The Rise of the Brazilian Empire

        Rise of the Brazilian Empire

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

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.


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

This article appeared
originally in Infobrazil, at



You May Also Like

Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva

Afraid He Might Flee Brazil, Justice Seizes Former President Lula’s Passport

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was barred from leaving Brazil on Thursday after a ...

Able to Build Cheaper Cars than Brazil, Mexico to Become Top Car Producer in LatAm

Pacific Alliance member Mexico is poised to overtake Brazil, the leading economy in Mercosur, ...

Brazil Unemployment Stays at 9.6% for Five Months in a Row

Approximately 1.5 million new registered, on-the-books, jobs were created in 2005 in Brazil, according ...

Three-Day Tour of Brazilian Amazon Leaves Avatar’s Director Ready for Activism

Avatar director James Cameron will hold a press conference on Wednesday, March 31 at ...

Dengue May Have Already Killed Over 50 People in Bahia, Brazil

Dengue, the mosquito transmitted disease, which has caused havoc in the heartland of South ...

Brazil’s Economy Hasn’t Been That Good in Decades, Says Finance Minister

Brazil’s Minister of Finance, Antônio Palocci, says that the country is going through its ...

Brazil’s Braskem Triples Net Income

Braskem S.A., Brazil’s largest petrochemicals company and the leader in the thermoplastic resins segment ...

We Are All Brazilians, All Mixed, and Racists All the Same

From the end of the 1930s till his death in 1995, the anthropologist Ashley ...

Best-seller Books, Plays and Movies

By Brazzil Magazine A Mentecapta (The Loony Lady)—Comedy—A gallery of odd characters who frequent ...

Brazil Starts Teaching of Black Culture with Africa Maps in All Schools

The Special Secretariat of Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR) and the ...

WordPress database error: [Table './brazzil3_live/wp_wfHits' is marked as crashed and last (automatic?) repair failed]