Monica Duarte Dantas
Scholars have long studied the rebellious movements that rattled Brazil after its independence and during the so-called Regency period. The scholarship has mainly focused on understanding the political and economic elites who led the revolts by joining or fighting the rebels, or whose interests were at stake. Comparatively little attention has been paid to those who actually fought in the battles: namely, the impoverished free and freed people who comprised the majority of the country’s population. These women and men took up arms and, occasionally, led the rebellions, notably during the First Reign and the Regency. Historical accounts of such revolts are limited, however, and those that speak to upheavals that occurred from the 1850s on are even scarcer.
In the past decades, new interpretations of popular revolts during the Empire have enabled scholars to reappraise how free and freed poor (of Portuguese, African, or Native American descent) experienced the innovations brought by the country’s independence, and the long process of state-building.
Even if the country’s Charta was given by the first emperor, and not duly written and approved by a legislative body, it followed quite strictly the liberal creed that inspired so many other contemporary constitutions. According to the 1824 Charta, all of the country’s natural born were henceforth made citizens, regardless of whether they were free or freed, with constitutionally guaranteed rights. Although one should never mistake the letter of the law for its actual enforcement, its existence should also not be dismissed.
This is especially important when trying to understand the history of a country whose elites kept on fighting not only over the Constitution’s true meaning, but also over governmental control. Battling for independence and state power meant publicizing mottos about freedom, emancipation, the people’s rights, and the overcoming of oppression across the country—words that were spoken out loud and printed in newspapers and gazettes, reaching as far as the Brazilian backlands.
One must always factor into any historical equation the specifics of a country’s population. By the time Brazil became independent, slaves amounted to roughly 31 percent of the population, where most of the remaining 69 percent were composed of free poor, freed people, and “domesticated” Indians; all of whom became citizens when the 1824 Charta was enforced (with constitutional Rights, according to the law, and even, depending on one’s gender, age, income, and status—as a free or a freed man—to vote and be voted).
Considering all those specifics, this article analyzes the involvement of free and freed peoples in 19th century rebellions, riots, and seditions; movements that broke out all over the country, rattling regions as far as Maranhão and Rio Grande do Sul, from the 1820s to the 1880s. Regarding the role played by popular revolts in 19th century Brazil, one must go beyond the boundaries set by a traditional historiography to understand how the experience of protesting was directly related to the process of state building, and how the lower strata of society learned to fight for their demands as citizens of a representative constitutional monarchy.