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Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil

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Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil

Princess Imperial
Countess of Eu
Princess Isabel around age 41, c. 1887
Head of the Imperial House of Brazil
Tenure 5 December 1891 – 14 November 1921
Predecessor Pedro II of Brazil
Successor Prince Pedro Henrique of Orléans-Braganza
Born (1846-07-29)29 July 1846
Palace of São Cristóvão, Rio de Janeiro, Empire of Brazil
Died 14 November 1921(1921-11-14) (aged 75)
Château d'Eu, Eu, France
Burial Cathedral of São Pedro de Alcântara, Petrópolis, Brazil
Spouse Prince Gaston, Count of Eu
Full name
Isabel Cristina Leopoldina Augusta Micaela Gabriela Rafaela Gonzaga
House House of Braganza
Father Pedro II of Brazil
Mother Teresa Cristina of the Two Sicilies
Religion Roman Catholicism

Dona Isabel (English: Isabella;[1] 29 July 1846 – 14 November 1921), nicknamed "the Redemptress",[1] was the heiress presumptive to the throne of the Empire of Brazil, bearing the title of Princess Imperial. She also served as the Empire's regent on three occasions.

Isabel was born in Rio de Janeiro, the eldest daughter of Emperor Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina and thus a member of the Brazilian branch of the House of Braganza (Portuguese: Bragança). After the deaths of her two brothers in infancy, she was recognized as her father's heiress presumptive. She married a French prince, Gaston, Count of Eu, in an arranged marriage and they had three sons.

During her father's absences abroad, Isabel acted as regent. In her third and final regency, she actively promoted and ultimately signed a law, named Lei Áurea or the Golden Law, emancipating all slaves in Brazil. Even though the action was broadly popular, there was strong opposition to her succession to the throne. Her gender, strong Catholic faith and marriage to a foreigner were seen as impediments against her, and the emancipation of the slaves generated dislike among powerful planters. In 1889, her family was deposed in a military coup, and she spent the last 30 years of her life in exile in France.


  • Early life 1
    • Birth 1.1
    • Unsuitable heiress 1.2
  • Upbringing 2
    • Education 2.1
    • Domestic life 2.2
    • Marriage 2.3
  • Regent 3
    • First regency 3.1
    • Second regency 3.2
  • Abolitionism and the Golden Law 4
  • Exile 5
    • Republican coup d'état 5.1
    • Later years 5.2

Early life


Photograph of a young Isabel with hair gathered at the back and wearing earrings seated on a small, cane back armchair
Isabel around age 5, c. 1851. This is likely the first photograph ever taken of the Princess.[2]

Isabel was born at 6:30 p.m. on 29 July 1846 in Rio de Janeiro's Paço de São Cristóvão (Palace of Saint Christopher).[3] She was the daughter of Brazil's Emperor Pedro II and his wife Teresa Cristina.[4] On 15 November the infant princess was baptized in an elaborate ceremony in Igreja da Glória (Church of Glory).[5][6] Her godparents, both represented by proxy, were her uncle, King Ferdinand II of Portugal, and her maternal grandmother María Isabella of Spain.[7][6][8]

She was christened Isabel Cristina Leopoldina Augusta Micaela Gabriela Rafaela Gonzaga.[7] Her last four names were always bestowed upon the members of her family, and Isabel and Cristina honored Isabel's maternal grandmother and mother, respectively.[7]

She was a member of the Brazilian branch of the House of Braganza through her father, and from birth was referred to using the honorific Dona (English: Dame or Lady).[9][10] She was the granddaughter of Brazil's Emperor Pedro I (who also briefly reigned as Portugal's King Pedro IV), and the niece of Portuguese Queen Maria II (wife of Ferdinand II).[11] Through her mother, she was a granddaughter of Francis I and niece to Ferdinand II, both kings of the Two Sicilies in turn.[2]

