Brazil’s Long Way to Independence

Brazil is many things. One of the largest and most populous countries in the world. Home to an unrivalled biodiversity. A melting-pot of indigenous, European, and African culture. All of these aspects have shaped the history of this fascinating place, and it is almost criminal that in five years of blogging I have never written about Brazilian history before. I will make amends for that amidst the preparations for the bicentenary of Brazilian independence. This article aims to shed light on this atypical, and, in many ways incomplete decolonization process. As I assume most of my readership is unfamiliar with Brazilian history, I’ll give a quick rundown of Brazil’s colonial history and the dramatic events of the Napoleonic period which acted as catalyst for Brazil’s independence before going into the independence process itself. As you rightly expect, board games will feature on the way – yet I have to warn you that there are way too few which are published so far.

Colonizers & Colonized: Brazil as a Portuguese Colony

Brazil was first settled over 10,000 years ago. A variety of indigenous cultures made their mark in Brazil, but as they did not leave written records, we do not know as much about them as about other early civilizations of the Americas.

Left, foreground: Pottery from the indigenous peoples of the Amazonas. Background: Copy of Antônio Parreiras’s painting “A conquista do Amazonas” [The conquest of the Amazon). Photographed at the Museu Forte do Presépio, Belém, PA (Brazil).

They first came in touch with Europeans in the years after Columbus’s expedition had landed in the Caribbean. Columbus’s expedition led to a renewed dispute between Spain and Portugal about who could claim which extra-European lands. The Treaty of Tordesillas worked out a dividing line in the Atlantic, west of which the Spanish could keep their new American discoveries… but as Brazil extends more to the east than any other landmass in the Americas, that fell into the Portuguese sphere of influence. Thus, the Portuguese captain Pedro Álvares Cabral claimed it for Portugal when he made landfall in northeastern Brazil on April 22, 1500.

Portuguese colonization limited itself to coastal settlements and exploitations of selected raw materials and crops. Initially, the Portuguese extracted mostly Brazil wood (from which the country derives its name). Other economic cycles followed – first sugar (for whose plantations the Portuguese trafficked millions of enslaved Africans to Brazil), then, for a few decades in the 18th century, gold. From the 19th century on, coffee became the dominant export of Brazil. It has only been from the 1930s on that Brazil does not depend on a single export anymore.

Cover art for the (unpublished) Brasil (Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro/Paulo Soledade) showing a view of the city of Ouro Preto [Black Gold, after the color of the gold ore], the center of the Brazilian gold cycle. The rich gold miners poured their wealth into their spiritual salvation by building a plethora of churches in the Brazilian baroque style which can be visited until today. The game Brasil has had a less remarkable story and seems to simmer in development hell for about five years. Image ©What’s Your Game?

The colonization was not unopposed. The indigenous Brazilians and the Portuguese lived uneasily next to one another – but as European diseases (which were sometimes intentionally spread) wiped out around 90% of the native population, there were not a lot of indigenous people left to oppose the Portuguese.

It’s much easier conquering a place when the natives have succumbed to your crafty biowarfare before. Card Smallpox from Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games).

Another group grew in number, and thus, also in its potential for resistance: African slaves outnumbered white Portuguese in many places in the northeast and southeast of Brazil. Both the sugar boom of the 17th and the gold rush of the 18th century were based on their labor. The slaves who managed to flee often founded their own settlements (the quilombos) in the hinterland. The most famous of these, the Quilombo dos Palmares, existed for almost the entire 17th century. From the 1650s on, it repelled a Portuguese expedition almost every year, until it fell it 1694. As far as I know, except for a single card in Pax Emancipation (Phil Eklund, Sierra Madre Games) there is no board game on the quilombolas yet – but it could make an excellent solo game, for example within the States of Siege system. Further rebellions carried by slaves and their descendants followed, maybe most famously the 1798 Revolta dos Alfaiates (Tailors’ Rebellion) in which a major part of the black and mixed-race population in Bahia (together with parts of the white underclasses) rose to secede from Portugal and abolish slavery.

The Quilombo das Palmares card from Pax Emancipation – illustrated with Ganga Zumba, one of the leaders of the quilombo. Image ©Sierra Madre Games.

Finally, the white settlers in Brazil were not always happy with their colonial status either. While Brazil had a decidedly lower anti-colonial spirit than Spanish America or British America, grumblings against rule from faraway Lisbon were not uncommon. The closest they came to erupting was the 1789 Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Gerais conspiracy) which was betrayed from the inside – and so its leaders were arrested before they even began to carry out their plans (which, beyond independence, were mum on the important political issues, like if the newly independent state should be a republic or a monarchy and if slavery should be kept or abolished).

