19th Century

Subjects of Two Empires: Brazilians in Victorian Britain | Stephen Basdeo

Stephen Basdeo is a historian and lecturer based in Leeds, United Kingdom. He researches Victorian popular fiction with a particular focus on the life and works of Pierce Egan the Younger, George W.M. Reynolds, Eugene Sue, and Victor Hugo. Stephen has also recently taken an interest in the history of South America.


At 3.40 p.m. on Thursday 29 June 1871, two distinguished guests disembarked from a French steamer at the port of Dover. The visitors were Dom Pedro II, the Emperor of Brazil, and his wife, Empress Teresa Cristina. A large crowd had gathered on the pier to welcome the emperor to England. This was not an official state visit. Queen Victoria sent no royal escort. The emperor and empress were visiting the United Kingdom as private individuals. So as soon as the customary waving to the crowds was finished with their majesties boarded the train to London, where they had reservations at Claridge’s Hotel.

When their majesties arrived at Charing Cross station at 6.25 pm in the evening, however, the Times reported that

‘a number of Brazilian residents in London crowded forward to meet them’.[1]

Who were these Brazilians resident in Victorian London? Can we know a little bit more about the histories of these people who swapped the Brazilian sunshine for the fog-ridden, rainy and windswept isle of Great Britain?

The Brazilian Royal Family

‘A Number of Brazilian Residents in London’

London, especially in the Victorian era, was no stranger to immigrants from all nations. Some of the Europeans who made our country their home in this period have become quite famous—or perhaps infamous, depending on one’s point of view—such as Karl Marx, Giuseppe Mazzini, and even Lenin. Of these famous foreign emigrées in London much has been written.

As far as I can ascertain, however, there are no scholarly works on Brazilians in Britain during the nineteenth century. Yet as these ‘Brazilian Victorians’ (as I shall call them)[2] were evidently numerous enough to constitute a ‘crowd’ (according to the Times in 1871), then their presence here is worth some investigation.

But let begin our study earlier than 1871.

Eighteenth-Century Brazilian Immigrants

The first Brazilian in London whom I have identified in archival records is a man named Manoel Vargas de Silveira who died at some point around 31 May 1791 (no date of birth is given).[3] The scant information of his life which probate records reveal is that his home parish was Saint Michael of Cotegipe (presumably an Anglicized form of what in Portuguese would be spelled as São Miguel de Cotegipe). There is a historic paróquia (parish) of São Miguel de Cotegipe in the city of Bahia,[4] the former capital of Brazil in colonial times, and this could well be the place from whence de Silveira hailed. And this is all that the probate records tells us—given the fact that he evidently had a will, then he must have been a person of some distinction and moderate wealth. Perhaps he was a merchant, one of the many who,[5] because Portugal was virtually an economic protectorate of the British Empire, made money trading between Britain, Brazil, and Portugal.

São Miguel de Cotegipe, Bahia in modern times.

Probate records also reveal a few details of life of another Brazilian who lived in London. Named Izabel Luiza de Pinna, she died around 12 May 1801, which is the date that her probate was proven. Her place of birth was given as Bahia and her occupation was simply listed as ‘wife’.[6] What kind of ‘estate’, then, would de Pinna have had to be able to pass on, in her own name, to someone else? It is commonly thought that it was nigh on impossible for a woman in eighteenth-century Britain to bequeath or even own property because everything they owned became their husband’s once they were married. Such a simplistic and stereotypical view was given by Eileen Spring in Law, Land & Family: Aristocratic Inheritance in England, 1300 to 1800 (1993). However, a more nuanced view comes from Amy Erickson in Women and Property in Early Modern England (1995) who concludes that in practice, as a result of pre-nuptial negotiations between the groom’s and bride’s fathers, affianced women might be allowed to keep property independent of their husbands (the fathers would have needed to ensure that whatever property the bride was allowed to keep was specified in a contract).[7] In addition to this, many women from the middling and upper classes were granted some form of an allowance in the form of pin money, and this was their own to dispose of as they saw fit. Certain situations could arise in which a married woman saved up so much pin money that she became a property owner in her own right, and was then allowed to bequeath that to whomever she wanted.

