When Brazil became the seat of the Kingdom of Portugal  Share

The Europalia Brasil exhibition showcases a collection of gold coins illustrating the key phases in Brazil’s colonial history. It is now time to raise their profile, as with the Pedro II coins previously. This time, it is the three coins minted under the reign of Maria I of Portugal (1777-1816) that will be highlighted during the month of December. It was during this period that Brazil became the seat of the kingdom of Portugal, something quite exceptional for a colonial territory.

coin, minted back in 1778

The first of these coins, which were minted back in 1778, shows Maria, daughter of José I, alongside her uncle and husband, Pedro. They were married in 1760, when Maria was 26 years old and Pedro 43. They came to the throne in 1777, and although legislative acts were signed in both their names, Maria was the one considered to be the country’s real leader, with Pedro having to make do with the title of king consort under the name Pedro III.

coin dates back to 1787

The second coin dates back to 1787 and shows Queen Maria alone wearing her widow’s veil. Her husband Pedro III had just died the year before. Two years later, they also lost two of their children, including the crown prince José who succumbed to smallpox. Maria, whose extreme piety occasionally bordered on superstition, had actually refused to have him vaccinated against the disease. Her confessor and prime minister also died around the same time.

coin, struck in 1789

The last coin, which was struck in 1789, depicts Maria with a finely made headdress decorated with pearls, and, as on the previous coin, the legible text around the edge retranscribes the sovereign’s titles: “Maria I, by the grace of God, Queen of Portugal and the Algarves”. The letter “R” appears alongside the date the coin was struck, evidence that the coin was made by the Rio de Janeiro Mint. This last coin bears witness to the third phase of her reign when the queen fell victim to dementia. The successive deaths of so many people from her entourage deeply affected her already fragile disposition, and the troubles caused by the French Revolution, during which her cousin Marie-Antoinette was sent to the guillotine, only served to make her mental state worse. Suffering from insomnia, panic attacks and hallucinations, she was no longer capable of ruling, and it was her son, João, who took over the role of the country’s Regent from 1792. This is why she was better known as “Maria the Mad” in Brazil, whereas the Portuguese put more stress on her extreme devoutness by giving her the nickname “Maria the Pious”.

But the monarch’s worries did not stop there. From the beginning of the 19th century, Portugal found itself in a delicate position, torn between taking sides with France or Great Britain, the two powers vying for dominance of the European political scene. The choice was extremely difficult: on the one hand, Napoleon was racking up military victories to such a point that many people found it preferable to become his ally rather than an enemy, while on the other hand, Great Britain had long since been a major trading partner and breaking off commercial ties would no doubt trigger a serious economic crisis. In 1806, Napoleon set up a continental blockade in a bid to isolate Great Britain, and any nation trading with it would be declared France’s enemy, with the dire consequence of seeing its territory invaded by the French armies. And that’s precisely what happened in 1807; Maréchal Junot of France was on the point of invading Lisbon. So, the royal family was forced to flee the country and Brazil was the obvious choice as country of exile. The Royal Court set off on 29 September 1807 and, on 7 March 1808, berthed in Rio de Janeiro, which then de facto became the new capital of the Portuguese Kingdom.

Brazil was to draw many advantages from the arrival of the Court. Magnificent buildings were constructed for the royal family, in return for which some traders obtained highly lucrative contracts. Furthermore, Prince Regent João adopted measures designed to open up Brazil’s commercial activities. Before that, any goods coming from or destined for Brazil had in fact systematically transited through Portugal. From then on, because Portugal was occupied by Napoleon’s troops (who were to be driven out in 1811), this exclusive relationship was broken and Brazilian ports were opened up to commercial allies. Other decisions followed in rapid succession: the transfer of the Kingdom’s highest jurisdictions and the Royal Library, the establishment of the Royal Printing Works (which enabled a press corps to develop) and numerous academies (medecine, science, the arts, etc.). Around the year 1810, João also encouraged colonisation by setting up small Catholic colonies of farmers with a view to extending civilisation on Brazilian soil. And this would not be without consequence for the Indians living on these lands, many of whom were massacred in droves.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna reached a decision on the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte following his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. In a bid to gain more clout in the European political balance, João decided to re-christen his kingdom, which from then on became known as the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Queen Maria finally died in 1816, at the ripe old age of 82, and Prince Regent João was crowned King under the title of João VI. The increasingly important role given to Brazil after the Portuguese Court was established there helped its gradual emancipation and, through it, a sense of patriotism emerged, leading later to the political divorce between Brazil and Portugal, and finally to Brazil’s independence in 1822. The reign of Maria I and the regency years of her son João were therefore decisive moments in the history of Brazil as an independent nation.

Museum Guide


  • BIRMINGHAM David, A concise History of Portugal, 2003, p.103.
  • ENDERS Armelle, Nouvelle histoire du Brésil, 2008, pp.97-103.
  • LEDUC-GRIMALDI Mathilde, “Focus on Brazilian gold: a 500-year quest” in Of gold and feathers, Exchange and value systems in Brazil, exhibition catalogue, 2011, pp.66-77 and 131-132.
  • LORBLANCHÈS Jean-Claude, Les soldats de Napoléon en Espagne et au Portugal, 1807-1814, 2007, pp.22-376.

One Comment

  1. tarratreviamp
    Posted Sunday January 22nd, 2012 at 03:44 AM | Permalink

    Hello! Just want to say thank you for this interesting article! =) Peace, Joy.