transition Period between Colonial Brazil and Empire Brazil

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Between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire in Brazil

Brazil’s independence did not happen overnight, based on the individual desire of the prince regent, but was in fact the result of a political, economic and cultural process that involved a series of circumstances and interests.

From this chapter you will be able to:

  • identify the main characteristics of the last period of Colonial Brazilian History;
  • associate the emancipation movements in Brazil with the industrial and French revolutions;
  • perceive certain social, political, economic and cultural transformations resulting from the move of the Portuguese Court to Rio de Janeiro;
  • understand the proclamation of Brazilian independence as the result of a process and not as an isolated event.

The periods were divided into temporal phases

  • The protest movements
  • The transfer of the Court
  •  the Portuguese empire in the tropics
  • break of colonial ties

The protest movements

1 Introduction

Let’s begin a study of the process of independence in Portuguese America, commonly known as Brazil.

This process, in turn, can be seen as the last phase of the Brazilian colonial period, or as a time of transition between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire.

Mapa do Brasil de 1798 - Este é um mapa italiano incomum do Brasil, Paraguai e Uruguai. Estende-se para incluir os arredores de Buenos Aires. Ele fornece uma boa quantidade de detalhes, incluindo extensos sistemas fluviais. A grande cartela de títulos em estilo paisagístico apresenta nativos americanos cuidando de uma fogueira. "Il Brasile ed il Paese delle Amazzoni col Paraguai Delineati sulle Ultime Osservazioni", Cassini, Giovanni Maria
Map of Brazil from 1798

Our story begins in the 18th century.

The 18th century, also known as the “century of enlightenment”, was a time of intense transformation in Western Europe.

I think you’ll remember that the word “light” in this case is a metaphor, which is associated with “reason”.

At that time, the Enlightenment and scientific knowledge were emphasised.

Therefore, the 18th century presents itself as a new historical period, identified by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

Enlightenment: 18th century intellectual movement characterised by the centrality of science and critical rationality in illosophical questioning, implying a rejection of all forms of dogmatism, especially that of traditional political and religious doctrines.

Synonyms, by extension of meaning: Enlightenment, Enlightenment, Enlightenment, Enlightenment Century (HOUAISS, 2001, 1572).

In this sense, the Enlightenment movement had a significant influence on Brazil’s emancipation process.

In addition, the revolutionary events of the late 17th and 18th centuries also appear as a backdrop for understanding our country’s independence.

Let’s take a look at the main events.

At the end of the 17th century in England, the absolutist monarchy suffered its first major defeat with the Glorious Revolution (1688).

In North America, in 1776 the Thirteen Colonies declared independence and broke away from English rule.

In 1789, the French Revolution sealed a new political phase with the republican regime.

In turn, the capitalist economic system asserted itself after the Industrial Revolution and the exploitation of wage labour.

In the midst of these revolutionary movements of the bourgeoisie (liberal revolutions), the fight against the slave trade took place at the same time.

The first nation to abolish slavery was England in 1807.

In America, Haiti’s independence was proclaimed in 1791, under the influence of the French ideals of “liberty, equality and fraternity”.

In fact, these events prepared the ground for the end of colonial rule in Brazil.

According to Mary Del Priore (2001, p. 174):

The economic and political situation worsened on this side of the Atlantic, as the transition from a regime of monopolies to one of free competition began, and from slave labour to wage labour.

Free trade, civil equality, free labour, liberty and property were considered natural rights for individuals.

In general, these facts are presented as a break with the Ancien Régime in Western Europe (the period known as the Modern Age), characterised by absolutist politics and a protectionist market economy.

Absolutism: A political system of government in which the leaders assume absolute powers, without limitations or restrictions, and exercise, de facto and de jure, all the attributes of sovereignty (HOUAISS, 2001, p. 30).

In this first topic we will study the main events that marked Brazil’s independence process.

We will begin our journey into the colonial past of Portuguese America, from the last decades of the 18th century, in the region of Minas Gerais.

But we will travel to other times and places in order to better understand the reasons that led Dom Pedro I to declare, with the support of Brazil’s colonial elite, the breaking of the ties of dependence with Portugal.

2. Emancipation Process of Colonial Brazil

On 7 September 1822, in the Ipiranga region of São Paulo, Prince Dom Pedro I proclaimed Brazil’s independence.

