May 2003

The Rise of the Brazilian Empire

Brazil's imperialism is generally overlooked by Brazilians. The
boundaries of Brazil were created mainly by force of arms
and sometimes by diplomatic guile, backed up by the saying that
"possession is nine-tenths of the law." More recently Brazil
took over territory belonging to Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru

John Fitzpatrick

About a week after the Iraqi regime collapsed I was passing the American consulate in São Paulo and saw a small group of protesters standing in the middle of the road. There were waving placards bearing messages like "Sound your horn if you are against the war" or holding up posters in which President George Bush was portrayed wearing a Hitler-like moustache. Obviously none of them knew that Bush's father, an air force pilot, had been shot down during the Second World War fighting against Hitler and his like. The protesters were chanting something like: "Bush nazista/Estados Unidos país imperialista".1 I stopped and spoke to them and it quickly became apparent that their lack of knowledge was not confined to World War II, but also to the history of their own country.

They were also convinced that, after subduing Iraq, the US was intent on invading the Amazon. "Why?" I asked. "To get their hands on all the oil and drugs there", was the reply. They were young and idealistic so there is no point in berating them here. However, they disputed my view that the Amazon had only ended up in "Brazilian" hands, as opposed to remaining in "Indian" hands, because Brazilian governments had consolidated and expanded claims by the Portuguese colonial rulers. The Brazilians had acted exactly like imperialists by invading the territory and using violence. Why not "O Brasil país imperialista" I asked.

Brazil's own imperialistic past is generally overlooked here. While it is acknowledged that 19th century Brazil was ruled by Emperors, the corollary, i.e. that the country had imperial desires is ignored. As the Roman, Russian/Soviet and Ottoman empires showed, an empire does not have to be scattered across the world but can be land-linked, as was the Brazilian case.

The fact that the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil in the early 19th century to escape Napoleon is often cited as one of the factors which helped unify this vast country. The presence of the monarchy is generally regarded as one of the reasons why Brazil did not fragment into separate countries, as was the fate of the Spanish empire. This may be true but the boundaries of present-day Brazil were created mainly by force of arms and sometimes by diplomatic guile, backed up by the saying that "possession is nine-tenths of the law."

Broken Treaties—Bandeirantes on the Move

Right from the beginning of the so-called Discoveries, the Portuguese broke the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which was supposed to divide the New World between Spain and Portugal. The Brazilians subsequently superceded the Portuguese claims. The bandeirantes—brave adventurers or murderous exploiters depending on your point of view—who set out on expeditions from São Paulo to find slaves and gold, wandered at will across half of South America, claiming their right to its resources.

Recent research has shown that most of the participants in the bandeiras (bandeirantes expedition) were bona-fide Brazilians, generally of mixed Indian and European blood, rather than European pioneers. The power was still Portugal but the Brazilians were the willing participants. Even today gold prospectors and cattle raisers will go where they like, regardless of boundaries, laws or the presence of established Indian populations.

In the last three decades of the 20th century the military government attempted to people the Amazon region by mass migration, mainly from the Northeast. Roads were built, cattle rearing and other agricultural methods encouraged and the forest was exploited for its resources. In purely statistical terms, the policy was a success and the population increased from four to 10 million between 1970 and 1991. In terms of the destruction of the environment and the pressure on the Indian population, it was a failure.

Thankfully, the most recent governments have realized this and are trying to contain the damage although, sadly, they do not have the financial resources to do what should be done. Perhaps the United States might be able to help them although this is such a touchy matter here that it is unlikely.

Centralized Power

It is also interesting to note how during Brazil's history any attempts at challenging the central government have been repressed, usually savagely. The brutal destruction of Canudos just over a century ago2, the attack on the slave settlement of Palmares in Alagoas in the late 17th century and the crackdown on the revolt in Recife in 1824 show this. In all cases, the leaders were executed or murdered, as the Luso-Brazilian and Brazilian state showed its refusal to accept any challenge to its authority.

As recently as 1932, federal forces attacked São Paulo and crushed a revolt against the government of Getúlio Vargas. The aftermath of this was not so violent, but São Paulo people are reminded of these events every time they pass a huge obelisk, similar to the Washington monument, erected in memory of those days outside the state assembly building, next to Ibirapuera Park.

Brazil Wins—Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru lose

I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some more recent examples of how Brazil took over territory belonging to other countries—Paraguay, Bolivia and Peru. In the first case it was done through war and in the others by stealthier but, at times violent, means. These actions may not conform to a strict definition of imperialism but the end result was the same.

In 1864, Brazil ganged up with Argentina and Uruguay against Paraguay. This is not the place to go into the reasons for the so-called War of the Triple Alliance, a war in fact caused by belligerent Paraguay, which even invaded Brazilian territory. Most of the fighting by the allies was done by Brazilian forces. At times it was a David and Goliath contest with the Paraguayans giving the Brazilians a bloody nose, but the Brazilians eventually won.

The cost was high on both sides. Brazil lost 50,000 men and Paraguay was devastated. As Edwin Williamson puts it: "Paraguay had been all but destroyed as a nation: the population had been halved by the ravages of warfare and disease, leaving mostly women, children and old people; large tracts of territory were annexed by Argentina and Brazil, who had agreed secret protocols to that end in their treaty of alliance."3 The Brazilian historian Jorge Caldeira says that in order to end the war and kill the Paraguayan leader, Solano Lopez, "it was necessary to destroy the neighboring country."4

It is difficult to find matching figures, but it is generally agreed that at least half the population of Paraguay, and most of the adult men, were killed. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica the population of Paraguay, which amounted to 1,337,439 at the start of the war, was reduced to less than 250,000 by the end of the conflict in 1870, of whom only 28,746 were men. 5 A more recent Brazilian account says the Paraguayan population fell from 406,000 in 1864 to 231,000 in 1872.6 Another account says that, of a population of 800,000, only 194,000 were left alive at the end of the war, of whom only 2,100 were men aged over 20.7

Brazil and Argentina forced Paraguay to hand over a slice of its territory amounting to around 142,000 square kilometers. Of this, 62,325 square kilometers went to Brazil and now forms part of Mato Grosso do Sul state. Brazilian troops occupied the country until 1876. However, by breaking the secret protocols with Argentina and signing a separate treaty with Paraguay, Brazil annoyed its erstwhile ally. It also had to give up its dream of absorbing Paraguay which, along with Uruguay, became, in effect, buffer zones between Brazil and Argentina.

In the long run, though, Brazil emerged the winner. Twenty-five years later, Brazil managed to win a large chunk, measuring 13,680 square miles, of the disputed Missiones territory from Argentina. This time it used diplomatic means and the arbiter, who ruled in Brazil's side, was none other than the US President Grover Cleveland. I wonder what the protesters outside the US consulate would say about this.

Even today there is a big Brazilian population in Paraguay, particularly in the Foz de Iguaçu region and it would not surprise me if over the coming decades it increased and the Brazilians started a subtle take over of that part of the country. This was what happened in the case of Bolivia, which also ended up losing part of its land to Brazil. In this case, Brazil used the presence of thousands of Brazilian rubber tappers who had started arriving in the Bolivian territory of Acre in the last decades of the 19th century. These Brazilians eventually formed a majority of the population and revolted against Bolivian rule.

At one point, the Brazilians expelled the Bolivian governor leading to intervention by Bolivian troops. In 1902 there was another revolt, this time backed by the governor of Amazonas state, an experienced soldier, who provided military and financial support to the rebels. Bolivia was unable to resist and in 1904 handed over 73,000 square miles of its territory in exchange for access to the Madeira river, US$ 10 million and a pledge by Brazil to build a railway on the right bank of the Madeira, thus giving the Bolivians access to the Atlantic via the Amazon8.

Rio-Branco—Border Baron

Peru was unhappy with the Acre settlement, since it also claimed part of the land. After almost a decade of negotiations on fixing borders, the Peruvians agreed to split the disputed territory. Once again Brazil benefited from the presence of a large Brazilian population and received 63,000 square miles while Peru obtained less than 10,000 square miles. The man who was responsible for this amazing increase in the size of the country was the Brazilian foreign minister, Baron Rio-Branco. In just 15 years he added around 342,000 square miles of territory to Brazil, an area larger than the whole of France. As E. Bradford Burns put it: "The Baron of Rio-Branco carried to a successful conclusion four hundred years of Luso-Brazilian expansion from the Atlantic Ocean to the Andes Mountains." 9

In 1900, Brazil also managed to win a claim of 101,000 square miles of Amazon territory which France claimed was part of French Guiana. Mediation by Switzerland supported the Brazilian case. Other agreements were made with neighbors such as Venezuela, Colombia, Surinam and British Guiana and nowadays Brazil has no territorial disputes. Considering Brazil's amazing success in expanding its frontiers, its neighbors must have been delighted to reach deal even if they did have to give up some territory.

Against this background, I think that if the name of the game is to point a finger at one country and accuse it of imperialism—assuming that imperialism is necessarily a bad thing—then our protestors outside the American consulate should take a look at themselves first.

1 Literally "Bush is a Nazi/ The US is an imperialist country". Since Brazilians are incapable of pronouncing a word which ends in a consonant, Bush was referred to as "Bushy" thereby conjuring up the image of a cuddly little soft toy creature rather than a Nazi imperialist.

2 For more on this see my article in Brazzil in October 2002

3 The Penguin History of Latin America 1992

4 História do Brasil, 1997

5 Volume 17, 1962 edition

6 História Concisa do Brasil, Borsi Fausto, 2001

7 The South American Handbook, 1986

8 Much of this information comes from "Amazônia Brasil" published by Horizonte Geográfico, 2001

9 A History of Brazil, 1993

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at

© John Fitzpatrick 2003

This article appeared originally in Infobrazil, at

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