How a mad queen, a fearful prince, and a corrupt court deceived Napoleon and changed the history of Portugal and Brazil forever
At the end of the summer of 1808, exactly 200 years ago, an unusual event took place as the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro looked on incredulously. Early in the afternoon on March 7, a naval squadron carrying the crown prince of Portugal, Dom João, and the Portuguese Royal family sailed into Guanabara Bay, fleeing French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops. The sun was shining and the sky was blue. A strong wind was blowing in from the ocean to alleviate the suffocating heat. After a journey of three months and one week, including a five-week stop in Salvador, hundreds of nobleman and illustrious passengers flocked to the ships’ rails to contemplate the magnificent vision unfolding before them: a small city with rows of white houses lining the beachfront, perched on the edge of a calm bay framed by tall granite mountains dripping with luxuriant, dark-green forest.
Crossing the Atlantic had been an adventure replete with hardship and suffering. The old, poorly-equipped Portuguese ships and frigates were brimming with people. Overcrowding and the lack of hygiene and sanitation favored the proliferation of pests. On the ship Alfonso de Albuquerque, on which Princess Carlota Joaquina, wife of the crown prince, had traveled, a lice infestation had obliged the noblewomen to shave their heads and throw their wigs into the sea. Their bald heads were anointed with pig fat and dusted with antiseptic powder. This resulted in one of the most comic episodes in the history of the Brazilian court. To protect their heads when they disembarked in Rio de Janeiro, Carlota, her daughters, and other ladies-in-waiting wore turbans. When they saw the princesses dressed like that, the women of Rio de Janeiro assumed it was the latest fashion in Europe. In no time, almost all of them had cut their hair and were using turbans to imitate the Portuguese noblewomen.
Thus began the most noteworthy period of transformation in Rio de Janeiro. The arrival of the Portuguese court was a meeting of two distant worlds hitherto unknown to one another. On one side, there was a European monarchy, stooping under the weight of long velvet coats, shoes with buckles, silk tights, wigs, and decorations, clothes too heavy and dark for the scalding sun of the tropics. On the other side, the colonial, almost African city, whose population was two-thirds Negro, mestizo, and mulatto, replete with slave traders, mule-pack drivers, gold and diamond dealers, sailors, and merchants from the Indies. “Churches, monasteries, forts, and country houses, gleaming white, crown every hill and decorate the bases of their symmetrical, exact peaks, while in the background a curtain of forest overshadows everything,” wrote English businessman John Luccock when he arrived in Rio de Janeiro in June of 1808, three months after the arrival of the Portuguese court.
In the early nineteenth century, the city that took in the Portuguese royal family was a major port of call, where practically every ship leaving Europe and the United States stopped before continuing on to Asia, Africa and the recently discovered lands of the South Pacific. A voyage from England to Rio de Janeiro took somewhere from 55 to 80 days. From Rio to Cape Town, in South Africa, it was another 30 to 50 days. To India, 105 to 150 days. To China, 120 to 180 days. To Australia, 70 to 90 days. Protected from wind and storms by the mountains, the calm waters of Guanabara Bay provided ideal shelter for vessel repair and restocking drinking water, jerked beef, sugar, cachaça, tobacco, and firewood. “No colonial port in the world was as well located for general trade as Rio de Janeiro,” wrote traveler John Mawe. It was also the largest slave market in the Americas. Its port was always choked with slave ships that had crossed the Atlantic from Africa. According to historian Manolo Garcia Florentino’s calculations, no fewer than 850,000 African slaves passed through the port of Rio in the eighteenth century, half of all the Africans brought in captivity to Brazil in the period.
According to the Englishman Luccock, at the time the city had 4,000 homes, with an average of 15 people living in each. That was a total of 60,000 inhabitants. The meticulous Luccock divided the population in the following manner:
16,000 foreigners 1,000 in some way connected with Dom João’s court 1,000 public servants 1,000 who lived in the city but whose livelihood came from neighboring lands or ships 700 priests 500 attorneys 200 medical practitioners 40 regular traders 2,000 retailers 4,000 sales clerks, apprentices, and shop attendants 1,250 mechanics 100 tavern owners 300 fishermen 1,000 frontline soldiers 1,000 sailors in the port 1,000 freed black slaves 12,000 slaves 4,000 women as heads of families The population also included approximately 29,000 children, almost half of the total.
