1808: The Flight of the Emperor (8 page)

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The two fleets, Portuguese and British, had no further communication between them. Until recently, historians believed that they strayed from one another to the point of losing line of sight. But records aboard the British ships reveal, however, that the two convoys followed a parallel course, quite close to one another, until reaching the coast of Brazil. On the morning of January 2, 1808, the commander of the
, Captain James Walker, who protected the convoy of Prince João heading to Bahia, recorded in his ship's log having seen three vessels at a distance. He preferred not to approach them, though, so as not to lose contact with the rest of the group. The last point of contact between the two flotillas took place via a bright and wondrous signal in the dark night. That night, Captain Walker ordered a blue light installed atop the mast. Around 11:15 p.m., the commander of the
Captain Graham Moore, who accompanied the convoy headed to Rio de Janeiro, remarks in his diary that he sighted a blue light on the horizon.

After several weeks' travel, the cold of Europe's winter gave way to unbearable heat, aggravated by the infamous doldrums of the Atlantic. Nearing the Equator, the ships of the fleet heading toward Salvador (Bahia) entered a calm zone, the same that had frightened Portuguese navigators since the Age of Discovery and which, in the official version, obligated Pedro Álvares Cabral to change course three centuries earlier, landing in Brazil while en route to India. Here the ships of the prince regent and princess took ten days to cover just thirty leagues, a distance that under normal circumstances required only ten hours.

We can only imagine the torment of the hundreds crowded on deck: ten days under the equatorial sun, where the temperature reached 95 degrees Fahrenheit in December, without even the waft of a miserable breeze to alleviate their suffering. The dense throng of passengers and the lack of hygiene and sanitation favored the proliferation of disease. On the
Afonso de Albuquerque,
aboard which Princess Carlota Joaquina sailed, an infestation of lice forced the women to shave their heads and toss their wigs into the sea. They dusted their tormented scalps with antiseptic powder and then smeared them with pig lard.

In total, sixteen British warships took part, directly or indirectly, in the transfer of the royal family from Lisbon to Brazil. These were wide, comfortable ships, well-organized and with highly professional, disciplined crews. Some were already legendary, having participated in memorable campaigns and battles. The largest, the HMS
sailed under the command of Captain John Conn, one of the officials who massacred the French and Spanish squadrons in the Battle of Trafalgar alongside Lord Nelson two years earlier. Launched in November 1804 as a first-class ship of the Royal British Navy, the
had 110 cannons, stretched 203 feet long, and weighed 2,530 tons.

Traveling aboard the HMS
was First Lieutenant Thomas O'Neill, an Irishman who soon became fundamental in the history of the flight of the royal family to Brazil. O'Neill witnessed the embarkation of the Portuguese court in Lisbon and every event that marked the voyage to Rio de Janeiro. After the court's arrival, he remained in the city for sixteen months before being recalled for another mission for the Royal Navy. In 1810, he wrote and published in London an eighty-nine-page book that describes the court's voyage to Brazil.
His lively reports contain much emotion and dramatic detail. One characteristic passage describes the discomfort of noblewomen aboard the Portuguese ships and frigates:

Females of Royal and most dignified birth, nourished in the bosom of rank and affluence . . . compelled to encounter November colds, and tempests through unknown seas, and exposed to inclement skies, deprived of all the delicacies and most of the necessaries of life, without a change of raiment or even beds to lie on—constrained to huddle promiscuously together onboard shipping totally unprepared for their reception.

In another passage, O'Neill records the testimony of a Portuguese official who accompanied the part of the fleet that moored in Bahia with Prince João:

So great was the number of people . . . and so crowded were all of the ships, that there was barely space to sit on the decks. The women
. . . lacked any apparel aside from that which they were wearing. As the ships had very few provisions, it soon became necessary to ask the British Admiral to house some passengers aboard his ships. And (for these people) it was tremendous luck, as those which stayed behind were the object of pity from Lisbon to Bahia. The majority slept on the quarterdeck, without beds or blankets. Water was the main article which begged our attention: the amount they received was minimal and the food of the worst quality, so deficient that life itself became a burden. Our situation was so horrible that I wish nobody should have to experience nor witness it. Men, women and children all formed the most devastating scene.

