Question: Today, world capitals are easy to find, just look in the countries they govern. But 200 years ago, it wasn’t that simple for one European nation—its capital was located 5,000 miles away … in South America. What European nation was it? And which thriving South American city served as its capital?
Answer: The capital of Portugal was Rio de Janeiro
In late 1807, Napoleon's army was marching toward Portugal, intent on capturing all of Iberia during what would come to be known as the Peninsular War. Fearing for the safety of the royal family, Prince John VI ordered that the entire court be transferred from the capital of Lisbon to the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
The royal court arrived in Rio de Janeiro on March 7, 1808, establishing it as the first (and only) European capital city to ever exist outside of Europe.
As you might imagine, the sudden arrival of nobility had a big impact on the tiny colonial capital. Here are some facts about how Rio de Janeiro—and Brazil in general—were changed by the city’s unprecedented status:
- Eminent domain: Even though Rio de Janeiro had been serving as the colonial capital of Portuguese America since 1763, it was in no way large enough or grand enough to suit royal sensibilities. So the court improvised—much to the chagrin of locals: Residents and shop owners were hastily (and sometimes forcibly) removed from their property to make room for the royal entourage, and wealthier inhabitants willingly gave up their sumptuous accommodations to please the Prince.
- Keeping up with the sovereigns: Property ownership wasn’t all that changed after the royals came to town—the economy was transformed, too. The influx of a huge court called for an increase in food supply—and the influx of expensive, courtly taste turned Rio into a haven for luxury goods. Over time, rent in the city doubled, taxes rose, infrastructure vastly improved, and Rio was imbued with an air of elegance and sophistication.
- Brazil gets a promotion: After the Peninsular War ended in 1814, the leaders of Europe balked at the idea that an ancient royal family would continue to reside outside of Europe and demanded that the Portuguese court return to their native home. But the court was thriving in Rio de Janeiro—and in no hurry to leave. In an effort to appease his monarchical peers, Prince John elevated Brazil's status by forming the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves. Suddenly, Brazil wasn't just a colony, but a kingdom united to Portugal.
- Goodbye, Rio: Unfortunately for the court, the ploy was ultimately unsuccessful: Leadership in Portugal resented the new status of the much larger colony, and Brazilians were growing more and more eager to govern themselves. So, in 1821, Prince John grudgingly returned to Lisbon, leaving his son, Prince Pedro de Alcantara, to oversee Brazil.
- A new country is born: The course Prince Pedro took may not have been exactly what his father had in mind: Just one year after the court left, Prince Pedro declared the Brazil’s independence from Portugal. Not long after, the Prince was named the first Emperor of Brazil, and he decide to govern the new nation from—where else?—the former capital of Portugal, Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro may not be a capital city anymore (in Brazil, that honor now belongs to Brasilia), but there's still plenty to see in this history-rich metropolis on OAT's Best of Brazil: Cultural Rhythms & Natural Wonders adventure, or on the post-trip extension of Grand Circle Travel's Discover South America: Chile & Argentina trip. Meet one of the locals who'll introduce you to Brazil's highlights in the video below.