What if the Portuguese court never came?

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Tired of pollution and traffic, a resident of São Paulo decides to pack his bags, buy an abadá (Carnival t-shirt) and go to carnival in Bahia. At the airport, while imagining Ivete Sangalo singing, he discovers that he has forgotten his passport and can’t board. A passport? To Bahia? That’s right: if the Portuguese court had not come to Brazil in 1808, Bahia would probably be a nation and the rest of what you know today as Brazil would be a grouping of countries. “Without the transfer of the Portuguese court from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, it would be impossible to preserve the unity of what is Brazil,” says historian Luiz Carlos Villalta, author of O Império Luso-Brasileiro e os Brasis. “What happened to Spanish America would have happened to Portuguese America, split up into several countries that, with us, today make up Latin America.”

But, before thanking D. João VI for not needing a passport to skip Salvador’s Carnival, thank Napoleon. Upon seizing power in France in 1799, he began a series of invasions into Europe that would force the Portuguese court to flee to Brazil. At the end of 1807, the Napoleonic troops were in Spain and marched towards Lisbon. Faced with the robustness of French weapons, the fragile Portuguese troops couldn’t defend the country. Between November 25 – 27, 1807, around 10,000 to 15,000 people boarded onto Portuguese ships bound for Brazil – ministers, judges, treasury officials, military, clergy. They also brought with them the royal treasury, the government archives, a printing press and several libraries.

On January 28, 1808, at the first stop in Bahia before arriving in Rio de Janeiro, D. João VI decreed the opening of Brazil’s ports to friendly nations – read England, which had declared war on France in 1803 and was responsible for the protection of Portuguese ships to Brazil. But if the English themselves were able to send troops directly to Portugal, they would have prevented the invasion of the French and the need for the transfer of the court.

“Without the Portuguese Crown coming here, sooner or later some of Brazil’s provinces  would gain their independence,” says Lúcia Bastos, a professor of History at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, who is researching the influence of Napoleon in the Portuguese-Brazilian empire. “At that time, Brazilian deputies in Lisbon’s court didn’t speak in the name of Brazil, but in the name of Pernambuco, of Bahia, of Rio de Janeiro.”

The historian says that Rio Grande do Sul, the target of disputes between Spain and Portugal, would probably form an independent country attached to what is now Uruguay. “It’s possible that this region would have become a kind of Plata Republic,” says Lúcia Bastos. And the divisions would not end there. A new country would arise in Pernambuco – possibly annexing some neighboring states -, another formed by Pará and Amazonas, a nation in Maranhão … in short, the map of South America would be different.

And the most surprising thing: it’s probable that Cariocas, Paulistas, Mineiros and residents of Paraná would be living in the same country of Rio de Janeiro. “Even so, the city of Rio would probably be very different from what it is today,” says Luiz Celso Villalta. “As it wouldn’t have been the seat of the Portuguese court, the physiognomy of the urban downtown would be similar to that of a city like Olinda, without actual nineteenth-century buildings.”

Economic inequality between regions would be less. “The Southeast would remain an important economic center, but some Northeastern countries, free from the power of Rio de Janeiro, could have become richer,” says Lúcia Bastos. “The abolition of slaves would also have occurred much earlier in these states, since the delay in making this decision was supported by the coffee elite in the Southeast.” In the state of Ceará, for example, slavery had been practically abolished since 1870.

Another scenario would be for the Portuguese court to not come to Brazil and thus fall into the hands of Napoleon. “This is what happened to Spain, which was taken by France in 1808,” says Villalta. “What would probably have happened in Brazil is the same as in the Spanish colonies, which became independent.” Not having to be faithful to a king dethroned by Napoleon, the provinces would have soon attained independence. “In one way or another, it would almost be certain that the territory that’s known today as Brazil would be fragmented,” says the historian.

Even the Carioca accent wouldn’t exist if the Portuguese court hadn’t reached Brazil in the nineteenth century. “It’s clear that the arrival of 15,000 people in Rio de Janeiro has changed the way the majority of the population speaks,” says Ataliba de Castilho, a professor of Philology and Portuguese Language at USP. “It was more prestigious to speak like the Portuguese nobles, so population of Rio de Janeiro assimilated all the shh-sounds that today distinguish typical carioca speech.” He says that without the court’s arrival, there probably wouldn’t be many differences between the speech of a carioca surfer or a sertanejo singer from inland São Paulo. – Source (PT)

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