The Second Empire, 1840-89

Brazil Table of Contents

In the 1840s, the Brazilian nation-state coalesced as authorities suppressed revolts and rewrote Brazilian law. These laws, however, did not bode well for democracy because they shaped an electoral system based on government-controlled fraud. In 1842, on the advice of conservative courtiers, Pedro II used his constitutional moderating power to dismiss the newly elected liberal Chamber of Deputies and called new elections, which the conservatives won by stuffing the ballot boxes. In so doing, he set a pattern of favoring conservatives over liberals.

The constitution of 1824 had created the usual three governmental powers--executive, legislative, and judicial--and a fourth, the moderating power. The emperor held this power, which gave him the right to name senators, to dismiss the legislature, and to shift control of the government from one party to the other. In theory, he was to act as the political balance wheel. It should be noted that the parties were more groupings of members of Parliament than ideologically based movements dependent on distinct electorates. Historian Richard Graham observed that "No particular political philosophy distinguished one group from another." Then, as now, the political system had an artificial aspect to it; it did not relate openly to the real power structure of the country--the "lords of the land" (senhores da terra ) who ran local affairs.

A good example of how the real power holders manipulated the system to protect their narrow interests to the detriment of the national interest was the Land Law of 1850, which set the pattern for modern landholding. The Land Law ended the colonial practice of obtaining land through squatting or royal grants and limited acquisition to purchase, thereby restricting the number of people who could become owners. By creating obstacles to landownership, the law's framers hoped to force free labor to work for existing landlords. However, proprietors sabotaged the law by not surveying their lands and not resolving their conflicting claims in order to keep titles cloudy and hence in their hands. One result of the uncertain titles was that slaves were used as collateral.

Also in 1850, British pressure finally forced the Brazilian government to outlaw the African slave trade. London, tiring of Brazilian subterfuge, authorized its navy to seize slave ships in Brazilian waters, even in ports. Rather than risk open war with Britain, paralyzation of commerce, widespread slave unrest, and destabilization of the empire, the government outlawed the African slave trade. It deported a number of Portuguese slavers and instructed the provincial presidents, police, judges, and military to crack down. Over the next five years, even clandestine landings stopped, and despite the tempting rise of slave prices in the coffee districts of Rio de Janeiro Province, the trans-Atlantic trade ended. Although the British claimed credit, it should be noted that for the first time a Brazilian government had the power to enforce a law along the length of the coast. Also, internal support for the trade had weakened. Most slave importers were Portuguese, who had been selling the ever more expensive Africans to landowners on credit at climbing interest rates, in some cases forcing the latter into insolvency and loss of property. Xenophobia and the debts of the landed classes combined to support the government action.

Ending the slave trade had a number of consequences. First, because labor needs increased in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo as the world demand for coffee rose, Northeastern planters sold their surplus slaves to Southern growers. In addition, Parliament passed laws encouraging European immigration, as well as the Land Law of 1850. Second, ending the slave trade freed capital that could then be used for investment in transport and industrial enterprises. Third, it ensured that Britain did not interfere in Brazil's military intervention to end the rule in Buenos Aires of Juan Manuel de Rosas (president of Argentina, 1829-33, 1835-52).

Coffee dominated exports in the last half of the nineteenth century, going from 50 percent of exports in 1841-50 to 59.5 percent in 1871-80. But sugar exports also increased, and cotton, tobacco, cocoa, rubber, and maté were important. The vast cattle herds that grazed the Northeastern sertão , the plains (cerrado ) of Minas Gerais, and the pampas of Rio Grande do Sul foreshadowed Brazil's status in 1990 as the world's second largest meat exporter. Meat-salting plants (saladeros ) in Rio Grande do Sul shipped sun-dried beef to the expanding coffee-growing region to feed its slaves and freed tenant farmers (colonos ). In addition to beef, Brazilians ate protein-rich beans, rice, and corn, much of which came from Minas Gerais or the immigrant colonies of Rio Grande do Sul. Interregional trade was budding, but for the most part local self-sufficiency was the norm. Indeed, more people produced food for the domestic market than labored on export crops.

Expanding coffee production in the 1850s and 1860s attracted British investment in railroads to speed transport of the beans to the coast. The Santos-São Paulo Railroad (1868) was the first major breach of the coastal escarpment, which had slowed development of the Southern plateau. Similarly, in the Northeast railroads began to cut into the interior from the coast. But generally the pattern was to connect a port with its export-oriented hinterland, creating a series of enclaves that were connected with each other by sea. Well into the twentieth century, Brazil lacked railroads and highways linking its major regions, urban areas, and economic zones. The country was laced together by intricate networks of mule trails that moved goods and people throughout the vast interior. Viewed as archaic by modern observers, the mule train trails nonetheless were important in Brazil's formation, tying the various regions together and spreading a common language and culture.