Casamento de D. Pedro I e D. Amélia 1829, Jean-Baptiste Debret
Casamento de D. Pedro I e D. Amélia 1829, Jean-Baptiste Debret

Brazil’s independence represented a symbolic act of political autonomy for the country, which was no longer a Portuguese colony but an autonomous state.

However, Brazil’s emancipation did not happen overnight, based on the individual desire of the prince regent, but was in fact the result of a political, economic and cultural process that involved a series of circumstances and interests.

Let’s take a look at some of the main conflicts that marked Brazil’s emancipation process.

2.1. Inconfidência Mineira

The Inconfidência Mineira (inconfidência means: disloyalty, treason against a sovereign), was one of the main movements for the liberation of the Colony.

Tiradentes e a inconfidência mineira
Tiradentes and the inconfidência mineira

Liberal ideas, coming from overseas and determined by internal economic reasons, are key factors in explaining this revolt that took place in the captaincy of Minas Gerais.

The history of mining in Brazil began with the Paulistas (bandeirantes), who, in their expeditions through the interior of Brazil, realised an old wish of the Portuguese crown in 1695: they discovered the first gold deposits.

It was in the Rio das Velhas, in Minas Gerais, near what is now Sabará.

From then on, there was a growing movement of immigration to Brazil, with foreigners and settlers flocking to the southeast region, beginning a new political, economic and cultural phase in colonial Brazil.

According to Boris Fausto (2007, p. 98), in the first sixty years of the 18th century, “[…] around 600,000 people arrived from Portugal and the Atlantic Islands, an annual average of 8,000 to 10,000, people from the most varied backgrounds, from small landowners, priests, merchants, to prostitutes and adventurers”.

The immigration of Portuguese was so great that the government began to control and prohibit them from leaving for Brazil.

In March 1720, the Crown issued a decree restricting immigration; from that date onwards, you had to present a special passport to embark.

Mining made the colonial population grow rapidly.

At the end of the first century of the colonial period, Portuguese America had approximately 100,000 inhabitants; at the end of the 17th century the population was around 300,000 people; at the end of the 18th century the Colony had around 3.3 million inhabitants.

The consequences of this growth were significant: the value of the land fell, due to the appreciation of gold, and urban centres developed.

Towns and cities were born where the hinterland used to be: Sabará, São João del-Rei, Tiradentes, Diamantina and Vila Rica (now Ouro Preto).

In fact, mining provided the colony with the major transformations that preceded the phase of political autonomy.

The main ones were undoubtedly the demographic upsurge that took place at the time, with the displacement of part of the colonial population and the migratory luxury; the opening up of a new and extensive area for settlement; the broad knowledge of the land, with the penetrations, almost completely devouring Brazil [… ]; the internal connections and land circulation that corresponded to the routes from the mining region to São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Goiás, Mato Grosso, not to mention the long route to the Platine zone; the creation of new Captaincies, that of Minas Gerais (1720) and Goiás and Mato Grosso (1749); the relocation of the colonial headquarters from the city of Salvador to Rio de Janeiro (1763); the enormous increase in the administrative apparatus, particularly in the fiscal, military and judicial sectors […].

The discovery of gold was made at a time when the price of sugar was falling due to competition from the United States, and in fact became an important source of income for the Portuguese metropolis.

The creation of the aforementioned captaincies was the result of Portugal’s concerns about administrative and military control of the mining regions.

The “Intendência das Minas” (created in 1702) was the control body for these areas and had the functions of: administering the auriferous territory, judging mining-related issues and collecting taxes – in this case, the Crown kept one fifth of the metals extracted.

The abusive collection of taxes, combined with the influences of the ideals of freedom, culminated in the Inconidência Mineira.

In the last decades of the 18th century, the mines were showing signs of exhaustion and the miners, who formed the elite of society, were unable to settle their debts with the government.

Pressure from the Crown resulted in the “derrama” (forced collection of taxes – in the form of arrobas of gold), which in turn incited demonstrations against the Portuguese government.

Members of the Minas Gerais elite who led the rebel movement, such as João Joaquim da Maia and José Álvares Maciel, had studied at European universities, while others made up the “new” urban middle class.

Tiradentes, José Joaquim da Silva Xavier, was an exception in this group. He came from a poor family and worked as a military officer and dentist in his spare time.

