Biography of Dom Pedro I, First Emperor of Brazil

Pedro I of Brazil
Pedro I of Brazil. Artist Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Dom Pedro I (1798-1834) was the first Emperor of Brazil and was also Dom Pedro IV, King of Portugal. He is best remembered as the man who declared Brazil independent from Portugal in 1822. He set himself up as Emperor of Brazil but returned to Portugal to claim the crown there after his father died, abdicating Brazil in favor of his young son Pedro II. He died young in 1834 at the age of 35.

Pedro I's Childhood in Portugal

Pedro de Alcântara Francisco António João Carlos Xavier de Paula Miguel Rafael Joaquim José Gonzaga Pascoal Cipriano Serafim was born on October 12, 1798 in the Queluz Royal Palace outside of Lisbon.

He was descended from royal lineage on both sides: on his father's side, he was of the House of Bragança, the royal house of Portugal, and his mother was Carlota of Spain, daughter of King Carlos IV. At the time of his birth, Portugal was ruled by Pedro's grandmother, Queen Maria I, whose sanity was quickly deteriorating. Pedro's father, João VI, essentially ruled in his mother's name. Pedro became heir to the throne in 1801 when his older brother died. As a young prince, Pedro had the best schooling and tutoring available.

Flight to Brazil

In 1807, Napoleon’s troops conquered the Iberian Peninsula. Wishing to avoid the fate of the ruling family of Spain, who were “guests” of Napoleon, the Portuguese royal family and court fled to Brazil. Queen Maria, Prince João and young Pedro, among thousands of other nobles, set sail in November of 1807 just ahead of Napoleon’s approaching troops. They were escorted by British warships, and Britain and Brazil would enjoy a special relationship for decades to follow.

The royal convoy arrived in Brazil in January of 1808: Prince João set up an exile court in Rio de Janeiro. Young Pedro rarely saw his parents: his father was very busy governing and left Pedro to his tutors and his mother was an unhappy woman who was estranged from her husband, had little desire to see her children and lived in a different palace.

Pedro was a bright young man who was good in his studies when he applied himself but lacked discipline.

Pedro, Prince of Brazil

As a young man, Pedro was handsome and energetic and fond of physical activities like horseback riding, at which he excelled. He had little patience for things that bored him, like his studies or statecraft, although he did develop into a very skilled woodworker and musician. He was also fond of women and began a string of affairs at a young age. He was betrothed to Archduchess Maria Leopoldina, an Austrian Princess. Married by proxy, he was already her husband when he greeted her at the port of Rio de Janeiro six months later. Together they would have seven children. Leopoldina was much better at statecraft than Pedro and the people of Brazil loved her, although evidently, Pedro found her plain: he continued to have regular affairs, much to Leopoldina's dismay.

Pedro Becomes Emperor of Brazil

In 1815, Napoleon was defeated and the Bragança family was once again rulers of Portugal. Queen Maria, by then long descended into madness, died in 1816, making João king of Portugal. João was reluctant to move the court back to Portugal, however, and ruled from Brazil via a proxy council.

There was some talk of sending Pedro to Portugal to rule in his father's place, but in the end, João decided he had to go to Portugal himself in order to make sure that Portuguese liberals did not entirely do away with the position of the king and royal family. In April of 1821, João departed, leaving Pedro in charge. As he departed, he told Pedro that if Brazil started moving towards independence, he should not fight it, but make sure that he was crowned Emperor.

Independence of Brazil

The people of Brazil, who had enjoyed the privilege of being the seat of royal authority, did not take well to returning to colony status. Pedro took his father's advice, and that of his wife, who wrote to him: "The apple is ripe: pick it now, or it will rot." Pedro dramatically declared independence on September 7, 1822 in the city of São Paulo.

He was crowned Emperor of Brazil on December 1, 1822. Independence was achieved with very little bloodshed: some Portuguese loyalists fought in isolated locations, but by 1824 all of Brazil was unified with relatively little violence. In this, Scottish Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane was invaluable: with a very small Brazilian fleet he drove the Portuguese out of Brazilian waters with a combination of muscle and bluff. Pedro proved himself skillful in dealing with rebels and dissidents. By 1824 Brazil had its own constitution and its independence was recognized by the USA and Great Britain. On August 25, 1825, Portugal formally recognized Brazil's independence: it helped that João was King of Portugal at the time.

