THE JOURNEY OF THE ROYAL FAMILY TO BRAZIL, 1807-1808
Kenneth H Light
Next November we will be celebrating the 194th anniversary of
one of the most important events in Luso-Brazilian History: the voyage of the
Prince Regent d. João, his court, and all those that found room in one of the
36 ships that sailed to Brazil. Perhaps a total of some 12.000 to 15.000
The wise decision of this great statesman, that was d. João, had positive
results for Portugal, Brazil and England. Only France was to lament the event.
Contrary to what happened to other countries conquered by Bonaparte, this
decision would save the very essence of the Portuguese nation- her royal family
and court - the royal family survived unscathed, maintained their kingdom and
even prospered in their rich colony.
The presence of the Portuguese monarchy in Brazil accelerated her development;
once the kingdom of Portugal, Algarves and Brazil had been created, in 1815,
independence would become inevitable.
England, after several months of blockading the Tagus, would attack the French
troops on Portuguese territory and, after defeating them, would continue until
the final battle that took place at Waterloo. The opening of Brazilian ports by
d. João, soon after his arrival at Salvador, would bring substantial benefits
to that country.
Due to the lack of documentation, details of this important voyage were, until
recently, totally unknown. Now all this has changed, following the discovery in
the Public Records Office, in London, of the log books of all those ships that
blockaded the Tagus during November 1807 and those that escorted the Portuguese
fleet on its journey. Also found where the reports of the captains of these
These log books, many times written during severe storms at sea, reflect the
English language in use at that time and the unique colloquialism used by the
British Navy. The task of unravelling their contents took five years and, even
though slanted towards events that occurred to the British ships, they are
practically the only detailed documentation that has survived.
In 1995, on completing this research, I arranged to have it published. Copies
can be found in libraries, universities, including the Universidade Nova de
Lisboa, and museums in Portugal, Brazil, United States, England and Spain;
specially in those centres where Luso-Brasilian History is studied.
In 1807, with the exception of England, France had managed to
defeated all her enemies. France had been frustrated in her attempt to invade
England as, after the Battle of Trafalgar fought in 1805, England dominated the
The Continental Blockade, introduced by France in 1806 as a way of bringing
economic pressure on Britain, was almost complete; only Portugal had not adhered
to it. In November of 1807, even though the measures demanded by France against
her traditional ally, England, had been introduced, Portugal found herself
without any alternatives. Her land frontier had been invaded by France and
Spain; the march towards Lisbon was now in full progress. In retaliation against
the measures taken against her subjects, a British squadron, commanded by Sir
William Sidney Smith, maintained the Tagus under blockade. France and Spain had,
on October 27, signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau; Portugal should be divided
into three parts and handed over to her captors. The last straw came with the
report, in the Le Moniteur of 11th of November, in which Bonaparte in an
interview made it clear what would happen to the royal family of Portugal when
his troops arrived there. The newspaper had arrived from England brought by HMS
Plantagenet, reaching d. João on the 24th of November.
The State Council, presided by the Prince Regent, on that same day took the
decision to leave for Brazil. Once again D. João's intelligence is apparent;
all the ships of his navy were ready to sail. During the previous six months the
voyage had been planned, without raising suspicion in France or Spain. Another
trump card was the Agreement signed on the 22nd of October. The nation that
dominated the seas would escort the Portuguese fleet on her voyage.
On the 27th of that month the royal family embarked. They were distributed as
follows: on the ship-of-the-line Príncipe Real - Queen D. Maria I, Prince
Regent D. João, Prince of Beira infante D. Pedro, his brother infante D. Miguel
and the infante of Spain D. Pedro Carlos; on the Afonso de Albuquerque -
Princess of Brazil D. Carlota Joaquina, with her daughters, infantas D. Maria
Isabel Francisca, D. Maria d' Assunção, D. Ana de Jesus and Princess of Beira
infanta D. Maria Tereza; on the Príncipe do Brasil - the widow Princess D.
Maria Francisca Benedita and the infanta D. Maria Ana, both sisters to the
Queen; and, on board the Rainha de Portugal - the daughters of D. Carlota
Joaquina, infantas D. Maria Francisca de Assis and D. Isabel Maria.
During the night of the 28th the wind changed direction, from West-south-west to
South-east, thus making it possible for them to leave the Tagus. Early on the
29th, the ships began preparations for the voyage: raise the anchor and store
its cable, lift masts and spars into position, loosen sails and receive on board
the river pilot.
The departure could not have been delayed for 18 hours later Junot, commander of
the French troops, would enter Lisbon.
Today, our knowledge of the ships that undertook this voyage is almost
non-existent. Proof of this is the answer to a relative simple question - how
many men would be needed to raise and secure the anchor and store its cable on a
74 gun ship of the line? The correct answer, that may surprise many, is 385. We
are ignorant also of the quality of the food, medicine and hygiene on board, the
boredom and the dangers.
