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A tropical Lady Macbeth

Letters from Dona Leopoldina reveal a political organizer who hated democracy

Empress Dona Leopoldina, by Debret

Which is the true Leopoldina? “Although you have always prohibited my heart and mind, lovers only of the truth, from speaking openly, I cannot this time [fail] to try my luck” she says to her father, signing off as “your very obedient daughter.” “Leopoldina, beyond the clarity that she showed as to the political power of the printed word, knew that she was an important part as a pivot of the Holy Alliance in Brazil, in the construction of alternatives to the Portuguese Empire” observes Andréa. “To the contrary of stressing only the princess’s personal choice for the defense of Independence, her option must be thought of in the midst of a political struggle in which groups from the Center-South of Brazil took this alternative forward, for the need to maintain the supremacy of Rio over the rest of Portuguese America.; on the other hand, her activity as a political organizer must be taken into account, very clearly maintaining a  firm position in relation to her dynastic convictions, to prevent democratic principles from installing themselves in the capital of the colony.” The Brazilian fatherland reveals itself as prodigal in women. Leopoldina’s detested mother-in-law, Carlota Joaquina (whom she saw as depraved and abominated her habit of eating lizards), was also an important force in the dynastic dispute, pressed by Dom John VI by Spanish interests.

The pragmatic education of the Hapsburgs generated an intelligent and politically aware being, despite the empress’s passion for the natural sciences, in particular for mineralogy. At the peak of the pre-Independence crisis, she warned her father in a letter that “if everything here goes wrong and takes on the looks of the French Revolution, I will go with my children to my native land, since, as to my husband, I am convinced, albeit with sorrow, that the blindfold of blindness will not leave his eyes; I hope that you will give me the position of Director of Mineralogy, which you once promised me as a leg-pull over dinner.” She took the care of studying Brazil before coming here and learnt good Portuguese. But she was not Dom John’s first option for his heir, who chose the Austrian for the prestige of the empire of her father, which would put Portugal into the Holy Alliance and would relieve a bit the English pressure on the Court of Lisbon. For Francis I, the marriage represented the chance of placing himself in the New World, full of unexplored riches.  “Leopoldina was imbued with an image of the Brazilians as good savages, not yet corrupted by civilization, in accordance with the thinking of Rousseau” Andréa explains. She married with Pedro I by proxy and arrived in Rio in 1817, 20 years old, describing Brazil to her father as ‘switzerland with the most beautiful and sweet heaven.” In a short time, the letters were to speak of the unsupportable heat, the brutality of her relatives and of the Brazilians, of the generalized mistrust of the exiled Court, of the many monkeys she sent to Austria, and, in particular, of her efforts to civilize a bit her husband, whom she called, before getting to know him, merely from seeing an image on a broche, in Vienna, given by Marialva, “her Adonis.”

A view of Rio de Janeiro by Thomas Ender

Pedro was not so impressed with the girl, with her ample breasts, who, in the words of a contemporary, “was short, had a pallid face and faded blond hair; nor were grace and posture proper to her, because she always had an aversion to corset and girdle, and had the salient lips of the Hapsburgs, and a serious, not very friendly expression stamped on her face.” She would eat and read compulsively, and, as a good pupil of Humboldt, would set off on walks on the outskirts of the city, seen as not very suitable for a lady of the Court. Nor was the influence that she exerted over her husband’s affairs of State common. In her letters, you realize that Pedro I’s decision to remain in Brazil was brought forward to a large extent by Leopoldina’s wise political attitude of not leaving the country and, for that reason, to jeopardize all the couple’s monarchic projects. It was she, incidentally, who was in command of the kingdom when Dom Pedro set off on a trip to São Paulo, and it was the young Austrian who, making rulings in her husband’s place, summoned the Council of State on September 2, 1822 and decided, with the ministers, on the separation between Brazil and Portugal. While her husband was giving his cry at the Ipiranga, she conceived the Brazilian flag, bringing together the green, of the House of Bragança, with the yellow, of the House of the Hapsburgs, putting into a rhombus the monarchic coat of arms with the imperial arms, in an unprecedented homage from Dom Pedro I to Bonaparte.

But every Lady Macbeth deserves an ungrateful husband. Enchanted by the Marchioness of Santos, Pedro put his wife into a de luxe place of captivity, humiliated her, and, they say, went so far as to attack her, causing an abortion. Depressive, she died in 1826, at the age of 30. ‘she ought to have died later”  Macbeth would have said.

