19th Century

Dom Pedro II: The Emperor of Brazil in the Victorian Periodical Press | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom, who usually researches Victorian popular literature but has also taken a recent interest in the history of nineteenth-century Brazil.


Thanks to some Brazilian YouTubers’ cavalier attitude to copyright law, I recently ‘discovered’ a fascinating television series (called a telenovela in Portuguese) titled Nos Tempos do Imperador (‘In the Times of the Emperor’).

Pedro II of Brazil

Starring the famous actor Selton Mello, the series tells a fictionalized tale of life in Brazil during the mid-nineteenth century when, unusually for a South American nation at the time, Brazil was ruled by a constitutional monarch, Dom Pedro II (played by Mello).

Nos Tempos do Imperador / In the Times of the Emperor

The series is interesting because it portrays characters from every walk of life. We have scheming aristocrats and plantation owners like Tonico (Alexandre Nero), ambitious young men like Nelio (played by João Pedro Zappa), headstrong young women with dreams of becoming a medical practitioner (Gabriela Medvedovski), and an escaped slave, played by Michel Gomes, trying to survive in the cut-throat world of nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro.

Dom Pedro II ( Selton Mello ) (c) Globo

Had Nos Tempos do Imperador been written in the nineteenth century, we might have placed it within the same literary tradition as Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1842–43) and George W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London (1844–48). ‘Mysteries of Rio’ would’ve certainly had a nice ring to it.

João Pedro Zappa as Nelio in Nos Tempos do Imperador (c) Globo

It is of course the character of Pedro II who interests me here although as the series continues I’ll likely write more on it. In Nos Tempos do Imperador, the emperor deals with a series of crises such as the Paraguayan War, the general toing and froing between the country’s political factions, and attempting to deal with the slavery question.

The series is still going strong, having started in 2021, but it did inspire me to find out more about the Empire of Brazil and, as a scholar of Victorian literature, to see how Dom Pedro II was portrayed in the nineteenth-century popular press.

Cabral (center-left, pointing) sights the Brazilian mainland for the first time on 22 April 1500.

Brazil as Colony

The Portuguese arrived in Brazil in the year 1500 when a fleet of ships, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467–1620), landed on the coast of what would become the province of Bahia. The Portuguese crown, being more interested in its Asian trading outposts, did little to develop Brazil at first, and what little development did happen occurred as a result of the crown’s parcelling out of land to nobleman who then purchased African slaves to work on it.

Flag of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves

The United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves

For the next 300 years or so, Brazil remained as a predominantly agrarian slave-owning society. This state of affairs changed, however, with the arrival in Brazil in 1808 of the Portuguese ruler Dom João VI and his royal court.

It was British ships that transported the Portuguese court to Brazil, an event marked by a poem in the famous Gentleman’s Magazine in December 1807 which began thus:

Yon Fleet so majestic adown Tagus steering,

What multitudes flock to behold from the strand!

On the deck of each vessel what crowds are appearing,

To waft fond adieus to their dear native land!

Lusitania, thy Sov’reign, thy Princes now flee!

From thrones and dominions at length they are driv’n,

For Freedom, dear Freedom, they’ll plough the rough sea,

Their convoy, Britannia, the Agent of Heaven![1]

Fleeing the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, Brazil, which had previously been a mere colony, was now the centre of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves. Printing presses were set up, professional societies were established, a national library was founded, and industry and commerce in Rio de Janeiro began to flourish (the aristocracy had money to invest and to spend, after all).[2]

Dom João VI of Portugal

The Liberal Revolution in Portugal

With the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the Portuguese began clamouring for the return of their king to rule as a constitutional monarch. Matters came to a head in 1820 during the Portuguese Revolução Liberal (the Liberal Revolution) and, fearing the end of his dynasty if he did not comply, Dom João relented and returned to Portugal, leaving his son Pedro (the future Dom Pedro I) in Brazil.

The Portuguese Cortes (Wikimedia Commons)

The Cortes in Portugal had other designs, however; they demanded, not only the return of the king and his son Pedro, but the Cortes also sought to reduce Brazil to the status of a colony once again. The purpose of this was to restore Portugal’s ‘dignity’, which since the defeat of Napoleon and the absence of its monarch, had become a virtual protectorate of the British Empire under the administration of Lord Strangford.

Many Brazilians did not want a return to colony status and Pedro was convinced ‘to remain and proclaim the independence of Brazil’.[3]

Brazilian Independence and the Empire of Brazil

Brazil’s Declaration of Brazilian Independence was made on 22 September 1822, when Pedro wrote a letter to his father informing him of the country’s new status as a sovereign nation. On 12 October, the Municipal Council of Rio de Janeiro crowned Pedro as Pedro I, Constitutional Emperor of Brazil, and ruler of the newly-christened Empire of Brazil.

