Pedro II of Brazil

2 Dec 1825
5 Dec 1891
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Dom Pedro II (English: Peter II; 2 December 1825 – 5 December 1891), nicknamed “the Magnanimous”, was the second and last ruler of the Empire of Brazil, reigning for over 58 years.

Born in Rio de Janeiro, he was the seventh child of Emperor Dom Pedro I of Brazil and Empress Dona Maria Leopoldina and thus a member of the Brazilian branch of the House of Braganza. His father’s abrupt abdication and departure to Europe in 1831 left a five-year-old Pedro II as Emperor and led to a grim and lonely childhood and adolescence.

Obliged to spend his time studying in preparation for rule, he knew only brief moments of happiness and encountered few friends of his age. His experiences with court intrigues and political disputes during this period greatly affected his later character. Pedro II grew into a man with a strong sense of duty and devotion toward his country and his people. On the other hand, he was increasingly resentful of his role as monarch.

Inheriting an Empire on the verge of disintegration, Pedro II turned Portuguese-speaking Brazil into an emerging power in the international arena. The nation grew to be distinguished from its Hispanic neighbors on account of its political stability, zealously guarded freedom of speech, respect for civil rights, vibrant economic growth and especially for its form of government: a functional, representative parliamentary monarchy.

Brazil was also victorious in three international conflicts (the Platine War, the Uruguayan War and the Paraguayan War) under his rule, as well as prevailing in several other international disputes and domestic tensions.

Pedro II steadfastly pushed through the abolition of slavery despite opposition from powerful political and economic interests. A savant in his own right, the Emperor established a reputation as a vigorous sponsor of learning, culture and the sciences. He won the respect and admiration of scholars such as Charles Darwin, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Nietzsche, and was a friend to Richard Wagner, Louis Pasteur and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others.

Although there was no desire for a change in the form of government among most Brazilians, the Emperor was overthrown in a sudden coup d’état that had almost no support outside a clique of military leaders who desired a form of republic headed by a dictator. Pedro II had become weary of emperorship and despaired over the monarchy’s future prospects, despite its overwhelming popular support.

He allowed no prevention of his ouster and did not support any attempt to restore the monarchy. He spent the last two years of his life in exile in Europe, living alone on very little money.

The reign of Pedro II thus came to an unusual end—he was overthrown while highly regarded by the people and at the pinnacle of his popularity, and some of his accomplishments were soon brought to naught as Brazil slipped into a long period of weak governments, dictatorships, and constitutional and economic crises. The men who had exiled him soon began to see in him a model for the Brazilian republic. A few decades after his death, his reputation was restored and his remains were returned to Brazil with celebrations nationwide.

Historians have regarded the Emperor in an extremely positive light and several have ranked him as the greatest Brazilian.

Pedro was born at 02:30 on 2 December 1825 in the Palace of São Cristóvão, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Named after St. Peter of Alcantara, his name in full was Pedro de Alcântara João Carlos Leopoldo Salvador Bibiano Francisco Xavier de Paula Leocádio Miguel Gabriel Rafael Gonzaga. Through his father, Emperor Dom Pedro I, he was a member of the Brazilian branch of the House of Braganza (Portuguese: Bragança) and was referred to using the honorific “Dom” (Lord) from birth.

He was the grandson of Portuguese King Dom João VI and nephew of Dom Miguel I. His mother was the Archduchess Maria Leopoldina of Austria, daughter of Franz II, the last Holy Roman Emperor. Through his mother, Pedro was a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and first cousin of Emperors Napoleon II of France, Franz Joseph I of Austria-Hungary and Don Maximiliano I of Mexico.

The only legitimate male child of Pedro I to survive infancy, he was officially recognized as heir apparent to the Brazilian throne with the title Prince Imperial on 6 August 1826. Empress Maria Leopoldina died on 11 December 1826, a few days after a stillbirth, when Pedro was a year old.

Two and a half years later, his father married Amélie of Leuchtenberg. Prince Pedro developed an affectionate relationship with her, whom he came to regard as his mother. Pedro I’s desire to restore his daughter Maria II to her Portuguese throne, which had been usurped by his brother Miguel I, as well as his declining political position at home led to his abrupt abdication on 7 April 1831. He and Amélie immediately departed for Europe, leaving behind the Prince Imperial, who became Emperor Dom Pedro II.

