One reason I love writing historical fiction is the chance to discover real people I’d swear were fabricated in someone’s imagination. King João VI of Portugal is one of these people. The man was born to be the comedic relief in someone else’s story. Sure, he was also born into royalty, but he seemed so much more suited for getting laughs than governing.
I discovered Dom João VI while researching for a book set in 1809 Rio de Janeiro. (Aside: King John is the English version of his name and title, which I won’t be using because that makes me think of English kings and Robin Hood but I’m writing about Portugal and there really are just too many people named John or some variation in human history). At the time of my story, João was Prince Regent and had been ruling in place of his mom, Queen Maria I of Portugal, since 1792 when she was declared insane. (Queen Maria is a whole other post.)
What to say about Dom João? He loved to eat. He always carried grilled chicken in his coat pocket for emergency snacking. This becomes even more disgusting after learning he also hated bathing and wouldn’t change his clothes for months. He was terrified of thunder and crustaceans, very inconvenient phobias when living in tropical Rio de Janeiro. João would literally hide in his bedroom during thunderstorms. He referred to himself in third person and was plagued by vertigo and hemorrhoids.
Not surprisingly, João was also the last absolute monarch of Portugal. What is surprising are his nine kids, which is eight more than I’d have guessed for a man universally considered a “peaceful dullard” with a “flaccid visage”.
But the truly shocking and grand achievement of Dom João was surviving. When monarchs all over Europe were getting deposed at best and beheaded at worst, Dom João, the peaceful dullard, kept his crown, and he did it by being the only European monarch in history to move the capitol of his kingdom to a different continent. This man, who hated change so much his servants had to repair holes in his pants while he slept, moved the capital of Portugal from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro.
João had been communicating with Napoleon in hopes of finding some solution that didn’t get him exiled or killed. Napoleon, the British, and pretty much everyone was under the impression Portugal would surrender to France. In 1808, the Prince Regent played Napoleon just long enough to order his government to pack up, board a ship, and get the hell out of Portugal before Napoleon’s army showed up. As someone who always preferred to delay a decision rather than make one, João gave the court three days to evacuate 10,000 people across the Atlantic.
That’s how Dom João VI found himself living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil trying to establish court in a colony that had almost no roads between cities, no universities, no printing presses, and no trade with anyone but Portugal. Of course, the total lack of development in Brazil was intentional to keep the colony submissive and easily controlled. No Portuguese monarch ever anticipated having to live in this place where doctor, dentist, and barber was a single, mostly self-taught profession.
But it all changed under Dom João. He allowed roads, universities, and newspapers to flourish in Brazil. In exchange for escorting the court across the Atlantic, Brazilians ports were opened to the British and trade expanded. Academics, artists, and merchants flooded Brazil.
And Brazil declared independence sixteen years after João arrived in Rio. (Printing presses always lead to independence.)
As king finally back in Portugal, João conceded Brazilian independence in 1822 after a bloodless revolution led by the son he left behind in Rio to run the colony. His son’s betrayal probably didn’t bother him too much. At that point his wife had tried to overthrow him a few times so he was surely used to betrayal by immediate family. When he died in 1826, many suspected arsenic poisoning possibly ordered by his wife. (She really hated him.)
He may have lost Brazil for Portugal, but because of the reforms and development João initiated during his time in Brazil which led directly to independence, he’s remembered quite fondly here in spite of his eccentricities.
For my part, I can picture him clearly. His Majesty Dom João VI holding court, unbathed, and referring to himself in third while nibbling buttery chicken pulled out of a stained coat pocket that hasn’t been changed in a month. The perfect comedic relief.
If you’re interested in reading more about João and Brazilian history, I highly recommend 1808: The Flight of the Emperor by Laurentino Gomes.