How the Napoleonic Wars shaped Brazil’s Independence

Brazil is an immense mass of land, bound by a single flag and language. Against all odds, it emerged from its war of independence as a unified country. A story that was only possible due to Napoleon’s megalomaniacal plans. For those unfamiliar with the history of Brazil and Latin America, claiming that the French emperor directly influenced the geography of the continent, may seem a bit strange. 

Every great story that starts with “once upon a time” has a queen. The Portuguese kingdom at the outbreak of the French Revolution was ruled by Queen Maria I of the House of Bragança. The executions of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette terrified Queen Maria and contributed to a deterioration of her mental health. The ill queen was replaced by her son, Prince Dom João, who ruled Portugal as Prince Regent. 

By 1807, many of Europe’s monarchs had waged war on Revolutionary, and later Napoleonic France. Napoleon’s continental blockade aimed to prevent British goods from entering European ports, but Portugal was a loyal ally of England. This resulted in the French invading the Iberian Peninsula, first conquering Spain. The Portuguese court reached the conclusion that there was no other way to stay in Portugal, except as prisoners. Therefore, helped by England, the queen, the prince, and all the Portuguese court left for the New World, marking a new era in Brazil’s history, but also in all of humanity’s history, since for the first time a European monarch was not only coming to the Americas but was settling in it. 

On the 8th of March 1808, the sun was shining radiantly in Rio de Janeiro, when around forty vessels showed up in the Guanabara Bay bringing 10 thousand people. The court’s first impression on Rio de Janeiro, as the Cariocas’ impression on the court, were of complete estrangement. Most Portuguese women landing in Brazil had their heads shaved due to a lice epidemic during the Atlantic crossing. Women from Rio de Janeiro thought it was the newest fashion trend in Europe, leading many of them to either shave their heads or use headscarves just like the Portuguese ladies. On the other side, the Portuguese concluded that the city was one of the most dangerous, violent and dirtiest cities on the planet. Nonetheless, they also admitted that Rio had the most astonishing landscapes in the whole world, which is still true to this day.

Dom João did a lot for Brazil, and was a progressive force in Rio de Janeiro, setting out to transform it into a capital that would rival any in Europe. Medical, military, and art schools were created, as well as a botanical garden, an opera house, and a museum. For the first time books were being printed in Brazil, as prior to this all books had to be shipped from Portugal. Newspapers also appeared throughout the royal family’s stay. Trade flourished, as João opened Brazilian ports to friendly nations, mainly Great Britain, ending the mercantilist system previously instituted. The prince had taken an immediate liking to life in Brazil, and even after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, he decided not to return to Portugal, elevating Brazil to the status of kingdom.  

It was necessary for an outbreak of the Portuguese Liberal Revolution of 1820 for Dom João VI, now king of Portugal and Brazil due to the passing of Queen Maria, to finally return, leaving his son, Prince Dom Pedro, as Regent of the Kingdom of Brazil. The young prince arrived in Brazil when he was nine years old and some might say he became an authentic Brazilian, as he was raised outside the palaces. In fact, the Portuguese nobility would call him “The Brazilian” as an insult. The man who would become the first Emperor of Brazil was a controversial figure, having shown both liberal and authoritarian policies several times in his life. He was greatly influenced by the echoes of the French Revolution through his friendship with an important name from the independence movement: José Bonifácio, who is considered the Patriarch of the Brazilian Independence.

José Bonifácio was a member of the Brazilian elite, and as all young men of that time, he was sent to study in the University of Coimbra. Due to his passion for natural sciences, he ended up having troubles with the Inquisition, leaving Portugal and moving to Paris during the bloody revolutionary years, and afterwards to Sweden, Germany, and Denmark where he interacted with many scientists of the time, including Lavoisier.

From a social point of view, he was a liberal ahead of his time, being in favor of the preservation of forests, of a just and respectful treatment to the indigenous population, and of the end of slavery. However, in the strict sense of politics, he did not like the democratic republican system, as he lived in Paris during the French Revolution and wanted to avoid the possibility of anarchy similar to what had occurred during the early years. He was in favor of a strong executive power, which would represent the permanent interests of the nation, and a congress representing the momentaneous interests. Although the statesman was friends with the crown prince, it was with the prince’s wife, Leopoldina, that he found an intellectual equal to formulate the Independence of Brazil.