Upon leaving the country, Emperor Pedro I selected three people to take charge of his son and remaining daughters. The first was José Bonifácio de Andrada, his friend and an influential leader during Brazilian independence, who was named guardian. The second was Mariana de Verna, who had held the post of aia (governess) since the birth of Pedro II. As a child, the then-Prince Imperial called her “Dadama”, as he could not pronounce the word dama (Lady) correctly.

He regarded her as his surrogate mother, and would continue to call her by her nickname well into adulthood out of affection.The third person was Rafael, an Afro-Brazilian veteran of the Cisplatine War. He was an employee in the Palace of São Cristóvão whom Pedro I deeply trusted and asked to look after his son—a charge that he carried out for the rest of his life.

Bonifácio was dismissed from his position in December 1833 and replaced by another guardian. Pedro II spent his days studying, with only two hours set aside for amusements. Intelligent, but far from being a genius, he was able to acquire knowledge with great ease. However, the hours of study were strenuous and the preparation for his role as monarch was demanding.

He had few friends of his age and limited contact with his sisters. All that coupled with the sudden loss of his parents gave Pedro II an unhappy and lonely upbringing. The environment in which he was raised turned him into a shy and needy person who saw books as a refuge and retreat from the real world.

The possibility of lowering the young Emperor’s age of majority, instead of waiting until he turned 18, had been floated since 1835. His elevation to the throne had led to a troublesome period of endless crises. The regency created to rule on his behalf was plagued from the start by disputes between political factions and rebellions across the nation.

Those politicians who had risen to power during the 1830s had by now also become familiar with the pitfalls of rule. According to historian Roderick J. Barman, by 1840 “they had lost all faith in their ability to rule the country on their own. They accepted Pedro II as an authority figure whose presence was indispensable for the country’s survival.”

When asked by politicians if he would like to assume full powers, Pedro II shyly accepted. On the following day, 23 July 1840, the General Assembly (the Brazilian Parliament) formally declared the 14-year-old Pedro II of age. He was later acclaimed, crowned and consecrated on 18 July 1841.

Removal of the factious regency brought stability to the government. Pedro II was seen nationwide as a legitimate source of authority, whose position placed him above partisanship and petty disputes. He was, however, still no more than a boy, and a shy, insecure and immature one.

His nature resulted from his broken childhood, when he experienced abandonment, intrigue and betrayal. Behind the scenes, a group of high ranking palace servants and notable politicians led by Aureliano Coutinho (later Viscount of Sepetiba) became known as the “Courtier Faction” as they established influence over the young Emperor. Some were very close to him, such as Mariana de Verna and Steward Paulo Barbosa da Silva. Pedro II was deftly used by the Courtiers against their actual or suspected foes.

The Brazilian government secured the hand of Princess Teresa Cristina of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. She and Pedro II were married by proxy in Naples on 30 May 1843. Upon seeing her in person, the Emperor was noticeably disappointed. Teresa Cristina was short, a bit overweight and though not ugly, neither was she pretty. He did little to hide his disillusionment. One observer stated that he turned his back to Teresa Cristina, another depicted him as being so shocked that he needed to sit, and it is possible that both occurred.

That evening, Pedro II wept and complained to Mariana de Verna, “They have deceived me, Dadama!” It took several hours to convince him that duty demanded that he proceed. The Nuptial Mass, with the ratification of the vows previously taken by proxy and the conferral of the nuptial blessing, occurred on the following day, 4 September.

In late 1845 and early 1846 the Emperor made a tour of Brazil’s southern provinces, traveling through São Paulo (of which Paraná was a part at this time), Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. He was buoyed by the warm and enthusiastic responses he received. By then Pedro II had matured physically and mentally. He grew into a man who, at 1.90 meters (6 ft 3 in) tall with blue eyes and blond hair, was seen as handsome.

With growth, his weaknesses faded and his strengths of character came to the fore. He became self-assured and learned to be not only impartial and diligent, but also courteous, patient and personable. Barman said that he kept “his emotions under iron discipline. He was never rude and never lost his temper. He was exceptionally discreet in words and cautious in action.”

