“One of the most precious gems in Your Majesty’s crown…”

The study of Rio De Janeiro would not be complete without a look into aspects political and economic. These two parts have to be examined together because they are intertwined in most cases and without one, the other wouldn’t have a useful context. Since Rio and the lands around it were established on the basis of allowing Portugal to make money as well as have a counterpoint against other European countries, Rio did not have the same infrastructure or social investments as Portugal did. It was the obsessive control of economic resources Portugal exercised over its prize, Rio de Janeiro, that forced cries for liberty.

The commodity booms of sugar, mining, and Brazilwood that Rio experienced in its ports as well as the transfer of the Royal Portuguese Court created an economic capacity fitting for Brazil to declare political independence in 1822. This situation was defined by a series of economic success and political involvement that allowed the building of infrastructure and commerce, spurred population growth, and eventually diversity. Although these elements were made possible by forced labor, the settling of that labor force created a culture of many nations that we know today is vigorous and diverse. The colonial story of Rio starts in the early to mid-sixteenth century, a time of enterprising nations, and ruthless slave traders.

What would be the location of Rio was contested by French and Dutch colonizers who sought to add more territory to their holdings in the Americas. They recognized the well positioned spot as an ideal access point for European traders. The Portuguese forces eventually won the region, naming the mouth of the Guanabara Bay, São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro on March 1, 1565. At first, there was only a citadel to defend the “city” but by the late 16th century Rio had also grown into a commercial port, acting as a conduit between interior sugar cultivation and the Portuguese markets. Brazilwood, a tree harvested to the brink of extinction for its exotic red dye, furthered Rio’s port activity as well.

A sugar mill on a water way cut down the amount of labor and

A 17th century sugar mill on a water way cut down the amount of labor and increased output simultaneously.

A map of sugar cultivation and slave development in the Americas. Note how close in proximity the sugar producing areas and the mines of Minas Gerais are to Rio de Janeiro - a profitable location to be sure.

A map of sugar cultivation and slave development in the Americas. Note how close in proximity the sugar producing areas and the mines of Minas Gerais are to Rio de Janeiro – a profitable location to be sure. (Restall, Map 9.2)

Starting with the sugar boom in the late 1500s, slaves were imported from the west coast of Africa mostly to Rio and areas close by. Slave trafficking increased until 1830 when the King of Brazil signed an anti-slave treaty with England yet still continued after a brief interlude due to the persistent demands of the thriving coffee industry.

A timeline of slave embarkations and disembarkations that illustrates the vast numbers of forced labor brought in through Rio's port system.

A timeline of slave embarkations and disembarkations that illustrates the vast numbers of forced labor brought in through Rio’s port system from Africa. Until roughly the 1700s, indigenous peoples were used as labor in various industries until the rising demand necessitated labor coming from additional sources. Because of this, forced labor numbers are underestimated.

In 1693 gold deposits were discovered in Minas Gerais, a region northwest of the city. Rio’s role in this was through its close proximity to the mines and so was the preferred port for this industry. The discovery and exportation of this gold helped extricate the Portuguese from wartime debts and provided a sturdy economic footing that allowed the  Crown to recognize Rio not just as a military device but a valuable Atlantic trade hub as well. The obsessive control the crown put on the region repressed citizens and reinforced the wealth and power gap.

Graphs representing gold production during the 18th century in Brazil.

Graphs representing gold production (tons) during the 18th century in Brazil. It shows the importance of Minas Gerais’ output for overall national production. Minas Gerais would use Rio as the port of choice for export and so would reap the benefits. As we can see, gold production peaked around 1750 and declined steadily into the 1800s, which set the stage for another commodity to take the stage – coffee.(Braudel, 348)

In 1764 Rio superseded Salvador as Brazil’s capital, making the port city not just the economic center but the political one too. Rio’s planter society grew closer in similarity with the European and Caribbean elite with the returns from their sugar and mining operations, however, once their city became the seat of politics the rich could control economic policies. While this crown-backed scheme made it easier to make even more money, it increased the already wide wealth and class disparity in Rio. Not only was there class and racial differences but there was Brazilian animosity felt towards the Portuguese merchants who were seen as taking advantage of the hard work that Brazilians did. Fernand Braudel would later say that, “It was always the merchant aristocracy of Portugal who reaped the benefit and lived in even greater ease than before.”(Braudel, 211) Only the men doing the arbitraging would be making the serious money. This animosity would further fuel the desire for Brazilians to gain freedom of economic independence.

The disparity of planter wealth to that of ordinary citizens are sometimes exaggerated, however, once a certain commodity became high in demand the planters ramped up all production. Not only did they buy up land from competition, they built plantations that were specifically designed for severe control over every detail in producing their precious commodity. This control became sort of a profit science, much like assembly lines in the 20th century were.

A diagram of a coffee plantation's main grounds. The "Big House" was designed so that the master would be able to see the majority of jobs without being seen, a psychological technique used in sugar plantations and prisons alike.

A diagram of a coffee plantation’s main grounds. The “Big House” was designed so that the master would be able to see the majority of jobs without being seen – a psychological technique used in plantations and prisons alike.

This print (1809) shows the bustling, yet orderly, port of Rio soon after the Royal Court's transfer.

This print (1809) shows the bustling, yet orderly, port of Rio soon after the Royal Court’s transfer.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s threat of invasion guided the Portuguese government to officially transfer the Royal Court to Rio in 1808. This had a profound array of effects on Rio life. The city was brought up to a standard suitable for a King. Roads were built not just in the city but to outlying trade routes and other economic arteries. Schools and the first royal printing press in the colonies were established. Administrative branches such as a High Court, Royal Treasury, and National Bank were created, providing a greater capacity for self-governance than the former colonial-metropole system. In addition to physical improvements, there was an awareness of a new political identity now that Rio had the ability to make political decisions and to implement them throughout the nation effectively.

When Napoleon’s army fell at Waterloo, European nations would reform their constitutions that would include more natural rights. The shifting political treatment of lower classes meant that political disparities would be shrunken. In addition, the passing of power from Dom João, King of Portugal, to his son Prince Pedro was a strategy that prevented the fragmentation of government that much of Latin America was experiencing at the time. It was inevitable that Brazil would soon gain its independence from Portugal once they attained the bureaucratic framework and had proven industries to support a nation. A member of the Congress of Vienna said it most succinctly when he stated that Portugal, “No longer [had] colonies in America.” (Schultz, 9)

"Independence or Death!" by Pedro Américo. Prince Pedro declared independence from Portugal on September 7, 1822.

“Independence or Death!” by Pedro Américo, 1888. Prince Pedro, son of King of Portugal, declared independence from Portugal on September 7, 1822. In this idealized painting, Pedro’s Honor Guard salute him, tearing off their Portuguese armbands.

Page by Matthiessen Chatfield-Taylor, College of William & Mary