Despite their historical importance, O'Neill's reports aren't universally worthy of our credence. Obvious exaggeration and even fantasy pervade some of the scenes and situations that he describes. Relating the departure of the court from Lisbon, for example, he claims that some “ladies of distinction” drowned during the desperate attempt to gain a place aboard the ships.
But no corroborating evidence exists that this really happened. O'Neill also claims that, before departing, Dom João met with General Junot, commander of the invading French troops, a story similarly unconfirmed by any other source.
These exaggerations aside, however, his reports constitute some of the earliest coverage of these events.


Extremely battered, the
moored in Recife, Brazil, on January 13, where, after undergoing repairs, she continued to Salvador, her original destination. On January 22, after fifty-four days at sea and approximately four thousand miles, the prince regent also landed in Salvador. The rest of the convoy had made port in Rio de Janeiro a week earlier, on January 17. Despite many dangers and hardships, the voyage brought on no deaths nor fatal accidents. The only known victim of the ocean crossing was Dom Miguel Álvares Pereira de Melo, duke of Cadaval, already ill when he departed Lisbon aboard the
D. João de Castro,
the most storm-battered of all of the ships. Separated from the rest of the fleet and sailing without its main mast, the ship docked in Paraíba completely smashed up and without water
or provisions.
After rescue and assistance, the crew continued to Bahia, but Álvares Pereira de Melo, in his weakened state, could no longer withstand the journey. He died shortly after arriving in Salvador.

Bahia, which three hundred years earlier had seen the arrival of Cabral and his fleet, now witnessed an event that forever changed the lives of Brazilians—and profoundly so. With the arrival of the court in the Bay of All Saints, the colonial era of Brazil concluded, and the first stage of an independent Brazil had begun.



rince João's layover in Salvador in 1808 remains a poorly understood episode in the history of the flight to Brazil. In the original plan, traced in Lisbon on the date of departure, the entire fleet was to maintain a consistently southwest course, heading straight for Rio de Janeiro. In case of unplanned diversions, the arranged meeting place was the Cape Verde archipelago off the coast of Africa, part of the Portuguese colonial empire, where ships could undergo repairs, take on provisions, and continue thereafter on the previously planned route. But the prince regent suddenly changed this plan during the third week of the voyage. Nothing seems to explain this decision. Why make an unplanned stop in Salvador, running unnecessary risks on an already complicated journey, when maintaining the original plan of sailing directly for Rio de Janeiro was not only easier but more prudent?

Until recently, the most widely accepted hypothesis by historians centers on the storm that dispersed the fleet from December 8 to 10, near the Madeira archipelago. Amid the storm, the ships lost sight of one another. Part of the convoy—including the ships on which Queen Maria I, Prince Regent João, and Princess Carlota Joaquina traveled—drifted northwest, while the rest of the fleet continued on the original route, first toward Cape Verde and then to Rio de Janeiro. At a certain point, the story goes, discovering that
they were nearing the Bahian coast, Prince João ordered the ships to dock in Salvador.
According to this explanation, the prince regent landed in Bahia basically by accident.

This questionable explanation began to fall from grace with the discoveries of historian Kenneth Light. A retired cigarette company executive, Light immersed himself in the archives of the British Navy, which stores the onboard logs of every one of its ships as well as letters and reports that its respective commanders sent to the admiral's headquarters in London. This trove of correspondence explains some of the most important decisions made during the crossing, including the stop in Bahia. In meticulously analyzing these documents, Light reached two surprising conclusions. First, the hypothesis that part of the fleet went to Salvador after drifting in the storm made no sense. Second, Prince João went to Bahia deliberately, uninfluenced by any climatic accident on the high seas.

Two hundred years ago, both the Portuguese and the British intimately understood the navigation routes of the South Atlantic. The logs of the British commanders prove that they knew perfectly well the coordinates of their ships at every hour of every day along the entire voyage. They were never lost. Furthermore, they easily could have corrected their route after the storm and proceeded to the agreed-upon rendezvous before departing again for Brazil. No, the decision to stop in Salvador had already taken place in the third week of the journey before duly being transmitted to the other ships.

Salvador in the mid-eighteenth century, one of the most beautiful cities of the Portuguese Empire.

