By John Fitzpatrick
If you ever stop at the statue of Pedro Alvares Cabral by the pond in Ibirapuera park have a look at the inscription on it which claims that Brazilians owe everything to Portugal – their institutions, freedom etc. This is hyperbole of the highest sort and the fact that part of the lettering is crumbling almost symbolizes the lack of connections between Brazilians and Portuguese. In this article I would like to make a few brief personal comments on the rather ambiguous relationship between Brazil and its so-called mother country.
On September 7, 1822, Dom Pedro I made his famous declaration of independence during a visit to São Paulo. On December 1, he was officially crowned Emperor of Brazil and three years later, after much bloodshed, Portugal was forced to recognize Brazil’s independence. Not only did the Portuguese lose the jewel in the crown of their empire but they also lost most of their economic influence in Brazil, to the British.
Since then, the Portuguese influence has remained, principally in terms of language, religion and architecture. In some places you still find beautiful colonial-style buildings and churches, and since names like da Silva, dos Santos, Nascimento, Mello etc. are common, this influence will remain for as long as Brazil remains.
A special relationship undeniably still exists, formally and informally. For example, Portuguese citizens enjoy privileges under the Constitution denied to other foreigners. Relations at government level are good and there is a constant coming and going of political leaders. If you have ever had the misfortune to attend a ceremony between representatives of either country at which speeches were made, then you will have been exposed to the gushy, sentimental myth of eternal Luso-Brazilian togetherness.
There is a large Portuguese community here and a large Brazilian community in Portugal. Portuguese have been coming here for 500 years so there are still many family links although not nearly as close as at periods of mass immigration. Many Brazilians making their first visit to Europe stop off in Lisbon where they have the reassurance of a (more or less) common language.
The language forms a strong bond with other Portuguese-speaking countries. About a year ago, I attended a concert at which the guest of honor was the recently-elected president of East Timor. The warmth of the reception he was given by the audience, most of which had probably never heard of East Timor until just beforehand, was quite astonishing. One of the reasons for this admiration may have been the odd decision by the East Timor government to make Portuguese the official language.
However, I believe this attachment to the Portuguese language among Brazilians is more related to the fact that it makes them stand out from their Spanish-speaking neighbors rather than any innate love for Portugal. In fact, had history developed differently, Portuguese may not have been the language spoken by Brazilians at all.
In the early 19th century, Portuguese was only spoken in the Northeast, with a variant of the Tupi Indian language spoken elsewhere. The gold rush, which brought in more Europeans and African slaves and led to the opening of the interior, changed this1. While the Portuguese language eventually linked all of Brazil, unfortunately it led to the suppression of native languages, like Guarani, which thrive in places like Paraguay.
Overall, Portugal’s links with Brazil are much weaker than those which Britain still has with, say, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other former colonies, including the U.S. In the 20th century, all the British territories voluntarily sent troops to fight alongside UK forces in two world wars. It would be difficult to imagine Brazil sending forces to assist Portuguese forces in any armed conflict.
Portugal fought the wars in its African colonies alone, with never a chance of Brazilian intervention even though the military was in charge of Brazil at that time. Brazil has actually helped clear up the mess left by Portugal’s incompetent imperialism in Africa and Asia. Brazilian troops are currently in East Timor and have also acted as peace monitors in places like Angola and Mozambique, which collapsed into anarchy and barbarism after the Portuguese simply walked out in the mid-70s.
In political terms, for example, there is no Portuguese equivalent of the Commonwealth, which still links virtually every former British territory. Nowadays the Commonwealth even includes Mozambique, an ex-Portuguese colony. There is a grouping called the Community of Portuguese-Speaking Countries (CPLP), made of up eight nations, which was set up in 1996 and has its headquarters in Lisbon. Although it’s full of grandiose ideas and notions it is a lightweight outfit with no international influence. Apart from Brazil and Portugal, the other CPLP members are among the world’s poorest states. In an attempt to get some information about its memberships, budget, staffing etc I sent an e-mail to the organization several weeks ago (in Portuguese since it does not have an English version of its site) and have still received no reply.
So, despite the obvious connections, I think one can fairly say that the average Brazilian cares little for Portugal. Let us start with one or two small examples. In his book The Brazilians, Joseph Page makes an interesting point when he says: Brazilian municipalities named after Portuguese cities and towns are exceedingly rare.” Most places in Brazil seem to be indigenous Indian names (Ipiranga, where Dom Pedro declared independence or death), have religious origins (São Paulo) or were named after geographical features by practically-minded sailors or travelers (Rio de Janeiro, Porto Seguro etc.) or heroes (Benjamin Constant).
There is, indeed, a remarkable shortage of New Lisbons and New Portos. I noticed recently that Praa Portugal in São Paulo had been defaced and someone had scrawled “This is Brazil” on the signpost. Another example of this resentment is that even today many Brazilians still express annoyance that the Portuguese sent criminals to Brazil as though this country was a dustbin for Portuguese rubbish.
Brazilians also believe that the Portuguese looted Brazil of its gold, which was sent to Lisbon but ended up in London, since Portugal was indebted to the English. Less seriously, the Portuguese are the butts of a million jokes and, in an untypically cruel jest for the easy-going Brazilian, a Portuguese woman is always said to have a moustache.