At the time of her birth, she had an elder brother named Afonso who was heir to the Brazilian throne.[12][13][14] Two other siblings followed: Leopoldina in 1847 and Pedro in 1848.[12][13][15] Afonso's death in 1847, at the age of 2 12, propelled Isabel to the position of Pedro II's heiress.[13][16] She briefly lost the position with the birth of Prince Imperial Pedro. After his death in 1850, Isabel became the definitive heir as Princess Imperial, the title given to the first in the line of succession.[17][18] Isabel's early years were a time of peace and prosperity in Brazil. Her parents provided a happy and healthy upbringing. She and her sister "grew up in a stable, secure environment dramatically different from the one her father and aunts had known, and light years away from the childhood chaos of Pedro I."[19]

Unsuitable heiress

A photograph of a young, light-haired Isabel wearing an elaborate dress with a layered, hooped skirt and seated in front of a table that holds several books
Isabel at age 12, 1858

The early death of both of his sons had an enormous impact on Pedro II. Aside from his personal grief, the loss of his sons affected his future conduct as monarch and would determine the fate of the Empire. In the Emperor's eyes, the deaths of his children seemed to portend an eventual end of the Imperial system. The future of the monarchy as an institution no longer concerned him, as he increasingly saw his position as being nothing more than that of Head of State for his lifetime.[20]

The Emperor's words revealed his inner conviction. After learning of the death of his son Pedro in 1850, he wrote: "This has been the most fatal blow that I could receive, and certainly I would not have survived were it not that I still have a wife and two children whom I must educate so that they can assure the happiness of the country in which they were born."[21][22][23] Seven years later, in 1857, when it was more than clear that no more children would be born, the Emperor wrote: "As to their education, I will only say that the character of both the princesses ought to be shaped as suits Ladies who, it may be, will have to direct the constitutional government of an Empire such as Brazil".[24][22]

Although the Emperor still had a legal successor in his beloved daughter Isabel, the male-dominated society of the time left him little hope that a woman could rule Brazil. He was fond and respectful of the women in his life, but he did not consider it feasible that Isabel could survive as monarch, given the political realities and climate.[25] To historian Roderick J. Barman, the Emperor "could not conceive of women, his daughters included, playing any part in governance. [...] In consequence, although he valued D. Isabel as his daughter, he simply could not accept or perceive her in cold reality as his successor or regard her as a viable ruler."[26] The main reason for this behavior was his attitude toward the female gender. "Pedro II believed, as did most men of his day", says Barman, "that a single woman could not manage life's problem on her own, even if she possessed the powers and authority of an empress."[26]



Princesses Leopoldina (left) and Isabel (center) with an unidentified friend, c. 1860

Isabel began her education on 1 May 1854, when she was taught how to read and write by a male instructor, who was openly republican.[27][22][28] As the Portuguese (and later Brazilian) court tradition demanded, the heir of the throne was supposed to have an aio (supervisor, tutor or governess) in charge of his education once he achieved the age of seven.[29] After a long search, Pedro II chose the Brazilian-born Luísa Margarida Portugal de Barros, the Countess of Barral, daughter of a Brazilian noble and wife of a French noble.[24][30] Barral assumed her position on 9 September 1856, when Isabel was ten years old.[31][32][33] The 40-year-old Countess was a charming and vivacious woman who soon captured the heart of Isabel and became to the young princess a kind of a role model.[34][35]

In Pedro II's own words, his daughters' education "should not differ from that given to men, combined with that suited the other sex, but in a manner that does not distract from the first."[24][22][36] He "provided his daughters with a broad, democratic and rigorous education, through both its curriculum and the teachers who taught it."[37] For over nine and a half hours per day and six days per week, Isabel and her sister were in class.[38] Subjects were broad and included Portuguese and French literature, astronomy, chemistry, the history of Portugal, England and France, drawing, piano, dancing, political economy, geography, geology, and the history of philosophy.[38][39] As an adult, beyond her native Portuguese, Isabel became fluent in French, English and German.[40]

