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José Bonifácio connected ideas from the Age of Enlightenment to Brazil’s Independence process

Mineralogist and professor in Coimbra, “the patriarch” proposed a political and economic project for the new country

Statue of José Bonifácio, unveiled in 1872, in Rio de Janeiro, in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Independence

Donatas Dabravolskas / Wikimedia Commons

In 1819, a 58-year-old mineralogist, with degrees in Law and Philosophy from the University of Coimbra, member of the Lisbon Academy of Sciences, and former Portuguese government employee, embarked on a journey from Lisbon to Brazil. Nearing retirement, naturalist José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva (1763–1838) was an intellectual imbued with ideas of the Enlightenment. He fought against French troops led by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) and, despite his inherent responsibilities, he never became politically involved.

However, this would all change the following year with the emergence of the Porto Revolution, which would bury the Old Regime and establish a constitutional monarchy in Portugal, based on the liberal ideas shared by the mineralogist. The revolution shaped the formation of governing boards within the provinces, and José Bonifácio, who had recently landed in Santos, where he was born and where his family lived, was elected to the São Paulo board, established in early 1821. One of his brothers, Antônio Carlos (1773–1845), would join the General and Extraordinary Cortes of the Portuguese Nation, known as the Cortes of Lisbon, a Constituent Assembly of the New Regime that began meeting in January of 1821, at the Palace of Necessidades, in the Portuguese capital.

Two years later, the scholar who signed letters as “a good Portuguese and a good subject” of the Portuguese King would become one of the main architects of Brazil’s Independence. In the new country, he would be the constituent representative and Minister of State and Foreign Affairs. In August of 1822, he urged Dom Pedro I (1798–1834), prince regent and heir to the Portuguese throne, to separate from the Portuguese American territories, claiming that “from Portugal, they [had] nothing to expect but slavery and horrors.” During this period, he outlined a national project for the new country, which included gradually abolishing slavery, overhauling the land tenure system, and implementing a miscegenation program.

His ideas would not be put into practice. In 1823, the then Minister clashed with the elite Brazilian political leaders, which led to his dismissal in July. With the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, he lost his mandate as representative and was exiled by the same emperor whose power he had helped to consolidate. Bonifácio’s exile would last until 1829, when he returned to Brazil and reconnected with the ruler. Upon abdicating and returning to Portugal in 1831, Dom Pedro chose him to tutor his son, future Emperor Dom Pedro II (1825–1891).

Over the last two decades, José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva’s role in separating Portuguese America and his actions as a nature scholar have been interpreted in a new light, due to the discovery of manuscripts. According to historian Alex Gonçalves Varela, of Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) and author of Juro-lhe pela honra de bom vassalo e bom português (I swear on my honor as a good subject and a good Portuguese; Annablume, 2006), it is now known that the mineralogist’s collection is scattered across several Brazilian archives. Varela reports finding materials in places such as the National Archive, the Brazilian Historic and Geographic Institute (IHGB), the National Museum and National Library in Rio de Janeiro, and the Paulista Museum (MP) in São Paulo.

Historian Miriam Dolhnikoff, of the University of São Paulo (USP) and author of the biography José Bonifácio: O patriarca vencido (José Bonifácio: The defeated patriarch; Companhia das Letras, 2012), adds that the discovery of unpublished documents in the IHGB and the MP was fundamental to understanding why proposals to abolish slavery were included in a comprehensive national project. In 2006, Bonifácio’s digitalized texts were uploaded to the José Bonifácio – Complete Works website, organized by writer Jorge Caldeira (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 128).

According to historian Ana Rosa Cloclet da Silva, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Campinas (PUC-Campinas) and author of Construção da nação e escravidão no pensamento de José Bonifácio (Building a nation and slavery in the thought of José Bonifácio; Centro de Memória/UNICAMP, 1999), the mineralogist’s image has been disputed since the early years following Brazil’s Independence. On the one hand, he is called the “Patriarch of Independence,” while, on the other hand, he is seen as a despot who censored and persecuted political opponents while acting Minister. He is considered a man ahead of his time, having proposed the gradual abolition of slavery and reforms to the land tenure system. However, having rejected principles such as federalism and constituent assemblies, he is also seen as retrogressive.

“Perspectives focused on personal characteristics and values overlook the actions of someone who lived through the rapid transformations of his time. It was a period of heated political tension, which started in the previous century and ramped up after the French Revolution [1798],” says the historian. “It was in this context that he drafted his national project, as both heir to the enlightened Luso-Brazilian tradition and builder of the Brazilian state.”

