Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil

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Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil

1. Introduction

In the previous chapter, we saw the main liberation movements influenced by French and English revolutionary ideals.

These egalitarian ideals, however, were part of the projects of a literate elite, who looked to the Old Continent as an example to be followed.

However, the king was still a revered figure among the humblest of the population.

For a large part of the population of the Portuguese colony, the monarchy was the best form of government. In this sense, the king’s power was little contested (except among a specific social group, the middle class and the elite).

The hierarchical social relations between the colony and the metropolis were gradually rejected, because it wasn’t overnight that the population began to demand their rights and clamour for equality.

In a monarchy, social positions were rigidly defined.

Everyone had to remain in their respective social positions. It was blood ties and court customs that defined an elite identity.

On the other hand, the vast majority of the population was made up of rural and urban labourers.

However, with the transfer of the court to Rio de Janeiro, a significant social, political and cultural transformation began to take place in the colony.

Urban society diversified and grew.

From the moment that Brazil became the seat of the Portuguese imperial government, with the transfer of the Court, social mobility in the Luso-Brazilian community established in Portuguese America relatively increased.

Transferência da corte portuguesa para o Brasil

2. Transfer of the royal family and Portuguese court to colonial Brazil

The move of the court and Dom João VI’s family to Brazil was one of the consequences of the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815).

The war that Napoleon Bonaparte’s France waged against England led King Dom João to put into practice the plan to transfer the Lusitanian administrative apparatus to its most promising colony: Brazil.

The project to move the Court to Brazil took shape when the Napoleonic troops, coming from Spanish territory, advanced on the capital.

Although the embarkation was botched, the decision to cross the Atlantic was not imposed by panic. The possibility had long been studied (DEL PRIORE, 2001, p. 185).

The plan to move to Brazil was not made suddenly in 1808.

According to historian Lílian Moritz Schwarcz (apud O’NEIL, 2007), in 1580, when Spain invaded and annexed Portugal to its domains, the Prince of Portugal “was advised to embark for Brazil” (2007, p. 35).

Likewise, Father Vieira had already considered Brazil to be the ideal place to set up the headquarters of the “Fifth Empire”.

“Interpreting the Bible, Vieira argued that divine designs had chosen Portugal for the foundation of the Fifth Empire, thus succeeding Egypt, Assyria, Persia and Rome” (apud SOUZA, 2000, p. 14).

In the 18th century, this desire to build a great empire was revised. According to Iara Lis Carvalho Souza, a group of Portuguese literati (among them Andrada e Silva, Manuel Arruda da Câmara Bittencourt de Sá, José Vieira Coutinho), proposed a restructuring of the Portuguese empire, with Enlightenment ideals in mind.

The aim was to turn Portugal into a great imperialist nation, with a more productive and politically effective economy.

So we can see that there were already promising plans for Brazil before 1808. It would, in fact, be an “emancipated colony linked to the metropolis” (SOUZA, 2000, p. 18).

Although this prospect for the future did not materialise, the Portuguese were already imagining “emancipation” for their tropical colony.

The strategy was to draw up administrative reforms so that Portugal would continue to control Brazil.

It is therefore important to emphasise that from the beginning of the 19th century, alternatives were being considered so that Brazil would not radically and definitively break its relationship of dependence with the metropolis.

These ideas were circulating in Portugal when the Portuguese royal family embarked for Brazil. They were even put into practice by the Minister and Secretary of State Rodrigo Coutinho.

From the end of the 18th century, Brazil’s status within the Portuguese empire gradually changed.

The role and concept of a colony were rethought, the colonial status was revised and a transformation of the transoceanic empire, centred on Portugal, which stretched from Asia to Portuguese America, not to mention the possessions in Africa, was even planned.

From then on, the project of a “vast and powerful empire” took off and became an effective state policy with Dom Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho at the head of the Portuguese government.

Dom Rodrigo promoted a series of knowledge institutions capable of training literate people and benefiting from their work: Casa Literária do Arco do Cego, in Lisbon; Seminário de Olinda; Academia de Guardas-Marinhas and Observatório Astronômico, in Rio de Janeiro; Escola Médico-Cirurgiã, in Bahia and Rio; Curso de Estudos Matemáticos, in Pernambuco; Curso de Economia Política and Imprensa Régia, in Rio de Janeiro.

In the spirit of the Academy, these institutions promoted scientific progress without altering the power structure and social order (SOUZA, 2000, p. 12-13).

In this sense, even before the arrival of the Court, liberal actions were underway that sought to promote development in the colony.

The idea was that if the libertarian ideal proclaimed in the French Revolution could not be covered up, it should at least be adapted to the interests and needs of the Portuguese colonisers.

2.1. Departure for Brazil 

The reactions of the people of Lisbon to the journey of the Portuguese royal entourage may have been diverse, but, in fact, it was the king who was leaving and this caused a general commotion.

With no plans to return (which only happened thirteen years later, in 1821), Dom João, along with his family, left his Lusitanian subjects “orphans”.

Watching the unusual spectacle, some people cried, feeling desolate, as if their own father was leaving.

Jurandir Malerba (2000, p. 206) analyses this feeling of communion between the king and his subjects, he says: “the image of the king as father takes shape in the imaginary, in the social set of images created to represent monarchical sovereignty”.

The king was even seen as a supreme, sacred being.

This image of the king was also shared in Brazil. “The idea – or feeling? – paternal is as strong for Luminenses as it is for Lisboners, who used orphanhood to define their condition as a result of the king’s departure” (MALERBA, 2000, p. 206).

Embarking for America was confusing.

According to an account by the Englishman Thomas O’Neil written in 1810, many men, women and children tried in vain to embark, as the ships were full.

Transferência da corte portuguesa para o Brasil - Nicolas Louis Albert Delerive
Transfer of the Portuguese court to Brazil – Nicolas Louis Albert Delerive

On 27 November 1807, the entire Royal Family, D. João, Prince Regent, future D. João VI.

The Portuguese court moved to Brazil because of the danger of Napoleonic invasions in Portugal.

His Royal Highness the Prince Regent and his children were on board the fleet, which carried a total of 16,000 to 18,000 Portuguese subjects: all the ships were overcrowded.

On the ship Príncipe Real, there were no fewer than 412 people, in addition to the crew (O’NEIL, 2007, p. 59).

O’Neil gives us a picture of the scale of the departure, which he judged to be an “escape”, with the notable help of his compatriots, the English, enemies of France and Napoleon.

O’Neil sketches the chaos that ensued in the port of Belém: from one moment to the next, thousands of people streamed in with their luggage and crates, not forgetting the state bureaucracy and the wealth that was travelling with the king.

On the beaches and quays of the Tagus, all the way to Belém, packages and trunks dropped at the last minute were strewn about (SCHWARCZ apud O’NEIL, 2007, p. 36).

In general, the Portuguese court’s departure for Brazil is seen in two ways.

As a flight, an act of cowardice on the part of the king, and as a wise decision, since it prevented France from deposing the king and conquering the Portuguese colonies.

England feared that Brazil would fall into French hands. This would further diminish their trade opportunities.

The English were already suffering the consequences of the war against France, which had led to the closure of European ports to British ships (the closure of ports, orchestrated by Napoleon, was intended to weaken England economically).

In this sense, the British were interested in an alliance with Portugal and, above all, with Brazil, as this was the only way to maintain overseas trade with Portuguese America.

It was not for nothing that the English were willing to escort the Portuguese court to Brazil.

England had placed its navy at the disposal of the Portuguese court in exchange for commercial advantages with Brazil.

Thomas O’Neil’s account shows the dozens of ships that made up the royal fleet. Along with the 15 vessels of the royal squadron, dozens of merchant ships (approximately 30) took the royal family and thousands of subjects towards the tropics.

2.2. The voyage

The journey wasn’t easy. Food and water were rationed. There were too many passengers and poor hygiene, which even forced the women to cut their hair because of lice.

There were no beds for everyone, nor chairs or plates. But despite the difficulties, there was singing to the sound of the viola and card games.

The royal squadron faced two storms on the high seas, which separated the ships from the squadron.

Viagem da familia real portuguesa para o Brasil
Journey of the Portuguese royal family to Brazil

The ship Príncipe Real, which carried Dom João, docked in Salvador, but others headed for Rio de Janeiro.

It was on 22 January 1808, after 54 days on the high seas, that the Royal Prince arrived in Brazil.

Thomas O’Neil (2007, p. 69) published a letter describing the transport of the Court across the Atlantic Ocean:

We were fortunate to be in the company of His Royal Highness, who stopped here (São Salvador) for lack of provisions.

It’s inadequate to describe the distressing situation of the poor women who overcrowded the ship: being deprived of what they needed, I was amazed to see how they overcame the difficulties.

This morning the Duke of Caraval died, literally collapsing with grief. I learnt that he was one of Portugal’s leading noblemen and a man of exemplary character.

I really think that he starved while travelling, and I hope that the prince will all disembark here, to avoid scenes of misfortune.

After a month in Salvador, João arrived in Rio de Janeiro.

The Sugar Loaf would welcome this crew and their commander (Sir Sidney Smith, who was known as the “Lion of the Sea”) who was used to so many wars and battles. On the other hand, the air of the tropics, enchanted by the climate, the trees, the fruit and the local people (SCHWARCZ, 2007, p. 43).

2.3. The Arrival

Prince Regent João VI, his mother and Queen Maria, and the royal family landed in Rio de Janeiro on 8 March 1808.

Chegada da família real portuguesa no Brasil
Arrival of the Portuguese royal family in Brazil

The arrival of the royal court caused great mobilisation in the city. There was a real popular celebration.

The streets were carpeted with beach sand and aromatic herbs, Goa quilts fluttered on the balconies and bells tolled. […] As the Court got off the ships, they were greeted with a shower of flowers and odourous plants.

In front of the Rosário church, priests dressed in silk raincoats incensed the newly arrived travellers, while the air was shaken by fanfares, rockets and the crashing of artillery (DEL PRIORE, 2001, p. 187).

This symbolic public act represented the beginning of new times for the capital of the Empire, but also for Brazil.

Even the calendar was changed: 13 May, the prince’s birthday, was celebrated with festivities.

So that the nobility could be installed, the houses and mansions of important people in the colony were vacated, an act known as “retirements”.

The best houses were chosen to house the royal entourage. The letters P and R (Prince Regent) were painted on the doors of the chosen houses.

Quinta da Boa Vista, in São Cristóvão, became the residence of the royal family. The Quinta mansion was provided by the Portuguese merchant Elias Antônio Lopes.

O Palácio de São Cristóvão (Quinta da Boa Vista)e suas progressivas reformas, Jean-Baptiste Debret, 1839
The Palace of São Cristóvão (Quinta da Boa Vista) and its progressive renovations, Jean-Baptiste Debret, 1839.

It was this scenario that marked the first moments of the royal family’s arrival in Rio de Janeiro. But the changes were only just beginning.

2.4. Opening of the Ports

Even before Dom João arrived in Rio de Janeiro, he had decreed the opening of Brazil’s ports to the so-called “friendly nations”, especially England.

The Royal Charter documenting the opening, dated 28 January 1808, was written by José da Silva Lisboa, a passionate reader of the liberal economist Adam Smith.

This document went against the Colonial Pact (the commercial monopoly that Portugal had on trade with Brazil).

According to Boris Fausto (2007, p. 122):

The opening of the harbours was a historically predictable act, but at the same time driven by the circumstances of the moment.

Portugal was occupied by French troops, and trade could not take place through it.

For the Portuguese Crown, it was preferable to legalise the extensive smuggling that existed between the colony and England and collect the taxes due.

England was the main beneficiary of the measure. Rio de Janeiro became a port of entry for English manufactured goods […].

With the opening up, customs tariffs changed.

The so-called wet goods (olive oil, wine and brandy) now cost twice as much to sell in Brazil.

Other goods, dry goods, would pay a duty of 24 per cent ad valorem (on their value). For their part, foreigners were allowed to take colonial products out of Brazil, with the exception of brazilwood.

However, England began to pay differentiated taxes, 16 per cent ad valorem on dry goods and 30 per cent less than the taxes established for wet goods.

These measures reduced smuggling and ended up filling the Brazilian market with English products.

The market was completely overflowing; so great and unexpected was the luxury of English manufactures in Rio, immediately after the arrival of the Prince Regent, that the rents of the houses to store them skyrocketed.

Guanabara Bay was full of ships and soon the customs house was overflowing with goods.

Heaps of tools and nails, salted fish, mountains of cheese, hats, boxes of glass, ceramics, rope, beer bottled in barrels, paints, gums, resins, tar, etc., were exposed not only to the sun and rain, but to general depredation.

International trade intensified even more with the Treaty of 1810 between Portugal and England.

This treaty was “the price paid by Portugal to England for the aid it had received from England in Europe” (HOLANDA et al., 2003, p. 93).

It should be understood that the “aid” was the escort of the English navy, which accompanied the Court on the ocean crossing.

England was granted a special concession, and from that date paid only 15 per cent ad valorem.

The previous commercial treaties were abolished.

Even Portuguese goods had higher rates, 16 per cent on the value of the goods. “This concession had several results: it hindered the development of industry in Brazil, as its products could not compete with English goods sold at very low prices” (HOLANDA et al., 2003, p. 96).

Some of the main articles of the Treaty of 1810, called Alliance and Friendship and Commerce and Navigation, were as follows:

The two kingdoms would support each other, with England immediately supporting the invasion of French Guiana, a consequence of the declaration of war launched by Dom João as soon as he arrived in Brazil.

  • The British Crown ratified its full support for the Braganças.
  • England would have its rights to the island of Madeira renewed and would gain a neutral harbour on the island of Santa Catarina.
  • England would have the right to cut wood, such as jacaranda and vinhático, build ships and permanently maintain a war squadron on the Brazilian coast.
  • English subjects living here would be guaranteed their religious freedom, with the Inquisition not being installed, and would be judged in any case by Conservative Judges (appointed by England), “recognising the superiority of British jurisprudence”.
  • The Portuguese government undertook to gradually abolish slave labour. Immediately, trafficking was limited to the Portuguese colonies in Africa.
  • England obtained the right to re-export tropical goods.

In addition to the aforementioned customs agreement (duties at 15 per cent ad valorem), these were the points agreed between Portugal and England, which lasted for 14 years.

However, the Luso-Brazilian elite did not accept the terms of this contract. Accusing the government of treason, they were actually acting to defend their property, especially their slaves. And, of course, the Catholic Church also spoke out against the Alliance.

Another point should be noted: King João’s military actions in America.

In 1809 he invaded French Guiana in retaliation for Napoleon’s seizure of Portugal.

And in 1817 Montevideo in Uruguay was invaded. These military actions were part of the expansion of the Portuguese Empire, in this case against Spain, which was under the command of the French armies.

3. Brazil from Colony to United Kingdom

With the presence of the Lusitanian Court, Portuguese America became the command centre of the Empire, and in 1815 it was called the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Brazil then became the seat of monarchical power.

To adapt to the new times, the Portuguese administrative structure, which had been transferred to Brazil, began to function.

Rio de Janeiro was home to administrative bodies such as the Board of Trade, Agriculture, Factory and Navigation of Brazil; the Royal Gunpowder Factory and the Anatomical, Surgical and Medical School.

The new capital of the Empire doubled its population between 1808 and 1821.

Brazil went from 50,000 to 100,000 inhabitants. The majority were immigrants (Portuguese, Spanish, French and English), who formed a “middle class of professionals and skilled artisans”.

Education received special attention in that period:

During his stay in Brazil, D. João encouraged the growth of royal schools – the equivalent of high schools today – encouraging primary education and arts and crafts courses.

The Prince Regent also created our first higher education establishment, the Medical-Surgical School, which was organised in Bahia in 1808.

The Military and Navy Academies were founded in Rio, while Artillery and Fortification Schools were set up in Bahia and Maranhão.

Libraries and surveying centres became active, and the Imprensa Régia in the capital was responsible for printing the books, pamphlets and periodicals that were published there between 1808 and 1821.

Dom Rodrigo de Souza Coutinho, Count of Linhares, was an important leader in this process of scientific and educational development.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs and War, he was at the forefront of the creation of institutions for intellectual promotion.

In fact, he was the heir to the ideas of the Marquis of Pombal (1750-1777) – an old ally of the mercantile bourgeoisie who had plans to transform Portugal into a powerful empire.

Although the Prince Regent made Brazil the seat of the kingdom and equipped it with institutions geared towards production, whether of an economic or cultural nature, it was intended that Brazil would continue to be dependent on the Portuguese.

However, these institutional reforms ended up having an unintended effect: they served, in fact, as the economic, political and cultural basis for Brazil’s emancipation.

However, the establishment of the Empire in the tropics gave rise to a feeling of “nationality” (nativism).

A different civilisation was formed from the meeting of the rural and the urban.

Exuberant nature served as a landscape for a miscegenation of peoples and cultures.

Rio de Janeiro, in turn, was the microcosm where these transformations took place quickly and intensely.

4. In this chapter you learnt that:

  • The plans for change in Brazil predated 1808. There were already plans to build a powerful Portuguese empire, with Brazil as its main colony.
  • There is no consensus on the transfer of Dom João and the royal family, but some scholars consider it an act of cowardice, others a military strategy.
  • The Court’s departure for Brazil was prompted by the invasion of Portugal by Napoleon Bonaparte’s army, which was fighting for political hegemony on the European continent.
  • England escorted the Court to Brazil because it had commercial interests with Portugal. The British were the main beneficiaries after the opening of Brazilian ports.
  • With the presence of the administrative apparatus of the Kingdom of Portugal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ceased to be a colony and became a United Kingdom.

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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