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Brazilian Independence & the Birth of a Free Press
How newspapers emerged as the heart of democratic discourse in the newly independent nation
By Courtney Suciu
Brazilian Independence Day commemorates the occasion when in 1822 Pedro I, son of Dom João VI, king of Portugal and Imperial Brazil, declared the nation sovereign.
However, despite this proclamation, independence for Brazil was more of a process than a single event. A period of unrest over the next several decades unfolded as the empire struggled to define its national identity, establish a form of government and transition from a monarchy to a republic.
One of the most crucial developments to emerge during this time was the proliferation of newspapers. In his dissertation, Rhetoric and Riot in Rio de Janeiro, 1827–18311, William Wisser makes a compelling case for how the increasingly widespread availability of newspapers inspired the people of Brazil to become more politically engaged. Newspapers, he argued, became a public forum where the people of Brazil could discuss current events, ideas and values, ultimately empowering them to influence the future of their newly independent nation.
Let’s take a closer look at Wisser’s research and the extraordinary early history and function of newspapers in Brazil.
But first, a little background on colonial Brazil
The country known as Brazil was colonized by Portugal around 1500, and despite a series of internal and external challenges, the crown was able maintain control over the resource-rich territory over the next couple centuries. Much of the land was occupied with agricultural activity – in addition to that staple of the Brazil economy, sugarcane, settlers grew tobacco and cotton with the bulk of the labor supplied by enslaved Africans. By 1700, the population boomed with Portuguese settlers seeking to get in on the wealth wrought from newly-discovered diamond and gold deposits throughout the country.
There was difficulty in establishing a central government throughout most of the colonial period. Small parcels of the country were overseen by “captains” appointed by the Portuguese crown. But in 1808, after being run out of Europe by Napoleon’s armies, Dom João VI and the royal family, along with their entourage arrived in the capital, Rio de Janeiro. They initiated some big changes in the city – including the foundation of the Impressão Régia (the Royal Press).
(The National Museum in Rio de Janeiro originally served as the palatial residence of the Brazilian Imperial Family until it was designated the Royal Museum in 1818 by Dom João VI. This oldest scientific institution of Brazil, which came to hold more than 20 million artifacts related to natural history and anthropology in the country, was sadly recently destroyed by fire on September 2, 2018.)
Censorship in colonial Brazil and the First Empire
According to a collection of essays on Books and Periodicals in Brazil 1768-19302 censorship in colonial Brazil “had been very strict and the Portuguese authorities had kept close control over the circulation of books, even though there is evidence that they were available and that novels could be found in private collections or for sale, having been smuggled into the country.”
Most historians, including Wisser, note that Brazil had no printing press at all until the Impressão Régia and “the transplanted court immediately lifted the ban on printing to aid in the governance of its farflung empire and the first press began operation.”
Wisser continued that Dom João immediately enacted “a strict practice of censorship to guard against the printing of anything, in the words of the royal decree, ‘against religion, the Government, and good behavior.’” Additionally, no printed material was allowed into the country without the official seal of the royal censor.
Following the fall of Napoléon, Dom João VI returned to Portugal, leaving his son, Pedro I, behind to govern. But Pedro had a different idea: he declared himself emperor and proclaimed Brazil's independence on September 7, 1822.
One of Pedro’s first orders of business was to issue a decree which prohibited text criticizing “religion, good behavior, the person of the Emperor, and public tranquility,” Wisser wrote. Still, he continued, “Censorship did not stop editors from using fiery rhetoric and personal attacks to argue for an end to corruption and more involvement of the people in the functioning of the state.”
The rise of the free press and the decline of the First Empire
According to Wisser’s dissertation, newspaper editors soon began questioning Pedro’s “absolutist tendencies and continuing ties with Portugal.” Initially, the emperor had these critics arrested or deported. In a statement he charged that they “spread seditious doctrines by means of the Periodicals. They produced principles subversive of public order, attacking My Imperial Person, implying sinister procedures on the part of the Government, [and] spreading and fomenting division according to nationality.”
However, over the course of the First Empire, Pedro’s control over the government diminished as his popularity waned. Laws regarding censorship became less strictly enforced and editors continuously tested their boundaries. “Although editors were certainly brought before the courts to face charges of abuse against the liberty of the press, the majority of editors never faced government sanction and were free to wage their discursive battles as they saw fit,” Wisser wrote.
For writers and editors, the publication of newspapers was an essential way for Brazil to establish a national cultural identity and emerge out of isolation to interact with the rest of the contemporary world. “Modernization was regarded as an urgent social requirement as it was believed it would lay down the basic intellectual and social conditions that would allow a politically independent Brazil to integrate with the international socio-economic and cultural system,” according to Books and periodicals in Brazil 1768-1930.
Of course, not everyone was in agreement on how to prioritize or proceed in these matters. Political wars of words were waged on newspaper and magazine pages. Left-leaning liberals published stories on the evils of slavery. More conservative publications expressed loyalty to the monarchy. Radical editors found inspiration in the American revolution and rallied against the traditional plantation economy.
