The gold boom was explosive, but fleeting. By the mid-1700s, the precious metal was increasingly hard to find. But the Portuguese crown still insisted on taxing and appropriating every last nugget. Gradually Brazilian settlers’ anger rose and, fanned by revolutionary ideas imported from France, culminated in the revolt known as the Inconfidência Mineira. Led by an Ouro Preto dentist known as Tiradentes (“Toothpuller”), a dozen outraged Mineiro citizens conspired to rise up against the Portuguese.
After their plans were discovered, all plotters were exiled to Mozambique and Angola, with the exception of Tiradentes. The Toothpuller was hung in public in Rio before having his severed body parts paraded around Ouro Preto as a warning to future rebels. The horrific measures only succeeded in transforming Tiradentes into a national hero and fanning the flames of independence. Indeed, the Inconfidência Mineira was only one of many popular revolts that erupted throughout the 18th century as settlers who increasingly considered themselves native Brazilians chafed under the authority of Portugal and its colonial administrators.
While citizens of all other South American nations waged battles against their colonial oppressors to achieve independence, Brazil’s road to independence took a surprising and unlikely turn. In 1807, having already conquered most of Europe, Napoleon had his eyes set on Portugal. As the French emperor’s troops descended upon Lisbon, King João VI of Portugal and his entire court jumped aboard a fleet of ships and fled across the ocean to Brazil.
In 1808, the king and his royal retinue of 15,000 disembarked in Rio de Janeiro, which immediately became the new capital of the Portuguese empire. The court’s presence quickly transformed Rio from a muddy, mosquito-infested, rough colonial town to a thriving and increasingly elegant capital with grand avenues, parks, and palaces. It also became incredibly cosmopolitan as the king opened the ports to European traders (primarily its English allies) and invited artists, scientists, and scholars from all over Europe to take up residence in Rio. João himself was so taken with his tropical court that he was loath to relinquish it, even after the English defeated Napoleon. When he finally returned to Portugal in 1621 to quell a popular uprising, he left his son Pedro in charge as Prince Regent of Brazil.
Young Pedro was impetuous and impatient. Just like his new Brazilian subjects, he quickly grew fed up with having to comply with rules set down by Portugal, whose interests were increasingly at odds with those of its thriving colony. This rebellious stance came to a head in 1822. On September 7, Pedro was getting ready to ride his horse on the shores of the Ipiranga River, near São Paulo, when a messenger arrived with a handful of letters from Lisbon.
The demands of the Portuguese court so angered him that he uttered the famous cry “Independence or death!” thus declaring Brazil independent. With crises enough of their own at home, Portugal put up little resistance aside from some last-chance battles in Salvador, Fortaleza, and Belém between Brazilians and loyal Portuguese. On December 1, Pedro crowned himself Dom Pedro I, and became the first and only New World emperor.
© Michael Sommers from Moon Brazil, 2nd Edition