Dom Pedro I is cheered by crowds in Brazil (from Debret’s Voyages in Brazil)

It took another two years for Dom Pedro to fully secure Brazil’s independence as the Portuguese Cortes was determined to hold on to Brazil. Yet by 1824, and with relatively little bloodshed apart from a few skirmishes, Brazil was independent, as two historians have remarked:

The Brazilian aristocracy had its wish: Brazil made a transition to independence with comparatively little disruption and bloodshed. But this meant that independent Brazil retained its colonial social structure: monarchy, slavery, large landed estates, monoculture, an inefficient agricultural system, a highly stratified society, and a free population that was 90 percent illiterate.[4]

Early morning in Rio (from Debret’s Voyages)

Dom Pedro I and His Son

Dom Pedro I was a bright young man, schooled in the great works of European literature. He read and spoke English and French fluently and had a fondness for Latin literature. His aristocratic upbringing did not make him a snob, however, for as a child he preferred mixing with servants and stable boys, several of whom remained his friend throughout his life.[5]

Dom Pedro I

Amiable he may have been, but Dom Pedro I lacked the conciliatory powers needed to guide the nation’s young parliament. The question of the emperor’s role in parliament, and a refusal to countenance any curb to his powers, led to his abdication on 7 April 1831.

Pedro I’s son, also called Dom Pedro, was left in Brazil in the care of his tutors, and the nation was left in the charge of Regency until he reached his majority. The future Pedro II should have ascended the throne at the age of 18 but, owing to several insurrections in the 1830s, as well as much parliamentary wrangling between the conservative, liberal, and republican factions in the nation’s parliament, Pedro II was hastily crowned in July 1841, at the age of just 15.

British Support for the Empire of Brazil

The British Empire, as one of the nineteenth-century’s great powers, had had many dealings with the Portuguese royals and the Empire of Brazil. It was British ships, for example, that conveyed the Portuguese royal family and its court to Brazil.

After the proclamation of independence, British forces under the command of Lord Cochrane helped the new Empire of Brazil to put down resistance in Bahia, Maranhão, and Pará, where reactionary Portuguese forces held the upper hand. In recognition of his services to the Empire, Dom Pedro I gave Lord Cochrane the title of Marquis of Maranhão.

With so many British ‘interests’ at stake in Brazil, the British press took a lot of interest in the new country. Some of this took the form of poetry dedicated to the country, such as one printed in the Ladies’ Monthly Museum in 1824 which began thus:

Brazil! Thy soil with richness teeming,

Thy sun eternal radiance beaming,

Unite on thy salubrious coast

The mingled blessings various nations boast.[6]

Other poems, such as one that appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in 1852, praised the country’s beauty and the richness of its exports.[7] Other articles took the form of features on Brazil’s cities, such as one which appeared in the London Journal, edited by Pierce Egan the Younger and likely written by him, in 1863.[8]

Flag of the Empire of Brazil

Yet there was a further reason why the British press at large took an interest specifically in the fortunes of the Brazilian monarchy: As supporters of constitutional monarchies, the British—who had many commercial interests in South America—had high hopes that Brazil would be a region of stability on a continent where previous bids for independence in former Spanish colonies had seen much bloodshed. As the Kaleidoscope remarked in 1821,

Brazil has, therefore, the incalculable advantages of being, in a great measure, secure against the contests which it is but too probably will arise in other parts of South America … With such great capabilities of improvement,—with the finest soil and climate,—the finest harbours and rivers in the world,—how rapid must be the progress of Brazil! A new and boundless field is here opened for the investment of European capital, and for the exertion of genius, skill, and industry … We assume very little when we state, that before the expiration of the present century Brazil will be one of the most powerful and flourishing countries in the world.[9]

While the reign of Dom Pedro I was a non-starter, perhaps there was hope for the reign of his son Pedro II.

Dom Pedro II: A Darling of the British Liberal Press

A liberal at heart, Dom Pedro II had been received kind words and much praise in the British press as his reign progressed. The following is near typical of the sentiments expressed in the liberal press:

He is a man of large figure and very fine appearance … His broad, high forehead bespeaks great intelligence, and his mild eye a sincere and generous heart. His tastes are those of a savant. A Latin library, which he daily enriches with the best works in French, English, and German, forms his principal and favourite distraction. Letters and the sciences are equally familiar to him. All foreigners who visit him are unanimous in acknowledging his great learning and superior intellect.[10]

Slaves waiting outside a coffee house in Rio de Janeiro, from Debret’s Voyage in Brazil.

