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25/07/2008

THE TRANSFER OF THE PORTUGUESE CAPITAL AND COURT TO RIO DE JANEIRO 1807-1808

Kenneth Light

2008 will go down in Brazilian history for 2 special reasons: the bicentenary of the transfer of the Portuguese court and capital to Rio de Janeiro and the year that saw a major change to the Prince Regent's image.

Following the severe losses suffered at Trafalgar, Napoleon decided, in 1806, that: if his ships were to be blockaded in their ports, then he would prevent British goods from entering France and all countries under his control. This was critical news for Britain, as she depended on exports for her economic strength needed, for instance, to sustain the expensive war against the French Emperor.

It must have been obvious to the Portuguese State Council - made up of intelligent and experienced men - that sooner or later Napoleon would be making demands on her: to close the one remaining gap in his Continental commercial shield.

Portugal, at that time, was ruled by the Prince Regent D. João, as his mother - the Queen - had become insane. As Portugal was an absolute monarchy, the State Council had but advisory powers.

In July 1807, preparations began for a possible journey to Brazil. Ordering the return to the Tagus, those ships patrolling near the straits of Gibraltar against pirates; sending orders to the Viceroy in Brazil, prohibiting the departure of merchant ships - D. João was foreseeing the French invasion, Negotiating an agreement with Britain: to provide an escort, as Portuguese war ships would be transformed into passenger ships and so could not defend themselves if attacked.

These careful and lengthy preparations are not compatible with the word 'flight', so often used; it was a deliberate, well-conceived strategy that met with total success.

The crossing of her frontier by French and Spanish troops, the blockade of Lisbon by a British squadron and the news from Paris, quoting what Napoleon would do to his family, left him without options. On November 29 1807, he set sail for Brazil with his family and court.

The studies completed by the author, during the last 15 years, have enabled historians - after 200 years - to have access to original documentation that finally unravel details of the voyage. Discovery of the log books of those British ships escorting the Portuguese fleet as well as the reports from their captains, enable us for the first time to rebuilt the voyage 'as if we were onboard the ships'.

Historians, in the past, writing from a land based viewpoint, had to use their imagination as to what was happening, once the fleet sailed below the horizon. As a result, much that was written is simply not true! Many new facts have come to light and, as a result, we can answer many of the questions that, in the past, went answered.

The journey was long and uncomfortable, subject to the usual storms and frustrations - for instance 10 days were spent without making any headway, whilst crossing that area that lacks wind, known as the doldrums. The food was terrible and hygiene was precarious - there were no bathrooms onboard the ship of the line Príncipe Real that carried a crew of 950 and 104 passengers - including the queen and the prince regent and his children!
In the end, although buffeted by the severe winter storms - that caused considerable damage - all vessels arrived safely. This reflects on the skill of the crews and officers as well as on the design and construction of the ships; the result of many centuries of sailing across oceans, under varying weather conditions.

Landfall at Salvador, on January the 22nd, must have come as a relief. After ordering the refitting of ships and the replenishing of water and supplies, D. João signed the order opening Brazilian ports to friendly nations. Previously Brazil could only trade with Portugal but now, with that country occupied by French and Spanish troops, there was no alternative; the clamour of merchant vessels laden with produce and nowhere to go helped to prevent any delay in this decision. This action was part of the treaty singed with England.

On February 26 they departed and, after a short and uneventful journey reached Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 1808.

Geoff Hunt RSMA


The immediate impact on this town has in the past, I think, been exaggerated. The ships composing the naval fleet arrived over a period of nearly 2 months. Their crews, comprising over 5,000 men would not be allowed on shore for fear of desertion; they would, of course, need water and supplies. As to the merchant fleet, many ships belonged to other towns and, in practice, never came to Rio de Janeiro.

With the transfer of the capital of the Portuguese Empire to Brazil, it would only be a question of time before the Colony, as she was in 1808, would become a Kingdom and then an Empire.

Portugal frustrated Napoleon's plans; later, in exile, he would be quoted as saying that his fortunes changed when he invaded Portugal and so started the Peninsular War.

D. João, the first monarch to have the courage to cross the Atlantic, was forced by political pressure to return to Lisbon. But his 13 years in Brazil left their mark: Rio, transformed from a small town to a capital city; the unity of this continental size country guaranteed; her colonial status, something of the past.

Unprepared, by circumstances outside his control, to lead his country during one of the most difficult times in all of Portuguese history, D. João, in his own slow and deliberate way, took and implemented the right decisions - for his country and his family. The caricature figure, promoted in the past by the media and even in 'official' books for school children, has not been repeated and, one would hope, is something of the past.

D. João's love for Brazil is reflected in the treaty of separation - signed with his son Pedro, in 1825; he insisted on a clause that stated that he would be Titular Emperor of Brazil. After this date, his signature appears on many documents - João, Prince and Emperor (of Brazil).

Kenneth Light is the author of the recently published book - A Viagem Marítima da Família Real, Ed. Jorge Zahar, Rio de Janeiro, 2008.

Kenneth Light is a member of the:
Historical Society of Petrópolis
British Historical Society of Portugal
Society of Friends of the Imperial Museum

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