However wealthy de Silveira and de Pinna were, of course, we shall never know for sure. It is not clear whether either of these two Brazilians in eighteenth-century London would have thought of themselves as Brazilians for during their Brazil was a colony of the Portuguese Empire. It was a highly unequal society. There were masters, there were slaves. The Elites were Portuguese. The non-elites were indigenous and black people. The country’s mines and the farms existed for the benefit of the mother country. There was little cultural life (so its European elites would have thought) or civil society outside of the then small cities of Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, Ouro Preto, and São Paulo. Even when revolts occurred—such as the Peddlers’ War (1710) in the northern state of Pernambuco—most of the rebels identified more with their individual state rather than an abstract idea of a unified Brazil.[8] There was little sense of being Brazilian—at least to the colonial elites. For this reason, one historian remarks, most of the Portuguese colonial elites ‘dreamed of being transferred elsewhere in Portugal’s overseas empire or sent back to the mother country’.[9]

Flag of the Empire of Brazil

From Colony to Empire

It is highly likely that if we took a time machine back to eighteenth-century London and asked de Pinna and de Silveira their nationality, they would respond by saying that they were Portuguese. Yet if we landed the same time machine in Brazil after 1822 we might get a different answer from a Brazilian, for in that year Brazil gained independence from Portugal under Dom Pedro I who on the banks of the Ipiranga River in São Paulo declared

‘I want nothing more from the Portuguese government and I proclaim Brazil forevermore separated from Portugal.’[10]

Brazil’s separation from Portugal was hardly problem-free and there were several internal revolts with which Pedro I and his successor had to deal. The British Empire retained considerable influence over the newly-independent Brazilian nation. Brazil was Britain’s third-largest foreign market and therefore had an interest in ensuring the stability of the new nation. To this end, Britain ensured that other European nations—including Portugal[11]—recognised Brazil’s independence and London also provided Brazil with its first foreign loan.[12] British merchants were a significant presence on the streets of Brazil’s rapidly expanding coastal cities which were, post 1822, no longer subject to Portuguese protectionism. British imports into Brazil accounted for the ‘lion’s share’ of manufactured items and preserved food, and until c.1870 provided most of Brazil’s foreign direct investment.[13]

Rio Grande do Sul in the nineteenth century (Brazilian National Archives)

One did not need to be an English merchant to settle in Brazil, of course. There was the case of a poor British boy named John Scott Hood who, at age 14, was an apprentice to a merchant sailor in 1849. The captain bullied young Hood severely and, when the vessel docked in Brazil, Hood ran away and was never seen again. To avoid censure, the captain reported that Hood had drowned. Once in Brazil, he settled on the outskirts of Porto Alegre in Rio Grande do Sul, married a Brazilian lady named Manuela in 1868, and had eleven children by her. It was only much later in 1892—when Hood had all but forgotten his native language—and when a British gentleman was passing through his hometown, that Hood asked the gentleman to make enquiries as to whether any of his brothers and sisters were still alive.[14]

European immigrants in Rio Grande do Sul (Wikimedia)

Brazilian Ladies and Gentlemen

Hood’s case aside, Britain’s trade and diplomatic relations with Brazil was an unequal relationship. The world’s largest empire obviously held the upper hand over the new Empire of Brazil and was able to extract favourable trading terms from it. Wealthy British merchants could be found in most major Brazilian cities throughout the nineteenth century and it is unsurprising that some marriages between Brazilian women and British men occurred. This was the case with the unnamed ‘wealthy Brazilian lady’, referred to in one newspaper in 1888, who married an Englishman and settled in England with him. Once she was here, ‘in deference to the wishes of [her husband’s] family’, she freed all the slaves on her plantation long before slavery was formally abolished in Brazil.[15]

Slave market in Rio de Janeiro in the early 19th century (Debret)

Several ‘wealthy Brazilian ladies’, in fact, made their home in the United Kingdom as a result of marrying Englishmen.[16] During the 1860s there was, in fact, a Brazilian performer, who went by the stage name of Pepitia Cerrata, who became something of a minor celebrity in the London music hall scene.[17] The Victorian music hall industry was no stranger to foreigners. French, Italian, Spanish, German performers were regularly featured in the low theatres (although sometimes performers who were English by birth simply adopted a foreign identity for the stage).[18] Whether Cerrata’s Brazilian identity was real or not, a ‘Brazilian’ on stage was certainly a rarity.

Interior of a Victorian music hall (Wikimedia Commons)

Some Brazilian men also married English women, though one particular case I came across did not have a happy ending. One Brazilian man named Mr Andradd married an English music hall performer named Ethel May Thomas and she had a child by him. The marriage did not work out and the pair separated with Andradd paying Thomas £2 per week for the child’s maintenance. This case of an unhappy marriage, reported in Reynolds’s Newspaper in 1898, would attract hardly any notice were it not for the fact that this certain music hall performer appeared to have fallen in love with someone else and, when she wanted to get married again and realised that she could not. In the end, the person she wanted to married to broke off the engagement so Thomas tried—unsuccessfully—to sue her second suitor for breach of promise.[19]

Whether they were rich or poor, Brazilians who came to Britain had to have their wits about them. Much as in modern times any newly arrived foreigner should be on the guard against crooks in any major city, so Brazilians had to be in nineteenth-century Britain. The following was a case which came before Bow Street magistrates in 1828:

Bow-Street,—Yesterday morning the driver of a cabriolet was summoned before the Sitting Magistrates (Sir Richard Birnie and Mr. Halls), by Don John Selveira, a Brazilian Gentleman, who has resided only a few days in this country. It appeared in evidence that the complainant had engaged the cabriolet for an hour and forty minutes, for which the driver demanded 5s. 6d.; Complainant gave 5s., and was then insulted, and told to go to h—ll, where he must go at some future time.[20]

At least Don John Silveira knew that he could apply to British magistrates over an unfair cab fare—I expect many foreigners were not so lucky and were simply conned by unscrupulous cab drivers. However, it appears that the Brazilians who made Britain their home in the same century were not wealthy but clerks and adminstrators seeking positions.

Brazilian Clerks

More information on the lives of Brazilians in Britain can be gleaned from browsing the ‘Situations Wanted’ advertisements in British newspapers. Most of the Brazilians looking for work wanted situations as clerks in mercantile firms, and most were keen to advertise their linguistic skills which could be a potential asset to firms with commercial interests in Brazil.[21] The focus in Britain at this point, certainly in schools, was on the learning of French. The provision of Portuguese-language teaching was uncommon. An advertisement in the London-based Standard, therefore, revealed that

A Brazilian Gentleman, speaking French, Portuguese, and with some knowledge of English, SEEKS a SITUATION as CLERK.—Address 22 Hart-Street, Bloomsbury.[22]

Also in London, another advertisement revealed that a

Young Brazilian Gentleman, desiring experience of English business methods, seeks SITUATION for a year or two in first-class London Commercial house. Is accustomed to office work and to correspond in Portuguese, French, English, Spanish, and German. Address, in first instance, U.P. care of Davies and Co., Advertising Agents, Finch-lane, Cornhill.[23]

Others were simply looking for lodgings in a place where they could develop their English language skills.[24]

Outside of London

The Brazilians who came to the UK did not only go to London but settled in places such as Liverpool and Manchester. When Pedro II visited Manchester—where again a great crowd of people were waiting for his arrival at Manchester Victoria station—a Brazilian gentleman presented Pedro II and his wife with a bouquet to welcome them to the city.[25] Even in the quiet town of Normanton in West Yorkshire Brazilian immigrants could be found; a Brazilian gentleman resident in the area welcomed Dom Pedro to the town’s colliery when the monarch visited it,[26] and the mine was renamed as the Dom Pedro Colliery.