The heroic image of Tiradentes as a martyr is a historical construction that gained prominence at the end of the 19th century, with the proclamation of the Republic.

According to Boris Fausto (2007, p. 118):

The proclamation of the Republic favoured the projection of the movement and the transformation of the figure of Tiradentes into a republican martyr. There was a real basis for this.

There are indications that the great spectacle put on by the Portuguese Crown to intimidate the population of the colony had the opposite effect, keeping the memory of the event alive and maintaining sympathy for the inconfidentes.

Tiradentes’ attitude, taking full responsibility for the conspiracy from a certain point in the process, and his final sacrifice facilitated the mythologising of his figure soon after the proclamation of the Republic.

The aim of the inconfidentes was to free Brazil from Lusitanian colonial control and proclaim the Republic, modelled on the Constitution of the United States of America.

It’s interesting to note that the liberation of slaves was the point of contention among the rebellious group, as some of them were even slave owners.

2.2. Conjuration Fluminense or Conjuration Carioca

Liberal ideas crossed the Atlantic, were appropriated by various groups of elite intellectuals and served as the ideological basis for Brazil’s emancipation movements.

Among them was the Conjuration Fluminense, which criticised the monarchical government and took place in the city of Rio de Janeiro in 1794, then the capital of the colony.

The conjured formed the Literary Society, an association of intellectuals (writers and poets) who generally debated works by Enlightenment philosophers.

Subjects related to politics, philosophy and science were the topics of discussion.

Mariano José Pereira da Fonseca, for example, was accused of having a work by Rousseau in his house.

Like other liberal movements, the members of the Carioca Conjuration were denounced, but in this episode, those involved were released after a short period of detention.

However, we are interested in realising that liberal ideas were the subject of debate and conquered bodies and minds in different Brazilian cities.

With liberal-democratic ideals, the conjurers defended rationalism and freedom of thought.

2.3. Bahian Conjuration

In 1798, another movement against the Portuguese colonial regime took place.

Conjuração Baiana
Bahian Conjuration

In Bahia, the “Knights of Light” group was founded in a Masonic Lodge.

As the name suggests, the ideals of the French Revolution were the subject of debate at the meetings of this society.

However, unlike what happened in Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro, the Conjuration of Bahia, or of the Tailors (the tailors were prominent in the conspiracy), was a liberation movement that included the participation of humbler groups.

Freemasonry: Freemasonry played a very important role in Brazil’s independence.

A secret society, its origins go back to the medieval brotherhoods, which kept the secret of church construction.

During the 18th century, the Freemasons (“Masons”) gave a political meaning to their grouping into clubs (or lodges), organising themselves under certain principles.

Their main banner was the fight against the power of the absolute monarchy.

The most important centres where these ideas spread were the universities. […] At the time of Independence, two tendencies clashed within the “Grand Orient”, the main Brazilian Masonic lodge: the so-called “red” freemasonry, of the radical liberals, and the “blue” monarchy, of the supporters of José Bonifácio (BARROS, 1994, p. 7).

According to historian Boris Fausto (2007, p. 119): “the scarcity of foodstuffs and the famine gave rise to several riots in the city between 1797 and 1798”.

According to the same author, “the conspirators were in favour of the proclamation of the Republic, the end of slavery, free trade, especially with France, an increase in military pay and the punishment of priests who opposed freedom”.

In the words of historian Mary Del Priore (2001, p. 185): “[…] artisans, soldiers, salaried schoolmasters, mostly mulattoes, people exasperated against Portuguese domination and the wealth of Brazilians,” they formed a body in the fight against privileges and social inequalities.

The revolt movement’s ideal was “the construction of an egalitarian and democratic society, where racial differences would not hinder job opportunities or social mobility” (PRIORE, 2001, p. 185).

It’s important to note that the protest movement in Bahia differed from the Inconfidência Mineira and the Conjuração Fluminense in that it defended the liberation of slaves and, following bourgeois liberal thinking, acted in favour of opening the port of Salvador to maritime trade with other nationalities.

I invite you to read the revolutionary pamphlet below.

It was posted in various places in Salvador on the morning of 12 August 1798.

 Warning to the Bahian People

You citizens, you Peoples, bowed down and abandoned by the King, by his despotisms, by his Ministers.

Oh you People, who were born to be free and to enjoy the good effects of freedom, oh you People, who will live scourged by the full power of the unworthy crowned one, that same king you created; that same tyrant king is the one who sits on the throne to rob you and mistreat you.