I think the reason for this lack of respect and, at times, hostility to Portugal lies in the fact that Portugal, like Spain, exploited rather than developed its overseas territories. Of course, all imperialist powers have exploited the lands and peoples they conquered but the Iberians seem to have been particularly ruthless and, as a result, left little good will in their former colonies.
The Portuguese seem to have been particularly inept. The east Timorese are just the latest example of a people being abandoned by their so-called protectors even though technically they were Portuguese citizens living in what were supposed to be parts of Portugal overseas.
The same happened to the inhabitants of Goa when India annexed it in the 60s although fortunately the Indians treated the locals more humanely than the Indonesians did the Timorese. With the return of Macao to China in 1999, fortunately the age of Portuguese colonialism has ended and no other people, except the Portuguese themselves, will suffer their incompetent rule.
Ingratitude and Arrogance
Portugal has also proved to be a poor role model, especially for Brazil. While Brazil was large, Portugal was small. While Brazil was rich, Portugal was poor. While Brazilians were developing the lively samba the Portuguese were listening to the gloomy fado. Portugal benefited not only in material terms from Brazil but also politically. In fact, it was the colony which came to the rescue of the mother country when the Portuguese court fled to Brazil to escape Napoleon’s troops.
The fact that most of the court eventually went back to Lisbon is seen by the Brazilians as a sign of ingratitude and arrogance. By refusing orders to return to Portugal, Dom Pedro I won the hearts of the Brazilians. His declaration of independence was, in fact, done in the spontaneous, cavalier manner of the true Brazilian as opposed to the more cautious Portuguese.
As E. Bradford Burns puts it: “Pedro unsheathed his sword right there on the bank of the Ipiranga River and gave the cry “Independence or Death”. One man, then, without the backing of a congress or junta declared the independence of Latin America’s largest nation. He left no formal, written document of his accomplishment. His declaration was solely verbal. In that solitary act, the personable prince accurately reflected public sentiment.”2
In more modern times, Portugal was one of the most backward countries in Europe and offered little to inspire Brazilians. Not only was it poor but, in places, primitive. I recall visiting northern Portugal as recently as 12 years ago and seeing wagons pulled by oxen. A trip from Porto to Bragana became a nightmare after a sudden storm flooded the poorly constructed main road and required a massive detour. Lisbon, at that time, with its faded beauty, and cramped Alfama district around the São Jorge castle, its crippled black beggars, reminders of the defeats in Africa, had an almost medieval feel.
Even when Brazilians visited other parts of Europe, such as France or Germany, any Portuguese they met were probably immigrants working as low-paid waiters or construction workers. The drab, bad-tempered concierge in Paris was typically a Portuguese woman.3
Portugal’s small size could not cope with a place as immense as Brazil. There were never enough soldiers or colonizers to penetrate it in depth. The Portuguese were always in a minority, outnumbered by native Indians or imported black slaves. In 1822, for example, the population of Brazil amounted to around three million, of whom one-third were slaves, a quarter Indians and most of the rest of mixed race4.
Since enslaved Indians and Africans were named after their owners this gives a false impression of the Portuguese influence, since most had no Portuguese blood. At the same time, intermixing with Africans and Indians resulted in a huge mixed-race population, which, once again, had Portuguese names. Until the mass immigration of the late 19th century and early 20th century the population of Brazil was overwhelmingly of mixed race. Even the most recent census showed that around 45 percent of the people said they were of mixed race. The result of this is that a Brazilian bearing the most traditional Portuguese name can easily have no idea about Portugal or affinity with it. 5
Whereas the Portuguese have tended to be rather self-effacing and introverted, the Brazilian became the opposite, perhaps because of the African influence. The slaves may have lost their names and languages, but they kept many of their cultural and religious traditions. Their dancing and singing helped create the culture, which the whole world recognizes as uniquely Brazilian.
In religious terms as well, the Africans combined their traditional beliefs with Catholicism to such an extent that many white Brazilians adopted them. I have twice welcomed in the New Year by walking into the sea and throwing flowers on the waves accompanied by hundreds of others, of all races. All of us were enacting a ritual the slaves brought from their African homeland.
Finally, I would like to stress that the point of this article is not to downplay the Portuguese contribution to the development of Brazil in any way. However, one cannot stop wondering how this continental-sized country would have developed had other powers, such as Britain or France, been the colonizers.
1 História do Brasil, Jorge Caldeira
2 A History of Brazil, E. Bradford Burns
3 Having said that, in recent years Portugal has grown richer, thanks to the return of democracy and its membership of the European Union, and Portuguese businesses have started investing once again in Brazil.
4 História do Brasil, Jorge Caldeira
5 (I cannot let this point go without recalling an incident in Bruce Chatwin’s book In Patagonia where he meets a red-haired Argentinean gaucho called Robbie Ross who announces that he is Scottish but has absolutely no idea about his Scottish roots. As Chatwin puts its rather plaintively: “He peered at me with milky blue eyes, feeling out affinities of race and background with a mixture of curiosity and pain.”)
John Fitzpatrick 2003
John Fitzpatrick writes on Brazilian politics and culture for sites, including infobrazil.com and brazzil.com, and magazines. He runs his own São Paulo-based company, Celtic Comunicaes, which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. He can be contacted at email@example.com