From the sea, when the ships sailed into port, it was a peaceful, bucolic village, perfectly integrated with the splendor of the nature around it. From close up, impressions changed quickly. Its problems were its humidity, garbage, and the residents’ lack of manners. “The city’s cleaning was entirely entrusted to the vultures,” wrote historian Oliveira Lima. Alexander Caldcleugh, a foreigner who traveled through Brazil from 1819 to 1821, was impressed by the number of mice infesting the city and surrounding areas. “Many of the best houses are so full of them that it is not uncommon to see them traipsing through dining rooms at meal times,” he said.
In the sticky heat of the tropics, laziness and lack of elegance in people’s dress and behavior reigned. Emanuel Pohl, a naturalist who accompanied Princess Leopoldina—future Emperor Dom Pedro I’s new bride—to Brazil in 1817, observed that the men went around in flip-flops, light pants, and chintz jackets. The women, draped with rosaries and saint pendants, spent most of the day in simple shirts and short skirts. “In happy idleness, they sit around on mats by the windows, with their legs crossed, all day long,” wrote Pohl.
Invited to dine at the home of a wealthy family, Luccock was surprised to discover that each person was expected to bring their own knife, “generally broad, sharp, and silver-handled.” At the table, he observed that “their fingers are used as often as their forks.” Moreover, it was common for someone to serve himself from his neighbor’s plate with his hands. “It is considered uncontestable proof of friendship to eat from your neighbor’s plate; and, thus, it isn’t rare to see the fingers of both simultaneously immersed in a single dish,” he said. Fresh meat was a rarity. It came from far away, from distances of up to one thousand kilometers. Traveling along roads in poor conditions, in herds brought from the state of Minas Gerais or the Paraíba Valley, many cattle died along the way from starvation or exhaustion. “Those that made it to the end of the journey arrived at the public slaughterhouse in a pitiful condition,” says Luccock. Situated near Rio’s city center, the slaughterhouse was a place “of utmost filth.” Pork was also sold “in a very unhealthy state.” For this reason, the most popular meat was jerked beef, which came from far away, after having being treated with salt and cured in the sun.
In 1803, British naval officer James Tuckey left a curious record of the women of Rio: “Their slightly slanting, big, full, black, shining eyes give a certain degree of vivacity to their dark complexions and lend their countenance some expression. It is, in most cases, the manifestation of an animal vivacity, tempered with the simple and light touch of sensitivity.” Tuckey, however, did warn: “Brazilian women have, among others, the awful habit of spitting in public, no matter when, where, or in what situation. Such a habit (. . .) is a powerful obstacle to the reign of female charm.”
Healthcare was very poor. “The simplest surgeries were carried out by bloodletters,” says historian Oliveira Lima, based on reports by Luccock. In 1798, ten years before the arrival of the Portuguese court, the Rio de Janeiro City Council had proposed a program to a group of doctors to try to eradicate disease in the city. The plan included a study of the illnesses they wished to eliminate. A report by the armada’s doctor, Bernardino Antônio Gomes, is shocking: “Endemic diseases in this city include scabies, erysipelas, funguses, yaws, morphea, elephantiasis, pruritus, tungiasis, edemas of the legs, hydroceles, sarcoceles, roundworms, hernias, leucorrhea, dysmenorrhoea, hemorrhoids, dyspepsia, several kinds of convulsions, hepatitis, and different sorts of intermittent and remittent fevers.” Researcher Nireu Cavalcanti found documents in the National Archives that provide a notion of what healthcare and medicine were like in Rio de Janeiro in the era of Dom João VI. They are the post-mortem inventories of two doctors, listing their assets. The inventory of Surgeon General Antônio José Pinto, who died in 1798, includes this startling list of “surgical instruments”: a large saw, a small saw, a spanner, two straight knives, two pairs of tongs, an eagle’s claw, two tourniquets, a monkey wrench, and a large pair of scissors.
Because the water table was quite near the surface, the construction of septic tanks was prohibited. The residents’ urine and feces, collected during the night, was taken the next morning to be dumped into the sea by slaves, who carried large barrels of sewage on their backs. Along the way, some of the contents, which were full of ammonia and urea, sloshed onto their skin and, over time, left white stripes on their black backs. For this reason, these slaves were known as “tigers.”
