Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

How Brazil Became an Empire

The history of the republic of Brazil is somewhat different from that of the other South American countries. Although this part of the continent was discovered in 1499 by Pinzon, a companion of Columbus, the Portuguese commander, Pedro Alvarez Cabral, followed him by accident a year later (1500) and took possession of the country in the name of the king of Portugal. It was thus, accidentally, that Brazil became a province of Portugal rather than of Spain.

The country did not appear to be rich in minerals or other natural resources. Consequently, no European nation was at first interested in it. The colonization of Brazil was at length begun by subjects of the Portuguese monarchy who traded in brazilwood. Presently sugar cane was introduced and proved to be more valuable than gold mines; colonies developed rapidly along the coast. In this way Brazil came to be the first colony founded in America upon an agricultural principle, for until sugar cane was introduced precious metals were the main attraction in the New World. Large plantations arose, sugar factories were erected, and thousands of negroes were imported to work in the fields. A sugar plantation or fazenda, as it was called, constituted quite a village, where the planter lived, surrounded by factory, shops, cabins, stables, and fields. He was an independent feudal lord, sometimes the governor of the province and always a person of considerable importance. Much profit was derived from the cultivation of sugar cane, and along the coast of Brazil there were many plantations. In fact, the king of Portugal divided the country into hereditary captaincies and granted large sections of land on the coast to persons willing to undertake a settlement, together with unlimited powers of jurisdiction, both civil and criminal.

This method of granting land was successful in attracting many Portuguese families to Brazil. The settlements increased so rapidly in the last half of the sixteenth century that by the time the Puritans landed in Massachusetts the inhabitants of the coast of Brazil numbered, it is said, over 100,000 people, including several small towns ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 inhabitants. Among them were Bahia, Pernambuco, and Rio de Janeiro; Bahia was the capital.

Students of United States history know that the early settlers at Jamestown were supported in their days of famine by maize or Indian corn, the principal bread of the Indians. The story of Hiawatha is an Indian legend telling of the mythical origin of this valuable plant. In Brazil, the early Portuguese settlers discovered a native food which became as valuable to the newcomers as Indian corn was to the early English settlers. This was manioc, which is the most widely used bread food in Brazil today. The legendary origin of this plant is as interesting as the story of Hiawatha.

It is said that a great plague was sweeping over Brazil, threatening to destroy the entire population, when a beautiful white virgin named Mani came down from heaven to help the natives. She went among them, caring for the sick and distressed, and wherever she appeared the disease fled before her. But just as the plague was conquered she, herself, fell a victim to it and died. The people were in great distress. They were not only panic-stricken from the scourge but were also without food. The body of the beautiful maiden was buried in the house where she had made her home, in accordance with the custom of the Indians. The grave was watered daily, and very soon an unknown plant sprang from it. When this matured, the earth cracked open and revealed a round white root the color of Mani's body. Being very hungry, the people ate the root and found it not only good to the taste but nourishing. They believed the root to be the body of Mani, the woman who had died that they might live. Therefore, they called it mani-oc, or the house of Mani, and it became the chief food of the Indians.

The roots of the plant grow in clusters and resemble turnips. One plant produces as much as twenty or thirty pounds of food. In preparing it, the roots are scraped and the juice is squeezed out. The substance is then laid out to dry, whereupon it forms a white meal or flour from which bread is made. The sediment from the juice, called tapioca, is well known in America, where it is widely used in making a delicious dessert.

The manioc plant has become so valuable that it has been introduced into other countries. In the southern United States it is cultivated and factories are built to extract the starch from it for commercial purposes, since it has a higher percentage of starch than any other plant. The inhabitants of Brazil still use it widely as a bread food.

The cultivation of manioc secured to the early settlers an ample supply of bread. The sugar industry developed so rapidly that by the seventeenth century Brazil was supplying Europe with the bulk of its sugar. The American colony had little competition in the whole world. Consequently, the colonists fixed prices that made them very wealthy. The gold and silver of Peru were no longer enriching the court of Spain, but the sugar of Brazil was carrying pleasure to all Europe and bringing back to Brazil a permanent wealth. Such is the difference between wealth dug from mines and wealth produced by the soil.

About the beginning of the seventeenth century Europe was thrilled by another discovery in Brazil. One day a negro slave woman picked up a beautiful stone. It was so brilliant that she realized it was valuable. Carrying the stone to her master, she showed it to him. When he expressed great delight and wished to take it, she drew back and agreed to give it to him only on condition that he granted her freedom. He at once consented. The gem proved to be one of the most valuable diamonds in the world. Later, it was sold for $15,000,000, and it is said to be now in the possession of a king in India.

The diamond mines, located chiefly in the mountains of Minas Geraes, one of the largest states in Brazil, were for many years the most famous in the world. A convict one day discovered another diamond of great value. He sent it to the governor of the province, who accepted it and pardoned him. That gem is today one of the famous diamonds of the world, worth millions of dollars.

Para, Brazil


In addition to diamonds, gold and silver, and the commoner metals were discovered in the mountains of Brazil. When it was at last learned that the country was rich in precious gems and metals, the nations of Europe became as anxious to secure a part of this vast area as they had been to take from Spain its colonies. In consequence, Portugal was constantly at war with the English, the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish for possession of this part of South America. However, Portugal was not only successful in holding what she had, but in extending the boundaries of Brazil westward until they reached the crest of the Andes Mountains.

Portugal at the close of the eighteenth century, when the colonies of other nations were planning to revolt from the mother countries, was in possession of one of the largest, most productive, and most valuable dominions on the globe. In fact, so wealthy is Brazil in natural resources and so vast in size that its possibilities are not fully realized even today. Few people in North America know that Brazil is larger than the United States and richer in natural resources, perhaps, than any other land in the world. The majority know nothing at all about it.

