- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

THE EMPEROR’S BEARD: DOM PEDRO II AND THE TROPICAL MONARCHY OF BRAZIL

By Lilia Moritz Schwarcz

Hull and Wing, $35, 436 pages

REVIEWED BY BART McDOWELL

Imagine the voluptuous harbor of Rio de Janeiro in the year 1808. Past Sugarloaf mountain, ships of the British navy enter under full sail. Napoleon’s armies have just overrun the whole Iberian Peninsula, and these ships are ferrying the entire royal court of Portugal to their Brazilian colony — 15,000 exiled people crowding into Rio with its population of 60,000. Instantly, the colony has become a seat of empire.

“It is difficult to imagine a greater cultural shock,” writes the author Lilia Moritz Schwarcz in her strange book with its strange title. Partly, this book is a biography of the man who was emperor of Brazil from the age of five until his exile 58 years later. Partly, it is a history, telling the story of Brazilian independence, how one ruler from the House of Braganca abdicated and returned to Lisbon, leaving his toddler son to reign in the New World.

But this book and its copious illustrations — paintings, drawings, portraits, old photographs, maps, cartoons — also serve as a kind of Rorschach slash of the past — visual semantics that reveal the making of a myth. And its unmaking.

The author has used many of the 20,000 illustrations given to the Republic of Brazil by Dom Pedro II, after his exile. The collection, Mrs. Schwarcz notes, is “an effort to construct and perpetuate a certain national memory … . It shows us what the emperor saw and what he did not see or wanted to forget….Slavery is absent, like an actor hidden in the wings….More than 600 Pedros observe us as we observe him…in his evolution as a symbol of the state.”

The reader sometimes feels like an intruder in a neighbor’s family album. We start with the baby Pedro, crying pitifully. His mother died, “of sadness,” said court gossips, just nine days after Pedro’s first birthday. Many Brazilians blamed the child’s father Dom Pedro I, whose rascally reputation had grieved the queen. The little prince was called “the nation’s martyr.” Soon the first Pedro remarried — and was forced to abdicate and leave the country.

Portrayed on medals, plaster busts, and postcards, the chubby-cheeked young prince grows as we watch. Always there are uniforms and crowns and other symbols of the monarchy. The regent is doing his job, and young Pedro seems ever the serious ruler-in-waiting. Though during this Regency period, insurrections and rebellions are breaking out in other places, the palace presents a great silence, and “the secrecy of the monarchy gave it a sacred quality.” (Not bad advice for modern royalty: just shut up.)

Pedro’s image was being minted: “his impassive mien, his care in choosing his words, his enigmatic character” and his appearance, “prominent chin, very blue eyes,…blond hair.” He stood out in a population made up “of mestizos and mulattos.” As a symbol of stability, the court moved up Pedro’s consecration and coronation to 1841, and pictures soon show him wearning a youthful beard “though it did not disguise the emperor’s callow youth.” The ceremonies show “the poor, frightened lad, fifteen years old…tangled up in clothes too big for him” with a gold crown 16 inches high and “heavy for the little emperor’s head.”

It was a good two years later when the Brazilian press took note that “at last our monarch has a beard.” Notes Mrs. Schwarcz, “The beard was part of a political iconography.” It grows longer with the years, and portraits begin to show his adult interests: a telescope for his study of astronomy, a book for which wide scholarship in philosophy and languages.

Then, finding a wife and consort for the emperor presented problems. His realm was exotic and far away from proper princesses in Europe. Many thought the Brazilian court both primitive and poor. And Pedro was so shy “that he blushed at the idea of marrying.” But treaties and social acceptance were important to the young nation.

Diplomats arranged Pedro’s marriage to Teresa Cristina Maria, princess of the Two Sicilies, a Bourbon by three of her grandparents and a Habsburg by one grandmother. She was four years older than Pedro, and her dowry was modest, but she was said to be a good singer, and her portraits showed a pretty face. Misleadingly.

The wedding was performed by proxy in Naples, and the newly wed Teresa sailed off to Brazil to meet her new husband. the meeting was disastrous. Teresa was small, fat, ugly, and lame. Pedro wept. But he was enjoined to “do your duty, my son.” And he did.

The royal family welcomed a baby son in 1845, but the child died a year later of yellow fever. Two daughters followed, then another boy, who also died in his first year. Newspapers grieved at “the sad fate of the few male children of the House of Braganca.” Little Princess Isabel remained the heiress-presumptive.

Official portraits record the changing image of the emperor. While the fortunes of European monarchs suffered with the revolutions of 1848, Brazil became suddenly prosperous with a rising price of coffee in world markets. Dom Pedro and his court began traveling abroad.

That invisible actor in the wings — slavery — also began to trouble the Brazilian conscience. Planters, of course, depended on the labor of slaves. Dom Pedro himself owned slaves, but the emperor’s educational institutions were fomenting talk of emancipation.

There were distractions. There were railroads and palaces to build, festivals to attend, laboratories and libraries to open. The emperor was always interested in novelties, and was deeply bored by politics and economics.

“If I were not emperor of Brazil,” he wrote in his diary, “I would like to be a schoolmaster.” And, indeed, he closely supervised the education of his daughters. he summed up his routine in this way: “Get up at 6 and study Greek and Hebrew until 7. Lunch at 10….On Fridays I am present at English and German lessons given to my daughters….Greek verbs at night.”

The contemplative life was interrupted in 1864 when Brazil, with its allies Argentina and Uruguay, went to war against Paraguay. Dom Pedro — as “Volunteer Number One” — suited up in full uniform and went to the southern front. He received his allies in a royal tent, complete with steward. The war lasted far longer than the generals had predicted, the cost was high, and the prestige of the emperor declined.

Increasingly, Dom Pedro turned to foreign travel, leaving the Princess Isabel as regent in his absence. He captivated Paris as he strolled the streets dressed simply in black. In Germany, he avoided a meeting with Bismarck, but was thrilled to meet one of his favorite composers, Richard Wagner. When he attended the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, he was the first monarch ever to visit the United States. There he met Alexander Graham Bell, who asked him to speak over his new telephone. “To be or not to be,” the emperor jokingly quoted, then observed with delight that the device “did indeed speak.”

During Dom Pedro’s frequent absences, as the old man’s beard grew white, Brazil itself was changing. Slavery, the economic mainstay of wealthy planters, was inevitably ending. It fell to the regent Princess Isabel to announced and proclaim the abolition of slavery. The monarchy ended soon after, and Dom Pedro went gracefully into exile, and not long afterward, to his Heavenly reward.

I have always felt a fondness for Dom Pedro. During each of the three Brazilian carnivals I have attended in Rio, effigies of Dom Pedro have always received loud applause. He was a special favorite of the freed slaves and their descendents, an icon somehow related to their own monarchical heritage in Africa. He, too, was a captive of history.

In the zeal of republican reform, a law was passed to prevent Dom Pedro and his heirs from owning any lands in Brazil. In 1978, I happened to meet the great-grandson of Dom Pedro II, Dom Pedro Gastao de Orelans e Braganca, princely heir to the abolished throne of Brazil. Other nations have sent their rulers to the headsman or the firing squad. Brazil asked only abdication. And that he and his heirs not own Brazilian lands. But that, too, has changed. The Dom Pedro I met in 1978 did not claim a throne. He drove a Volkswagon beetle — and owned a small real estate company.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

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