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The woman we love to hate

Victim of a historiography full of prejudice, Carlota Joaquina resurges as an skillful politician

The knowledge that a good number of us have about Carlota Joaquina (1775-1830) usually has the density of the historical plot of a samba school: she is that mustachioed Spanish woman who hated Brazil and shook her shoes when she left here, so as not to carry away a speck of dust from the country. Neither did the film by Carla Camurati do much good: if it helped the renaissance of the Brazilian cinema, it buried for once and for all the personality of the sovereign. “The liberal movement and the social and political transformations of the 19th century called for reinventions of the past as a way of legitimizing a present that people wanted to construct. Carlota Joaquina, a Portuguese queen who never lost her Spanish identity, was against the royal family coming to Brazil – and declared her delight with the return to Portugal -, who advocated absolutism and refused to sign the Portuguese Liberal Constitution, was certainly not fit to climb onto the podium of the personages worthy of the national memory”, explains Professor Francisca Nogueira de Azevedo, the author of the recently launched Carlota Joaquina na Corte do Brasil [Carlota Joaquina at the Court in Brazil] (Civilização Brasileira, 397 pages, R$ 40), a surprising portrait of the queen, who emerges as an able politician, capable of going far beyond the subaltern role to which the Portuguese court constrained women.

It was not the researcher’s intention to carry out a rehabilitation of her historical figure. “She wanted to accompany the life story of Carlota, concerned with the female universe of her time, with the historiographic production that delineated the stereotypes that marked her memory, and with her activity in the public sphere, where, since the end of the 18th century, she takes on a role that is preponderant in Portuguese foreign policy”, reckons Francisca.

First daughter of King Carlos IV, of Spain, she married, only 10 years old, the future Dom João VI. Although it was a typical diplomatic marriage that aimed at the pact between the two Iberian crowns, in her letters, the husband was referred to as a good, honest man, and she blamed the group that surrounded them for the couple’s disharmony, which, in 1806, came to a peak with the so-called Alfeite Conspiracy. “Several documents prove that Dom João went through a long period of depression, stepping back completely from power. The Portuguese court was then divided between anglophiles and francophiles. The group of a French persuasion supported Carlota, for her to take power, as regent, in the place of her husband.”

This “treason” had a high price: “Carlota was held incommunicado, confined in the palace as a prisoner, kept away from her friends and her parents, and her correspondence came to be controlled by Dom João’s political group”. This is the spirit in which she is seen on board a ship heading for the Colony, when she had hardly arrived when she discovered that her parents, the monarchs of Spain, had been made prisoners of Napoleon, with whom they had shortly before entered into an alliance (condemned by Carlota with noteworthy foresight) that would allow Bonaparte to cross the Spanish territory to invade Portugal.

Carlota’s brother, Fernando VII, led a revolt against his father and gave Napoleon the chance to snatch the throne from the Spaniards and put in his place his brother José Bonaparte. “Accordingly, Carlota’s biggest problem was not the Colony, but the conditions under which she came to Brazil, practically an exile. Her letters reveal her struggle to, in the beginning, not to leave Portugal, and, later, her desire to return to Europe. I did not find any reference to a disregard for Brazil, but several attempts to leave the Colony”, Francisca says.

Without a king, the “creoles” of the Spanish viceroyalties in America saw the chance to put an end to the oppression of the Bourbons, a movement soon perceived by Carlota. In her colonial exile, she decided to fight for the preservation of the empire of her father in the tropics. “Carlota wanted the regency of Spain and, from the seat of the monarchy, in Buenos Aires, to coordinate the resistance against the Napoleonic invasion and guarantee for the Bourbon dynasty the Spanish crown, that is to say, to do the same as Dom João did”, says the researcher.

To do so, she brought together part of the Spanish and Portuguese nobility, discontented with the move of the Court to Brazil, with the intellectual help of the British admiral in Rio, Sidney Smith, and, in 1808, sent a manifesto to Spain, in which she puts herself as the defender of the rights of her family. With this, she won some weighty enemies in the Colony for her plans to become the exiled regent of Spain.

Amongst them, the head of Dom João’s chief of staff, the Count of Linhares, who soon perceived the danger of this action for his plans to extend the Portuguese empire into the areas occupied by the Spanish crown. The count had a strong ally: Lord Strangford, the British ambassador in Lisbon and an enemy of Smith. Strangford thought that Brazil ought to be “a trading post for British merchandise, intended for the consumption of the whole of South America”. The Spanish ambassador in Rio also got angry with Carlota, since he had express orders from the junta that was governing Spain to keep her far away from the River Plate colonies.

After all, the disagreeable recollections of the last union between the Iberian crowns would lead one to consider the misfortunes that would come from a new Portuguese sovereignty over the Hispanics. As if that were not enough, Carlota, in spite of what her enemies were saying, was not a man. The system that governed Portuguese society between the 18th and 19th centuries deprived women of social intercourse, keeping them tied to the domestic daily life. “Carlota’s work in the public sphere, negotiating diplomatic agreements, liaising with part of the Portuguese nobility to come to power and claiming the regency of Spain would certainly be a transgression of the space determined for princess consorts in the court of Braga”, Francisca observes.

“Incidentally, for not adhering to these standards, qualities that are usually representative of the male sex were attributed to her: violence, authoritarianism, ambition, etc. Many artists, faithful to these stereotypes, portray her with markedly masculine looks”. A posture that was bought by posterity, to the detriment of her political work, notable. “In 1812, over half the deputies of the Spanish court were in favor of her getting the regency of Spain. Carlota also managed to overcome two great obstacles that blocked her arrival at the throne: the repeal of the Salic Law, which was in force in Spain and prohibited women from rising to power, and the recognition of her right of succession to the monarchy”, she says. The principal intellectuals and political leaders from the Plate province saw in “Carlotism” the easiest route for achieving free trade.

Even those who did not trust Carlota saw in her pretension to wield control over Spain by means of viceroyalties a form of preventing the definitive explosions of the “creole” liberal movements, which had taken advantage of the new balance of forces in the region, with its origins in the occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Bonaparte, who, by taking the monarch out of the scene, showed the fragility of the Hispanic sense of nationality. “Practically the whole of the Spanish empire turned towards the unfolding of the events on the River Plate, since the facts that were to occur there would certainly affect the rest of the domains of the Bourbons in America.”

The British acted more quickly: “The Court of Rio de Janeiro became aware that Britain and no longer made a point of the Portuguese partnership in its projects on the Plate. The option for the independence of the provinces under British influence was the best solution for Great Britain, in the opinion of Strangford”, Francisca notes. Spanish America surrendered to the independence movement, and the ring around Carlota tightened even more. “She was held practically incommunicado, kept away from any decision about the Spanish dominions”. In 1814, Spain lost for good its colonies on the River Plate, and Carlota Joaquina came out defeated from the most important political incursion of her life.

In Brazil, she suffered from the heat and strong pains in the chest, and she went back Europe in 1820, because of the Oporto Revolution. She did not keep quiet. In the so-called Rua Formosa Conspiracy, she tried, in collusion with noblemen and friars, to make the king abdicate and to tear up the Constitution; she hated this liberal instrument until the end of her days, and tried to overturn it in successive coups that led her to exile, and even to use her son, the Infante Dom Miguel, to try to reestablish the absolutism that, she believed, was the natural order of things. “Carlota Joaquina is not an easy woman to understand. Understanding her, deciphering the enigma of her personality, is something impossible for her contemporaries, hence the natural repudiation that she gets from the members of society that scorn restlessness andcuriosity in women”, Francisca notes.