The government of Portugal, while not so brutal as that of Spain, was oppressive to a people with such opportunities and such resources. As was inevitable, therefore, when the other colonies of South America were fighting for independence, the spirit of freedom spread in Brazil. The success of the United States had deeply affected this great colony, and in 1785 a Brazil club was organized to work for independence. The members corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, then United States minister to France. They asked the great philosopher and apostle of freedom to secure the aid of the United States. He wrote them that it was necessary first for Brazilians to show what they could do. They made one attempt at revolution but were suppressed and some of them were hanged and others banished.

The independence of Brazil was not to come through the usual channel of revolution and war, as had been the experience of the Spanish colonies. In 1807, Portugal, unable to check the armies of Napoleon, was forced to yield to him. Prince John, regent of Portugal, realizing that he had a province in South America larger than half of Europe, decided to move his court to Brazil and thus escape French tyranny. He arrived in America on January 21, 1808, and established his court at Rio de Janeiro, which he made the capital of the country. Some years later the queen died, and the regent became king under the title of John VI.

While the other Spanish colonies of South America were seeking independence from the Spanish king, the Brazilians welcomed their monarch with rejoicings and with the gratification arising from the fact that the seat of government was now Brazil instead of distant Europe. This made a great difference in the history of that country. The people of Brazil, generally, were delighted to have their king with them. The whole nation seemed to forget its revolutionary leanings and made a spontaneous effort to show its ruler how well satisfied it was with monarchy. Dom John, for his part, was glad to have a splendid dominion in which to take refuge. While war raged in Europe and while Miranda, Bolivar, San Martin, and O'Higgins, were fighting for South American independence, he lived quietly in his new palace in Rio de Janeiro for thirteen years, with nothing to disturb him save here and there an expedition to put down a disturbance or to increase the size of his territories.

Naturally, the country prospered more under the direct government of the king than it had before his coming. Repressive laws were repealed, and the people had more latitude in trading with foreign nations; hence, this was a period of great prosperity. The influx of many educated Portuguese and the introduction of the printing-press gave new life to the land. Many foreigners found Brazil a desirable place in which to live. English shipbuilders, Swedish iron-workers, German engineers, and French manufacturers settled in the country and gave it new industries.

King John established a government in Brazil similar to that in Portugal. The upkeep of the court and the salaries of a large number of officials increased the taxes, which the people were little disposed to pay. Moreover, the government was not in the hands of the Brazilians but of the Portuguese who had followed the court across the sea. Discontent grew as taxes increased. John, however, was of an amiable disposition, and the people, as a rule, liked him, though they were determined to have a representative government. They did not intend to be without a voice in the expenditure of public funds. The king's son sided with them. Finally in 1821, the king yielded. The people were thrilled with delight.

The king's attention was called at this moment to conditions in Portugal. The European wars had ended, and Portuguese themselves were clamoring for representative government. As the king could not leave Portugal to itself, he first decided to send thither the prince, his son, as regent. But Dom Pedro had acquired such popularity and had exhibited such a thirst for glory that the king feared to trust his adventurous spirit in Europe. Therefore, he decided to go himself and leave his son as regent in Brazil.

Soon after the arrival of the king in Portugal, the newly-elected parliament passed a decree ordering the prince regent, Dom Pedro, to return to Portugal. This filled the Brazilians with alarm. They foresaw that without a central authority the country would fall back to its former status of colony. Consequently, some of the provinces began to clamor for independence. They wished to be separated entirely from Portugal. The province of Sao Paulo in the south asked the prince to disobey the decree of the Portuguese parliament and remain in Brazil. The council of Rio de Janeiro followed with a similar request. The Brazilians were keenly interested in Dom Pedro's attitude, for they realized that a critical moment had arrived. The prince was in the great coffee state of Sao Paulo when the parliamentary mandate was delivered. The Brazilian leaders gathered around him, with a vast concourse of people, on September 7, 1822. In the midst of the great assembly and with dramatic gestures, he laid the decree in the flames, and as it burnt to ashes he raised his hands aloft and exclaimed: "Independence or death!"

The people were wild with joy. Since the young prince would not obey the parliament and the court of Portugal, they made preparations to give him a warm welcome on his return to the capital. Everything was carefully timed for his entrance into Rio de Janeiro, and when he appeared he was greeted with the wildest enthusiasm. On October 12, 1822, he was solemnly crowned Dom Pedro I., "Constitutional Emperor of Brazil." The country was at last free from Portugal; the people would no longer take orders from the Portuguese court. This is how Brazil became an empire at a time that the other South American countries were becoming republics.

The Portuguese troops and citizens who did not approve of the independence of Brazil were sent back to Portugal. A few feeble attempts were made by the mother country to re-establish its power. The Holy Alliance of Europe, referred to in another chapter, planned to come to Portugal's aid, but the sudden action of President Monroe in announcing the Monroe Doctrine checked this move. In 1825, Portugal acknowledged its independence. Brazil, therefore, secured freedom with less blood-shed than any other nation of South America.

It was the only independent country in the New World that retained the monarchical form of government. The other nations had banished all thought of a king or emperor. The Monroe Doctrine laid down the principle that European nations should not aid any country in the New World in establishing such a government. It declared that no nation would of its own accord establish one.

The monarchical form of government in Brazil was a source of much trouble, though many years passed before it was changed. Dom Pedro was unsuccessful as a ruler. There were insurrections and wars with other countries. In utter despair of ever enjoying peace and quiet, he suddenly, in March, 1831, without consulting anyone, abdicated in favor of his infant son, who became Dom Pedro II., the last emperor in the New World.