The empire had lost the East Bank of the Río de la Plata with the founding of Uruguay in 1828, but it continued to meddle in that republic's affairs. Brazil's most important businessman, Irineu Evangelista de Sousa, the Visconde de Mauá, had such heavy financial interests there that his company was effectively the Uruguayan government's bank. Other Brazilians owned about 400 large estates (estancias ) that took up nearly a third of the country's territory. They objected to the taxes the Uruguayans imposed when they drove their cattle back and forth to Rio Grande do Sul, and they took sides in the constant fighting between Uruguay's Colorado and Blanco political factions, which later became the Colorado Party and the National Party (Blancos). Some of Rio Grande do Sul's gauchos did not accept Uruguayan independence in 1828 and continually sought intervention.

In the mid-1860s, the imperial government conspired with Buenos Aires authorities to replace the Blanco regime in Montevideo with a Colorado one. The Blancos appealed to Paraguayan dictator Francisco Solano López (president, 1862-70), who harbored his own fears of the two larger countries and who regarded a threat to Uruguay as a menace to Paraguay. A small landlocked country, Paraguay had the largest army in the region: 64,000 soldiers compared with Brazil's standing army of 18,000. In 1864 Brazil and Argentina agreed to act together should Solano López attempt to save the Blancos. In September 1864, wrongly convinced that he would not be so foolish, the Brazilians sent troops into Uruguay to put the Colorados in power. Each side miscalculated the intentions, capabilities, and will of the other. Paraguay reacted by seizing Brazilian vessels on the Rio Paraguai and by attacking the province of Mato Grosso. Solano López, mistakenly expecting help from anti-Buenos Aires caudillos, sent his forces into Corrientes to get at Rio Grande do Sul and Uruguay and found himself at war with both Argentina and Brazil. In May 1865, those two countries and Colorado-led Uruguay signed an alliance that aimed to transfer contested Paraguayan territory to the larger countries, to open Paraguayan rivers to international trade, and to remove Solano López. By September 1865, the allies had driven the Paraguayans out of Rio Grande do Sul, and they took the war into Paraguay when that country spurned their peace overtures.

Fiercely defending their homeland, the Guaraní-speaking Paraguayans defeated the allies at Curupaití in September 1866. The Argentine president, General Bartolomé Mitre (1861-68), took the bulk of his troops home to quell opposition to his war policy, leaving the Brazilians to soldier on. The famed General Lima e Silva, Marquis and later Duke of Caxias, took command of the allied forces and led them until the fall of Asunción in early 1869. With stubborn determination, the Brazilians pursued Solano López until they cornered and killed him. They then occupied Paraguay until 1878.

The war dragged on for several reasons. First, the Paraguayans were better prepared at the outset and conducted an effective offensive into the territories of their adversaries, immediately handing them defeats. Even later, when pushed back onto their own land, they had the advantages of knowing the ground, of having prepared defenses, and of fielding stubbornly loyal troops. Second, it took the Brazilians considerable time to marshal their forces and considerable effort and cost to keep them supplied. Third, the Argentines, hoping to improve their postwar situation in relation to Brazil, delayed operations partly to force the empire to weaken itself by expending its resources. Fourth, this was the era of "unconditional surrender." It was militarily fashionable to pursue Solano López to the bitter end.

The war had important consequences for Brazil and the Río de la Plata region. It left Brazil and Argentina facing each other over a prostrate Paraguay and a dependent Uruguay, a situation that would soon turn into a tense rivalry that repeatedly assumed warlike postures. Historians debate the number of Paraguayan casualties, some asserting that 50 percent of Paraguayans were killed, others arguing that it was much less, possibly 8 to 9 percent of the prewar population total. Nonetheless, the losses from battle, disease, and starvation were severe and disrupted the development of the republic. In Brazil the war contributed to the growth of manufacturing, to the professionalization of the armed forces and their concentration in Rio Grande do Sul, to the building of roads and the settling of European immigrants in the southern provinces, and to the increased power of the central government. Most important for the future, the war brought the military firmly into the political arena. Military officers were keenly aware that the war had exposed the military's lack of equipment, training, and organization. Officers blamed these shortcomings on civilian officials. In the next decades, reformist officers seeking to modernize the army would criticize the Brazilian political structure and its peculiar culture as obstacles to modernization.

