1848 Revolution

The Brazilian Revolution of 1848 | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer who specialises in the study of mid-Victorian radical literary cultures, with an emphasis on radical history and the works of George W.M. Reynolds (1814–79), Pierce Egan (1814–80), Eugene Sue (1804–57), and Victor Hugo (1802–85).

The year 1848 saw revolutions and rebellions erupt throughout Europe. The major cities of Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary saw mass protests against their ruling classes, with protestors calling for constitutional and social reform. In the United Kingdom, there was the Chartist ‘monster meeting’ at Kennington Common in April of the same year as well as the Young Irelander Revolution. Yet it was not only Europe which experienced a ‘Springtime of the Peoples’. Places such as Chile, Peru, and Brazil also witnessed major uprisings which threatened to overthrow their existing regimes. It is to Brazil that we now turn to investigate a revolt which occurred in Pernambuco in the same year as those which occurred in Europe.

The Chartist meeting at Kennington Common, London, in April 1848

Brazil: From Colony to United Kingdom

The Portuguese arrived in Brazil in the year 1500 when a fleet of ships, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral (1467–1620),[1] 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.

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. Fleeing the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal, in 1815 Brazil, which had previously been a mere colony, was now the centre of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves due to a decree passed by Dom João in that year:

There being constantly in my royal mind the most lively desire to cause to prosper those states that the Divine Providence has confided to my sovereign rule; and giving, at the same time, its due importance to the magnitude and locality of my domains in America, to the copiousness and variety of the precious elements of wealth it contains; and knowing besides how advantageous to my faithful subjects in general will be a perfect union and identity between my kingdoms of Portugal, the Algarves, and my dominions of Brazil … my kingdom of Portugal, the Algarves, and Brazil, shall form from henceforth one only and united kingdom under the title of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves.[2]

The elevation of a former colony into the centre of the empire was something truly unprecedented in the modern history of colonialism and imperialism.[3] But cultural life in Brazil flourished. Printing presses were set up, professional societies were established, a national library was founded, and industry and commerce in Rio de Janeiro began to increase.[4]

The flag of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves

The Liberal Revolution in Portugal

With the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the Portuguese began clamouring for the return of their king. 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.

Pedro I is proclaimed Emperor of Brazil (From Debret’s Viagem)

The Cortes in Portugal had other designs, however; they demanded, not only the return of the king and his son Pedro, but sought to reduce Brazil to the status of a colony again to restore Portugal’s ‘dignity’, which since the absence of its monarch, became a virtual protectorate of the British Empire under Lord Strangford’s administration. Many Brazilians did not want a return to colony status and Pedro was convinced ‘to remain and proclaim the independence of Brazil’.[5]

The Empire of Brazil

Brazil’s Declaration of Brazilian Independence was made on 7 September 1822, when Pedro wrote a letter to his father informing him of the country’s new status as a sovereign nation.[6] On 12 October, the Municipal Council of Rio de Janeiro crowned young Pedro as Pedro I, Constitutional Emperor of Brazil, and ruler of the newly-christened Empire of Brazil.

The flag of the Empire of 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, with relatively little bloodshed apart from a few skirmishes, Brazil was independent:

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.[7]

Dom Pedro I (Wikimedia Commons)

Dom Pedro I

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.[8]

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.

Dom Pedro II

Pedro I’s son, also called Dom Pedro, was left in Brazil in the care of his tutors, and the nation was ruled by a 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.

Dom Pedro I (Personal Collection)

Dom Pedro II was largely popular among his people. He presided over a parliamentary system which witnessed the emergence of two political parties: the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. The Conservatives were dominated by the landowning classes, favoured protectionism and were essentially ‘the king’s friends’ and had few issues with his powers of veto (called ‘the moderating power’). The Liberals broadly espoused the opposite: They favoured limits on the emperor’s power and were the party of free trade and most friendly to the mercantile interest.

