The future emperor’s full given birth name was Pedro de Alcântara João Carlos Leopoldo Salvador Bebiano Francisco Xavier de Paula Leocádio Miguel Gabriel Rafael Gonzaga, of the house of Bragança, the royal line of Portuguese rulers; it’s a lot simpler to just call him Pedro II. Born in December 1825 AD in Rio de Janeiro (the first Brazilian ruler to actually be born in Brazil) to Pedro I and his Austrian wife, Pedro’s mother died when he was a year old; Pedro was raised and classically educated by a succession of governesses and guardians. With a grueling regime of daily studies, great care was taken to foster ethical values and a personality quite different from the impulsive and irresponsible character of his father. His young upbringing explains much about his life: always dignified, seemingly distant, impressively calm and tediously serious.
Being the only male child of Pedro I, his father abdicated in favor of Pedro II to pursue dynastic interests in Europe when Pedro was only five years old. For nine years Brazil weathered a turbulent regency until, in 1840 AD at the age of 14, Pedro was declared of age and crowned within the year. This teenager immediately took an active – and no doubt unsettling to the corrupt politicians, planters and military officers – part in affairs of state. He viewed his royal role as a political arbiter, setting aside his personal preferences in untangling the endemic partisan political disputes. During his reign, Pedro II would preside over 36 different cabinets, most of which had broad public support as he was generally well served by able councilors and ministers he personally selected. By astutely alternating support for the Liberal and Conservative parties, he ensured that both enjoyed a roughly equal time running the country under his leadership, with orderly and nonviolent (more-or-less) transitions between.
This afforded Pedro II the chance to pursue his belief that Brazil needed to modernize to assure its rightful place in the world. Either directly or through his cabinet, Pedro sponsored the construction of Brazil’s first paved road, the Unido e Industria linking Rio de Janeiro to Juiz de Fora; the first steam railroad running from Santos to São Paulo; first telephone service in 1877; participated in the laying of the first Brazil-Europe submarine telegraph cable; and the issuing of Brazil’s first postal stamp. Anticipating the addiction of the Industrial Age, he encouraged coffee production rather than sugar … although humans have a pretty strong addiction to that too. Indeed, he was increasingly beloved, mainly because every Brazilian was getting richer and their lives getting easier. There was even a feeling of prosperity among the shanty inhabitants along the Amazon.
Foreign relations were not as positive, as several nations became “concerned” by Brazil’s startling economic growth and increasing political clout. Two minor incidents led to the British counsel issuing first an ultimatum followed by an order to the Royal Navy to seize Brazilian merchant ships as indemnity. Pedro refused to acquiesce to the bullying and mobilized his own military in preparation for war against the British holdings in the region; the British government promptly softened its stance and proposed a peaceful settlement through international arbitration. Almost immediately thereafter a year-long undeclared war with Uruguay – ended with the Brazilian occupation of the towns of Salto and Paisandu – demanded Pedro’s attention. No sooner was this conflict settled than Paraguay invaded; the resultant and costly “War of the Triple Alliance” lasted until 1870 and saw an unconditional Brazilian victory. A conflict with the Catholic Church (1872-1875) was resolved through negotiation, but left Pedro bereft of the clergy’s support.
Nonetheless, the diplomatic victory over Great Britain and the military ones over Uruguay and Paraguay had made Pedro II more popular than ever among the average brasileiros. He now sought to leverage this popularity into his most enduring legacy – emancipation for the slaves in Brazil. The emperor viewed slavery as the last great obstacle to taking Brazil into the “modern age,” as well as an “affront to God.” He had freed his own slaves in 1840 AD and in 1850 threatened to abdicate unless the legislature declare the Atlantic slave trade illegal, which it promptly did. Realizing that abrupt abolition would wreck Brazil’s economy, Pedro II thought the gradual eradication of slavery would be less traumatic than just ripping off the bandage. In 1871 he oversaw the enactment of the “Law of Free Birth,” by which all children born to slave women were considered free-born citizens of the nation. A series of less contentious laws over the next few years extended ever more rights to Brazilian slaves, culminating in complete emancipation in 1888 AD. The latter, which eroded support for the monarchy among the plantation owners, proved Pedro’s ultimate undoing.
A savant in his own right, Pedro II was a vigorous sponsor of education, the arts and the sciences in Brazil. He proved far more intelligent than most of his contemporary rulers, indeed than most people. He won the respect of scholars such as Darwin, Pasteur and Nietzsche, and was friend to artists and authors around the world. A correspondent with Longfellow, Emerson and the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, in 1876 Pedro II was the first foreign head of state to visit the United States where he travelled across the nation from San Francisco to New Orleans to Washington. American newspapers reported his trip an “unalloyed triumph” as he impressed the people and politicians alike with his frankness, insight and kindness.
Seemingly secure in his people’s affections, Pedro now proceeded to indulge his life-long desire to travel. There followed three trips to Europe, and the lengthy visit to the United States. Distracted by these long absences, Pedro found himself increasingly removed from those segments of Brazilian society that he had fostered, namely the upwardly-mobile middle class and a new generation of liberal-minded students. Too, he no longer had the unwavering support of the clergy, the upper classes or the military. Although still beloved by his people, who had a strange way of showing that, in November 1889 a non-violent military coup forced him to abdicate in favor of a republic (which didn’t last long). Aged and ailing, Dom Pedro was forced into exile in Europe, where he died two years later in Paris. Unlike Brazil, France accorded “the Father of his People” a state funeral; in 1925 Pedro’s remains were returned to his homeland, where he was interred in the cathedral in Petropolis he helped finance.