by Claudia Willetts
Brazil is one of two countries in the Americas which had a monarchical form of government for a period during the nineteenth century, the other being Mexico. Brazil was discovered by Portuguese sailors on the way to India in 1500, according to Burke’s Royal Families of the World. The colony flourished, and the title Prince of Brazil was bestowed on the heir apparent to the Portuguese throne in 1645. In 1807 the Portuguese Royal Family under Dom Joao fled to Brazil from Napoleon’s armies who were invading Lisbon. The presence of the court cost money, but it brought to Rio de Janeiro many of the amenities of a modern European capital sooner than they might otherwise have come. The King founded a library, theatre, academy of fine arts, and a botanical garden. After the defeat of Napoleon, Dom Joao proclaimed Brazil a kingdom, but in 1821 a military coup caused him to return to Portugal leaving his son Dom Pedro behind as Prince Regent.
We take up the story as told by Manoel Cardozo and Alan Manchester in Brazil. Before leaving for Portugal, Dom Joao accepted a constitution for Brazil that provided for individual rights for the citizenry, made it clear that sovereignty resided with the people, and placed most of the power in the hands of Parliament, as well as providing for a hereditary constitutional monarchy in the Imperial and Royal House of Braganza. Shortly after, Dom Pedro proclaimed Brazil’s independence from Portugal, but soon returned there on the death of his father, leaving his infant son to succeed to the Crown. A period of civil unrest followed, and in the nine years of the minority of Dom Pedro II until 1840, four regencies were in power and the country experimented with republicanism with disastrous results.
CH Haring in Empire in Brazil: A New World Experiment with Monarchy, says that the interregnum witnessed a succession of political shocks in the form of subversive regionalistic or republican movements in nearly every province. The prestige of monarchy though, became the symbol of peace and a guaranty of the survival of Brazilian nationality. By 1850 under Pedro II, the nation entered upon a career of peace and progress that was in sharp contrast to what was happening elsewhere in the continent. In addition, the press was free, conscience was free, and individual liberties were fully guaranteed.
However, George Pendle writes in A History of Latin America, that while Dom Pedro II worked unselfishly for his country, the forces that would cause the downfall of the monarchy were gathering momentum. In 1888 Parliament passed a law freeing all slaves who worked on the large plantations, alienating the rural aristocracy who were natural supporters of the Emperor. Moreover, army veterans had been resisting discipline by the civilian authorities, and they knew that under a republican government they would have greater opportunity to advance their political ambitions. Dom Pedro characteristically made no attempt to suppress his opponents, and in 1889 a military uprising caused his abdication. He settled in France, and died in exile, afterward greatly honoured in Brazil.
A century of republicanism left a curious legacy, according to Armando Alexandre dos Santos, who wrote Ser ou nao ser Monarquista: Eis a questas, [To be or not to be a Monarchist: That is the question]. At first in 1889, the change of regime did not enjoy popular support, so the republicans immediately felt it necessary to take measures to quell opposition. In 1891 a clause in the new constitution formally prohibited any bill seeking to modify the form of government, thus gagging monarchists. The “Clausula Petrea” [Stone clause] as it was called, though contradictory to the democratic principles professed by the republicans, lasted until 1987 when it was revoked by a majority vote.