The end of the war coincided with the resurgence of republicanism as disenchanted liberals cast about for a new route to power. The 1867 collapse of the short-lived, French-sponsored Mexican monarchy of Maximilian left Brazil as the hemisphere's only monarchial regime. And because Argentina appeared to prosper in the 1870s and 1880s, it served as a powerful advertisement for republican government. The republican ideology spread in urban areas and in provinces, such as São Paulo and Rio Grande do Sul, where the people did not believe they benefited from imperial economic policies. The republican manifesto of 1870 proclaimed that "We are in America and we want to be Americans." Monarchy was, the writers asserted, hostile to the interests of the American states and would be a continuous source of conflict with Brazil's neighbors. The republicans embraced the abolition of slavery to remove the stigma of Brazil's being the only remaining slaveholding country (save for Spanish Cuba) in the hemisphere. It was not so much that they believed that slavery was wrong as that it gave the country an image distasteful to Europeans. Abolition, which would come in 1888, did not imply that liberals wanted deep social reform or desired a democratic society. Indeed, their arguments against slavery were weighted toward efficiency rather than morality. Once in power, the republicans looked to discipline the legally free work force with various systems of social control.

The Brazilian social system functioned through intertwined networks of patronage, familial relationships, and friendships. The state, capitalist economy, and institutions such as the church and the army developed within what historian Emília Viotti da Costa has called, "the web of patronage." Contacts and favor rather than ability determined success in virtually all occupations. Brazilian society was, and still is, one in which a person could not advance without friends and family; hence, the continued importance of kinship networks (parentelas ), godfathers (compadres ) and godmothers (comadres ), and military school classes (turmas ). Such a social system did not lend itself to reform.

The 1870s and 1880s saw a crisis in each of the three pillars of the imperial regime--the church, the military, and the slaveholding system. Together, these crises represented the failure of the regime to adapt without alienating its base. In the 1870s, Rome pressured Brazil's Roman Catholic Church to conform to the conservative reforms of Vatican Council I, which strengthened the power of the pontiff by declaring him infallible in matters of faith and morals. This effort by Rome to unify doctrine and practice worldwide conflicted with royal control of the church in Brazil. The crown had inherited the padroado , or right of ecclesiastical patronage, from its Portuguese predecessor. This right gave the crown control over the church, which imperial authorities treated as an arm of the state. Although some clerics had displayed republican sentiments earlier in the century, a church-state crisis exploded in the mid-1870s over efforts to Europeanize the church.

The importance of the military crisis is clearer because it removed the armed prop of the regime. After the Paraguayan War (1864-70), the monarchy was indifferent to the army, which the civilian elite did not perceive as a threat. The fiscal problems of the 1870s slowed promotions to a crawl, salaries were frozen, and officers complained about having to contribute to a widows' fund from their meager salaries. Moreover, the soldiers in the ranks were considered the dregs of society, discipline was based on the lash, and training seemed pointless. The gulf between the military and the civilian oligarchies broadened. The political parties were as indifferent as the government to demands for military reform, for obligatory military service, for better armament, and for higher pay and status. During the 1870s, the discontent was checked by the National Guard's reduced role; by an unsuccessful but welcomed attempt to improve the recruitment system; and, especially, by the cabinet service of war heroes, including the Duke of Caxias as prime minister (1875-78) and Marshal Manuel Luís Osório, the Marquis of Herval, as minister of war (1878). But the latter died in 1879 and Caxias the year after, leaving leadership to officers less committed to the throne. The junior officer ranks were filled with men from the middle sectors who had entered the army to obtain an education rather than to follow a military career. They were more concerned than their predecessors with social changes that would open opportunities to the lower middle class.

The officer corps was split into three generations. The oldest group had helped suppress the regional revolts of the 1830s and 1840s, had fought in Argentina in 1852, and had survived the Paraguayan War. The numerous mid-level officers were better schooled than their seniors and had been tested in combat in Paraguay. The junior officers had missed the war but had the most education of the three groups and had experienced the empire only when its defects had become clearly apparent. They were the least attached to the old regime and the most frustrated by the lack of advancement in a peacetime army cluttered with veterans of the great war.