Another thing that aroused the curiosity of visitors was the number of Negroes, mulattoes and mestizos in the streets. The slaves did all kinds of manual labor. Among other activities, they were barbers, shoemakers, messengers, basket makers, and sold drinks, desserts, sponge cakes, and coffee. They also carried people and merchandise. In the mornings, hundreds of them would go to fetch water from the fountain at the Carioca Aqueduct, which they transported in barrels similar to the ones they used to carry excrement down to the beach in the late afternoon.
The crown prince went to live in a lovely large palace located in what is now the neighborhood of São Cristóvão, close to the current location of the favela of Mangueira and Maracanã Stadium. The palace was given to the Prince as a present by a prominent slave dealer of the time. His wife, Princess Carlota Joaquina, with whom he did not share the same roof, preferred to stay on an estate next to Botafogo Beach. Even more complicated was finding housing for the court’s thousands-strong entourage, who had recently arrived in the still relatively small city of only 60,000 inhabitants. By order of the Count of Arcos, a notorious “lodging” system was created, wherein people’s homes had to be handed over to the nobility. The houses chosen had their doors marked with the letters PR, the initials for Príncipe Regente (Crown Prince), which the locals immediately dubbed “Ponha-se na Rua” (Get Out).
With the arrival of the royal family, the city was shaken by a population boom. Between 1808 and 1821 the urban area tripled, as new neighborhoods and parishes were created. The population doubled and the number of slaves tripled, from 12,000 to 36,182. The traffic of animals and carriages became so intense that laws and regulations had to be created to impose discipline. In 1824 Rua Direita became the first street to have numbered houses and two-way traffic with designated lanes. It was a dramatic change for a city that, in 1808, already lacked the space, infrastructure, and services with which to receive the newcomers from Lisbon.
Crime skyrocketed. There were constant robberies and murders. In the port, ships were targeted by pirates. Gangs of hoodlums went through the streets attacking people with knives and blades. Although officially banned, prostitution and gambling took place in broad daylight. “In this city and outlying areas, we have been harassed by thieves,” wrote royal archive keeper Luiz Joaquim dos Santos Marrocos in a letter to his father, who had stayed in Lisbon.
Most of the population went around armed. The English consul, James Henderson, was surprised by the number of people who carried knives hidden up their sleeves, “which they take out and use with great skill.” Few people risked going out alone after dark. Stone-throwing was a common form of aggression—equivalent to today’s stray bullets. In October of 1817, the wife of the American Ambassador, Thomas Sumpter, was struck in the eye by a stone while sitting in her carriage on Rua do Ouvidor. In another incident, during a concert at São João Theater, a stone hit actor Manuel Alves and brought the performance to an end.
The task of imposing order on this chaos was entrusted by Dom João to the court magistrate Paulo Fernandes Viana. Born in Rio de Janeiro and with a degree from the University of Coimbra, Viana was named police superintendent by the judicial writ of May 10, 1808, an office he held until 1821, the year he died. He was “a civilizing agent” in Rio de Janeiro. It was up to him to turn the provincial, uneducated, dirty, and dangerous colonial village into something closer to a European capital, worthy of being the seat of the Portuguese monarchy. His mission included land-filling swamps, organizing the supply of water and food and the removal of trash and sewage, paving and lighting the streets with whale-oil lamps, and building highways, bridges, aqueducts, fountains, promenades, and public squares. It was also his responsibility to police the streets, issue passports, keep an eye on foreigners, inspect the sanitary conditions of slave holding areas, and provide housing for the new inhabitants that the city received with the arrival of the court.
Viana’s police officers were relentless and truculent. The most famous of them was Major Miguel Nunes Vidigal. He was the equivalent, 200 years later, of Captain Nascimento in the 2007 film Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad). As commander of the new Royal Guard, Vidigal became the worst nightmare of Rio’s criminals. He lay in wait on street corners and popped up out of nowhere at capoeira or percussion sessions, where slaves hung around drinking cachaça until late at night. Not even remotely concerned with legal procedures, he ordered his officers to arrest and beat up any participant in this kind of activity—whether they were a delinquent or just an ordinary citizen having fun. Instead of the military saber, Vidigal’s men carried whips with long, heavy handles and strips of leather at the tips. The commander also personally led several assaults on runaway-slave communities in the forests around Rio de Janeiro. In recognition of his services, in 1820, Benedictine monks gave Vidigal land at the foot of the hill known as Morro Dois Irmãos as a present. Invaded by makeshift shacks starting in 1940, the area is now occupied by the favela of Vidigal, which enjoys a privileged view of the beaches of Ipanema and Leblon.