Men, the time has come for your resurrection, to rise from the abyss of slavery, to raise the sacred Flag of Freedom.

Freedom is the happy state, the state free from sorrow; freedom is the sweetness of life, the rest of man with equal parallels from one to another, finally freedom is the rest and bliss of the world.

France is increasingly exalted, Germany has already bent the knee to her, Castile only aspires to her alliance, Rome already lives annexed, the Pontiff is abandoned, and banished; the king of Prussia is imprisoned by his own people, the nations of the world all have their eyes fixed on France, freedom is pleasant for all; it is time people, people, the time has come for you to defend your Freedom; the day of our revolution; of our Freedom and of our happiness is coming, cheer up that you will be happy.


Despotism: form of government based on tyranny, authoritarianism. Vexar: to mistreat, persecute, humiliate.

SOURCE: Memórias históricas e políticas da província da Bahia. Bahia, Official State Press, 1931. v. III, p. 106-7.

Documentos de história do Brasil: de Cabral aos anos 90. São Paulo: Scipione, 1997.

To be free for a merchant was to be able to buy and sell without the intervention of the state, to be free for a slave was to have the right to come and go, to start a family and to be treated with dignity.

2.4. Conspiracy of the Suassunas

The Suassunas conspiracy was a movement that took place in Pernambuco in the early years of the 19th century.

Freemasonry played an important role in this episode of sedition.

In 1798, the Aerópago de Itambé was founded, and in 1802 the Academia de Suassuna, places where French revolutionary ideas were disseminated.

According to Maximiliano Machado (apud HOLANDA, 2003, p. 228), the Aerópago was:

A secret political society, intentionally placed on the border of the provinces of Pernambuco and Paraíba, frequented by prominent people from both parts and from where the doctrines taught came out, as if from a centre to the periphery, without bounce or noise.

Its purpose was to make known the general state of Europe, the shakings and wreckage of absolute governments, under the influx of democratic ideas.

It was a kind of teaching that instructed and aroused enthusiasm for the Republic, which was more in harmony with the nature and dignity of man, while inspiring hatred of the tyranny of kings.

It was finally the indoctrinated revolution that would bring independence and republican government to Pernambuco in due course.

The accusation levelled at the rebels was that they wanted to form a republic under the protection of Napoleon.

Like the other conjuration movements, the Pernambucans were fighting Portuguese rule in Brazil.

Above all, they wanted to make the settlers aware that they were being exploited by an absolutist government.

In the words of José Honório Rodrigues: the Suassunas Conspiracy “did not go beyond the plane of ideas, it did not materialise as an act of rebellion”.

It was in fact “a thought without action and, as such, belongs to the history of ideas that formed the national consciousness against colonial rule”.

3. In this chapter you learnt that:

  • Enlightenment ideals played a fundamental role in the emancipation movements in Portuguese America.
  • The discovery of gold in Minas Gerais gave rise to a series of political, economic and cultural transformations in the Colony.
  • The main rebellions that called for the autonomisation of Brazil at the end of the 18th century and in the first year of the 19th century were: the Inconfidência Mineira, the Conjuração Fluminense, the Conjuração Baiana and the Conspiração dos Suassunas.
  • The Conjuration of Bahia was an emancipation movement that advocated the liberation of slaves and involved the humblest section of the population.

Discover the periods of colonial Brazilian history below:

  1. Portuguese Maritime Expansion and the Conquest of Brazil
  2. Occupation of the African Coast, the Atlantic Islands and the Voyage of Vasco da Gama
  3. Pedro Álvares Cabral’s expedition and the Conquest of Brazil
  4. Pre-colonial period in Brazil: “The Forgotten Years”
  5. Installation of the Portuguese Colony in Brazil
  6. Installation of the General Government in Brazil and the Founding of Salvador
  7. Monoculture, Slave Labour and Latifundia in Colonial Brazil
  8. Colonial sugar mills in Brazil
  9. The Iberian Union and the Dutch Invasion of Brazil
  10. Foundation of the city of São Paulo and the Bandeirantes
  11. Between the colonial regime and the establishment of the Empire in Brazil
  12. Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil
  13. The Portuguese Empire in Brazil
  14. Independence of Brazil – Breaking of colonial ties in Brazil
  15. Historical Periods of Brazil

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