Among her teachers were Barral, some who taught her father as a child, and even Pedro II himself, who gave classes of Latin, geometry and astronomy.[41][42] The education provided to Isabel was lacking, however. All she assimilated were abstract ideas which did not teach her "how to integrate" them "with practical application".[43] Her tutors and parents did not prepare her to rule Brazil, nor to understand its political and social issues. A way of preparing her for a role as future Empress "would have been to give her from an early age personal experience of the tasks she would face and to relate it to what she learned in the classroom."[44] That did not happen. Pedro II "showed her no state papers. He did not discuss politics with her. He did not take her with him on his constant visits to government offices. He did not include her in the despacho, the weekly meetings with the cabinet members, nor did he allow her to attend the public audiences that took place twice a week."[45][46] She might have been officially heiress to the throne, "but by his treatment of her Pedro II deprived the honor of any meaning."[45]

Domestic life

Isabel (center) surrounded by friends, c. 1860. The small boy seated on top of the tree is Dominique (right), son of the Countess of Barral.
Isabel around age 19, c. 1865 (photograph by Augusto Stahl)

Pedro II's behavior as a father was completely different as an emperor. A "man remarkable for his self-control, was at his most affectionate and most outgoing with children, above all his daughters."[47] His daughters, "whom I love deeply", as Pedro II wrote in his diary in 1861,[47] "both loved and admired him."[48] He "was a strict father who demanded obedience",[48] but who, at the same time, was very kind and concerned with his children.[47] However, Pedro II "found difficult if not impossible" to grant intimacy to not only Isabel, but "to any member of his family."[49]

During her upbringing Isabel "absorbed from her instructors conformity to traditional gender roles. She accepted women as dependent and obedient, and indeed her mother's and her governess's behavior did not justify anything else."[50] She "did not lack powers of observation and a certain shrewdness, but she was very accepting of existence as it was and certainly not given to pondering the justification of existence for the established order."[50] All this meant that Isabel would not attempt "a position in life autonomous of her father", even less rival him.[51]

That happened because the Princess Imperial was "at an essential disadvantage with her father. She had a strong personality but she could not turn it to account. As a child she did not share Pedro II's seriousness, his single mindedness, or his interest in the larger world. The coming of adolescence did not improve matters."[50] In fact, she lacked introspection and had a "tendency to take a cheerful view of life".[52] Also, Isabel "did not naturally possess much patience or notable powers of endurance. She moved from one interest to another as each in turn caught her fancy. She was not afraid to speak her mind, and she held strong views. However, when she encountered something she did not like, she found it difficult to focus and organize her resistance so as to make her view prevail. She tended to flare up and then to submit or to lose interest."[29] Isabel's mother, Teresa Cristina, "lived for her family and found fulfillment in making her spouse and her daughters happy."[47] She "created for her family a home life that was secure, safe and predictable."[53] Isabel and her sister "loved their gentle mother and worshipped their demanding but emotionally distant father."[33] From both parents, Isabel inherited a lack of racism.[37] Pedro II surrounded himself with men "regardless of their race."[54] Historian James McMurtry Longo said that as "her father's student, daughter, and heir Princess Isabel followed his example. Race never played a role in her social life, political relationships, alliances or disagreements." And concludes: "It may have been the most important lesson learned from him."[54]

The Imperial family lived in São Cristóvão palace but during the summer (from December to April) went to Pedro II's palace in Petrópolis (nowadays the Imperial Museum of Brazil).[55][56] Isabel lived an almost completely secluded life from the outside world, far away from the eyes of the Brazilians. She and her sisters had a few friends. Three of them would remain lifelong friends of Isabel: Maria Ribeiro de Avelar (whose mother was a childhood friend of Pedro II's sisters), Maria Amanda de Paranaguá (daughter of João Lustosa da Cunha Paranaguá, the 2nd Marquis of Paranaguá, a member of the Liberal Party and later Prime Minister) and Adelaide Taunay (daughter of Pedro II's former teacher Félix Émile Taunay and sister of Alfredo d'Escragnolle Taunay, Viscount of Taunay).[57] The sole male child who was part of Isabel's all female group was Dominique, the only son of the Countess of Barral, who was regarded by the Princess Imperial and her sister as "the younger brother they never had".[58]