Although a constitutional monarch, Pedro II was not idle: He was a true philanthropist and established schools, colleges, hospitals, and was hostile to slavery and

[Brazil] entered upon a career of peace and progress that was in sharp contrast to what was happening in most of the rest of the continent … It was not a democracy … But the press was free, conscience was free, and individual liberties were fully guaranteed’.[9]

Yet seven years into his reign, rebellion was stirring in Pernambuco, the northern part of the country…

Brazilians: A Rebellious People

Brazil is a nation that was born in a revolution. A cursory survey of the nation’s history reveals that both before and after the declaration of independence in 1822, Brazilians had never been afraid to rise up against what they saw as unjust policies and demand redress. In Minas Gerais in 1720, for example, which was then a popular place for gold prospecting (and, due to a weak official presence, tax evasion), Mineiros took umbrage towards new tax collection measures which stipulated that all gold found should be smelted at royal facilities. This people’s revolt soon turned into an expression of more widespread grievances against merchants, the Catholic Church, and slave owners.[10]

Early morning in Rio de Janeiro in the 1820s (From Debret’s Viagem)

During Pedro II’s minority there were five major protests in Rio de Janeiro between 1831 and 1832, with the situation becoming so bad that plans were drawn up to spirit away the young emperor to safety.[11] Shortly after Rio de Janeiro was pacified there was the Cabanos War of 1832–35. Taking direct inspiration from the Jacobite rebels of the Great Britain a century before, the Cabanos rebels were landholders who, allied with some of the disgruntled members of the free population, fought for the return of the ‘true’ emperor João VI.[12]

Brazil also faced a revolt in Maranhão between 1839 and 1840. A revolt of free and enslaved black and indigenous people led by ‘a certain Raymundo Gomes’, the rebels took over several towns and villages before the revolt was put down. Described by the Brazilian national press as a series of

cities and villages captured, plantations devastated, continuous horrors,

the rebellion exposed for many what was the ineffective administration that existed in certain regions of the new empire, a fact that would be exposed again in Pernambuco in 1848.[13]

Pernambuco in the 1840s

The Brazilian Revolution of 1848 was not occasioned by any tyrannical act on Dom Pedro II’s part but was instead the result of the great emperor taking a step back from political affairs. Under the Brazilian constitution, the emperor—much like what happened in Britain during the Georgian era—was permitted to select his cabinet based on whichever party emerged triumphant after an election (all men with an income of Rs 100$000 per year were obligated to vote in elections—this financial threshold was much lower, in relative terms, to the forty shilling freehold voting threshold that existed in Great Britain).[14]

Recife in the 19th century (Public Domain, Government of Rio de Janeiro)

In 1847, Pedro II decided that he would no longer appoint an entire cabinet but select a small Council of State who, working in concert with the ruling party, would make all the necessary appointments in the national and regional senates. It seemed like common sense.

Yet when the Conservatives were returned to power in 1848, and a Conservative was appointed as President of Pernambuco, with its capital in Recife, hard-line Liberals—who had held sway there for the best part of a decade—were much aggrieved. It was not only with political upsets that the Pernambucan Liberals, and their allies among the mercantile classes, had to contend (unusually for Brazil at this point, the majority of the population of Pernambuco was free and not enslaved).[15] Recife was one of the most important ports in the whole empire and Pernambuco’s main exports were hides, sugar, coffee, and cotton. The passage of the Aberdeen Act (1845)—a rigorously enforced British law which gave the British Royal Navy the power to seize any Brazilian ships they suspected of involvement in the slave trade—and Britain’s imposition of high tariffs on slave-made goods, meant that the region’s primary exports plummeted to unseen levels.

The first history of the rebellion: Jerônimo Martiniano Figueira de Melo’s Crônica da Rebelião em 1848 e 1849 (Rio de Janeiro, 1850) (Public Domain, Portal São Francisco)

The Rise of a New Political Party

Brazilians in Pernambuco saw Britain’s measures as an affront to its national sovereignty and a betrayal of the principles of free trade which the United Kingdom supposedly espoused. As exports dried up, plantations and merchants, in debt to Portuguese bankers and creditors—many of whom had remained in Brazil after independence—became bankrupt and so a new political party, which broke away from the Liberals, was founded in Pernambuco to represent the commercial interests of the free people, the mercantile classes, and the aggrieved plantation classes.

O Diario Novo — The organ of the Praia (Public Domain, Government of Rio de Janeiro)

The name of the new party was Praia, named after the Rua da Praia where the party’s newspaper, O Diario Novo, was based.[16] Successful in local and then national elections during the 1840s, the Praia, under Antonio Pinto Chicorro de Gama, began to mobilise the landless free labourers against the central government by denouncing social inequalities, blaming the Portuguese population of rich bankers for all the region’s ills, while stuffing important regional posts such as chief of police with their own men.[17] A pamphlet war against the region’s Conservative Party also ensued, and radical street orators were a regular site in the region’s streets. The Conservatives responded with insults along the lines of calling the Praia supporters an ‘inferior and ignorant’ group of men.[18]

Regional leader of the Praia: Antonio Pinto Chichorro da Gama

However, much of the Praia’s anger was contained because during the 1840s, at a national level, their sister Liberal Party was in power. They moaned about the influence of bankers and land inequalities, but until the return of the Conservatives to power in the Imperial Senate in September 1848, the Praia’s grievances were carried out mainly through the medium of the press.

The Revolt Begins

When the Conservatives assumed power, they did exactly what the ruling Liberals had done in the previous decade: They filled the important national and regional offices of state, including those in Pernambuco, with their own men. The Conservative Herculano Ferreira Pena was appointed as President of Pernambuco. The Praia simply could not accept this and equated the Conservatives’ measures with those which an empire imposes upon an ‘inferior’ colony.[19]

Having been admirers of the French Revolution in February 1848, on 7 November an armed group of planters, paupers, artisans, migrant workers, and liberal civil servants in Olinda, led by Pedro Ivo da Silveira, took up arms and began burning Conservative landowners’ fields, freeing prisoners, and entering into skirmishes with landowners’ private armies.[20]

Contemporary image of rebel leader Pedro Ivo da Silva

The capital of Recife was placed on high alert, and the Pena’s regional government suspended further local elections. Conservative judges began hiring some landowners’ private armies to assist, if necessary, in the defence of the regional capital. The police also raided the offices of the Diario Novo and its publisher, J. Ignacio Ribeiro Roma— a ‘man of action’ who was willing to defend his ideas in the newspaper or at the barricade[21]—fled into the countryside and joined the rebels.[22]

The Influence of the French Revolution

Some of the more radical members of the Praia finally issued a manifesto on 1 January 1849 which was published in O Foguete. Curiously Catholic in its structure, being based on the Apostolic Creed, in a small way it also looked towards the teachings of Charles Fourier and Robespierre, a flavour of which, thanks to Nancy Priscilla Naro’s translation—whose chapter on the 1848 rebellion and PhD thesis[23] has been the main source of information for this article—can be gleaned below:

I believe in the Sovereignty of the People, in the Brazilian nation, in exclusive Brazilian national power. I believe in the resurrection of the Constituent Assembly, and in the life eternal of liberty. Amen.[24]

This fringe radical manifesto also called for universal suffrage—which was not among the demands of the mainstream Praia—and judicial reform. Thus as Naro reminds us: It is not always helpful to view the Brazilian rebellion of 1848 as a direct ideological extension of the European Revolutions in the same year—which is how Eric Hobsbawm saw it—because the Praia revolt was not grounded in any kind of grander Red Republican or socialist theory.

The rebels did indeed call for more press freedom, as well as free primary education. But Naro cites the fact that most of the rebels’ demands were framed in terms of local grievances, and with the exception of the radicals mentioned above, did not have mass democracy as their aims and most Praia leaders accepted the monarchy’s role in the constitution, unlike the French who wished for a republic.

The Brazilian Slave Trade (From Debret’s Viagem): The Praia were largely unconcerned with the abolition of slavery, which is something that was achieved by the Royal Family in the 1880s.

Unlike the European rebels, the Praia never demanded the abolition of slavery. Abolition would in fact be the achievement of the royal family in the 1880s, who had always loudly expressed their anti-slavery opinions. One of the Praia rebels’ aims was decidedly xenophobic: They also petitioned for the expulsion of all Portuguese citizens from Brazil, and many of the Portuguese who had stayed in Brazil after the declaration of independence and made Recife their home faced mob violence in 1848. One Brazilian politician from the time, drawing a contrast between the European revolutions and the rebellion in Pernambuco, declared:

Europe clamours for the organisation of labour and preaches communism. Here the same clamour translates into the cry of ‘War on the Portuguese’.[25]

Whatever progressive French-inspired ideals some of the fringe members of the Praia may have had, surely they were lost in translation when exported and consumed by the public in Pernambuco.

Recife in the early 19th century (Public Domain, Government of Rio de Janeiro)

The March on Recife

The climax of this history is in some sense an anti-climax. Clearly unable to control the situation, Pena was replaced by a more hard-line Conservative president, and someone who could get a handle on the situation: The man for the job was Manoel Tosta and he directed the defence of the capital.

