Brazil was claimed as a Portuguese colony in 1500 when a Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral made land. Portuguese settlements were established in the 1530s and within two decades Brazil became a major sugar exporter. The plantations used slave labour, with Portuguese and Dutch traders shipping hundreds of thousands of West African slaves to Brazil. Slavery also underpinned mining, especially gold mining, which boomed in the eighteenth century following the discovery of gold in the 1690s. Some 2.8 million slaves were shipped between 1500-1800, around a quarter of the total number transported to the Americas and Caribbean.

By the eighteenth century Portugal’s financial well-being was tied to the export of diamonds and gold from Brazil and government policy focused on its protection. This translated into suppressing any movement towards independence or autonomy, and harsh oppression of the colony’s slaves.

The Peninsular War in Europe (1807-14) in which the French and Spanish armies invaded Portugal led to the transfer of the royal court from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro. But the end of the war did not see the court return to Portugal but rather the creation of a United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves, with the court electing to remain in Brazil. However, political pressure in Portugal forced the court to return to Lisbon in 1821, with Prince Pedro de Alcântara staying in Brazil as regent.

Prince Pedro declared Brazil’s independence on 7 September 1822 and a month later became Brazil’s first Emperor: Dom Pedro I. A war of independence ended in March 1824 with the surrender of the remaining Portuguese army and Portugal recognized Brazil’s independence in August 1825.

Pedro I abdicated in 1831 and returned to Portugal to claim the Portuguese crown. He left his five-year-old son to succeed as Dom Pedro II. A regency was established but this was marked by rebellions and a growing move towards republicanism and the abolition of slavery throughout the 1830s and 1840s, including the ‘Ragamuffin War’ in Rio Grande do Sul in which Giuseppe Garibaldi fought. Pedro II was crowned nonetheless in 1841 and reigned until 1889, when a military coup overthrew the monarchy.

As elsewhere in Latin America, freemasonry and freemasons were involved in the struggle for independence and against absolutism, promoted by French freemasons in particular, including Dupetit-Thouars and Larcher. The first Masonic lodges were established in the late 1790s and grew numerous in the nineteenth century. Lodge União was established in Niterói in 1800, becoming Lodge Reunião the following year. Lodge Virtude e Razão was formed in Bahia in 1802 and two more lodges – Constancia and Filantropia – in 1804.

Lodge Regeneração was established in Pernambuco in 1809; Lodge Distintiva in S. Gonçalo da Praia Grande (Niterói) in 1812; Lodge União in Bahia in 1813; and Lodge Commercio e Artes in Rio de Janeiro in 1815. Freemasonry was sanctioned after 1818, with a royal decree banning secret societies. It was largely ineffective and in 1822 the Grand Orient of Brazil was formed. Freemasonry’s leaders at this time included Joaquim Gonçalves Ledo and José Bonifácio de Andrade e Silva. The former advocated a complete break with the Portuguese Crown, the latter an independent Brazil under a Brazilian king.

The Grand Orient of Brazil adopted a form of French Rite and a constitution modelled on that of the Grand Orient of France. Written by Gonçalves Ledo, it was published in October 1832.

Click the link below to read William de Carvalho’s ‘Freemasonry in Brazil’ published in AQC 124 (2011).