The marriage between Gaston of Orleans and Dona Isabel of Braganza

Isabel was short, had blue eyes, blond hair,[59] was a little overweight[60] and lacked eyebrows.[61] Her father sought a match among the royal house of France, and initially Pierre, Duke of Penthièvre, the son of the Prince of Joinville, was considered.[62] His mother was Isabel's aunt Princess Francisca of Brazil. Pierre, however, was not interested and declined.[63] Instead, Joinville suggested his nephews, Gaston, Count of Eu, and Prince Ludwig August of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha as suitable choices for the imperial princesses.[63] The two young men travelled to Brazil in August 1864 so that the prospective brides and grooms could meet before a final agreement to the marriage. Isabel and Leopoldina were not informed until Gaston and August were mid-Atlantic.[64] Arriving in early September, Gaston described the princesses as "ugly", but thought Isabel less so than her sister. For her part, Isabel in her own words "began to feel a great and tender love" for Gaston.[65] Gaston and Isabel, and August and Leopoldina, were engaged on 18 September.[66]

On 15 October, Gaston and Isabel were married at the Imperial Chapel in Rio by the archbishop of Bahia.[67] Although Gaston encouraged his wife to read broadly, and the Emperor took her on tours of government offices, her outlook remained one of narrow domesticity. She led a life typical of aristocratic women of her generation.[68] For the first six months of 1865, she and her husband toured Europe.[69] As Brazil had broken off diplomatic relations with Britain, and her French relations had been deposed in France, they travelled as private citizens and met Queen Victoria as relatives not as official state guests.[70] On their return to Brazil, Gaston was called to the battle front of the Paraguayan War by the Emperor, leaving Isabel lonely at Rio.[71]

After the conclusion of the war in 1870, Gaston and Isabel again toured Europe. In early 1871, they were in Vienna, where her sister Leopoldina fell fatally ill and died, leaving Isabel the sole surviving child of her parents.[72]


First regency

The oath of the Princess Imperial as regent of the Empire of Brazil, c. 1870

Gaston and Isabel returned to Brazil on 1 May 1871, just three weeks before the Emperor and Empress embarked on their own tour of Europe. Isabel was appointed regent with full powers to govern Brazil in the Emperor's absence, though prime minister José Paranhos, Viscount of Rio Branco, and Gaston were expected to hold the reins of power in reality.[73] Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, Pedro II was committed to a gradual program of liberation.[74] On 27 September 1871, with the Emperor still abroad, Isabel signed a new anti-slavery act, passed by the Chamber of Deputies. The Law of Free Birth, as it was called, freed all children born of slaves after that date.[75] On Pedro II's return to Brazil in March 1872, Isabel was once again excluded from government, and resumed private life.[76]

Throughout the first years of her marriage, Isabel was eager to have children, but her first pregnancy ended in miscarriage in October 1872.[77] Worried about her apparent inability to conceive, during a visit to Europe in 1873 she consulted a specialist doctor, and visited the shrine at Lourdes.[78] By December 1873, she was pregnant. Despite Isabel's pleas to remain in Europe until after the birth, the Emperor insisted she returned to Brazil so that the child, who might inherit the throne, would not be born abroad.[79] They arrived at Rio in June 1874. After a labor of 50 hours in late July, the baby died in the womb.[80] Her Catholic faith provided some solace, but her association with ultramontanism, which emphasized the authority of the Church over the government, drew criticism from those who thought the Church should defer to temporal authorities.[81]

Isabel remained concerned throughout her third pregnancy, in 1875, fearful that it would again end in failure.[82] A doctor and midwife from France were brought over for the birth, to the dismay of local physicians whose pride was wounded by Isabel's use of foreign practitioners.[83] After a labor of 13 hours, a boy, baptized Pedro de Alcântara after his grandfather, was delivered with the aid of forceps.[83] Possibly as the result of the difficult delivery, Pedro was born with a disabled left arm.[84]

