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A “Redeemer” in search of redemption

The controversial "policy from the heart" of Princess Isabel

Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora CapivaraIsabel watching Santos-Dumont’s experience with balloons Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara

In the book A mão e a luva (1874), written by Machado de Assis, the heroine Guiomar, whose behavior is not the kind expected of a nice girl in a romantic novel, “tests” her boyfriend before accepting his proposal. In the meantime, Luís Estevão, the good guy, is suffering madly, twisting and turning in bed and calling out his beloved’s name amidst tears and gnashing teeth. Guiomar, however, was pragmatic, or, in the words of Machado, was “calculating, calculating well, in this case, every child of the heart.” In this sense, she comes very close to another figure from the 19th century, who also played, during her entire life, the role of the “heroine” (in her case, as the “redeemer”) who had a calculating heart. Isabel Cristina Augusta Miguela Gabriela Rafaela Gonzaga de Bragança e Bourbon, Princess Isabel (1846-1921), the heiress to the throne of Emperor Dom Pedro II, is viewed by history as the “liberator” of slaves, as the fascination of monarchists past, present and forever, and the terror of diehard republicans, who had a hard time dissociating her dynastic image from the abolition of slavery in 1888.

“She was a woman of the 19th century, characterized by a Catholic, reactionary-aristocratic attitude that, in some way, contributed to modify Brazil’s imperial scenario. Her policy was neither selflessly altruistic, nor responsible for the farce of an abolition that did not eliminate stark poverty; it was neither immobilized by macho patriarchal structures nor rebellious and revolutionary. She always sought to pave the way to the throne by means of what I called policy from the heart, explains Robert Daibert Júnior, who wrote his doctorate thesis on Princesa Isabel: a política do coração entre o trono e o altar, for his doctorate degree at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, under the guidance of José Murilo de Carvalho. “Her anti-slavery battle was the tip of an iceberg, whose bases revolved around a Catholic abolition, in line with the view of the Pope and the bishops. That is, these bases were based on redeeming abolition, on the giver of freedom, which was foreseeing, predictable, peaceful. Above all, this abolition was supposed to ensure the shaping of law-abiding free men, civilized in a Catholic manner and faithful to the Church and its idea of society and politics,” he analyzes. According to the researcher, Isabel always kept her eyes focused on Brazil, which, even after having been exiled for decades, she planned to govern. “But she always looked at the country perched on a window of the Vatican.” The label “Catholic princess,” which angered the liberals and the republicans, however, should not be understood as merely a sincere feeling of religiousness and conservative obedience to the church, but as a “calculation,” even though it was the “child of the heart.” Even so, this “calculation” which was to be the basis of a future third reign, would know how to take advantage of the blessings of modernity in the name of a reactionary and Catholic past that she would have liked to transport to the present.

Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora CapivaraThe Imperial family in exile in 1920 Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara

A noteworthy metaphor of this is illustrated by her passion for photography, a passion which she had inherited from her father, who had a collection of more than 2,500 photos. When Isabel was in exile, says Daibert, she would resort to “an iconographic resource,” always asking that she be sent photos which portrayed her with her children and with the Emperor. “She probably wanted to stress the legitimacy of the succession, which had been passed on to her from her father and then from her to her son. This is how she branded her territory, sent her message and set up alliances in her favor and that of her son, against the nephews who wanted to usurp the succession.” This was modernity at the service of the most ancient desire for power. Her love of images has resulted in a stunning book, Coleção princesa Isabel (Editora Capivara, 423 pages, R$ 190), with more than 1,200 photographs by such prominent photographers as Ferrez, Stahl, Henschel, Leuzinger, Malta, among others (some of which illustrate this article). In addition to its aesthetic beauty, the book has photos that have historical and journalistic value, such as the series of 13 images, which had not been seen before, which portray May 13th “live,” including the voting by the Senate and the celebrations in the streets. Another photograph, taken by Ferrez, portrays the Te Deum, held in Rio de Janeiro’s Cathedral in 1887, when the princess was acclaimed as the Regent for the third and last time.

Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara Approval of the Lei Áurea, 1888 (Luiz Ferreira) Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara

The photos had been stored in a trunk owned by Thereza Maria de Orleans e Bragança, the last surviving grandchild of Dona Isabel, and were retrieved by Pedro and Bia Corrêa do Lago. “The discovery and the revelation of the collection were a revolutionary finding in relation to the field of 19th century photography. The Princess and the Comte d’Eu had prepared a posthumous iconographic feast for Brazilian historians and for photography,” says historian José Murilo de Carvalho. The collection includes landscapes, intimate portraits of the nobility; however, symptomatically, the collection has very few photographs of Negroes. “Although the princess’s image was closely linked to the Abolition, there are very few photos of Negroes; the exceptions include a photograph of Ruy Santos, a Congada popular feast in the State of Minas Gerais, and the first ever photograph of Dom Obá II d’África, whose real name was Cândido da Fonseca Galvão. Born in Bahia, Galvão was the grandson of an African sovereign revered as a royal prince by the slaves.  “He would go to formal meetings with Emperor Pedro II, wearing tails, a top hat and a pince-nez”, says Corrêa do Lago.

This love for images seems to have been one of the few character traits that Isabel inherited from her father, even though the Emperor had been very particular about raising her to be the future heiress to the throne. “The character of princesses has to be shaped as is proper for ladies who may have to rule over the constitutional government of an empire like Brazil,” Pedro II wrote in regard to his daughters’ education. “Unlike her father, Isabel viewed inventions and technologies as divine blessings offered to men. The emperor recommended that his daughter honor those who dedicate themselves to natural sciences, while the princess attributed responsibility, homage and value to God for having allowed men to gain such knowledge,” says Daibert. Her view of the model of the “virtuous prince” was quite different from the model preached by her father and teachers, most of whom had all been Dom Pedro’s former teachers. “Exemplary rulers for Dona Isabel were those who engaged in charity and worked in favor of expanding Christianity; they respected the Church and its clergy, and supported the work of the Catholic clergy in society.  She was devoted to saints who had held political positions as kings and queens. This was how she viewed the role of rulers and how she understood her own position.”

Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara Te Deum, 1887 (Marc Ferrez) Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara

In an increasingly secular society, highlighted by contemporary social problems and political disputes, Isabel imagined that a better society would be achieved by adopting Christian Catholic values. Thus, she turned to pious rulers and mirrored their positions to find the support which in her point of view was stable enough to maintain her as the head of a monarchial government. “Because of her status as heiress to the throne, her ambition was probably to become the instrument for the propagation of Catholic prerogatives among the government employees of Brazil’s Imperial State,” he explains. This “calculation from the heart” was reinforced by her marriage, in 1864, to Gaston de Orleans, the Comte d’Eu, a 22-year old French Catholic prince who had been in exile from France since the Revolution of 1848. “Isabel’s Catholic faith reminded her of her mother, who had passed away when Isabel was an adolescent. Her upbringing and education were taken over by Gaston after their marriage. Gaston sought to fit her into the nineteenth century scenario in which she had to live. She read books suggested by her husband, and constantly updated herself on the conflicts between work and capital which were haunting Europe, especially in regard to the “dangerous ambitions” of the working classes.” The count, in turn, began to attract the liberals who, at the time of the War with Paraguay, considered him as an ally and a possible representative of their interests, able to retrieve them from the ostracism experienced when disputing for positions in the government. “Dona Isabel did not trust her husband’s liberal attitude and his alleged liberal attitudes had caused serious problems. She couldn’t turn into a puppet in the hands of the political parties if she wanted to maintain the questioned neutrality of the moderating power, the foundation of the regime.”

In addition, politicking separated her from the throne, because that was not the political environment she had learned about and desired. Real life did not express her heroic saints and medieval heroines. “She did not relate to that world and worst of all, the more she invested in acquiring some kind of visibility, the more she was enjoined to show her face, to take on a stand, to show her policy,” says the researcher. The liberal press, which preached a stronger secularization of society, published unfavorable opinions on her close ties to the Vatican, and the count increasingly seemed to be a lame horse. To make things worse, during the Questão Religiosa, a conflict between Masonry and the Church, which resulted in the imprisonment of two bishops at the order of Dom Pedro II, the princess sided with the Church against her father. “We have to defend Brazilian citizens’ rights and those of the Constitution, but where is the protection of all of this if we, above all, fail to obey the Church?” she asked her father in a letter, requesting the Emperor to order that the State side with the Church. “Isabel’s opinions seemed to worry the Emperor who, before leaving, stated the guidelines that were to be followed, even though afterwards he denied having interfered in his daughter’s reign as regent.” Isabel reacted strongly against her father’s visit to a synagogue in Europe, and condemned his visit to Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuelle, whom she had never forgiven for having unified Italy and submitted the Vatican and the Pope to the new State. “She became less qualified to be the future ruler of the country. Worried about this, she decided to go to Mass only on Sundays and dismissed her confessor. But she was not successful. Criticism about her became more and more virulent,” says Daibert. At that moment, the ace up her sleeve was her charitable anti-slavery attitude, with a strong Catholic bias.

Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara Congada in Minas Gerais, 1876 (Ruy Santos) Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara

New outfit
Having met a black priest in Recife, the Comte d’Eu gave his wife more arguments. “He had glimpsed a Brazilian solution in that event: white people could help members of ‘inferior’ races overcome their condition. The referred priest exemplified this: a negro with a new outfit granted by white people, a typical attitude of the European civilization represented by Catholicism. “Living in the midst of an elite in awe of Europe, the model to be replicated in the tropics, Isabel realized that the notion of anti-slavery in the “civilized world” was gaining strength.  She informed the emperor – a ruler worried about his image abroad – about this fact. At a costume ball organized by Queen Victoria, Isabel went as a black baiana and her husband went as a moor. “At the ball, Isabel announced, to herself and to all the other guests, the position of her country vis-a-vis the old world, a statement of a non-racist principle,” says the author. “She actually wanted our good Brazil to be as advanced as England.” “Our country is still very young; the world was not made in one day. But our country has already accomplished a lot and I expect it will accomplish even more,” she wrote to her father, thus revealing her belief that the national lack of development would be overcome. In this respect, Isabel’s beliefs helped her move way ahead of her contemporaries. “The scientific pessimism of Comte Gobineau, a friend of Dom Pedro II, who was a believer in the theory that races degenerate in the tropics, failed to convince Dona Isabel in relation to Brazilian negroes. Her Catholic faith in this case, was her argument in the belief that it would favor the integration of free Negroes into society.”

Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara Ouro Preto, 1880 (Marc Ferrez) Reproductions from the book Coleção princesa Isabel, Editora Capivara

In 1887, her father was gravely ill and for the third time she became the Regent of the Empire. There was already talk about a forthcoming Third Reign. The anti-slavery events, she believed, had been an efficient “policy from the heart.” This action had attuned her to the population’s general expectations, uncoupled from those of a minority of landowners. This small yet powerful segment of society had become increasingly dissatisfied with a monarchy that went against the landowners’ interests. Having moved away from them, the Monarchy had to build a new foundation of legitimacy with emerging economic groups,” says the researcher. “The point was to modernize the country without joining forces with the radicals. Isabel”s anti-slavery stand and liberal philosophy, both of which were moderate and pragmatic, had elements in common which allowed for a strengthening of her proposals and for united action, based on a kind of political platform affinity.” The princess truly wished to avoid a violent solution for the slavery issue; she feared a “black wave” of vengeance against the whites. This is why her paternalist, peaceful and moderate anti-slavery platform, aimed at ensuring the interests of the big landowners, was well accepted. “The abolition that she dreamed of was the result of a charitable action, a donation offered by a charitable government, with religious motives being highlighted as the foundation of her attitude. This is how Isabel attempted to register her actions for posterity.” Pope Leon XIII, who was a smart man, understood the princess’s attitude better, and viewed it as an expression of her dedication to the guidelines of the Apostolic See, which led the Lei Áurea law that abolished slavery to proclaim the Third Reign’s obedience to Catholic prerogatives. This did not make her popular among the republicans.

In exile, after the death of Dom Pedro II, and having already become the Empress, Isabel fantasized that she would be called back to Brazil at any time, to retrieve her power. She networked furiously with monarchists and enemies of the Republic. There is an interesting exchange of correspondence which provides a clue as to how Isabel dealt with these issues at that time. In a letter sent to the leaders of the monarchist movement in Rio de Janeiro, Isabel wrote: “The idea of a civil war as a way of returning to Brazil repels me,” illustrating her image as a model of virtue of impartial moderating power. In another letter, written on the same date, but addressed to a friend, the tone is different, more subtle and revealing: “I always regret the circumstances that pit brother against brother. I do not want to encourage this battle in any way, especially because I do not envision a strong foundation for it nor very likely success. However, you, sir, know my feelings as a Catholic and a Brazilian. I have absolutely no doubt that once the nation pronounces itself by general conviction in favor of the monarchy, we will come back.” Hence the need, Daibert points out, to understand Isabel’s religiousness and human and pious sentiment within the context of the times and her social class, as well as within the context of her future power plans. “Charitable actions, apparently restricted to the private world, gained political meaning as they became spaces for the management of identities, actions and reactions to the world around her.” Her charitable actions went hand in hand with an intransigent view, which rejected the modern world and its expressions of secularization. “In a reactionary way, she believed that a return to old-fashioned values would ensure the stable support of her government,” says the researcher.