“Yet do I fear thy nature; thou wouldst be great; art not without ambition: what thou wouldst highly, that wouldst thou holily; wouldst not play false, and yet wouldst wrongly win; and that which rather thou dost fear to do than wishest should be undone. Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear.” Lady Macbeth, as a good wife, knows her husband. “The Prince is decided, but not as much as I would desire. It has cost me much to attain all this and I would only desire to instigate a firmer decision” wrote Leopoldina, in January 1822, to an Austrian friend, showing that she also knew hers, Dom Pedro I, somewhat hesitant between remaining in Brazil and challenging the Portuguese aristocracy, which wanted him back in Portugal. For her, he stayed.

“Everything here is confusion, and all over the place the new principles of the famous liberty and independence predominate. They are working to form a Confederation of the Peoples, in the democratic system, as in the free States of North America. My husband, who, unfortunately, loves any novelty, is enthusiastic and will, in the end, have to keep an eye on everything” complained Leopoldina in a letter to her father, the Austrian Emperor Francis I, in June of the same year. Far from a democratic system, Brazil became an autocratic Empire, “maintaining the glory of the House of Austria, preserving the monarchy in Portuguese lands and keeping the popular spirit away from republican ideas” wrote proudly the future empress of Brazil in another missive to her monarch father. Far from the little stout woman with blue eyes, at times described as sly and at others the “organizer of Brazil’s independence” there now arises a new portrait of Leopoldina Josefa Carolina Francisca Fernanda Beatriz de Habsburgo-Lorena (on her own initiative, she added a Maria to the kilometric name, to please the Braganças), who was born in Vienna in 1797 and died in Rio in 1826. The merit belongs to Letters from an Empress, recently launched by Estação Liberdade, a collection of 315 letters written by Leopoldina, from her youth in Austria to her death in Brazil.

Acclamation of Dom Pedro I as Emperor of Brazil

In a historiographic world like the Brazilian one, which has difficulties in dealing with individual figures, preferring to concentrate on the superstructures, leaving the protagonists of history in the hands of adventurers, who deify them or ridicule them, Leopoldina, little studied, was “recovered” a short time ago as an important part in the process of the creation of the Brazilian Empire, in particular for her connection with José Bonifácio. Read separately, her letters may even give this impression. But the work as a whole reveals a worthy daughter of the Congress of Vienna, accustomed to the political game and to the “sacrifice” required of princesses in the name of alliances. When young, in Vienna, she spent years hearing her parents talk of Napoleon as the “accursed Corsican” only, later, to see the Emperor give the hand of her closest sister, Marie Louise, to the Frenchman. The bourgeois view of Leopoldina the solitary wife in a savage country and with an unfaithful husband is not in place. That is the plot of a romantic novel. “If we took Leopoldina just as a woman, we could lose, in the light of history, the complexity that involved her function as a princess, which she learnt and accepted, in a society that was regulated by rites of the Ancien Régime” observes Andréa Slemian, a historian from USP and responsible for one of the five essays that accompany the selection of the empress’s letters.

In this context, Pedro and his wife are a tropical take-off of the Macbeths, full of noble worlds and not so noble actions. “You have to come back as soon as possible, be persuaded that it is not love, friendship that makes me desire, more than ever, your ready presence, but rather the critical circumstances in which beloved Brazil finds itself” she wrote to her husband, in August 1822, making clear her will to pour spirits in his ear. Or again: “It is real good fortune that our remaining in Brazil has been decided (the “I Stay”), and, thinking of politics, this is the only means of preventing the total loss of the Portuguese monarchy” she asserted to the Marquis of Marialva, a Portuguese nobleman who dealt with the alliance of her marriage, in 1817, with the son of Dom John VI. In each letter, the right tone and suitable for the addressee. To Bonifácio, she goes so far as to renege her origin: “At this instant, Dom Francis comes to mind, saying that also in the house of Albano these wicked so-called European patriots gather; we Brazilian despise them as we must.” Oddly, when writing to “Dearest daddy!” the tone is different: “The greatness of Brazil is of supreme interest to the European powers, particularly from the commercial point of view, and the greatest desire of the Courts here met is to close commercial contracts with the Austrian possessions in Italy and establish their commercial monopoly in its ports, which would be extremely advantageous for my dear country, for the extraordinary wealth of Brazil.”