Early Brazilian foreign policy was criticized for being too Europe-centered. Brazil declared its independence from Portugal in 1822 in a process unique in the Americas: Dom Pedro I, the country’s first head of state and government, was the son of Dom João VI, king of Portugal. This gave Brazil a sense of continuity with the former metropolis – unique in the Americas. Although Dom Pedro I renounced his rights in the Portuguese succession line to become Brazil’s first Emperor, early Brazilian foreign policy was very much a continuation of late Portuguese policy.
Early in the 19th century Portugal became involved in the Napoleonic Wars on the English side. Portugal and England enjoyed then an already long friendship. When Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula, Dom João, then Prince Regent, decided to move the Portuguese imperial capital to Rio de Janeiro, instead of fighting a war he believed he could not win. This move consolidated the Anglo-Portuguese alliance of that time, as Dom João’s policy was backed up by England.
In South America, Dom João first decision was to finish the colonial exclusivism Portugal enjoyed with its colony, opening Brazil’s ports to friendly nations. With most of Europe at war and occupied by French armies, England was basically the only friend Brazil and Portugal had at the time. But his policies meant that Brazil had a move towards liberalism unknown until that moment. The country’s trade with the outside world rose as English products entered the Brazilian market.
When Dom João returned to Europe, Brazilian elites were unwilling to give up the freedom conquered in the previous years; in that case, something not that different from what happened in Spanish America. With Dom Pedro I as Prince Regent in Brazil, the independence movement grew strong until complete secession in 1822.
With that in mind, it’s possible to understand how early Brazilian foreign policy was mostly a continuation of Dom João’s policy: Dom Pedro I’s first task was to get recognition of Brazil’s independence from Portugal. That happened with English support. The United States was the first country to recognize Brazil’s independence, but this was welcomed coldly in Rio de Janeiro.
In response to English help, Dom Pedro I kept and improved the trade benefits England already enjoyed with Brazil. He also occupied Uruguay, a region disputed between Spain and Portugal, leading to a war with Argentina and, despite renouncing his rights to the Portuguese throne, kept close relations with his family in Portugal.
Dom Pedro I’s foreign policy was a reason for growing opposition. He could not win a war against Argentina and his connection to Portugal was a constant reason for accusations of recolonization plans. Topping that was the perception of Brazilian elites that the trade agreements with England were bad for Brazil. For these and other reasons, Dom Pedro I resigned in 1831 and returned to Portugal, leaving the Brazilian throne to his son, Dom Pedro II.
Dom Pedro II was only five years old when he ascended to the throne, and so despite being the head of state, he could not govern the country. The 1830’s were a period of regencies when few important decisions were made in Brazil’s foreign policy. But in another topic, that was a crucial decade in Brazilian history: the political tendencies present in Dom Pedro I’s reign became more formal political parties in the late 1830’s: the Conservative Party, that defended progress inside of order, and the Liberal Party, that defended more radical changes.
Dom Pedro II’s adulthood was anticipated in 1840, and besides a short period of Liberal rule, the conservatives dominated Brazilian politics for most of the 1840’s to the 1870’s. In domestic politics, conservatives wanted to centralize politics and bureaucracy in Rio de Janeiro and leave little autonomy to the provinces. They claimed to be afraid of the extremes of mob rule, despotism, and oligarchy, and therefore defended progress inside of order. This meant conserving much of the Portuguese heritage. It was up to the state to build the nation and to lead a modernization process. Ironically, many important conservative leaders were former adversaries to Dom Pedro I and accused him of despotism. However, once in power, they said the country needed to be saved from excesses of liberty.
The conservatives talked about the 1830’s as a period of dangerous upheaval in Brazil. Indeed, the country faced several regional revolts that could have fragmented the Empire. Anyway, the conservative answer was to secure the integrity through a stronger government. In their understanding, Brazil was simply not ready for a certain level of liberty.