A Troubled Ruler

After independence, Pedro’s lack of attention to his studies came back to haunt him. A series of crises made life difficult for the young ruler. Cisplatina, one of Brazil’s southern provinces, split off with encouragement from Argentina: it would eventually become Uruguay. He had a well-publicized falling-out with José Bonifácio de Andrada, his chief minister and mentor. In 1826 his wife Leopoldina died, apparently of an infection brought on after a miscarriage. The people of Brazil loved her and lost respect for Pedro due to his well-known dalliances: some even said that she had died because he hit her. Back in Portugal, his father died in 1826 and pressure mounted on Pedro to go to Portugal to claim the throne there. Pedro’s plan was to marry his daughter Maria to his brother Miguel: she would be Queen and Miguel would be regent. The plan failed when Miguel seized power in 1828.

Abdication of Pedro I of Brazil

Pedro began looking to remarry, but word of his poor treatment of the respected Leopoldina preceded him and most European princesses wanted nothing to do with him. He eventually settled on Amélie of Leuchtenberg. He treated Amélie well, even banishing his longtime mistress, Domitila de Castro. Although he was quite liberal for his time – he favored the abolition of slavery and supported the constitution – he continually fought with the Brazilian Liberal party.

In March of 1831, Brazilian liberals and Portuguese royalists fought in the streets: he fired his liberal cabinet, leading to outrage and calls for him to abdicate. He did so on April 7, abdicating in favor of his son Pedro, then five years old: Brazil would be ruled by regents until Pedro II came of age.

Return to Europe

Pedro I had great troubles in Portugal. His brother Miguel had usurped the throne and had a firm hold on power. Pedro spent time in France and Great Britain: both nations were supportive but unwilling to get involved in a Portuguese civil war. He entered the city of Porto in July of 1832. His army consisted of liberals, Brazilians, and foreign volunteers. At first, things went poorly: King Manuel's army was much larger and laid siege to Pedro in Porto for over a year. Then Pedro sent some of his forces to attack the south of Portugal: the surprise move worked and Lisbon fell in July of 1833. Just as it looked like the war was over, Portugal got drawn into the First Carlist War in neighboring Spain: Pedro's assistance kept Queen Isabella II of Spain in power.

Legacy of Pedro I of Brazil

Pedro was at his best in times of crises: the years of warring had actually brought out the best in him. He was a natural wartime leader, with a real connection to the soldiers and people who suffered in the conflict. He even fought in the battles. In 1834 he won the war: Miguel was exiled from Portugal forever and Pedro's daughter Maria II was placed upon the throne: she would rule until 1853. The warring, however, took its toll on Pedro's health: by September of 1834, he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. He died on September 24 at the age of 35.

Pedro I of Brazil is one of those rulers who looks much better in hindsight. During his reign, he was unpopular with the people of Brazil, who resented his impulsiveness, lack of statecraft and mistreatment of the beloved Leopoldina. Although he was quite liberal and favored a strong constitution and the abolition of slavery, he was constantly criticized by Brazilian liberals.

Today, however, Brazilians and Portuguese alike respect his memory. His stance on the abolition of slavery was ahead of its time. In 1972 his remains were returned to Brazil with great fanfare. In Portugal, he is respected for overthrowing his brother Miguel, who had put an end to modernizing reforms in favor of a strong monarchy.

During Pedro's day, Brazil was far from the united nation it is today. Most of the towns and cities were located along the coast and contact with the mostly unexplored interior was irregular. Even the coastal towns were fairly isolated from one another and often correspondence went first through Portugal. Powerful regional interests, such as coffee growers, miners, and sugarcane plantations were growing, threatening to split the country apart. Brazil could very easily have gone the way of the Republic of Central America or Gran Colombia and been split up, but Pedro I and his son Pedro II were firm in their determination to keep Brazil whole. Many modern Brazilians credit Pedro I with the unity they enjoy today.


Adams, Jerome R. Latin American Heroes: Liberators and Patriots from 1500 to the Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Herring, Hubert. A History of Latin America From the Beginnings to the Present. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962

Levine, Robert M. The History of Brazil. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.