History Summarized: Brazil

October 2, 2019

This video is brought to you by Squarespace. It’s a website, and so can you! I messed that up. With all of my talk of empires throughout world history I messed that up. With all of my talk of empires throughout world history, it’s easy to forget that colonies have feelings too. Not only is it those guys who do all of the legwork to make empire possible in the first place, but they’re also fascinating in their own right with purpose-driven economies, distinct local cultures, and unique political relationships with the rest of the world. I’ve talked before about the seafaring history of Portugal, but today I’d like to pivot across a hemisphere or two to discuss the growth of its colossal colony of Brazil. To figure out why the South American territory became so instrumental and even grew to eclipse the power of its former parents, let’s do some history. South American history actually goes back way farther than the 1500’s as thousands of indigenous groups called the continent home in the millennia before colonization. Some are still around, and several remain uncontacted to this day. But for the purposes of the Portuguese Empire our story begins with a Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. With Columbus coming back to Spain all smug about “totally finding India you guys” Portugal worried that its budding colonial aspirations were doomed. After a long talk with the Pope they agreed to bisect the globe for ease of empire building. Spain and Portugal both got the freedom to claim any non-european land west and east of a specified line respectively; however, a Portuguese fleet bound for India in 1500 got blown hilariously off-course to discover, to everyone’s surprise, a substantial landmass just east of that demarcation line. Lucky day. Portugal named it after the abundant supply of reddish-orange brazilwood trees which were later used for dyes among other things. Brazil, as it came to be known, just kind of sat there for the early 16th century, as the big money was being made along Indian spice routes in the east. While Portugal seems to not really have cared all that much for Brazil at first, they got real defensive when France tried to muscle in on their territory and clandestinely export brazilwood. As a result, King João the 3rd made an active effort to centralize the Brazilian government, better guard the ports to stop those pesky French, and attract new colonists to move there. Things moved along at a typical colonial pace, making very tenuous contacts with local native groups while exporting natural resources back to Portugal. Indigenous peoples who got captured for labor typically ran away inland which might as well have been like jumping off the edge of the earth, because to this day the coastal mountains have been a colossal barrier to inland development in Brazil. In the absence of a stable local work force, Brazil… imported one. Yeah, so the Brazilian economy single-handedly kick-started the transatlantic slave trade, which was supplied by regular Portuguese contact with coastal African populations and oh, man, was it bad. Of the over 10 million people taken from Africa, over 4 million were brought into Brazilian slavery. That’s about 10 times that of North America. Yeah. And worse yet, the brutality of their treatment in Brazil meant that turnover was very high and slaves were almost constantly imported into Brazil until they were finally outlawed in the very late 1800’s. To make matters worse, the trade itself had a catastrophic and centuries-long effect on coastal African populations and economies. It’s just a really bad time. So with that very depressing sidebar addressed, you may see why the Portuguese treated Brazil as more of a side hustle than its imperial priorities along the Indian spice routes. That all changed when who else but the French snuck over to capture the harbour city of Rio de Janeiro in 1555 because, whoops, Brazil never bothered to fortify it. Someone’s getting fired for that. And in other things that make very little sense, apparently Rio de Janeiro is supposed to be pronounced “hugh de janeiro,” and to that, I ask one question and that is: what did the letter R ever do to you guys? But while I could confusedly stare at linguistics all day, we should probably move on to the early and mid 1600’s, when Portugal’s unwelcome participation in the Iberian Union with Spain meant that they had to deal with all of Spain’s enemies, and in this case that entailed the Dutch trying to yoink Brazil from Brazil. After Portugal broke off its 60-year marriage with Spain, Brazil ultimately ousted the Dutch by themselves in 1654, which got people thinking “Hey, maybe these Portuguese guys care more about spices than us Brazilians” and they would keep thinking exactly that for another 150 years until that train of thought came to its logical conclusion. So yeah, stay tuned for the inevitable independence movement. Since getting glomped by the Iberian Union, Brazil expanded outwards and a bit inlands though three of the four biggest cities, Recife, Salvador, and Rio, were still coastal. Strengthening economic ties and a lasting linguistic bridge kept Brazil looking eastward to their increasingly responsible parent-state rather than mingling with their spanish-speaking neighbors. It also helped that there was a metric Amazon in the way. Speaking of economics, sugar later joined brazilwood as a key export and soon, Brazilians would finally have a motivation for making the trek over the mountains and inland, because somebody discovered gold Along with demographics and economics, the political weight of Brazil shifted to gold adjacent Rio de Janeiro Which became the capital of the colony in 1763. Admittedly, this switch happened over half a century after the gold was first discovered, but given the gold rush continued on for another century after this, I figure better late than never. Coincidentally, this ludicrously lucrative resource rush around Rio had a considerable effect back in Lisbon as well. With British and Dutch traders squeezing Portugal out of their old Indian Ocean trade routes, Brazil’s newfound wealth made an Atlantic imperial pivot the logical choice. Back on the Iberian Peninsula losing the spice monopoly wasn’t even the worst of it. In 1755, a triple disaster in the form of earthquake, tidal wave, and fires leveled most of Lisbon and set Portugal on a long and painful rebuilding process. To make matters worse, along came Napoleon to throw everyone for a loop at the turn of the century, and