The city was defended by government troops and volunteers. As the rebels were for the most part badly organised, they were easily defeated when faced with a force that was bigger than the small private armies they had encountered thus far in their raids—raids which were little above what bandits might do to farms in the lonely countryside. As the rebels were not a professional army, many of their ‘soldiers’ deserted when they arrived at Recife. As many of the rebels fled and others easily surrendered, shouts of ‘Long Live the Emperor’ resounded from the city. Public support in Recife was clearly on the side of the Dom Pedro and his government.[26]

The spread of the rebellion (Public Domain, Government of Rio de Janeiro)

Most of the rebels were quickly hunted down and their trials began on 17 August 1849, with the Conservative judge Jozé Thomaz Nabuco Araujo presiding over the proceedings. Many of the rural labourers and the free workers claimed that they only participated in the revolt on the orders of their superiors, that they were not political, and barely understood how the constitution worked as it was, and had no clue about the reforms that the Praia leaders were asking for.

Araujo seems to have believed them and, out of more than 20,000 whom charges were brought against, only nine people received life prison sentences. An amnesty for those who were simply ‘caught up’ in the rebellion was issued personally from Dom Pedro II a few months later.[27] All that remained to do was to mop up some of the ongoing resistance from Praia rebels who had turned to banditry in the Recife forests, an operation that continued until 1852.[28]

Amnestied participants of the Recife Rebellion in 1849 (Public Domain, Government of Rio de Janeiro)


Such was the end of the Praieira Revolt. It was never a truly national revolt and was hardly inclusive. Most of their demands were framed by immediate political, economic, and social issues in Pernambuco. It was violent towards the Portuguese and offered no hope for the enslaved masses. Yet there were progressive aspects. As such, perhaps it was like most revolts that have occurred since time immemorial: It contained a progressive core but was too parochial to build truly national support.


[1] Much of this first section is taken from a previous article: Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dom Pedro II: The Emperor of Brazil in the Victorian Periodical Press’, Reynolds’s News and Miscellany, 30 January 2022.

[2] João VI, ‘Decree Elevating Brazil’, in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 56–57.

[3] Patrick Wilcken, Empire Adrift: The Portuguese Court in Rio de Janeiro, 1808–21 (London: Bloomsbury, 2004), 6.

[4] Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti, ‘Introduction’, in The Brazil Reader, 7.

[5] ‘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.

[6] See Alan K. Manchester, ‘The Recognition of Brazilian Independence’, The Hispanic American Historical Review. 31: 1 (1951), 80–96.

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

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

[9] C.H. Haring, Empire in Brazil: A New World Experiment with Monarchy (New York: Norton, 1968), 59.

[10] ‘The Minas Uprising of 1720’, in The Brazil Reader, 45–51.

[11] Boris Fausto and Sergio Fausto, A Concise History of Brazil, Trans. Arthur Brakel, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 87.

[12] Fausto and Fausto, 89.

[13] Domingos José Gonçalves de Malaghães, ‘Uprising in Maranhão, 1839–40’, in The Brazil Reader, 69–75.

[14] Ronaldo Vainfas, Dicionário do Brasil Imperial (Rio de Janeiro: Objetiva, 2002), 223.

[15] Nancy Priscilla Naro, ‘Brazil’s 1848: The Prareira Revolt in Pernambuco, Brazil’, in The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Americas, ed. by Guy Thomson (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 2002), 100–124 (103).

[16] Naro, 106.

[17] Naro, 107.

[18] Jerônimo Martiniano Figueira de Melo, Crônica da Rebelião em 1848 e 1849 (Rio de Janeiro, 1850), 109.

[19] Naro, 115.

[20] Naro, 112.

[21] Anon. [online], ‘A Imprensa Pernambucana e o Diário Novo’, accessed 22 May 2022.

[22] Naro, 114.

[23] Nancy Priscilla Naro, ‘Brazil’s 1848: The Praieira Revolt’ (Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago, 1981). All citations to ‘Naro’, however, are from her chapter in Thomson.

[24] Naro, 117.

[25] Fernando Seigismundo, História Popular da Revolução (Rio de Janeiro, 1949) cited in David Rock, ‘The European Revolutions of 1848 in the Rio de la Plata’, in The European Revolutions of 1848 and the Americas, ed. by Guy Thomson (London: Institute of Latin American Studies, 2002), 125–41 (126).

[26] Naro, 119.

[27] Naro, 119.

[28] Naro, 120.