Prospecto que pella parte do mar faz a cidade da Bahia,
drawing of Salvador in about 1756 from Luis do Santos Vilhena's book,
Notícias soteropolitanas e brasílicas
(Salvadoran and Brasilian News), 1801. Fundação Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro

According to the documents collected by Light, on December 21, 1807, the prince regent communicated to Captain James Walker, commander of the
that he had decided to sail to Salvador instead of carrying out the planned route. This was eleven days after the storm. On this same occasion, the frigate
was dispatched to São Tiago in Cape Verde, where it communicated Dom João's change in plans to the rest of the ships.
This intermediate mission further proves that the Portuguese and British commanders knew the locations of their own ships and of the rest of the fleet. But if the change in destination wasn't accidental, what compelled the prince to make for Salvador?

Arriving in Bahia fulfilled a political point of strategy. As we will see in more detail, the political and administrative units in the Brazilian colony two hundred years ago were quite shaky. More than ever Prince João needed a Brazil unified in favor of the Portuguese crown, and the success of his plans in 1808 depended on the financial and political support of
of the provinces. Almost half a century earlier, in 1763, Salvador had lost its status as first capital of the colony. It remained an important center for commerce and colonial decisions, true, but its residents profoundly resented the transfer of the capital to Rio de Janeiro. An attempt at secession took place ten years earlier, in the 1798 Tailors' Revolt, and signals of discontent still floated in the air.

Arriving in Salvador, therefore, providentially and diplomatically ensured the loyalty of the Bahians and the northern and northeastern provinces in
a moment of great difficulty. João not only stopped there, but later, in Rio de Janeiro, he appointed as Bahia's governor the count of Arcos, previously the viceroy of the entire colony. In Salvador, the prince also announced the most important of all the measures he undertook during his thirteen years in Brazil: the opening of the ports to foreign trade. Thus did he demonstrate Bahia's significance within the political landscape of the monarchy's New World interlude.

This newer theory—that the prince planned the Bahian layover rather than drifting into it by accident—significantly changes interpretations about the transfer of the court to Brazil, starting with the image of the prince regent himself. Few dispute the characterization of Dom João as fearful and indecisive in Portugal, preferring escape to facing the French troops, even if it did seem the most sensible decision, given Napoleon's power. Upon arriving in Brazil, however, João's actions took on a more insightful and resolute character. Choosing Salvador made for a skilled political maneuver at a moment when the weakened and impoverished Portuguese court needed all the support it could get—and that was exactly what happened.


When notice of the voyage reached the colony, the governor of Pernambuco, Caetano Pinto de Miranda Montenegro, sent to sea the brigantine
Three Hearts
a small ship with two masts that, in the absence of wind, could also be oared.
Carrying a load of cashews, pitanga cherries, and other fruits and refreshments, it had the mission of trying to locate the prince regent in the vicinity in which they calculated the Portuguese to be.

Three days after leaving the port of Recife—and sailing blind—the
Three Hearts
amazingly managed to locate the Portuguese ships in one of the most extraordinary naval feats during the royal family's trip to Brazil.
In a time without radio, GPS, or satellite communications, imagine a small boat fewer than thirty feet long finding another ship at high sea without any precise information about its location. For the passengers and crew of Dom João's fleet, the brigantine came as a welcome relief. After almost two months' voyage, subsisting on a diet of salted meat, dry biscuits, wine gone bad, and contaminated water, they could finally enjoy fresh fruit and other nutritious fare. Even better, these tropical species
were of an appearance, consistency, and flavor never before experienced in Portugal. Thus did Brazil present itself in the fruits of its exuberant and prodigious nature to Prince João and his court, fugitives of the torments of war in Europe.

Relief gave way to uncertainty shortly after arriving in Salvador, however. At 11 a.m. on January 22, 1808, the ships weighed anchor in the shoals—near where today the Mercado Modelo and the Lacerda Elevator stand—and found . . . not a soul in sight. It was as if Bahia was ignoring the arrival of the royal family. For the passengers and crew, this lack of any kind of response came as a great surprise. After all, news of their voyage had arrived in Brazil two weeks earlier, brought by different sources. On January 14, the brig
—a small sailing vessel much faster than heavy transport ships—entered the port of Rio de Janeiro with the mission of informing the viceroy that the prince regent was approaching. Shortly thereafter, the frigate
, battered by the storms around Madeira, docked in Recife with three of João's ministers aboard. Another ship, the
Martim de Freitas
, arrived on the 10th, also on the Northeast coast. Some ships of the royal retinue itself, carrying two of Prince João's aunts and two of his daughters, landed in Rio on the 17th. During its stopover in Cape Verde, the frigate
had already informed this group, part of the fleet that left Lisbon on November 29, that the prince had decided to sail for Bahia.