Dom Pedro II and the Slavery Question

While praised for his fine intellect and commanding figure, it was the Pedro’s opposition to slavery that earned him respect in liberal abolitionist circles in both the UK and the USA. His humanitarianism led him to refuse to own slaves on his own estates, even though, until the 1870s, the conservative, land-owning factions resisted any attempts to abolish it in the nation overall.

Yet Pedro also believed that his country’s adherence to what was by the mid-nineteenth century an outdated and inefficient mode of production actually hindered industrial and commercial progress. For example, when Pedro II visited the United States in 1876 he attended abolitionist rallies, O Novo Mundo remarked that

‘This nefarious slavery not only prevents emigration to Brazil, but also (prevents) the agricultural industries’ access to foreign capital’.[11]

Pedro II’s visit to the USA in 1876, in fact, was the first official state visit by any hereditary monarch that the then 100-year old republic had received, and the American press seemed quite taken with a man whose country, in some respects, was the direct opposite of a republic in which slavery had (albeit recently) been abolished.[12]

Dom Pedro II in the Liberal Newspaper Press

Pedro II’s views on slavery were well-known and there was little blame attached to him for the institution that continued in his country. As the London Journal remarked in 1863, it was ‘rich proprietors’ who were to blame for the continuation of slavery instead of the monarch.[13] In a similar vein, the Leisure Hour reported that

At a large pecuniary sacrifice, Dom Pedro II liberated all the slaves belonging to the property of the Crown, and a general scheme of Emancipation has been projected, the wisdom, foresight, and benevolence of which can hardly be too highly praised … The Emperor openly declares his abhorrence of the system, but he is so circumstanced that in Brazil great social changes must be gradual.[14]

Abolitionist Conservative statesman José Maria da Silva Paranhos, viscount of Rio Branco (Wikimedia Commons)

Also in Britain, the Anti-Slavery Reporter printed several articles and poems in praise of Pedro II, which appeared with increasing incidence as successive Brazilian governments took steps to incrementally wipe out slavery. For example, when José Paranhos’s Conservative party took the reins of government in March 1871, the ‘Law of Free Birth’ was passed. Under the terms of this law, all children born into slavery were automatically free. They might be either apprenticed to the mother’s ‘owner’ until the age of 21, or they might be released from the apprenticeship at the age of eight for an indemnity paid by the government. As C.H. Haring remarked:

[The government] did anticipate gradual abolition in the course of nature, but very gradual; apparently it got by the slavocrats as a compromise, to put off the evil day of total abolition as long as possible.[15]

When news of this measure reached British abolitionists and the journalists working at the Anti-Slavery Reporter, the emperor was feted:

And thou, Great-Hearted Ruler, through whose mouth

The Word of God is said

Once more, “Let there be light!” Son of the South,

Lift up thy honoured head.

Wear unashamed a crown, by thy desert,

More than by birth thy own,

Careless of watch and ward; thou are begirt

By grateful hearts alone.[16]

Yet the emperor’s opposition to slavery, and the laws passed by his governments, did not earn him many favours with either the landowners or the liberals for ‘slave owners charged him with responsibility for the origin and progress of the abolition movement, the abolitionists for his failure to act with greater precipitation’.[17]

The Final End of Slavery in Brazil

From an abolitionist standpoint, there was even after 1871 much work to do. Slavery had to go. The Liberal government that came to power in 1878 had proposed various abolition-friendly policies, though these were resisted by slaver interests. Then in 1884, Pedro called a new ministry to office which was to be headed by Manoel de Sousa Dantas, an abolitionist ‘firebrand’.

The transportation of slaves in Brazil, made illegal by a law passed in 1885 (image taken from Debret’s Voyages in Brazil)

Dantas’s appointment as prime minister was a clear signal from the emperor that abolition should be on his government’s agenda. Dantas’s government immediately proposed that all slaves be registered and any unregistered ones to be immediately set free. The transportation of slaves from one state to another was also prohibited. After some wrangling and a change of ministry, new laws were passed in 1885 which fulfilled Dantas’s original wishes.

The genie was out of the bottle. Clergymen began denouncing slavery from the pulpit. Slaves were encouraged to run away from the plantations safe in the knowledge that activist lawyers—members of the professional classes who were usually pro-abolitionist—would defend them pro bono if they were recaptured. A number of magistrates were also reported to have found easy pretexts for releasing slaves.