Due to the restriction of time only important facts, newly revealed or different
from those previously written by historians have been included in this
presentation. It is worthwhile remembering that until recently, the existing
brief comments on the journey were written by land observers, whereas now we can
be observers at sea.
That morning, on crossing the Tagus bar, the Portuguese Fleet met with the
British Squadron. The Squadron awaited, sailing in line-of-battle order. After
receiving the signal 'prepare for battle' from the flag-ship, the vessels had
been transformed into war machines, sailors and marines manning the guns, ready
to fight. Sir Sidney was not prepared to run any risks. Subsequent to a friendly
meeting, the salute previously negotiated, was fired at 4:30 PM; the Príncipe
Real did not participate, in order not to frighten the Queen, who was on board.
The journey began with the Fleet sailing in a north-westerly direction, as the
storm blowing from the south-east did not allow for any other alternative. Just
the mainsail produced sufficient speed so that following waves did not break on
the poop. The higher sections of the masts (topmasts, topgallant masts and
yards) were taken down and lashed to the deck, to reduce wind resistance and to
lower the centre of gravity. This course was more comfortable and less dangerous
then to head the ships towards Madeira, and receive the seas on the beam; even
then they would be subject to pitch. The flag-ship Hibernia recorded, at sunset,
that 56 sails were in sight.
Meanwhile marines from the Hibernia, Marlborough and London transferred to the
frigate Solebay and to the sloops Confiance and Redwing attempted,
unsuccessfully due to the bad weather, to capture the Bugio fort.
During the third night, with the wind changing direction, they could set course
for Madeira; early in the afternoon of the following day the latitude of Lisbon
was crossed. There were 18 Portuguese war vessels, 13 British and 26
On the 5th of December, at approximately half-way between Lisbon and Funchal
(Madeira), part of the British Squadron, following the salute from Hibernia
answered by the Conde D. Henrique, changed course to return to the blockade of
Lisbon. The Portuguese Fleet would be escorted, all the way to Brazil, by a
Squadron of 4 ships: Marlborough, London, Bedford and Monarch, under the command
of Commodore Graham Moore (captain of the Marlborough).
As an example of the degree of detail we now have we can relate that on that day
Sir Sidney sent his barge as a present to the Prince Regent, it would come in
useful when visiting other ships during calm weather. Provisions were
transferred to the Rainha de Portugal as follows: 13.440 lb. of bread in 120
bags, 1.136 8 lb. pieces of beef, 1.540 4 lb. pieces of pork and 54 bushels of
peas. Marlborough took on board 43 tons of sea water, to compensate for the
victuals and water consumed since sailing from Cawsand Bay, Plymouth, on
The fine weather as well as the logs refute the account, written by Boiteaux,
Esparteiro and other authors, about the gift that the Prince Regent wished to
give the English admiral. The legend says that the captain of the Príncipe
Real, Francisco do Canto de Castro e Mascarenhas, manoeuvred his ship so that
the gift could be passed from the yard of one ship to the other, by hand.
On the following day London received 69 passengers from the Príncipe Real.
There remained on board the Príncipe Real 1054 persons; the crew of 950 men and
That night, escorted by the corvette Voador, London set sail for Funchal to
On the 8th of that month some 50 leagues to the north of Madeira, fearful of
approaching at night a danger known as 'Eight Stones', the Portuguese Fleet hove
to. The Marlborough and the Monarch also stopped.
During the night, with visibility greatly reduced because of rain, the Príncipe
Real and the Afonso de Albuquerque escorted by their frigates, without giving
any signals, resumed, sailing in a north-westerly direction. The wind once again
was blowing from the South-east. The result was that on the following morning
these ships found themselves sailing alone; the Príncipe Real escorted by the
frigate Urânia, the Afonso de Albuquerque with the frigate Minerva and the
Bedford. Still hove to in the same location, the Rainha de Portugal, Conde D.
Henrique, Marlborough and Monarch.
The remaining ships had, prior to this date, obtained permission from D. João
to make their way independently to Brazil.
All the captains now took the same decision; make for the rendezvous previously
agreed. These were firstly the west end of Madeira, then near the Island of
Palma (Canaries) and lastly Praia on the Island of St. Tiago (Cape Verde).
On the 11th of December the Príncipe Real and the Afonso de Albuquerque, that
had basically taken the same course, rejoined. On the 14th Bedford, that had
spent 36 hours off the Island of Madeira and then moved on to wait near the
Island of Ferro (Canaries) at last sighted them and, on the following day, could
record that they were 'in company'.
On December 21st D. João informed Captain James Walker that he had decided to
sail, without stopping, to Brazil. Their speed was reasonable and there was no
shortage of water or victuals. That night the frigate Minerva was sent to St.
Tiago to advise the remainder of the Fleet of the Prince Regent's decision.
The four ships, that had spent the night hove to near Madeira, arrived at St.
Tiago to water on the 24th of December; there they found the Minerva awaiting
them. Two days later London, having watered at Funchal, arrived.
On the 27th of December from Cape Verde they sailed in the direction of Cape
Frio, distant 823 leagues. They were aware that the ships carrying the Royal
family were sailing on a parallel course to their east. So, every daybreak the
Monarch received a signal to move to a position on the South-eastern horizon, in
order to extend their field of vision At nightfall the signal to return was
given, fearful that in the darkness she might get lost.
On January 2nd 1808, Bedford recorded that three ships were in sight, on the
horizon. The slight wind and the fact that she was the only ship escorting the
Royal family, prevented her from investigating. That night a blue light was lit,
at the top of her mast. Marlborough's log records, at 11:30 PM, a blue light on
the horizon. At midday the positions recorded show a difference of 5 minutes of
latitude and 1 degree and 5 minutes of longitude. Today we can be certain that
the two divisions of the Fleet, which were sailing independently, were within
sight of each other and very nearly came together. If this had occurred, how
would History have changed? Would D. João have gone to Salvador, where the
'opening of the ports' was signed? How would this have effected History?
The ships, on which the Royal family were embarked, next entered the doldrums
found near the equator. They took 10 days to cover 30 leagues.
The slow progress even after leaving this area, due to the south-easterly wind,
added to the fact that the Afonso de Albuquerque was a slow sailer, made D.
João change his plans; they had been 7 weeks at sea. At 1:20 PM on the 16th,
Bedford's cutter went across to the Príncipe Real; orders were received to
change course: the decision had been taken to go to Salvador.
During the voyage there was no shortage of victuals or water. When Bedford
anchored in Salvador she was carrying 75 tons in her hold (she had sailed from
Plymouth with 224 tons of water). Her daily consumption, without rationing, was
On January 22nd 1808, therefore after 55 days at sea, at last they anchored in
Salvador. The first part of the voyage had ended. Some days earlier, on January
17th, the division of the Fleet that had sailed directly from St. Tiago, after
making landfall at Cape Frio (an example of the precision possible in navigation
at that time), arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
Gradually all the ships arrived: Medusa, badly damaged, reached Recife on
January 13th; D. João de Castro battered and leaking, arrived at the Bay of
Lucena (Paraíba); Martim de Freitas, following a short stop in Salvador,
reached Rio de Janeiro on January 26th; Príncipe do Brasil anchored in Rio de
Janeiro on February 13th, a delay of 4 weeks as she had to go first to England
for repairs. Before doing so, the Queen's sisters were transferred to the Rainha
In the end, although severely punished by the successive winter storms that
caused much damage, all the ships reached their destination. This reflects the
skill of the officers and crew and the design and construction of the ships; the
result of many centuries of sailing the oceans in different weather conditions.
In Salvador, the ships were preparing for the second stage of their journey;
repairs, receiving dry and salted victuals and live animals. On the 23rd the
Royal family disembarked; the Queen followed the next day. On the 30th of that
month the Prince Regent visited the Bedford, examining her thoroughly during
three hours. He was so satisfied by the attention received from the British
Navy, that he decided to decorate her principal officers. A problem was the fact
that all the military orders were also religious, so could only be given to
Catholics. D. João decided to revive a non-religious order, that of the Tower
and Sword, first instituted by D. Afonso V, in 1459.
D. João had every confidence in Captain James Walker. Whilst anchored in
Salvador, on the 14th, 15th and 17th of February, 84 safes containing valuables
were transferred to the Bedford to be transported to Rio de Janeiro.
On the 26th of February, at 10:30 AM, the Fleet comprising the line-of-battle
ships Príncipe Real, Afonso de Albuquerque, Medusa and Bedford, the frigate
Urânia, the brig Três-Corações, the Activo and the Imperador Adriano (the
latter two substituting the D. João de Castro, that could not sail without
first undergoing extensive repairs), at last sailed. At midday they had to stop
and wait for the tide, but soon after were on their way and, by 4:00 PM out of
the bay and in open seas.
The voyage to Rio de Janeiro went without mishap. For safety reasons, during the
last two nights they hove to, as they were sailing near land. On the 7th March
1808, amid salutes from the fortresses and ships , they entered the harbour of
Rio de Janeiro.
On the following June 4th, the anniversary of King George III,
Sir Sidney Smith received the Royal family on board the London. Following the
usual toasts, the Prince Regent ordered that the royal ensign should presented
to Sir Sidney. Next he ordered that henceforth he should quarter his arms with
those of Portugal, so that his descendants might never forget the gratitude of
the Royal family, for the services rendered during this voyage.
Even after the French had been expelled by Britain (April 1810), D. João
continued living in Brazil (until 1821). Unfortunately there is not sufficient
space, in this article, to cover the innumerable public institutions and
benefits brought about by D. João, as also the many qualities of his character.
As happens on many occasions, the passing of time enlightens and clarifies. The
first critics, perhaps being too close to events, interpreted them in a negative
way; they could not see the greatness and courage of the decision taken by D.
João, as subsequent events showed.
Kenneth H. Light
Member Correspondent of the Instituto Histórico de Petrópolis
Member of the British Historical Society of Portugal
Director of the Society of Friends of the Imperial Museum