Most importantly, this period saw the end of the Courtier Faction. Pedro II began to fully exercise authority and successfully engineered the end of the courtiers’ influence by removing them from his inner circle while avoiding any public disruption.

At the beginning of the 1850s, Brazil enjoyed internal stability and economic prosperity. Under the prime ministry of Honório Hermeto Carneiro Leão (then-Viscount and later Marquis of Paraná) the Emperor advanced his own ambitious program: the conciliação (conciliation) and melhoramentos (material developments).

Pedro II’s reforms aimed to promote less political partisanship, and forward infrastructure and economic development. The nation was being interconnected through railroad, electric telegraph and steamship lines, uniting it into a single entity. The general opinion, both at home and abroad, was that these accomplishments had been possible due to Brazil’s “governance as a monarchy and the character of Pedro II”.

Pedro II was neither a British-style figurehead nor an autocrat in the manner of Russian czars. The Emperor exercised power through cooperation with elected politicians, economic interests, and popular support. The active presence of Pedro II on the political scene was an important part of the government’s structure, which also included the cabinet, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate (the latter two formed the General Assembly). He used his participation in directing the course of government as a means of influence.

His direction became indispensable, although it never devolved into “one-man rule.” In his handling of the political parties, he “needed to maintain a reputation for impartiality, work in accord with the popular mood, and avoid any flagrant imposition of his will on the political scene.”

The Emperor’s more notable political successes were achieved primarily because of the non-confrontational and cooperative manner with which he approached both issues and the partisan figures with whom he had to deal. He was remarkably tolerant, seldom taking offense at criticism, opposition or even incompetence.

He did not have the constitutional authority to force acceptance of his initiatives without support, and his collaborative approach towards governing kept the nation progressing and enabled the political system to successfully function. The Emperor respected the prerogatives of the legislature, even when they resisted, delayed, or thwarted his goals and appointments.

Most politicians appreciated and supported his role. Many had lived through the regency period, when the lack of an emperor who could stand above petty and special interests led to years of strife between political factions. Their experiences in public life had created a conviction that Pedro II was “indispensable to Brazil’s continued peace and prosperity.”

At the end of 1859, Pedro II departed on a trip to provinces north of the capital, visiting Espírito Santo, Bahia, Sergipe, Alagoas, Pernambuco and Paraíba. He returned in February 1860 after four months. The trip was a huge success, with the Emperor welcomed everywhere with warmth and joy.

The first half of the 1860s saw peace and prosperity in Brazil. Civil liberties were maintained. Freedom of speech had existed since Brazil’s independence and was strongly defended by Pedro II.

He found newspapers from the capital and from the provinces an ideal way to keep track of public opinion and the nation’s overall situation. Another means of monitoring the Empire was through direct contacts with his subjects.

One opportunity for this was during regular Tuesday and Saturday public audiences, where anyone of any social class (including slaves) could gain admittance and present their petitions and stories. Visits to schools, colleges, prisons, exhibitions, factories, barracks and other public appearances presented further opportunities to gather first-hand information.

This tranquility disappeared when the British consul in Rio de Janeiro, William Dougal Christie, nearly sparked a war between his nation and Brazil. Christie sent an ultimatum containing abusive demands arising out of two minor incidents at the end of 1861 and beginning of 1862.

The first was the sinking of a commercial barque on the coast of Rio Grande do Sul after which its goods were pillaged by local inhabitants. The second was the arrest of drunken British officers who were causing a disturbance in the streets of Rio.

The Brazilian government refused to yield, and Christie issued orders for British warships to capture Brazilian merchant vessels as indemnity. Brazil prepared for what was seen as an imminent conflict. Pedro II was the main reason for Brazil’s resistance; he rejected any suggestion of yielding.

This response came as a surprise to Christie, who changed his tenor and proposed a peaceful settlement through international arbitration. The Brazilian government presented its demands and, upon seeing the British government’s position weaken, severed diplomatic ties with Britain in June 1863.