Slave owners were publicly shamed into freeing the slaves on their plantations. The Countess of Nova-Friburgo granted freedom to 1,000 slaves on the plantation that she inherited.[18] In February 1887 the City of Sao Paolo, to celebrate the anniversary of its founding, set free all of the slaves in the city while in 1886 the army declared that it would no longer pursue fugitive slaves.[19]

Dom Pedro II as depicted in the Leisure Hour

The final end of slavery came in May 1888. Dom Pedro was actually away in Europe receiving medical treatment and had left his daughter Isabel in charge as regent. In March the Conservative Prime Minister Barão Cotegipe (1815–89), who was unsympathetic to the abolitionist cause, resigned. Isabel then summoned another Conservative, João Alfredo Corrêa (1835–1919), who was an abolitionist, to head a new ministry.

Dona Isabel, Dom Pedro II’s daughter who signed the Emancipation Act into law (Wikimedia Commons)

With abolitionist sentiment reaching fever pitch, at Isabel’s urging Corrêa introduced a new bill to parliament on 8 May which mandated complete abolition with no compensation for the slave owners. The bill passed through both houses of the Brazilian legislature five days later, to the rapturous applause of crowds assembled outside and in the press who were engulfed in a wave of righteous indignation at an institution which vested interests had allowed to remain for far too long.[20]

Open mass on 17 May 1888 commemorating the abolition of slavery with Dona Isabel present (Wikimedia Commons)

When slavery was finally abolished in Brazil, the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society were ecstatic and praise was heaped upon the emperor and Princess Isabel and a special issue of the Anti-Slavery Reporter was dedicated to coverage of events in Brazil.[21]

Special May-June double issue of the Anti-Slavery Reporter


In Nos Tempos do Imperador, an escaped slave eventually is given refuge in Dom Pedro II’s household. I cannot find any record of this happening in real life, but it is certainly representative of Pedro II’s values.

He did not survive for long as monarch after the abolition of slavery. Abolition was a measure passed by the Conservative government but with help from Liberals and Republicans. However, abolition alienated the monarchy from its ardent supporters among the landowning classes. This same class might have voiced their support for the monarchy when, on 15 November 1889, he was overthrown in a military coup d’état and exiled to Europe.

It is in fact in Paris, where he settled during his exile, that viewers first meet Dom Pedro in Nos Tempos do Imperador. A very fascinating series with some fine performances, perhaps the distributor might one day release it on DVD in Europe. It has certainly inspired me to learn more about the history of the Empire of Brazil and its admirable monarch, Dom Pedro II.

From Nos Tempos do Imperador: The Emperor, having been deposed by a military coup d’etat, spends his remaining years in Paris (c) Globo


[1] ‘On the Expatriation of the Court and Royal Family of Lisbon, in December 1807’, The Gentleman’s Magazine, January (1808), 63.

[2] Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti, ‘Introduction’, in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 1–10 (p. 7).

[3] ‘Declaration of Brazilian Independence’, in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 63–64.

[4] Benjamin Keen and Keith A. Haynes, A History of Latin America, 8th ed. (Boston: Cengage, 2009), p. 221

[5] C.H. Haring, Empire in Brazil: A New World Experiment with Monarchy, 2nd edn (New York: Norton, 1968), p. 12.

[6] Mary Kentish, ‘Brazil’, The Ladies’ Monthly Museum, February (1824), 117.

[7] ‘Lines on Brazil’, Bentley’s Miscellany, July (1852), 624.

[8] Pierce Egan the Younger [attr.], ‘Brazil’, London Journal, 25 July 1863, 61.

[9] ‘Brazil’, The Kaleidoscope, 31 July 1821, 27.

[10] Asher Hall, ‘Brazil and Brazilian Society’, Sharpe’s London Magazine, July (1865), 39.

[11] Keila Grinberg [online], ‘The Emperor and the Abolitionist: A Brazilian Royal Visits the U.S.’, America Quarterly, 13 January 2020, accessed 30 January 2022, available at: https://www.americasquarterly.org/article/the-emperor-and-the-abolitionist-a-brazilian-royal-visits-the-u-s/.

[12] See Phil Roberts, ‘ “All Americans Are Hero-Worshippers”: American Observations on the First U.S. Visit by a Reigning Monarch, 1876’, The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, 7: 4 (2008), 453-477

[13] Egan, ‘Brazil’, 63.

[14] ‘Dom Pedro II’, The Leisure Hour, 2 September 1871, 555.

[15] Haring, 97.

[16] J.G. Whittier, ‘Brazil.—The Emperor and Slavery’, Anti-Slavery Reporter, May–June (1888), 61.

[17] Haring, 101.

[18] ‘The Noble Example’, Anti-Slavery Reporter, May–June (1888), 62.

[19] Haring, 102.

[20] Haring, 103.

[21] Charles H. Allen, ‘Address to the Emperor of Brazil’, Anti-Slavery Reporter, May–June (1888), 59.