in attempts to blockade England from the Mediterranean and South Atlantic, Napoleon brought the Bona party into Iberia. In 1807, Queen Maria and her son Dom João booked it right the hell out of Portugal with a British escort to establish a new government in exile in Brazil. The royals, very thankful to be alive, opened up the Brazilian economy to foreign powers, but really mostly England, whereas the colony had previously been trading exclusively with Portugal. Though Maria was still technically the monarch, her son João did a lot of the governing, establishing a slew of official offices, councils, and agencies in their new home of Rio. In 1816, Dom João became King João VI, three years after Napoleon withdrew from Portugal, and one year after he got Waterloo’d, but despite Portugal being safe, João insisted on staying in Brazil on the basis of “Lisbon sucks and this place is a tropical paradise,” which when you’re comparing post-earthquake to post Gold Rush, yeah, that makes sense to me; however, in 1821, revolts of monarchical dissatisfaction in Lisbon meant that João sadly had to leave Brazil to go be King of Portugal, whatever that means, but he left his kiddo Don Pedro behind to keep charge. Portugal, having some post-war problems, wanted to undo the reforms of João and restore Brazil to subservient colony status, but when the Portuguese parliament asked Pedro to return to Lisbon to stop him from getting crazy ideas of forming an independent empire, Pedro said “Yo, dude. I should totally form an independent empire,” and in 1822, he did exactly that, declaring a new constitutional monarchy with the help of the Brazilian Independence Party. New King Pedro even gave a famous speech known as the “I am staying” speech that clearly articulated his best wishes for the Parliament of Portugal to kindly pack it in and mind their own damn business. After a brief run of nation-planning between 1822 and 1824 other powers recognized Brazilian independence, and the newly minted empire got to work. Compared to other independence movements in South America during the early 19th century, Brazil’s was doing all right. Gold was still plentiful, and compared to the sprawling size of the empire, there wasn’t too much per capita revolting. One notable kerfuffle pitted the Emperor against the Constituent Assembly, and in the end Pedro forced a new Constitution that strengthened his hand over government; however, as far as the citizenry was concerned, provisions for civil rights and freedom of speech made Brazil surprisingly liberal and progressive for its time. With the main exception of the Emperor sitting atop the rest of government, it was similarly styled to other Republican Constitutions, with a judicial, executive, and legislative branch and Pedro largely respected the institutions he presided over. However, Pedro I was eventually forced to abdicate in 1831, after having his pants handed to him in a war against Argentina and attempting a series of highly unpopular reforms. He left his five-year-old son Pedro II in line for the throne, and the next decade saw three different regions attempt to rule over Brazil (poorly I should add) while the royal tween got up to speed on “how to empire.” Eventually, the National Assembly got sick of waiting, and crowned the fourteen-year-old as emperor of one of the Earth’s largest contiguous territories. No pressure. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Hey Blue, we literally just saw this go to hell in the China video. How soon until South America completely implodes with the teenager in charge? But surprise surprise, Pedro II turned out to be a smart, compassionate, and almost consistently competent ruler, and that is the absolute last time I ever buy into the office monarch madness pool. To use the basketball parlance, your boy Blue got dunked on. Anyway, reigning for almost 60 years Pedro oversaw Brazil’s transformation into a true international super power. Along with substantial exports and a stable government, Pedro is said to have wanted to be a teacher, so a strong education program was central to his administration. He also oversaw the abolition of slavery against the vehement wishes of the aristocratic slave-owning class. He had taken a series of provisional steps such as the outlawing of birthright slavery to gradually eliminate the institution, but it was his daughter Isabel who brought the hammer down, declaring it abolished while Pedro was out in Europe in 1888. Given the long and gruesome history of the Portuguese slave trade and the fact that Brazil was pretty much the last major power to outlaw slavery, it didn’t happen a moment too soon. As time went on though, Pedro became increasingly wary of Brazil’s future, as he resented the role of the Emperor after almost 60 years in power, and didn’t see a good option for his successor, but after his daughter put the final nail in the coffin of slavery, the military and land-owning aristocracy were just miffed enough to take care of that problem for him. A coup in 1889 ousted poor Pedro exiling him to Europe to live alone on very little money before dying two years later in Paris. Back in Brazil, the empire had been overthrown in favor of a new republic that historians referred to as the Old Republic, which in addition to being declared non-canon by Disney, saw elections serially manipulated by powerful politicians and landowners for decades. Subsequently Brazil went through an absolute carousel of governments through the 1900’s. You can honestly set your watches by the military dictatorships. One bright spot in the middle of the century came under the tenure of Juscelino Kubitschek, who moved the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília, established inland in the middle of nowhere and constructed out of basically nothing but the purpose of shifting the country’s political economic center of gravity away from the coast. But at the risk of falling down the dictatorial rabbit-hole, I’m calling it here. Brazil has a fascinating history, in large part because its success looked unlikely from the very start. Discovered basically by accident and long ignored in favor of other prospects, Brazil is a clear case of getting out what you put in. To mix my metaphors here, the grass is greener over in the Indian Ocean until you start tending your own garden and suddenly discover an el Dorado’s worth of gold. In history and in our own lives, just because things take a while to get started, doesn’t mean they won’t go anywhere. 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