Brazil's Modern History

Brazil’s modern history begins with the Napoleonic Wars. When Napoleon occupied Portugal, King John VI fled to Brazil. From 1808 to 1821, Rio de Janeiro was not just the capital of Brazil but the capital of Portugal as well.

Of such things, the seeds of independence are sown. When King John VI returned to Portugal in 1821, he made his son Pedro the regent of Brazil. However, Pedro refused to return to Portugal. Instead, he declared Brazil’s independence on September 7, 1822. It took 3 years, but Portugal finally recognized Emperor Pedro and Brazil’s independence in 1825.

Within 3 years, Pedro I was undone by his domineering relations with the Brazilian parliament and by the Argentina-Brazil war of 1825-1828, which resulted in Brazil’s permanent loss of Uruguay. At the demand of the Brazilian people, Pedro I abdicated in favor of his 5-year-old son in 1831. After a sometimes stormy regency, Pedro II was proclaimed Emperor in 1840, at the age of 14.

Under Pedro II, the Brazilian economy finally escaped its dependence on brazilwood, sugar, cotton, gold, and diamonds. Coffee became the new Brazilian gold. Commerce and industry shot up. The first railroads were built, and the population of Brazil tripled, mostly through European emigration. Although Paraguayan raids forced Brazil to declare the War of the Triple Alliance in 1865, the half century under the rule of Pedro II was mostly peaceful and prosperous.

However, a different kind of trouble was waiting in the wings. The major landowners were not happy about the slow shifts toward abolition. When Pedro’s daughter Isabel officially signed into law a parliamentary bill which abolished slavery, it triggered a series of reactions which culminated in the overthrow and exile of the royal family. On November 15, 1889, Brazil became a republic.

The change in government did not interrupt the march of progress. As the world stumbled uneasily towards the War to End All Wars, a new boom began in Amazonian rubber, which resulted in the brief glory of the rubber barons before cheaper Asian sources undercut the Brazilian rubber market. Today, the historic opera house in Manaus, built with imported Italian marble and French glass, bears silent witness to those bygone days.

During this time, the Brazilian government also acted to protect a few treasured natural areas. Foremost among them was Iguacu Falls, which became a national park in 1897. Cautious development since that time has made the unbelievable beauty of these falls much more accessible to travelers than they used to be.

Following a brief dreadnaught race similar to that between Germany and Great Britain, Brazil entered both World War I and World War II on the Allied side. The postwar period and 1950s were marked by the most ambitious construction projects yet, culminating in Brasilia, the largest planned city ever completed. When coming into Brasilia by air, you can clearly see how the streets, parks, homes, and government buildings of Brasilia are laid out along the pattern of a flying bird. Located just 200 miles from the historic quarter of Old Goias, a UNESCO World Heritage site, Brasilia was designed to be a thoroughly modern capital city for a country which was coming of age. The dream became reality on April 21, 1960, when the capital was officially transferred to Brasilia from Rio de Janeiro.

However, at the same time as these marvels were becoming reality, social conditions for the majority of Brazilians were eroded by unrelenting inflation. Even during the Brazilian economic miracle which catapulted the country to the seventh largest economy in the world, the gaps between rich and poor were continuing to grow. In June 2013, these longstanding grievances erupted into widespread protests in most Brazilian cities.