Rio de Janeiro, Capital of Portugal, The Transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil

For thirteen years, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, functioned as the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal in what some historians call a "metropolitan reversal"

The transfer of the Portuguese Court to Brazil refers to the escape of the queen Maria I of Portugal, Braganza royal family and its court of nearly 15,000 people from Lisbon on November 29, 1807. The Braganza royal family departed for the Portuguese colony of Brazil just days before Napoleonic forces invaded Lisbon on December 1. The Portuguese crown remained in Brazil from 1808 until the Liberal Revolution of 1820 led to the return of John VI of Portugal on April 26, 1821. For thirteen years, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, functioned as the capital of the Kingdom of Portugal in what some historians call a “metropolitan reversal” (i.e., a colony exercising governance over the entirety of the Portuguese empire.)

In 1807, at the outset of the Peninsular War, Napoleonic forces invaded Portugal due to the Portuguese alliance with the United Kingdom. The prince regent of Portugal at the time, John VI, had formally governed the country on behalf of Maria I of Portugal since 1799. Anticipating the invasion of Napoleon’s army, John VI ordered the transfer of the Portuguese royal court to Brazil before he could be deposed. Setting sail for Brazil on November 29, the royal party navigated under the protection of the British Royal Navy, under the command of Admiral Sir Sidney Smith. On December 5, almost halfway between Lisbon and Madeira, Sidney Smith, along with Britain’s envoy to Lisbon, Lord Strangford, returned to Europe with part of the British flotilla. Graham Moore, a British sailor and career officer in the Royal Navy, continued escorting the Portuguese royal family to Brazil with the ships Marlborough, London, Bedford, and Monarch.

On January 22, 1808, John and his court arrived in Salvador, Brazil. There, Prince John signed a law opening commerce between Brazil and “friendly nations” such as the United Kingdom. This new law, however, broke the colonial pact that had permitted Brazil to maintain direct commercial relations with Portugal only. Secret negotiations at London in 1807 by Portuguese ambassador Domingos António de Sousa Coutinho guaranteed British military protection in exchange for British access to Brazil’s ports and toMadeira as a naval base. Coutinho’s secret negotiations paved the way for Prince John’s law to come to fruition in 1808.

On March 7, 1808, the court arrived in Rio de Janeiro. On December 16, 1815, John created the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves (Reino Unido de Portugal, Brasil e Algarves), elevating Brazil to the same rank as Portugal and increasing the administrative independence of Brazil. Brazilian representatives were elected to the Portuguese Constitutional Courts (Cortes Constitucionais Portuguesas). In 1816, with the death of Queen Maria, Prince John became king of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. After several delays, the ceremony of his acclamation took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1818.

Among the important measures taken by John VI in his years in Brazil were creating incentives for commerce and industry, allowing newspapers and books to be printed, establishing two medical schools, establishing military academies, and creating the first Bank of Brazil (Banco do Brasil). In Rio de Janeiro, he also established a powder factory,a botanical garden, an art academy, and an opera house. All these measures advanced Brazil’s independence from Portugal.

Owing to the absence of the king and the economic independence of Brazil, Portugal entered a severe political crisis that obliged John VI and the royal family to return to Portugal in 1821. The heir of John VI, Pedro I, remained in Brazil. The Portuguese Cortes demanded that Brazil return to its former status as a colony and the return of the heir to Portugal. Prince Pedro, influenced by the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Senate (Senado da Câmara), refused to return to Portugal during the famous Dia do Fico (January 9, 1822). Political independence came on September 7, 1822 and the prince was crowned emperor in Rio de Janeiro as Dom Pedro I, ending 322 years of colonial dominance of Portugal over Brazil.


The Portuguese court’s tenure in Rio de Janeiro created the conditions which led to Brazil’s independence. With the court’s arrival, Rio de Janeiro saw an immediate increase in its population. This, coupled with increases in trade and subsequent immigration, transformed the city into a major economic center in the New World. In 1815, this resulted in Brazil being declared a co-kingdom with Portugal, raising it from its former colonial status. This was an embodiment of Brazil’s growing independence from Portugal, a growth that led to the creation of a written constitution for Brazil in 1820, and intensified after the royal family’s return to Europe a year later.

The stability and prosperity of the Brazilian state, resulting from the royal court’s presence, allowed for it declare independence from Portugal without the violence and destabilization characteristic of similar movements in neighboring countries. This was in part because its burgeoning independent identity had had an effect on Dom Pedro, Joao’s oldest son and first emperor of Brazil. Pedro was nine years old when the family fled Portugal, meaning he was raised in Rio de Janeiro. Coming of age in Brazil rather than Portugal led to Pedro identifying as a Brazilian, a sentiment which influenced his defiance of the Cortes in 1821. Due to his position as heir of the Portuguese crown, Pedro was able to prevent any serious efforts on the part of the Portuguese to retake Brazil. The relatively smooth transition into independence, along with the economic and cultural strides made since the royal court’s first arrival, resulted in a thriving time for the young nation. Throughout the royal court’s stay in Rio de Janeiro and during the early part of its independence, Brazil saw a huge influx of immigrants and imported slaves. The immigrants were largely young Portuguese, the majority of which elected to stay in Brazil permanently, rather than return to Portugal. This migration also mirrored a period of political upheaval in Portugal, wherein the loss of Brazil started a series of revolts. The retention of immigrants demonstrated the newfound economic opportunities of the newly independent Brazil, while waves of anti-Portuguese sentiment among the masses of Rio de Janeiro revealed the nation’s lingering resentment towards its former rulers.

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