The Last Emperor
With Brazil in the first weeks of an interim president, people are talking politics everywhere – on line at the bank, in the steam room at the gym. However, rarely does the subject of Brazil’s early history as a monarchy arise. With democracy firmly entrenched for the past thirty years in one of the world’s largest economies, it’s easy to forget that Brazil was ruled in the 1800s by the Portuguese king and later his son and grandson. Some historians point to Brazil’s monarchy as one of the reasons the country can appear at times to be “politically confused” to outsiders.
Brazil’s political confusion takes on many forms. For example, Brazil has what the World Bank labeled, “the most complex tax codes in the world.” Then there is the apparent moral confusion that grips Brazil’s politicians, the men responsible for creating its laws. One third of the federal congressmen in Brazil are under indictment for crimes ranging from bribery and kickbacks to murder, although they continue to serve as congressmen.
With the fever of confusion at a peak these days, thanks to the pending impeachment proceedings against Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, it’s not surprising that a hint of nostalgia has entered the mix, a yearning for a simpler time, before the confusion, when the world was no bigger than the town where you lived – the 19th century days of the monarchy.
Amazingly, the descendents of the Brazil’s royal family are still alive and well and living in Brazil. The great-great-grandson of Dom Pedro II, Brazil’s last emperor, lives in a modest rented home in São Paulo. Dom Pedro II’s grandfather was King João VI of Portugal, who fled to Brazil with the rest of the Portuguese court in 1807 to escape Napoleon.
Dom Bertrand is the great-great-grandson of Dom Pedro II. He is now 75 years old and can be addressed as “Your Highness.” His full name is Bertrand Maria José Pio Januário Miguel Gabriel Rafael Gonzaga de Orleans e Bragança e Wittelsbach.
In one of history’s ironies, Dom Bertrand was himself born in France after his grandfather fled there when Brazil’s monarchy was overthrown in 1889, and in fact Dom Bertrand’s perfect Portuguese still carries a thick French accent. After returning to Brazil at the age of four, Dom Bertrand grew up in Paraná before moving to São Paulo.
The house where Dom Bertrand lives today looks like a small museum inside. Family portraits of monarchs alongside religious relics and a replica of Jesus’s crown of thorns fill the two reception rooms and a small adjoining dining area. The only vestige of the modern world is a credit card machine, ready to take donations from visiting members of Brazil’s small monarchist movement, who believe the way to solve the nation’s current political crisis is to reinstate the royal family.
Dom Bertrand points to his favorite possession on the wall. It is a cross. As a staunch Catholic, he says his most treasured object is an heirloom that allegedly contains two fragments of the original cross upon which Jesus was crucified. “It is a relic Pope Saint Pius X gave to my grandmother,” he says, delicately extracting the cross from its red velvet casing. “Just as Jesus sacrificed himself for his people,” he says, “so too must a king.”
Despite being the third eldest of 12 children, Dom Bertrand is considered Brazil’s king-in-waiting. His eldest brother, Dom Luiz, 77, with whom he shares the São Paulo house, is sickly and does not appear in public. And the second-eldest brother married a commoner, instantly relinquishing any hopes to the throne.
Not surprisingly, Dom Bertrand is always prepared to discuss the supposedly imminent downfall of the Brazilian republic. The country’s current impeachment proceedings are proof, he says, that the republic was a bad idea. “A republic corrupts,” he says. “Queen Elizabeth does not need to buy votes, and she has a level of popularity that no head of state has. Brazilians love the British royal family, too. It follows that they must want their own,” he adds.
Dom Bertrand has even braved the mass demonstration crowds in Brazil on a few occasions to take selfies with adoring royalists. After Brazilian president Fernando Collor was impeached in 1992, a constitutional referendum was held to decide the country’s form of government. Almost seven million people voted for a return to the monarchy at that time.
Facebook pages calling for the monarchy’s return currently attract only about 25,000 followers, but Dom Bertrand is convinced that, with enough campaign funding, he could win a referendum. It is a cause to which he has devoted his life.
He never made his brother’s mistake of getting married. “I wouldn’t have the time I do now,” he says, citing daily speaking events and meetings. His spare hours are spent reading, largely history books and biographies of religious figures. “There are no televisions here,” he scoffs. (It later emerges he has watched a considerable number of Downton Abbey episodes on his laptop.)
While he insists a reinstated monarchy would be non-partisan, he does not hide his hatred for the PT party that had ruled Brazil for 13 years up until this month. They are “Marxists” who want to “turn Brazil into a Soviet Republic.” He also believes global warming is a myth created by the “reds and eco-terrorists.”
When he was asked what he’d do if he were to become Brazil’s leader today, Dom Bertrand replied, “First, the crown would have to be retrieved from the museum at the imperial palace in Petrópolis.” On whether he would reside in the old palace in Petrópolis, Dom Bertrand laughed: “That was just the summer residence. There are some nice palaces in Brasília though.”
[Research for this article comes from the ft.com website.]