Dolhnikoff also adds that the choices and actions made by Dom Pedro I’s advisor and minister must be viewed through the lens of the conflicts at the time and the political reasoning they entailed. An example of this is José Bonifácio’s despotic approach. He put pressure on his adversaries by exercising the Press Law, in particular, which contained a wide range of restrictions on freedom of expression. This approach is the result of his intellectual background, claims the historian.

“He shared the idea commonly held during the Age of Enlightenment, that the enlightened, the scholars knew what was best for the country. He supported a liberal regime, which entailed some degree of grassroots participation, but at the same time, he believed that Brazilian society would be built from the top down,” she says. “He believed it was necessary to have a strong Executive branch capable of implementing the reforms he had in mind that were essential for Brazil to become a modern, viable nation, with internal order.”

Bonifácio is a nearly forgotten figure in Portuguese historiography

Although he spent most of his adult life in Portugal, working in the sciences and state administration, José Bonifácio is “a nearly forgotten figure” in Portuguese historiography, according to historian Isabel Corrêa da Silva, of the University of Lisbon. This is despite the importance of some of his roles, such as the Royal Intendant General of Mining and Metals, Director of Lisbon’s Mint, and the first metallurgy professor at the University of Coimbra. Corrêa da Silva, who wrote a biography of the mineralogist, says that his writings are only now beginning to be recognized as pioneering by science historians (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 298). “In fact, in Europe, he was already identified as a forerunner in his awareness of the link between nature and the exploitation of natural resources, which we would call ‘ecology’ today.”

Given his education at the University of Coimbra and his administrative roles in the Portuguese government, José Bonifácio represents the junction between Brazil’s independence and enlightened reformism, the Portuguese version of Enlightenment. The education he received in Coimbra was reformed during the period in which Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquis of Pombal (1699–1782), led the country: in place of the Jesuit-led scholastic tradition, the institution incorporated the scientific mentality spreading across Europe during the Age of Enlightenment.

“Bonifácio studied at a reformed university and is the product of this reformation,” states Corrêa da Silva. “He inherited the concepts of establishing a centralized state and strengthening royal power from Pombal, as he believed that only the State had the structure and capacity to implement the changes required to modernize society. This was the spirit guiding him as he worked in the Portuguese government and fought to uphold the kingdom, and later when establishing the political and legal framework of the new Brazil,” she adds.

Between 1790 and 1800, young Bonifácio embarked on a “professionalization” trip across Europe, funded by the Portuguese government. He visited France, Germany, and Scandinavia. He took specialization courses and identified four minerals, of which the most well-known is petalite, fundamental to the 1817 discovery of a new chemical element, lithium (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 277). In Germany, he studied with Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749–1817), who, according to Varela, became quite notable in mineralogy.

During this time, he expressed his horror at the instability that followed the French Revolution, according to economist Ivan Colangelo Salomão, of the Federal University of Paraná (UFPR). His negative impression of this period in time, which he referred to as an “unprecedented revolution,” helped form his own political thinking, adds the economist. “France decisively shaped one of his most conservative facets. He was intolerant of disorder and lost faith in the functionality of deliberative assemblies. This influenced his stance during debates about Brazil’s first Constitution,” he states.

Bonifácio’s career as a mineralogist played out under the banner of the Portuguese reformist project, which aimed to modernize the country. The positions held by the scholar in Portugal also entailed promoting the country’s development. “Bonifácio was a pragmatic man. His scientific concerns were inseparable from his concerns regarding the monarchy’s economic development and prosperity. So, after returning to Portugal [from his trip throughout Europe], he experienced a so-called ‘anticlimax,’ a decade of disappointments, where he tried to apply his knowledge in the field and in modernizing the country,” says Corrêa da Silva. Upon returning to Brazil, in 1819, he was disappointed with the lack of development in Portugal, adds the historian.

A fundamental element of his involvement as a public figure was his relationship with Dom Rodrigo de Sousa Coutinho (1755–1812), Count of Linhares. Dom Rodrigo, who would become Minister of Foreign Affairs and War under Dom João VI (1767–1826) and who would travel to Rio de Janeiro with the Portuguese Corte in 1808, conceived a transatlantic Portuguese Empire, where Brazil, the largest and richest land in its territory, would be an integral part, rather than a mere colony. “Bonifácio became Dom Rodrigo’s right-hand man and was appointed to various positions. And, thus, the naturalist facet was linked to the public figure,” says Varela.