Leopoldina was the daughter of Francis II, the Holy Roman Emperor, and can be considered as the Matriarch of Independence. The emperor saw his aunt, Marie Antoinette, served up on a platter to the French Court, and was forced to marry his eldest daughter to Napoleon upon being defeated. These events led him to decide that his other daughters would have the right to choose who and if they would marry. The Austrian princess, Leopoldina, received the best education that her status allowed, studying under Goethe and being classmates with Franz Schubert. Upon receiving a marriage proposal from Dom Pedro, she was aware of the importance of their union for the maintenance and survival of the European monarchies under threat by Bonaparte. This prompted her to cross the Atlantic to be the future Queen of Portugal. Upon arriving in Brazil, she soon found out that the prince, although intelligent, had no culture. In fact the lack of culture was a trait of all the Portuguese court, as the princess would be constantly mocked by members of the high society for liking books, science, and philosophy.

The departure of Dom Pedro’s father and the pressure coming from Portugal to reduce Brazil back to its colonial state, created an unstable environment all over the country, with many rebellions threatening the unity of the kingdom. In 1822, Dom Pedro had to travel to solve a provincial rebellion in São Paulo and left his wife as interim ruling princess. During his absence, letters from Portugal arrived, with an ultimatum demanding the return of the heir to Portugal’s throne and the return of Brazil to the previous colonial status quo. 

On September 2nd 1822, princess Leopoldina gathered the Council of State and signed the Declaration of Independence alongside Prime Minister José Bonifácio. She immediately sent the news to her husband and urged him to acknowledge the independence of the newly born country. While on his way back on 7th September 1822, Dom Pedro received letters from his wife. According to reports, a furious Dom Pedro tore off the Portuguese insignia from his uniform and ordered his guards to do the same.  He drew his sword and called for complete separation from Portugal.

But in spite of these fine words, the authority of the new regime only extended to Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and adjacent provinces. It took a war to put the whole of Brazil under Emperor Dom Pedro’s control. The story of Dom Pedro’s reign, the reigns of his descendants, and the eventual Republican coup would make me deliver more pages than I am allowed to write.  

In less than twenty years, Brazil had been transformed from a profitable Portuguese colony to a separate empire. While the Spanish colonies neighboring Brazil took advantage of the Napoleonic Wars and the consequent political instability of the Spanish metropolis for a series of independence movements, fragmenting the Spanish America into a series of smaller countries, Brazil not only remained stable during the Napoleonic Wars but also in consecutive years. Many separatists and independence movements erupted in different regions of Brazil, both before and after the arrival of the Royal Family. These movements were all suppressed by the Monarchy. It is common among historians to affirm that, had the Royal Family not come to America, Brazil today would be a tangle of Latin American countries, like its neighbors.

However, it is a fact that the Brazilian Independence was a conservative revolution: Brazil changed to remain mostly the same. The country remained a monarchy, and above all did not abolish slavery, mostly because the foundations of the economy were based in slave labour. The Spanish colonies became republics and abolished slavery, while Brazil would take another 66 years to achieve its abolition.

By Pedro de Aragão Fernandes


Bueno, Eduardo. Brasil: Uma história: a incrível Saga De Um país. São Paulo: Ática, 2003. 

Gomes, Laurentino. 1808: Como Uma Rainha Louca, Um príncipe Medroso e Uma Corte Corrupta Enganaram Napoleão e Mudaram a história De Portugal e Do Brasil. São Paulo: Planeta, 2014. 

Gomes, Laurentino. 1822: Como Um Homem sábio, Uma Princesa Triste e Um escocês Louco Por Dinheiro Ajudaram D. Pedro a Criar o Brasil–: Um Pais Que Tinha Tudo Para Dar Errado. Rio de Janeiro, RJ, Brasil: Nova Fronteira Participações, 2010. 


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