In those days, the Brazilian coast made use of a paltry communication network based on seaside forts, villages, and lighthouses to transmit urgent information. An integral part of the defense system of the colony, it allowed governors and captains general from diverse provinces to alert their neighbors of pirate attacks, invasions, rebellions, or other threats to Portuguese-owned territory. Given certain specific information, each of these posts had the responsibility of retransmitting it to its next neighbor as fast as possible. What news could be more important than the arrival of the monarchy?

But even breaking news traveled slowly in this glorified mode of mouth-to-mouth communication. It took weeks to traverse the thousands of miles of coastline.
Even if the authorities of Salvador had known that the royal court was coming to Brazil, the city still wouldn't have had time to prepare a grand reception properly.

The collective anxiety dissipated, though, when Governor João de Saldanha da Gama, count of Ponte, arrived to greet Dom João.

“Are the locals not on their way to greet me?” asked the surprised prince regent.

“Sir,” said the governor, “the entire city did not come immediately because I specified that nobody should approach until I received orders from Your Royal Highness.”

“Let the people come as they please,” the prince replied, “since they want to see me.”

After the governor came the archbishop, José da Santa Escolastica, to greet Prince João. But no festivities took place that day. The great reception feast would wait another day. Exhausted by the ocean crossing, the royal family slept one last night aboard the ships, surrounded by the calm waters of the Bay of All Saints and under the protection of the cannons of Fort Gamboa that presided over the entrance to the city.

The prince disembarked on the morning of January 23.
This time, multitudes swarmed the docks of the bay. Cannon shots and salutations mixed with the incessant tolling of bells in the numerous churches of the Bahian capital. After reaching solid ground, the royal family entered the carriages waiting for them and proceeded along the Rua da Preguiça and the Ladeira da Gameleira until reaching the Largo do Teatro (today, Castro Alves Square). There, representatives of the City Council welcomed the prince and his retinue and invited them to continue on foot, under a purple canopy, to the Sé Church, where the archbishop performed a
Te Deum Laudamus
in gratitude for the success of the ocean crossing. Along the way, rows of soldiers saluted, while the bells of every church continued to chime. At night, the royal party met at the governor's palace. There followed an entire week of music, dance, performances in the streets, and extended ceremonies of hand-kissing, in which the prince regent patiently received endless queues of subjects. Farmers, merchants, millers, priests, public servants, soldiers—all had come to pay homage to the sovereign.

Its churches sparkling with gold and baroque carvings, white houses spread across the hillsides, and imposing mansions cresting the mountains, Salvador, one of the most beautiful cities of the Portuguese empire, dazzled
visitors from abroad, as we can see from this description by one Maria Graham, who arrived on October 17, 1821:


This morning, at day-break, my eyes opened on one of the finest scenes they ever beheld. A city, magnificent in appearance from the sea, is placed along the ridge and on the declivity of a very high and steep hill: the richest vegetation breaks through the white houses at intervals, and beyond the city, reaches along to the outer point of land on which the picturesque church and convent of Sant Antonio da Barre is placed. Here and there the bright red soil shows itself in harmony with the tiling of the houses. The tracery of forts, the bustle of shipping, hills melting in the distance, and the very form of the bay, with its promontories and islands, altogether finish this charming picture; then the fresh sea-breeze gives spirit to enjoy it, notwithstanding its tropical climate.

Despite its bustling port and its political and economic importance, Salvador remained a relatively small city of about 46,000 inhabitants, slightly smaller than Rio de Janeiro, which had 60,000 at the time.
Salvador's location—elevated terrain sloping down to the sea—matched Lisbon and Porto in Portugal, Luanda in Angola, Macau in China, and Rio de Janeiro and Olinda in Brazil.
All followed the same model: churches, convents, public buildings, and residences of wealthy families all took their place in the high part of the city. In the low part, on a strip near the sea, lay the commercial quarter with its warehouses, stores, workshops, and the wharves of the port. “There is nothing in the low city but merchants,” described the painter Johann Moritz Rugendas, who visited Salvador some years earlier. “The rich, and notably foreigners, also have country homes and vast gardens on the heights, outside the city limits. The slave market, the stock exchange, the traders' shops, the arsenal, and the workshops of maritime construction remain in the lower city.”

BOOK: 1808: The Flight of the Emperor
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