As war with the British Empire threatened, Brazil had to turn its attention to its southern frontiers. Another civil war had begun in Uruguay turning its political parties against each other. The internal conflict led to the murder of Brazilians and looting of their property in Uruguay. Brazil’s government decided to intervene, fearful of giving any impression of weakness in the face of conflict with the British.

A Brazilian army invaded Uruguay in December 1864 beginning the brief Uruguayan War, which ended in February 1865. Meanwhile, the dictator of Paraguay, Francisco Solano López took advantage of the situation to establish his country as a regional power.

The Paraguayan army invaded the Brazilian province of Mato Grosso (currently the state of Mato Grosso do Sul), triggering the Paraguayan War. Four months later, Paraguayan troops invaded Argentine territory as a prelude to an attack on Rio Grande do Sul.

Aware of the anarchy in Rio Grande do Sul and the incapacity and incompetence of its military chiefs to resist the Paraguayan army, Pedro II decided to go to the front in person.

Upon receiving objections from the cabinet, the General Assembly and the Council of State, Pedro II pronounced: “If they can prevent me from going as an Emperor, they cannot prevent me from abdicating and going as a Fatherland Volunteer”—an allusion to those Brazilians who volunteered to go to war and became known throughout the nation as the “Fatherland Volunteers”.

The monarch himself was popularly called the “Number-one volunteer.” Given permission to leave, Pedro II disembarked in Rio Grande do Sul in July and proceeded from there by land. The overland journey was made by horse and wagon, and at night the Emperor slept in a campaign tent. In September, Pedro II arrived in Uruguaiana, a Brazilian town occupied by a besieged Paraguayan army.

The Emperor rode within rifle-shot of Uruguaiana, but the Paraguayans did not attack him. To avoid further bloodshed, he offered terms of surrender to the Paraguayan commander, which was accepted. Pedro II’s coordination of the military operations and his personal example played a decisive role in successfully repulsing the Paraguayan invasion of Brazilian territory.

Before returning to Rio de Janeiro, he received the British diplomatic envoy Edward Thornton, who apologized on behalf of Queen Victoria and the British Government for the crisis between the empires. The Emperor considered that this diplomatic victory over the most powerful nation of the world was sufficient and renewed friendly relations.

Against all expectations, the war continued for five years. During this period, Pedro II’s time and energy were devoted to the war effort. He tirelessly worked to raise and equip troops to reinforce the front lines and to push forward the fitting of new warships for the navy.

The rape of women, widespread violence against civilians, ransacking and destruction of properties that had occurred during Paraguay’s invasion of Brazilian territory had made a deep impression on him.

He warned the Countess of Barral in November 1866 that “the war should be concluded as honor demands, cost what it cost.” “Difficulties, setbacks, and war-weariness had no effect on his quiet resolve”, said Barman. Mounting casualties did not distract him from advancing what he saw as Brazil’s righteous cause, and he stood prepared to personally sacrifice his own throne to gain an honorable outcome.

Writing in his journal a few years previously Pedro II remarked: “What sort of fear could I have? That they take the government from me? Many better kings than I have lost it, and to me it is no more than the weight of a cross which it is my duty to carry.”

At the same time, Pedro II worked to prevent quarrels between the national political parties from impairing the military response. The Emperor prevailed over a serious political crisis in July 1868 resulting from a quarrel between the cabinet and Luís Alves de Lima e Silva (then-Marques and later Duke of Caxias), the commander-in-chief of the Brazilian forces in Paraguay. Caxias was also a politician and was a member of the opposing party to the ministry.

The Emperor sided with him, leading to the cabinet’s resignation. As Pedro II maneuvered to bring about a victorious outcome in the conflict with Paraguay, he threw his support behind the political parties and factions that seemed to be most useful in the effort. The reputation of the monarchy was harmed and its trusted position as an impartial mediator was severely impacted in the long term.

He was unconcerned for his personal position, and regardless of the impact upon the imperial system, he determined to put the national interest ahead of any potential harm caused by such expediencies.

His refusal to accept anything short of total victory was pivotal in the final outcome. His tenacity was well-paid with the news that López had died in battle on 1 March 1870, bringing the war to a close.

Pedro II turned down the General Assembly’s suggestion to erect an equestrian statue of him to commemorate the victory and chose instead to use the money to build elementary schools.

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