Refugee & Royal: The Flight of the Portuguese Monarchy

By the 1800s, Portugal’s former naval and commercial glory had faded. What remained was Brazil, one of the richest colonies in the world (particularly for its exports of cotton and sugar), now the major asset of the Portuguese monarchy. Politically, however, Portugal was a small power and thus scrupulously minding its neutrality.

Enter Napoleon.

Portugal stayed out of the Napoleonic wars as long as it could. Yet its close trade relationship with Britain, Napoleon’s chief enemy, meant that neutrality could not last forever. Napoleon demanded that Portugal accede to the Continental System (that is, a blockade of British trade) – and Britain, of course, demanded that Portugal remain open for its trade. The French army and the British navy stood at the ready to enforce their respective countries’ demands. The Portuguese Prince Regent John (later king John VI) assessed all possible ways of avoiding to take a side (including a feigned state of war between Britain and Portugal to get the French off his back while maintaining British trade) and only stopped dithering once news reached him that a French army under General Junot was on its way to invade Portugal. He cast his lot with the British and gave the command to evacuate the Portuguese court. The royal family and ten thousand of its attendants and administrators, together with the royal treasury, the royal library, and a printing press, embarked with a prepared fleet (to be protected by British warships) in the port of Lisbon and left for Brazil on November 29, 1807. One day later Junot’s troops entered Lisbon.

The fleet reached Salvador de Bahia in the Brazilian northeast by January 22, 1808. For the first time in history, a European monarch set foot on the soil of an American colony. One of the immediate results of his safe arrival was a change in trade law: Brazilian ports were opened to ships from all friendly nations (instead of only Portuguese ships) – in practice, that meant British ships.

John and his court moved on to Rio de Janeiro. The city now turned from the capital of the colony of Brazil to the seat of the Portuguese monarchy. The structure of the monarchy did not change much – almost all of the higher nobles and government officials had been born in Portugal – but the symbolic change could not be overestimated. Brazil, long used to being the economically crucial, but politically inferior part of the Portuguese monarchy, was now the center of events. This change in status was codified in 1815, when Brazil was officially raised to the status of co-kingdom, equal to Portugal.

The same year, Napoleon was defeated. The French threat to Portugal ceased and peace returned to Europe. The question of governing from Brazil or from Portugal arose anew. John, with his characteristic indecisiveness, delayed. For the time being that meant that Brazil remained the center of the monarchy. Yet with the external threat gone, rifts between Portugal and Brazil became more apparent – most importantly when Portugal accommodated its major ally Britain on the question of abolition by agreeing to make the slave trade illegal north of the equator which fueled anti-Portuguese sentiment among the (usually slave-holding) Brazilian elites.

Human trafficking routes: Slaves from central Africa were brought to the Brazilian sugar, cotton, and coffee plantations. Detail from the Pax Emancipation map, taken from the game’s Vassal module.

Returning & Remaining: Brazil and Portugal Separate

The rift between the two co-kingdoms opened in 1820 with the Liberal Revolution in Portugal whose protagonists demanded a constitutional monarchy. In Rio de Janeiro, different parties at the court clamored for king John to return to Portugal to quench the rebellion, to remain in Brazil to be out of reach of the liberals, or to institute liberal reforms on both sides of the Atlantic. John once more delayed – but when it seemed that his Portuguese throne was at risk, he returned to Europe. He’d spent over 13 years governing from Brazil. John left his son Peter behind to act as regent in Brazil.

John’s return to Portugal might have been prudent in his quest to retain the throne, but it did not help Portuguese-Brazilian unity. The liberals had called for a parliament (the cortes) from all parts of the monarchy to work out a constitution, yet in practice the cortes were dominated by European Portuguese who attempted to restore Portugal’s primacy over its Brazilian co-kingdom. That fueled the Brazilian desire for independence, and a separate Brazilian constituent assembly gathered to produce its own Brazilian constitution. King John saw that Brazilian independence could not be stopped and advised his son by letter from Portugal to make himself the head of the movement – in his words, “Put the crown on your head before one of them does”.

It was probably the only way for Peter to retain the reins and not be swept away like the viceroys of Spanish or British America. He adopted his role with vigor: The provincial governors were instructed not to allow Portuguese officials to take office and the non-Brazilian Portuguese troops were declared enemies. Peter himself went on a tour through Brazil to gather support. While he was travelling close to São Paulo on September 7, 1822, letters from his wife Leopoldina and his chief minister José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva reached him, both saying that the cortes would not respect Brazilian autonomy. Peter’s understanding of the urgency of the situation (as well as his impulsive temperament) drove him to immediate action. After reading the letters, he declared Brazil’s independence right where he was at the banks of the river Ipiranga.

Peter I the way he liked to be portrayed: Surrounded by tropical riches and with impressive hair. Cover of the rulebook for Brazil: Imperial (Zé Mendes, MeepleBR).

Brazil thus completed the independence drive of the American mainland. Unlike the new republics that had been part of British and Spanish America before, Brazil was a monarchy. Soon after the declaration of independence, Peter was crowned emperor of Brazil. His coronation merged tradition and innovation: Both the coronations of the Holy Roman Emperors and that of Napoleon provided inspiration. The allegorical backdrop used at the coronation, however, separated the new American empire from these European ones by displaying the country’s tropical riches and multi-racial population (while not questioning slavery).

So far, Peter only ruled half a country. The independence movement had been popular in the southern half of Brazil where the new capital of Rio de Janeiro was located. In the northeast and north, geographically, culturally, and economically closer to Portugal, enthusiasm was at best lukewarm. Peter got these parts to accept his rule by a mix of bluff and coercion – best exemplified by the expedition of the commander-in-chief of the new Brazilian navy, the Scottish captain Thomas Cochrane (whose adventurous life has partially inspired Jack Aubrey from the Aubrey-Maturin series of historical novels): As far as possible, Cochrane showed his naval strength (often exaggerating it) and expected the officials in the north and northeast to make the smart decision of falling in line with the empire.

Now only the former European metropolis had to be brought along. The young Empire of Brazil reached an agreement with Portugal and Britain over its independence which was negotiated on behalf of both European parties by the British diplomat Charles Stuart (a hint that Portugal itself had become a semi-colony of Britain). Brazil agreed to compensate Portugal with the tidy sum of two million pounds (which Brazil could not pony up itself, so credits from British banks had to be taken out) and renounce any future unification with other Portuguese colonies. Peter, however, retained the right to succession for the Portuguese throne. Britain’s price to recognize Brazilian independence was the abolition of the slave trade (to become effective by 1830) and the capping of import tariffs on British goods in Brazil.

Thus, Brazil’s colonial mode of production did not change – only Britain replaced Portugal as the new quasi-metropolis of a quasi-colony, dominating the Brazilian market with its manufactured goods and taking the Brazilian raw materials (sugar, cotton, and increasingly coffee). Brazil’s political and social institutions did not change much either: The monarchy remained, as did slavery.

Different game, similar map: Brazil’s plantation economy (sugar icon) was based on the labor of African slaves (shackle icons in Angola and West Africa). Map detail from Colonial Europe’s Empires Overseas (Maxence Dumontet/Patrice Gasser/Christophe Pont, Stratagem Game Design).

Peter would never become a fully Brazilian monarch. He’d been born in Portugal and inherited the Portuguese throne in 1826 (but abdicated in favor of his daughter Mary (II) after a few months). When Brazilian opposition against him mounted and his daughter’s throne was threatened by his brother Michael, he abdicated in Brazil in 1831 and returned to Portugal to defend Mary’s right to the throne. Only then were Brazil’s ties to Portugal fully severed.

Peter I was followed by his five-year old son of the same name. Peter II had been born in Brazil and was accepted as a true Brazilian ruler. He proved a highly popular enlightened monarch who was more interested in science than in politics. His reign would last until 1889 when he was forced to abdicate after a military revolt which would bring about the Brazilian Republic.

You cannot say “Brazil” and “Imperial” without putting the guy on the cover who was Brazil’s emperor for 68 of the 77 years the empire lasted: Peter II. Cover of Brazil: Imperial, ©MeepleBR.

Games Referenced

Brasil (Nuno Bizarro Sentiero/Paulo Soledade, unpublished)

Here I Stand (Ed Beach, GMT Games)

Pax Emancipation (Phil Eklund, Sierra Madre Games)

Brazil: Imperial (Zé Mendes, MeepleBR)

Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas (Maxence Dumontet/Patrice Gasser/Christophe Pont, Stratagem Game Design)

Further Reading

You’ll find a good overall view of Brazilian history in Schwarcz, Lilia M./Starling, Heloisa M.: Brazil. A Biography, Penguin Books, London 2019.

For an insightful overview of Brazilian independence see Bethell, Leslie: The Independence of Brazil, in: The Cambridge History of Latin America. Volume III. From Independence to c. 1870, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1985, pp. 157—196.

A somewhat journalistic treatment of the transfer of the monarchy to Brazil is Gomes, Laurentino: 1808. The Flight of the Emperor, Lyons Press, Guilford, CT 2013. The follow-up on the independence of Brazil remains untranslated, but if you read Portuguese, it is aptly titled 1822 (Nova Fronteira, Rio de Janeiro, RJ 2010).


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