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Independence and Nationalism: How did Brazil gain independence and how did that affect Brazil’s future?

Brazil’s bizarre story of gaining independence sets it up as unique within Latin America and, perhaps, the world. Most of the rest of Hispanic Latin America fought wars for independence against Spain under leaders like Simon Bolivar who led what is now Ecuador, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, and Panama to independence. While these wars led to political independence from Spain, they did not result in the type of complete social revolution that we saw in Haiti. Rather, white criollos (descendents of Spanish colonizers) simply took over from white European colonizers. The mestizos (people of Spanish and indigenous descent) and the indigenous remained at the bottom. In a way, the story was somewhat like how South Africa gained independence in the early 20th century but maintained its social hierarchy.

Brazil also did not experience a social revolution even though its story of independence was very different from Spanish Latin America. This story is set within the larger context of the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and then Napoleon’s subsequent French Empire. In 1808, Napoleon invaded the Iberian peninsula and took over Portugal. The Portuguese royal family, rather than fully submit to French rule, fled the country and took the unprecedented step of reestablishing the capital of their empire in a colony: Brazil. The royal family and the entourage of courtiers settled in Rio de Janeiro and turned the tropical outpost into a European imperial center.


In 1816, Dom Joao IV became king of Portugal. After Napoleon’s capture and the independence of Lisbon, the Portuguese Cortes (parliament) demanded that the king return to Europe. The king left his son, Prince Pedro, in charge of Brazil as the regent and he returned to his homeland in 1821. In 1821, alone in Brazil, Pedro declared Brazilian independence (and his own independence from his father) without a bullet being shed. “I proclaim Brazil forevermore separated from Portugal” he exclaimed. He became King Pedro of Brazil. 

What were the effects of this strange independence story on Brazil’s later history? While it was certainly beneficial at the time that no blood was shed, the lack of a “revolutionary war” meant that Brazil lacked a reason for developing a sense of nationalism and a common founding story. Whereas in the United States people still harken back to the Founding Fathers and the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, the lack of conflict meant the Brazil’s independence was more perfunctory than transformative. Yes, Brazil was now an independent country but it still had a king! Brazil’s royal family would continue to rule until the 1880s, which meant that the country did not experience even the veneer of a social or political transformation grounded in the Enlightenment.

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