Dom Pedro Colliery in Normanton, West Yorkshire (now demolished). The small town still has several streets named after Dom Pedro II.


Scotland was also home to several Brazilian people who have made themselves conspicuous in the historical record. A Brazilian lady from Ceará resident in Dundee, so reported the Dundee Courier in 1899, apparently purchased a boat (though why this fact was at all newsworthy is unclear).[27] In Glasgow, we find the usual situations wanted another Brazilian seeking a similar kind of work.[28] In July 1860 another Brazilian man, living in the quiet town (a quiet town, then and now) of Blairmore performed a heroic act of bravery by saving a man from drowning:

NARROW ESCAPE FROM DROWNING—GALLANT RESCUE.—On Friday evening, one of the quaymen at Blairmore, named M’Lean, missed the rope thrown to him from the mail steamer, but was caught by it and dragged into the water when the tide was nearly full. He was utterly unable to swim, and had already sunk, when a young Brazilian gentleman, Mr. Borges, most gallantly sprang from the quay and dived for him. He got hold of the drowning man, but he so clutched Mr. Borges as to prevent his further efforts. His hold was loosened, when he again sank, but the young gentleman dived and brought him to the surface by the hair of the head. By this time one of the hands of the mail, having made himself fast to a rope, leapt into the water and put the life buoy over the man’s head, and they were all then picked up. M’Lean was at the time excessively weak but is now almost recovered. Mr. Borges’s cool and gallant conduct elicited great admiration from the crowd on the quay and steamer, and although he was sharply scratched by the struggling man, he is not at all the worse of his effort, which displayed both courage and presence of mind.[29]

The still-standing Victorian Pier at Blairmore, Scotland, built in 1855, and the scene of a heroic action by a Brazilian immigrant in July 1860


The foregoing is a brief account of the lives of a few selected Brazilians who made a life for themselves in the United Kingdom during the reign of Queen Victoria. More research is needed and certainly census returns are likely to highlight the stories of more Brazilians.

Though perhaps it is best to end with ‘The Song of the Exile’, written by the famous Brazilian poet Antonio Gonçalves Dias, which was first translated into English in 1892 and published in the Fortnightly Review and containing sentiments which, perhaps, many a Brazilian immigrant felt at some point for their native land:


Mine is the country where the palm trees rear

Their stately heads towards the azure sky,

And where in accents ever soft and clear,

The Sabiá [thrush] sings her hymn of melody.

Here in my exile say what warblers rare

Can with the Sabiá’s notes their own compare?

Our skies are strewn with stars, our fields with flowers,

Our woods resound with bird and insect life,

Our life’s a dream of love in fairy bowers,

Where Nature’s lavish gifts are ever rife.

Bright land of palms, where the sweet Sabiá sings,

The exile’s heart to thee still fondly clings.

In loneliness at night I dream of thee,

My slumbering senses wrapped in peace and bliss,

I see thy palms; the Sabiá’s melody

Again falls on my ears; I feel the kiss

Of lips I love; I wake, the vision’s gone,

The Sabiá to his native woods has flown.

Oh! radiant vision, fatal were thy charms,

My heart, till death, to thee is closely bound,

Last night I dreamt I held thee in my arms,

This morn I woke, despair was all I found.

The Sabiá’s voice was mute, the palms were dead,

A tangled wilderness remained instead.[30]


[1] ‘The Emperor of Brazil’, The Times, 30 June 1871, 8.

[2] I’m not sure whether this should be ‘Brazilian Victorians’ or ‘Victorian Brazilians’.