Brazilian political tradition permitted officers to hold political office and to serve as cabinet ministers, thereby blurring the civil-military roles. As parliamentary deputies and senators, officers could criticize the government, including their military superiors, with impunity. In the 1880s, officers participated in provincial politics, debated in the press, and spoke in public forums. In 1884 a civilian minister of war attempted to impose order by forbidding officers to write or speak publicly about governmental matters. The subsequent punishments of offending officers led Field Marshal Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca and General José Antônio Correia de Câmara (Visconde de Pelotas) to head protests that eventually forced the minister to resign in February 1887 and the cabinet to fall in March 1888.

Even as the church and military crises were unfolding, the slavery issue shook the support of the landed elite. Members of the Liberal and Conservative Parties came from the same social groups: plantation owners (fazendeiros ) made up half of both, and the rest were bureaucrats and professionals. The ideological differences between the parties were trivial, but factional and personal rivalries within them made it difficult for the parties to adjust to changing social and economic circumstances. As a result, the last decade of the empire was marked by considerable political instability. Between 1880 and 1889, there were ten cabinets (seven in the first five years) and three parliamentary elections, with no Parliament able to complete its term. The repeated use of the moderating power provoked alienation, even among traditional monarchists.

Attitudes toward slavery had shifted gradually. Pedro II favored abolition, and during the Paraguayan War slaves serving in the military were emancipated. In 1871 the Rio Branco cabinet approved a law freeing newborns and requiring masters to care for them until age eight, at which time they would either be turned over to the government for compensation or the owner would have use of their labor until age twenty-one. In 1884 a law freed slaves over sixty years of age. By the 1880s, the geography of slavery had also changed, and the economy was less dependent on it. Because of manumissions (many on condition of remaining on the plantations) and the massive flight of slaves, the overall numbers declined from 1,240,806 in 1884 to 723,419 in 1887, with most slaves having shifted from the sugar plantations in the Northeast to the south-central coffee groves. But even planters in São Paulo, where the slave percentage of the total population had fallen from 28.2 percent in 1854 to 8.7 percent in 1886, understood that to continue expansion they needed a different labor system. The provincial government therefore actively began subsidizing and recruiting immigrants. Between 1875 and 1887, about 156,000 arrived in São Paulo. Meanwhile, the demand for cheap sugarcane workers in the Northeast was satisfied by sertanejos (inhabitants of the sertão ) fleeing the devastating droughts of the 1870s in the sertão .

The economic picture was also changing. Slavery immobilized capital invested in the purchase and maintenance of slaves. By turning to free labor, planter capital was freed for investment in railroads, streetcar lines, and shipping and manufacturing enterprises. To some extent, these investments offered a degree of protection from the caprices of agriculture.

Meanwhile, slaves left the plantations in great numbers, and an active underground supported runaways. Army officers petitioned the Regent Princess Isabel to relieve them of the duty of pursuing runaway slaves. Field Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca, commander in Rio Grande do Sul, declared in early 1887 that the military "had the obligation to be abolitionist." The São Paulo assembly petitioned the Parliament for immediate abolition. The agitation reached such a pitch that to foreign travelers, Brazil appeared on the verge of social revolution. The system was coming apart, and even planters realized that abolition was the way to prevent chaos.

The so-called Golden Law of May 13, 1888, which ended slavery, was not an act of great bravery but a recognition that slavery was no longer viable. The economy revived rapidly after a few lost harvests, and only a small number of planters went bankrupt. Slavery ended, but the plantation survived and so did the basic attitudes of a class society. The abolitionists quickly abandoned those they had struggled to free. Many former slaves stayed on the plantations in the same quarters, receiving paltry wages. They were joined by waves of immigrants, who often found conditions so unbearable that they soon moved to the cities or returned to Europe. No freedmen's bureaus or schools were established to improve the lives of the former slaves; they were left at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale, where their descendants remain in the 1990s. New prisons built after 1888 were soon filled with former slaves as society imposed other forms of social control, in part by redefining crime.

In the end, the empire fell because the elites did not need it to protect their interests. Indeed, imperial centralization ran counter to their desires for local autonomy. The republicans embraced federalism, which some saw as a way to counter the oligarchies, which used patronage and clientage to stay in power. In the early republic, however, they would find that the oligarchies adapted easily and used their accumulated power and skills to control the new governmental system. Taking advantage of cabinet crises in 1888 and 1889 and of rising frustration among military officers, republicans favoring change by revolution rather than by evolution drew military officers, led by Field Marshal Fonseca, into a conspiracy to replace the cabinet in November 1889. What started as an armed demonstration demanding replacement of a cabinet turned within hours into a coup d'état deposing Emperor Pedro II.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress