Pedro II nicknamed “the Magnanimous”,was the second and last ruler of the Empire of Brazil, reigning for over 58 years.[A] Born in Rio de Janeiro, he was the seventh child of Emperor Dom Pedro I of Brazil and Empress Dona Maria Leopoldina and thus a member of the Brazilian branch of the House of Braganza. His father’s abrupt abdication and flight to Europe in 1831 left a five-year-old Pedro II as Emperor and led to a grim and lonely childhood and adolescence. Obliged to spend his time studying in preparation for rule, he knew only brief moments of happiness and encountered few friends of his age. His experiences with court intrigues and political disputes during this period greatly affected his later character. Pedro II grew into a man with a strong sense of duty and devotion toward his country and his people. On the other hand, he increasingly resented his role as monarch.
Inheriting an Empire on the verge of disintegration, Pedro II turned Portuguese-speaking Brazil into an emerging power in the international arena. The nation grew to be distinguished from its Hispanic neighbors on account of its political stability, zealously guarded freedom of speech, respect for civil rights, vibrant economic growth and especially for its form of government: a functional, representative parliamentary monarchy. Brazil was also victorious in three international conflicts (the Platine War, the Uruguayan War and the Paraguayan War) under his rule, as well as prevailing in several other international disputes and domestic tensions. Pedro II steadfastly pushed through the abolition of slavery despite opposition from powerful political and economic interests. A savant in his own right, the Emperor established a reputation as a vigorous sponsor of learning, culture and the sciences. He won the respect and admiration of scholars such as Charles Darwin, Victor Hugo and Friedrich Nietzsche, and was a friend to Richard Wagner, Louis Pasteur and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, among others.
Although there was no desire for a change in the form of government among most Brazilians, the Emperor was overthrown in a sudden coup d’état that had almost no support outside a clique of military leaders who desired a form of republic headed by a dictator. Pedro II had become weary of emperorship and despaired over the monarchy’s future prospects, despite its overwhelming popular support. He allowed no prevention of his ouster and did not support any attempt to restore the monarchy. He spent the last two years of his life in exile in Europe, living alone on very little money.
The reign of Pedro II thus came to an unusual end—he was overthrown while highly regarded by the people and at the pinnacle of his popularity, and some of his accomplishments were soon brought to naught as Brazil slipped into a long period of weak governments, dictatorships, and constitutional and economic crises. The men who had exiled him soon began to see in him a model for the Brazilian republic. A few decades after his death, his reputation was restored and his remains were returned to Brazil with celebrations nationwide. Historians have regarded the Emperor in an extremely positive light and several have ranked him as the greatest Brazilian.
Decline and fall
During the 1880s, Brazil continued to prosper and social diversity increased markedly, including the first organized push for women’s rights. On the other hand, letters written by Pedro II reveal a man grown world-weary with age and having an increasingly alienated and pessimistic outlook. He remained respectful of his duty and was meticulous in performing the tasks demanded of the Imperial office, albeit often without enthusiasm. Because of his increasing “indifference towards the fate of the regime” and his lack of action in support of the Imperial system once it was challenged, historians have attributed the “prime, perhaps sole, responsibility” for the dissolution of the monarchy to the Emperor himself.
After their experience of the perils and obstacles of government, the political figures who had arisen during the 1830s saw the Emperor as providing a fundamental source of authority essential for governing and for national survival. These elder statesmen began to die off or retire from government until, by the 1880s, they had almost entirely been replaced by a younger generation of politicians who had no experience of the early years of Pedro II’s reign, when internal and external dangers threatened the nation’s existence. They had only known a stable administration and prosperity. In sharp contrast to those of the previous era, the young politicians saw no reason to uphold and defend the Imperial office as a unifying force beneficial to the nation.
To those younger politicians Pedro II was merely an old and increasingly sick man who had steadily eroded his position by taking an active role in politics for decades. Before he had been above criticism, but now his every action and inaction prompted meticulous scrutiny and open criticism. Many young politicians had become apathetic toward the monarchic regime and, when the time came, they would do nothing to defend it. Pedro II’s role in achieving an era of national unity, stability and good government now went unremembered and unconsidered by the ruling elites. By his very success, the Emperor had made his position seem unnecessary.
The lack of an heir who could feasibly provide a new direction for the nation also diminished the long-term prospects of the Brazilian monarchy. The Emperor loved his daughter Isabel, but he considered the idea of a female successor as antithetical to the role required of Brazil’s ruler. He viewed the death of his two sons as being a sign that the Empire was destined to be supplanted. Resistance to accepting a female ruler was also shared by the political establishment. Even though the Constitution allowed female succession to the throne, Brazil was still very traditional, and only a male successor was thought capable as head of state.
Slavery abolition and coup d’état
Photograph of a group of people assembled on a columned porch at the top of a flight of steps, with one older lady seated, one younger lady leaning on the arm of an older bearded man, two younger men and three small boys
By June 1887, the Emperor’s health had considerably worsened and his personal doctors suggested going to Europe for medical treatment. While in Milan he passed two weeks between life and death, even being anointed. While on bed recovering, on 22 May 1888 he received news that slavery had been abolished in Brazil. Lying in bed with a weak voice and tears in his eyes, he said, “Great people! Great people!” Pedro II returned to Brazil and disembarked in Rio de Janeiro on August 1888. The “whole country welcomed him with an enthusiasm never seen before. From the capital, from the provinces, from everywhere, arrived proofs of affection and veneration.” With the devotion expressed by Brazilians upon the return of the Emperor and the Empress from Europe, the monarchy seemed to enjoy unshakable support and to be at the height of its popularity.
The nation enjoyed great international prestige during the final years of the Empire, and it had become an emerging power within the international arena. Predictions of economic and labor disruption caused by the abolition of slavery failed to materialize and the 1888 coffee harvest was successful. The end of slavery had resulted in an explicit shift of support to republicanism by rich and powerful coffee farmers who held great political, economic and social power in the country. Republicanism was an elitist creed which never flourished in Brazil, with little support in the provinces. The combination of republican ideas and the dissemination of Positivism among the army’s lower and medium officer ranks led to indiscipline among the corps and became a serious threat to the monarchy. They dreamed of a dictatorial republic, which they believed would be superior to the monarchy.
Although there was no desire in Brazil among the majority of the population to change the form of government, the civilian republicans began pressuring army officers to overthrow the monarchy. They launched a coup d’état, arrested Prime Minister Afonso Celso, Viscount of Ouro Preto and instituted the republic on 15 November 1889. The few people who witnessed what occurred did not realize that it was a rebellion. Historian Lídia Besouchet noted that “[r]arely has a revolution been so minor.” During the ordeal Pedro II showed no emotion, as if unconcerned about the outcome. He dismissed all suggestions for quelling the rebellion that politicians and military leaders put forward. When he heard the news of his deposition he simply commented: “If it is so, it will be my retirement. I have worked too hard and I am tired. I will go rest then.” He and his family were sent into exile in Europe on 17 November