A journalist’s highly readable account of Portuguese monarch João VI’s historic 1808 flight from Europe and subsequent exile in Brazil.
In 1804, Napoleon crowned himself emperor of the French. But by 1807, the year Gomes’ book opens, he “ruled as absolute lord of Europe.” Aside from Britain, only one continental nation, Portugal, remained unconquered. Unwilling to surrender but unable to fend off a full-scale invasion, the fearful and often indecisive Prince Regent João VI, whose “sickly obesity gave him the air of a peaceful dullard,” deceived Napoleon long enough to transfer his entire court to Brazil. Shepherded by the indomitable British navy, the trans-Atlantic voyage was fraught with challenges for the Portuguese ruler and his retinue, who faced the ever-present risk of disease. But it was João’s abandoned people who paid the price for his ultimately successful flight. By 1814, 500,000 Portuguese had starved or died or fled the country to escape the chaos created in the wake of their monarch’s departure. Meanwhile, the court lived comfortably in sultry Rio de Janeiro. The greedy beneficiaries of the colony’s mineral and agricultural wealth, João and his nouveau riche ministers still managed to lay down the cornerstones of a national infrastructure. They built roads, schools and factories, opened up Brazilian ports to trade with other countries and united quarreling colonial provinces. The king many dismissed as unfit to rule departed in 1821, with only one-third his retinue, to return to a Portugal wracked by chaos and revolution. In a grand twist of historical irony, what he left behind became the makings of a vibrantly complex society that now stands poised to become a major economic power.
A well-researched, engaging history.