[3] ‘Manoel de Vargas otherwise Manoel De Vargas De Silveira’, National Archives Wills and Probate UK Data Archive, LL ref: wills_1790_1799_2531758_386913

[4] ‘Igreja Virtual : Paróquia São Miguel de Cotegipe transmite momentos de Missa e oração pelas redes sociais’, accessed 2 December 2022, https://www.diocesedecamacari.com.br/

[5] Several British firms and countless scores of merchants between Britain, Brazil, and Portugal made money from the Brazilian ‘golden goose’. See Edward Paice, Wrath of God: The Great Lisbon Earthquake (London: Quercus, 2008), 182.

[6] ‘Izabel Luiza de Pinna’, National Archives Wills and Probate UK Data Archive, LL ref: wills_1800_1810_2531911_328204

[7] Anastasia B. Crosswhite, ‘Women and Land: Aristocratic Ownership of Property in Early Modern England’, New York University Law Review, 77 (2002), 1119–56.

[8] Boris Fausto and Sergio Fausto, A Concise History of Brazil, Trans. Arthur Brakel, 2nd edn (Cambridge University Press, 2014), 60.

[9] Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti, ‘Origins, Conquest, and Colonial Rule’, in The Brazil Reader: History, Culture, Politics, ed. by Robert M. Levine and John J. Crocitti (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999), 14.

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

[11] C.H. Haring, Empire in Brazil: A New World Experiment with Monarchy (New York: Norton, 1958), 32.

[12] Fausto and Fausto, 76.

[13] E. Bradford Burns, A History of Brazil, 3rd edn (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 156.

[14] ‘The “Weekly Mercury” and Missing Friends’, Liverpool Mercury, 3 October 1892, 5.

[15] ‘Jottings from London’, Wrexham Advertiser, 19 May 1888, 5.

[16] ‘The Story I Told Last Week’, Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 8 January 1891, 5.

[17] ‘Surrey Music Hall’, Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, 20 January 1863, 1.

[18] Dave Russell, Popular Music in England 1840-1914: A Social History (Manchester University Press, 1993), 74.

[19] ‘Actress Breach of Promise Action’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 13 March 1898, 5.

[20] ‘Police Intelligence’, The Morning Post, 11 October 1828, 4.

[21] ‘A Brazilian Gentleman’, The Times, 29 May 1891, 16: ‘A Brazilian Gentleman, aged 26, well acquainted with commerce and possessing a thorough knowledge of French, Portuguese, Spanish, and English, desires an ENGAGEMENT as TRAVELLER in South or Central America—Box 2, R. Wheeler’s Advertising Agent, Manchester.’

[22] ‘A Brazilian Gentleman’, The Standard, 21 March 1881, 8.

[23] ‘Young Brazilian Gentleman’, The Times, 1907, 29 March 1907, 12.

[24] ‘A Brazilian Gentleman’, The Times, 4 April 1860, 13: ‘A Brazilian Gentleman, lately arrived in this country, wishes to BOARD, on moderate terms, with an English family, where he would have an opportunity of speaking the English language. Apply, personally or by letter, pre-paid, to D. de M., Provence Hotel, Leicester-Square, W.C.’

[25] ‘The Emperor and Empress of Brazil in Manchester’, Leeds Mercury, 28 July 1871, 3.

[26] ‘The Emperor and Empress of Brazil in Sheffield’, Rotherham Independent, 8 August 1871, 8.

[27] ‘Sale of a Dundee Barque’, Dundee Courier, 16 September 1899, 5.

[28] ‘Situations Wanted’, Glasgow Herald, 18 February 1884, 1: ‘A Young Brazilian Gentleman, aged 21, who thoroughly understands English, wishes a situation as General and Corresponding Clerk in a Mercantile Establishment where his knowledge of Portuguese would be serviceable’.

[29] ‘Narrow escape from drowning’, Glasgow Daily Herald, 18 July 1860, 5.

[30] William G. Abbott, ‘A Brazilian Poet’, Fortnightly Review, November 1892, 698.