The Gazeta do Rio de Janeiro, the first newspaper published in Brazil, went into circulation on September 10, 1808, printed on machines imported from England. However, it only printed news that was pro-government. Reading the advertisements published in the Gazeta is a fun way to observe how the habits of Rio’s population in this period grew more sophisticated. In the beginning, they offered simple services and products, a reflection of a colonial society still closed to the world, which imported little and produced almost everything it consumed. These first advertisements included horses and carriages for hire, land and homes for sale, and certain basic services such as lessons in catechism, Portuguese, history, and geography.
One example of an advertisement published in 1808 read: “Good lead horse for carriages for sale. Interested parties should talk to Francisco Borges Mendes, who lives above the store on the corner of João Baptista Alley.”
From 1810, the tone and content of the advertisements changed radically. Instead of houses, horses, and slaves, they started offering pianos, books, linens, silk handkerchiefs, champagne, cologne, fans, gloves, china vases, paintings, watches, and an infinity of other imported goods. In the March 2, 1816 edition of the Gazeta, Frenchman Girard advertised his services as “hairdresser to Her Royal Highness, Dona Carlota, Princess of Brazil; Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales; and Her Highness, the Duchess of Angoul’me.” He then listed the following services: “The latest women’s hairstyles from Paris and London; men’s and women’s haircuts; men’s and women’s wigs; dyeing of hair, eyebrows, and sideburns with the utmost perfection, without causing any damage to the skin or clothes; and an ointment to make hair grow and thicken.” On November 13 of the same year, Bellard, located at #8 Rua do Ouvidor, claims to have received “a new assortment of real and fake jewelry, ladies’ hats, French books, dresses, and accessories for modern women, all kinds of perfumes, pendulums, shot guns, and fans.”
The clothes and new habits introduced by the court were paraded on performance nights at the São João Theatre or at Sunday mass. On these occasions, an indisputable status symbol was the number of slaves and servants who accompanied their masters through the streets of Rio de Janeiro. The wealthiest and most powerful had the largest entourages and went out of their way to flaunt them as a symbol of their social importance. Prussian Von Leithold said that even top-class prostitutes—”of which there are many”—proudly paraded their convoys through the streets. Those who didn’t have their own private servants hired them for holy days and mass. “It is a question of honor to appear in public with a large retinue. They walk through the streets with self-importance and measured steps.”
The Invention of Brazil
No other period in the history of Brazil witnessed such profound, decisive, and swift change as the thirteen years in which the Portuguese court remained in Rio de Janeiro. In the space of just one and a half decades, Brazil went from being a backward, ignorant colony to an independent nation.
200 years ago, Brazil didn’t exist. At least not as it is today: an integrated country, with well-defined frontiers and inhabitants that consider themselves Brazilians. On the eve of the arrival of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil was just a large farm in service of Portugal, without any notion of national identity. The different provinces were more or less autonomous, with no trade or any other kind of relationship with one another, and the only point of reference was the Portuguese government, whose seat was in Lisbon, on the other side of the Atlantic.
This all changed with the arrival of the court. Dom João and his ministry had to create a country out of nothing. Changes began to take place at a startling rate and were to have a great impact on the future of the country. The most important decision made during their stop in Salvador was to open the ports. When they arrived in Rio de Janeiro, they freed Brazil’s trade and manufacturing. This, together with the opening of the ports, represented the end of the colonial system. Brazil had been freed from three centuries of Portuguese monopoly and entered the international system of production and trade.
Countless factories began to spring up all over the country. The first ironworks was founded in 1811. Wheat mills and boat, gunpowder, rope, and textile factories were built. The construction of new highways helped shatter the isolation that had reigned between the provinces until then. Steamboats were introduced in 1818. The most distant regions were explored and mapped. Expeditions traveled up the tributaries of the Amazon to their headwaters and established fluvial communication between the states of Mato Grosso and São Paulo.
Ironically, by moving to Brazil, João VI lost it forever. When the court returned to Portugal in 1821, the new country was ready to walk on its own two legs, out from under Portugal’s tutelage. The result was Brazil’s independence, in 1822.