José Bonifácio’s link to Enlightenment also led to his economic ideas, says Salomão. As a member of the Academy of Sciences, he helped write Memórias Econômicas da Academia (Economic Memories of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Lisbon), a collection of essays on the Portuguese Empire’s economy, published in five volumes from 1789 to 1815. Texts such as Memória sobre a pesca das baleias (Memories of whaling), from 1790, were written with the intent of making the practice more profitable. “Enlightenment is seen in the recurrent appeal to reason, proposing that nature be observed in order to extract practical records that contribute to social and environmental well-being,” according to the UFPR researcher. “Additionally, English liberalism extended its influence through the defense of economic freedom, to the detriment of government control and monopolies.”

Salomão highlights that José Bonifácio’s economic ideas took a turn when he left mineralogy and became a civil servant in Portugal, and then a politician in Brazil. Once he found himself in charge of outlining the founding elements of a nation, “Bonifácio adopted a clearly nationalist stance, not only in his discourse, but in concrete measures,” notes the economist.

In 1823, he opposed borrowing from the English, advising the Minister of Finance, his brother Martim Francisco (1775–1844), to issue fiat money and bonds to be paid using revenue from Customs in Rio de Janeiro. “Bonifácio remembered Lisbon’s commercial and financial subordination to London, mainly after signing the Methuen Treaty [1703], which favored the English textile industry, to the detriment of Portuguese manufacturing,” notes Salomão, adding that the Minister defended establishing manufacturers in Brazil as well.

According to the economist, many things could explain this shifting stance. “It is likely that his liberalism was inadequate when faced with the conservative reality, in the sense that the slaveholder mentality had been ingrained in Brazil for three centuries,” he suggests. “He sought to adapt his liberal beliefs to local circumstances. His defense of free trade was focused on the domestic market. As the country was continental, but the regions were dispersed, it was trade that united the nation. This was a State interest, which reveals an organic political and economic design.”

Plans such as ending the slave trade and, over time, slavery itself also had an economic purpose, since Bonifácio considered it low yield. The same can be said for reforming the sesmarias, also known as land tenures. Bonifácio advocated that the government buy idle land and distribute it among Indigenous and Black people, who would produce more than the large estates cultivated by slave labor.

Until a few months prior to the political rift between Portugal and the former colony, José Bonifácio fully subscribed to the Count of Linhares’ project. According to Cloclet, both the “Brazilians” and the reinóis (Portuguese-born residents of Brazil) saw themselves as subjects of the same monarch and members of the “great Lusitanian family.” However, when the Portuguese Corte moved to Rio de Janeiro, the roles granted to parties under the Empire were overturned.

“The Luso-Brazilian elite did not contemplate independence. They saw themselves as subjects of the Portuguese Empire and as Europeans in a territory occupied by a barbarian population,” says Dolhnikoff. “Unique to Brazil were the arrival of the Portuguese Corte in 1808 and the elevation of Portugal and the Algarve as a United Kingdom. All government institutions were headquartered in Brazil and that was what they wanted to maintain, with a representative of the monarchy in Rio de Janeiro, who, at the time, was Dom Pedro I.”

However, news from Lisbon in 1822 indicated that the Portuguese constituents wanted a concentration of State institutions on the European side. “From that moment on, the Brazilian elite, including Bonifácio, began discussing a project to recolonize Brazil and to represent Portugal as an explorer,” says Dolhnikoff.

According to Cloclet, the different ways in which the reinóis and the local subjects experienced that moment led to irreconcilable expectations for the future. In Brazilian cities, the feeling of divisiveness, where the Portuguese came to be seen as foreigners, reflected the anti-Lusitanism that took off in the First Reign, much more than it revealed a national identity. “Creating this national identity was one of the challenges faced by people like Bonifácio. He began thinking about what race should emerge and developed ideas about miscegenation, which were expressed in the mineralogist’s metaphor as ‘the very difficult amalgamation of so many heterogeneous metals,’” summarizes the PUC-Campinas researcher.

After the Andrada brothers’ dismissal, and Bonifácio’s subsequent exile, the social and economic content of Bonifácio’s project was abandoned. The abolition of slavery and reformation of land distribution were unlikely at that time, in a country of elites comprising landowners and traders who operated the slave trade in the South Atlantic. The initiatives for miscegenation and integration of the Indigenous population were not even discussed before dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, in 1823.

Scientific articles
CHAGAS, C. S. and CORRÊA, T. H. B. As contribuições científicas de José Bonifácio e a descoberta do lítio: Um caminhar pela história da ciência. Revista de Educação, Ciências e Matemática. vol. 7, no. 1. 2017.
SALOMÃO, I. C. Liberalismo, industrialização e desenvolvimento: As ideias econômicas de José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva. Almanack. no. 26. 2020.