“Allegory to Independence” at the Museu de Arte do Rio | Stephen Basdeo


The Portuguese arrived in Brazil in the year 1500 when a fleet of ships, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, 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 slaves to work on it (known as the ‘Captaincy system’).

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, Brazil, which had previously been a mere colony, soon became 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 the then capital of Rio de Janeiro began to flourish (the Portuguese aristocracy had money to invest and to spend, after all).[1]

Pedro Álvares Cabral arrives in what is now Brazil (wikimedia commons)

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.

Título: SESSÃO DAS CORTES DE LISBOA.Autor: SILVA, OSCAR PEREIRA DA.Data: 1922.Técnica: ÓLEO SOBRE TELA.Dimensões (a_cm, a_sm X l_cm, l_sm): 330-315-277-262.Coleção:FUNDO MUSEU PAULISTA – FMP.Foto: José Rosael-Hélio Nobre-Museu Paulista da USP.Acervo: Museu Paulista da USPDomínio Público

Portuguese politicians 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’.[2]

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.

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.[3]

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

Allegory to Independence

Brazil followed a different path to the other nations of the Americas in that it did not become a republic but became a constitutional monarchy. After having been declared Emperor, Dom Pedro called upon the representatives of the ‘sovereign people’ to convene a constitution. It is true that Dom Pedro believed in the cause of Brazilian independence but this was also an act of dynastic self-preservation. There had already been two major failed republican revolutions in Brazil in 1792 in Minas Gerais and one in Pernambuco in 1817. If Dom Pedro himself declared independence while his father was back in Portugal, then at least Brazil would be dynastically united with Portugal, even though separate.[4]

The people wanted a constitution. A constitution they would have—under a constitutional monarch. They wanted independence just like the other young American states—independence they would have. This makes the ideological dimension of Brazilian independence somewhat vague. It was stuck between the old world and the new. And nowhere is this better summed up than in a tapestry currently found in the Museu de Arte do Rio, Rio de Janeiro, titled Allegory to Independence.

Allegory to Independence (c.1822). Tapestry. Museu de Arte do Rio de Janeiro

Hail, Columbia!

The tapestry shows Columbia, carrying the torch of liberty, at the side of Dom Pedro. Columbia, the national personification of the United States (hence that country’s first national anthem Hail, Columbia!), has one hand placed on Dom Pedro’s arm and with the other holds the torch of liberty. The holding of the torch, however, does not prevent Columbia from pointing towards the statue of figure mounted on a pedestal: the American Revolutionary leader and first president of the USA, George Washington.

Is Dom Pedro promising Columbia that he will emulate Washington’s spirit and govern according to the principles of liberty as enshrined in the constitution? This certainly seems to be the case. To the left is a banner which reads ‘CONSTUCION’.

The name of the person who made the tapestry remains unknown to this day. Yet the placing of George Washington, Dom Pedro, and Columbia side-by-side with each other reveals that for this artist the form of government matters less than the spirit in which that government conducts itself. Rights and a constitution are what matters—both are achievable either in a republic or a liberal monarchy.

The Indigenous

Dom Pedro will therefore emulate the great American republican hero. That, after all, is what the people of the Americas, and the people of Brazil, want. This is symbolised by the indigenous people who are knelt before the statue paying homage to Washington’s image. The presence of the ‘Indians’ (as the indigenous would have been called at the time) also firmly establish the tapestry’s patriotic and romantic sentiments. Around the time of independence, and afterwards, Brazilian nationalism had to search for an appropriate national emblem to represent the country.[5] Nothing related to Portugal would be appropriate for a nation about to strike out on its own. The wholesale rejection of anything Portuguese also extended to a rejection of anything European or indeed medieval. Only something, or someone, from Brazil could represent the country.

Some areas of colonial Brazil were in fact heavily ‘Indianised’. The city of São Paulo during the eighteenth century, for instance, was home to more people of indigenous descent than Portuguese heritage. There was an extensive amount of interracial marriage between the smaller Portuguese population and the indigenous, and Tupi was the dominant language.[6] The linguistic dominance of Tupi in and around São Paulo came to an abrupt end in 1768 with the establishment, in Portugal, of the Royal Board of Censorship which mandated specific ways of teaching ‘correct’ Portuguese.[7] This linguistic reform was one of the many reforms and ‘modernising’ acts initiated by the Marquês de Pombal’s administration. He is considered one of the most controversial figures in Portuguese history who challenged the power of Portugal’s aristocracy (often riding roughshod over their historical rights) but who also guided the country through its most turbulent period in the aftermath of the Earthquake of 1755.

The virgin forests of Brazil (from Debret’s Viagem)

Thus, when the time came to find a ‘national figure’, that of the indigenous, and also the natural beauty of the Brazilian landscape with its ‘virgin forests’,[8] was thrust into the limelight by patriotic artists and writers: the first phase of Brazilian Romanticism had begun.

Drawing upon ideas of the ‘noble savage’ who was uncorrupted by ‘modern’ civilization—an idea which has its origins, in part, in Michel de Montaigne’s discussion of the Tupinamba people of Brazil published in the 1500s—other Brazilian writers soon turned to using the figure of the indigenous Brazilian to celebrate the new nation. Gonçalves de Magalhães’s Primeiros Cantos (1846) (‘First Songs’) lauded the landscape and first inhabitants of Brazil. The most brilliant expression of Romantic ‘Indianism’ came with the publication of two of José de Alencar’s novels: O Guarani: Romance Brasileiro (1857)—which was translated into English and transformed into an Italian opera—and Iracema (1865). Each of these works deal with the question of forging a new Brazilian ‘race’ formed from the descendants of colonists and the first peoples.

Conspicuous by their absence

There is, however, one social group which the creator of the tapestry never included: slaves. One could not walk down the streets of Brazil without encountering slavery. In the words of one historian:

Slavery was a national institution. It permeated the whole of society and conditioned Brazilians’ way of acting and thinking. The desire to be a slave owner and the effort to obtain slaves ran from the ruling class all the way down to the humble urban artisan. There were plantation mine owners with hundreds of slaves, small farmers with two or three, and urban households with only one slave … manual labour was socially scorned as ‘something just for blacks.’[9]

Boris Fausto estimates that, in the eighteenth century, in Brazil’s four most prosperous and settled provinces—Minas Gerais, Pernambuco, Bahia, Rio de Janeiro—black and mulatto people accounted for 70 per cent of the population and 2/3rds of these were slaves, while the rest, though nominally ‘free’, often eked out a life of poverty and were in danger of being arbitrarily re-enslaved.[10]

A morning scene in 1820s Rio de Janeiro (from Debret’s Viagem)

On the eve of independence, very few of those who clamoured for independence under the banner of rights, liberty, and a constitution thought that these precepts applied to slaves. However, there is evidence to suggest that Dom Pedro himself was against slavery, even if the majority of the landowning classes were not. As Paulo Rezzutti writes in D. Pedro: A História não contada (2015) (‘D. Pedro: The untold history’):

There is a draft document in the Imperial Museum’s Historical Archive which demonstrates that Dom Pedro put much work into a text against slavery. It is possible that this had been his first idea for the opening parliamentary debate … throughout the document, Dom Pedro presented his reasons in respect of a plan to substitute slave labour with that of immigrant labour and described the plan, to be implemented in the future, of stationing agents in Europe to entice families to come work for the Brazilian state, as well as paying their transport costs to Brazil.[11]

Dom Pedro’s son and successor, Dom Pedro II, likewise promoted abolitionism, though slavery itself would not be abolished in Brazil until 1888.

Rio de Janiero of the 1820s (rom Debret’s Viagem)


As we have already intimated, in English-language historiography, the story of Brazilian independence is often viewed as an elite project (this is not true of Brazilian Portuguese-language historiography of course, where commoners’ participation in the event is a well-told story). Of course, this is one of those cases where this viewpoint is not ‘untrue’. Clearly, with a member of the royal family and the landowning classes favouring independence in the run-up to and after 1822, the wealthier classes of Brazilian society played a huge role in securing independence.

Yet this viewpoint often misses the popular participating at grassroots level, and the existence of the tapestry is one such example of non-elite participation in independence. Commoners frequently did participate and promote the cause of independence. They produced poetry, ephemeral literature and, in some of the more remote parts of Brazil, scrawled graffiti and short rhymes on to the walls of houses and churches. The following is typical of those researched by Lucia Bastos, José Carvalho, and Marcello Basile in Às Armas, Cidadãos! (2012):

We have money, we have arms!

We have money and mettle

We have a wise marshall,

Our friend and director.[12]

The creator is unknown, though the tapestry is small and simple enough to indicate that it was produced by a commoner. The celebration of independence is not coherent, of course, for the Brazilian monarch guides his country in the direction of that taken by the North American republic of the United States. Of course, the Brazilian monarchy would not last long: it was deposed in 1889 in a coup d’état—an act which many people opposed—and became a republic known as the United States of Brazil.


[1] 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).

[2] ‘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.

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

[4] John Charles Chasteen, Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 4th edn (New York: Norton, 2016), p. 110.

[5] Weberson Fernandes Grisoste, ‘Gonçalves Dias e a Procura da Identidade Nacional Brasileira’, Brasiliana: Journal for Brazilian Studies, 2: 2 (2013), 371–400 (p. 371)

[6] Boris Fausto and Sergio Fausto, A Concise History of Brazil, Trans. Arthur Brakel (Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 46.

[7] Luciane Cristina Scarato, Language, Identity, and Power in Colonial Brazil, 1695-1822 (Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Cambridge, 2016), p. 107.

[8] Rafael Argenton Freire, ‘Byron and Álvares de Azevedo: Byronism in Brazil’ (Unpublished MPhil thesis, 2010), p. 27.

[9] Fausto and Fausto, p. 28.

[10] Fausto and Fausto, p. 26.

[11] Paulo Rezzutti, D. Pedro: A história não contada, 3rd edn (São Paulo: Leya, 2020), p. 171. Translation my own.

[12] Lúcia Bastos, José Murilo de Carvalho, and Marcello Basile, Às Armas, Cidadãos! Panfletos manuscritos da independência do Brasil (Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2012), p. 71. Translation my own. In original: Temos gentes, temos armas,

Temos dinheiro e valor

Temos um sábio Marechal

Nosso amigo e diretor

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