As newspapers and periodicals became more critical and questioning of the existing government, Pedro I’s authority weakened; at the same time, as Pedro I fell further out of favor, the press became increasingly emboldened to push the limits of discourse.
This phenomenon is the crux of Wisser’s dissertation: “While modern scholars have looked to newspapers to help explain the political tension of the end of the First Empire, their analyses have been limited by their approach to newspapers; they see newspapers only as a source of information.”
Wisser insisted newspapers did more than that. He makes the compelling case that newspaper writers and editors “had an indirect effect on the downfall of Brazil’s First Empire.”
Newspapers and the democratization of public discourse
It wasn’t that writers and editors especially set out to undermine the government of Pedro I. “The editors did not ‘break’ a story that brought down the emperor,” Wisser pointed out. “No individual story or even newspaper led directly to Pedro’s abdication. Rather, newspaper editors helped widen the public sphere to include actors unaccustomed to the functioning of the state.”
But there is a paradox in this widespread influence of newspapers. In her book News and Novela in Bazilian Media: Fact, Fiction, and National Identity, Tania Cantrell Rosas-Morena pointed out that "journalists then were primarily thinkers from priveliged families, educated abroad, well-networked and well-funded" and they "related both with the elite -- of whom they were members -- and the poor, with whom the developed an affinity and whose access to education and equality they sympathetically defended."
Very few people were able to read and write during Brazil's First Empire, so the majority of the population, especially the poor who were often the subject of newspaper content, were limited in how they could engage with printed materials. "For better or worse," Rosas-Moreno argued, these early journalists "initially helped create the tradition of Brazilian journalism being crafted and practiced by Brazilian elite for the the elite."
In his dissertation, Wiser painted another picture, though: one where low literacy rates did not prohibit the masses from interacting with the ideas and idealogies expressed in newspapers. He wrote that "[t]he world of the literate did not exist in complete isolation from the predominately oral culture; there was constant transfer of ideas back and forth" between those who could read and those woh could not, especially throughout crowded cities where various social groups existed in close proximity.
In these urban areas, Barzilians weren't quietly reading newspapers in private -- rather, publications were consumed in a public matter according to Wisser who argued that travelers frequently observed "urban Brazilians reading newspapers aloud and discussing politics" on the streets or in shops and bars, instead of the "traditional confines" of the state legislature or the court.
"The public...embraced the newspaper as a viable means of entering public debate," Wisser asserted, and the "argument for the liberty of the press now circle[d] back on itself":
The free press that acted as a watchdog to prevent abuses of power created an active public that also participated in that watchful vigilance. The editors envisioned that the development of this participatory public was a necessary element to the constitutional experiment of Brazil. The public was, in turn, also a powerful weapon to defend the rights of the people.
Over the last two enturies since Brazil was declared independent, the nation has struggled with various forms of government and periods of instability; but throughout these times of economic, political and social transformation, newspapers have shaped and fueled the people's demand for public discourse -- and true independence.
For further research
Explore ProQuest Periodicals Archive Online to find articles that reveal historical international impressions and observations of Brazilian independence and politics, as well as more contemporary analyses of the role of media in Brazil, such as:
THE EMPIRE OF BRAZIL. (1849). The North American Review, 68, 314.
Brazil, Our Relations With. (1863). Macmillan's Magazine, 8, 488.
Ellwood, C. A. (1939). THE UNITED STATES OF BRAZIL: A COMING WORLD-POWER. Social Science, 14(4), 325. https://0-www-proquest-com.library.cairn.edu/docview/1291007987/F3DF6768CCC94837PQ/1?accountid=131239
O'Rourke, G. (1949). The Birth of a Nation: Brazil. Social Studies, 40(2), 63.
Lane, J. P. (1967). Functions of the Mass Media in Brasil's 1964 Crisis. Journalism Quarterly, 44(2), 297.
Levine, R. M. (1979). BRAZIL'S DEFINITION OF DEMOCRACY. Current History, 76(444), 70.
HALLEWELL, L. (1995). The Brazilian Media: A Quincentennial Survey. Libri, 45(2), 91.
Bieber, J. (1998). "Postmodern Ethnographer in the Backlands: An Imperial Bureaucrat's Perceptions of Post-Independence Brazil". Latin American Research Review, 33(2), 37
Rocha, G. M. (2002). Neo-Dependency in Brazil. New Left Review, 16, 5.
See Global Issues Library for primary source content, including government documents:
De Menezes E Souza, J. (1875). Theses Sobre Colonização do Brazil: Projecto de Solução a's Questões Sociaes, que se Prendem a Este Difficil Problema. Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro State: Typographia Nacional.
Global Newsstream offers one of the largest collections of current news from Latin America and around the world in a multi-lingual interface.
- Wisser, W. M. (2006). Rhetoric and Riot in Rio de Janeiro, 1827–1831 (Order No. 3207436). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (305284317)
- Silva, A. (2014). Books and Periodicals in Brazil 1768-1930. Available from Ebook Central.
- Rosas-Moreno, T.C. (2014). News and Novela in Brazilian Media: Fact, Fiction, and National Ientity. Available from Ebook Central.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu