Brazil Becomes Independent

Fearing a return to their former subservient colonial status in the wake of the exiled Portuguese king’s return to Lisbon, Brazilian elites supported the Portuguese prince regent in claiming independence from the mother country. Unlike the Spanish South American colonies, which were becoming independent republics, Brazil remained a monarchy ruled by the Portuguese house of Braganza until 1889.

Summary of Event

The Napoleonic Wars in Europe sparked independence movements in Latin America. When Napoleon I’s brother Joseph Bonaparte was placed on the throne of Spain, Spaniards in Spain and in America viewed him as a usurper; they established governing boards to hold power until the legitimate king was restored. The situation in Portugal, however, was quite different, for the Portuguese crown Napoleon I
[p]Napoleon I[Napoleon 01];and Portugal[Portugal] did not fall prey to Napoleon’s armies. Instead, protected by the Britain’s Royal Navy, the royal family of Portugal, accompanied by thousands of nobles, sailed to Brazil in November, 1807. Because Queen Maria I Maria I suffered from diminished mental capacity, her son John had become prince regent in 1799, and it was he who presided over affairs of state. Brazil;independence of
South America;liberation of
Portugal;and Brazil[Brazil]
Brazil;and Portugal[Portugal]
John VI
Pedro I
[kw]Brazil Becomes Independent (Sept. 7, 1822)
[kw]Independent, Brazil Becomes (Sept. 7, 1822)
Brazil;independence of
South America;liberation of
Portugal;and Brazil[Brazil]
Brazil;and Portugal[Portugal]
John VI
Pedro I
[g]Brazil;Sept. 7, 1822: Brazil Becomes Independent[1190]
[g]South America;Sept. 7, 1822: Brazil Becomes Independent[1190]
[c]Government and politics;Sept. 7, 1822: Brazil Becomes Independent[1190]
[c]Colonization;Sept. 7, 1822: Brazil Becomes Independent[1190]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Sept. 7, 1822: Brazil Becomes Independent[1190]
Andrada e Silva, José Bonifácio de
Maria I
Bonaparte, Joseph

The arrival of the Portuguese court in Brazil transformed politics, culture, and society in the colony. One of the first acts of the prince regent was to open the ports of Brazil to trade with friendly nations. Three hundred years of mercantilist trade restrictions quickly crumbled. With the arrival of foreign merchants, the principal ports of Brazil became much more cosmopolitan, and residents benefited from the new economic opportunities that resulted.

Prince John quickly set about transforming Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro into the center of the Portuguese empire. He had brought the royal treasury with him from Lisbon, and he created a bank in Brazil to handle royal finances. He also brought the first printing press to the colony and established the first universities in Brazil. Although it was sometimes difficult for Brazilians in the capital city to adjust to the presence of such a large group of Portuguese nobles, the advantages of the royal presence far outweighed any logistical problems created by that presence. Brazilians of all social classes, including slaves, came to relish their much easier access to the monarch.

While at first some of the Portuguese nobles resented being away from their land and family in Europe, the royals adjusted well to their new life. Even after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815, which meant they could safely return to Lisbon, they appeared to be in no hurry to leave the colony. In an attempt to normalize this unique situation, the prince regent elevated Brazil to the status of kingdom in 1815, making the colony equal to its mother country. When Queen Maria I Maria I died one year later and the prince regent became King John VI, he still refused to leave Brazil. For the first time ever, the new king was crowned not in Lisbon but in America. Brazilians delighted in the pomp and splendor of the coronation. It must have become clear to the Portuguese in Europe that Brazil’s new status might become permanent. In 1817, King John contracted the marriage of his elder son Pedro to Archduchess Leopoldina, a daughter of the Austrian emperor. The wedding was celebrated in Brazil.

Five years after Napoleon’s defeat, chafing under a regency controlled by the British, Portuguese citizens in Europe longed for the return of their king. Meanwhile, the Spanish colonies in South America were engaged in wars to free themselves from European control. Patriot armies led by José de San Martín San Martín, José de marched northwestward, while the armies of Simón Bolívar Bolívar, Simón headed south. It was clear to John that political peace was the key to ensuring the continued prosperity of Brazil. Because he was married to Carlota Joaquina Carlota Joaquina , a Spanish princess, he was well aware of events in the neighboring Spanish-speaking regions of South America. It seemed to him politically expedient to remain in Brazil.

Portugal was not immune to the constitutionalist spirit sweeping Europe. In 1820, a military revolt in Porto urged the king to adopt constitutional rule. Back in Brazil, crowds in Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro spilled into the streets in support of a constitution as well. Finally, John determined that he must return to Lisbon and deal with the changing political climate. In February, 1821, after thirteen years in Brazil, he quietly sailed back to Europe. His son Pedro, the heir to the Portuguese throne, stayed behind as regent of Brazil. When the liberal Portuguese representative assembly (the Côrtes) insisted in January, 1822, that the prince also return to Europe, he refused. Clearly, he had cast his lot with Brazil. Some of Pedro’s Brazilian advisers, including José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva, Andrada e Silva, José Bonifácio de urged him formally to break political ties with Portugal before separatist movements in Brazil brought about the colony’s independence despite him.

So it was that on September 7, 1822, while traveling in the province of São Paulo in an effort to respond to the concerns of citizens there, Pedro received news that the Portuguese côrtes had taken measures limiting his authority in Brazil and moving toward reinstating Brazil’s colonial status. Upon reading the letter containing this news, he unsheathed and raised his sword, proclaiming, “Independence or death.” This moment, on the banks of the Ipiranga River in the province of São Paulo, marked Brazil’s independence from Portugal.

Although making this personal declaration of independence a reality was not achieved without some bloodshed, the land and naval battles in Brazil’s war for independence were much less costly than those fought in Spanish America, partly because the British supported Brazil’s separation from Portugal. The question of what kind of government would rule the new nation was also resolved quickly. The man who proclaimed Brazilian independence, who was also the heir to the Portuguese throne, became Pedro I, the constitutional emperor of Brazil.

The road to establishing an independent nation, however, proved rocky at times. Unsatisfied with a European monarch, Brazilians clamored for a Brazilian-born king during the late 1820’s. In 1831, Pedro abdicated the throne of Brazil in favor of his five-year-old son, who had been born in Brazil. The ten years that followed, in which Brazilian regents conducted the affairs of government, witnessed separatist rebellions throughout Brazil. When Pedro II Pedro II came into his own as emperor in 1840, at the age of fourteen, he inherited a deeply divided empire. By the early 1850’s, however, most of the violence had subsided and Brazil emerged as the largest and most politically stable independent nation in South America.


Brazil’s relatively peaceful transition from colony to independent empire could not have been accomplished had the colony not served temporarily as the center of the Portuguese empire. The transfer of the court reinforced, for Brazilians, the importance of monarchy. Even when constitutionalism prevailed, it did so under a monarchy. The support of the British, along with fears of slave rebellion, help to explain the nature of Brazil’s unusual independence movement. Although independence was not achieved without some problems, the politics of independent Brazil were marked by the presence of stable, recognized dynastic rulers at a time when neighboring Spanish-speaking republics were witnessing multiple—frequently violent—transitions in government. The fact that politics were fairly stable and that the British were intent on trading with independent Brazil also meant that economic recovery came swiftly. Only in the last third of the century did unresolved issues connected to slavery, latifundia (large agricultural estates), and monoculture bring about the collapse of the empire and the proclamation of a republic in 1889.

Further Reading

  • Barman, Roderick J. Brazil: The Forging of a Nation, 1798-1852. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1988. An engagingly written history of the political process whereby Brazil was transformed from a colony of Portugal into a stable independent empire. Demonstrates that the process was complex and the end result was not a foregone conclusion.
  • Bethell, Leslie. “The Independence of Brazil.” In Brazil: Empire and Republic, 1822-1930, edited by Leslie Bethell. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. An excellent discussion of the events that led to Brazil’s separation from Portugal, with attention to the role of Great Britain.
  • Haring, C. H. Empire in Brazil: A New World Experiment with Monarchy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. A classic account of the independence of Brazil and its position as the only independent monarchy in the Americas.
  • Kraay, Hendrick. Race, State, and Armed Forces in Independence-Era Brazil: Bahia, 1790’s-1840’s. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002. Focusing on one of Brazil’s major slave-holding regions, the author describes the transformation of Brazil’s military forces during the wars for independence.
  • Schultz, Kirsten. Tropical Versailles: Empire, Monarchy, and the Portuguese Royal Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808-1821. New York: Routledge, 2001. An insightful discussion of how the arrival of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro changed local society. Demonstrates how the presence of African slaves in Brazil gave a unique dimension to relations between the monarch and his subjects, slavery having been abolished earlier in Portugal.
  • Vale, Brian. Independence or Death: British Sailors and Brazilian Independence, 1822-1825. London: I. B. Tauris, 1996. Shifts the focus of the wars for independence to the Atlantic Ocean, describing the important role of Great Britain’s Lord Cochrane and his sailors in securing Brazil’s separation from Portugal.

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