Second regency

Princess Isabel and her father, Emperor Pedro II, c. 1870

The Emperor embarked on a major tour of North America, Europe and the Middle East in March 1876, and Isabel was again made regent.[85] Elections later in the year returned the incumbent government (led by the [90] Their seclusion, however, left them isolated and unable to influence public opinion.[91] Throughout the middle of 1877, during a serious drought in northeastern Brazil that threatened public order, Isabel largely remained at home resting because she was again going through a difficult pregnancy.[92]

On Pedro II's return to Brazil in late September 1877, he avoided speaking to Isabel, and distanced himself from the government's actions during the regency by declaring that throughout his entire journey he had not sent "a single telegram on the country's affairs" to any minister or Isabel.[93] Isabel retired to her estate at Petrópolis where she gave birth to a second son, Luiz, in late January 1878.[94] Three months later, Gaston, Isabel and their two sons left Brazil for an extended stay in Europe, where Pedro was to receive medical treatment for his arm.[95] Throughout their stay of three and a half years, Isabel avoided politics and showed no interest in current affairs.[96] Pedro's treatment proved futile, and the couple made plans to return after the birth (with the assistance of forceps) of their final child and third son, Antônio, in August 1881.[97] Isabel and her family returned to Brazil in December 1881.[98]

Abolitionism and the Golden Law

Open mass on 17 May 1888 commemorating the abolition of slavery. Isabel and her husband can be seen under a canopy to the left. The monarchy was never so popular, but at the same time never so frail.

From November 1884 to March 1885, Isabel toured southern Brazil with her husband, and in January 1887 they left Brazil for a six-month visit to Europe. Their trip was cut short, however, as Pedro II fell ill in March, and they returned in early June. The Emperor was advised to seek medical help in Europe, as a result of which he left Brazil on 30 June, leaving Isabel as regent.[99]

Abolitionism in Brazil was growing in strength, but the government of Conservative João Maurício Wanderley, Baron of Cotegipe, attempted to slow the pace of reform.[100] Isabel, in her own words, "became ever more convinced that some action had to be taken" to expand the emancipation program, and pressured Cotegipe, unsuccessfully, to free more slaves.[101] After the Rio police's mishandling of a pro-abolition demonstration in early 1888, Isabel acted, and appointed João Alfredo Correia de Oliveira in Cotegipe's place.[102]

Oliveira's government supported unconditional abolition, and swiftly introduced legislation. On 13 May 1888, Isabel signed the Golden Law (A Lei Áurea), as it was known, which enabled the complete cessation of slavery.[103] Isabel was popularly acclaimed as "the Redemptress" (A Redentora),[104] and was given a Golden Rose by the Pope for her actions.[105]


1877 portrait of the Princess Imperial and the Count of Eu with their son Pedro, Prince of Grão-Pará, by Karl Ernst Papf

Republican coup d'état

In August 1888, to Isabel's relief, Pedro II returned from Europe and her regency ended.[106] Gaston wrote:

The avidity and the enthusiasm of the public for the Emperor have been very great, more even more marked, it appears to me, than on previous arrivals. But it is a totally personal homage; because, as I think I have already written, the republican creed has made since his departure last year enormous advances that impress everybody; and, notwithstanding the economic prosperity during the present year, never, for the past 40 years, has the situation of the Brazilian monarchy appeared more shaky than today.[107]

With the Emperor ill and Isabel withdrawn from public life, no effort was made to capitalize on the public popularity engendered by the end of slavery.[108] They had lost the support of slave-owning plantation owners, who held great political, economic and social power.[109][110] Isabel was uninterested in politics and did not cultivate politicians or public support. Her religious zeal was distrusted,[105] and it was widely assumed that if she became Empress Gaston would hold power, but Gaston was isolated because of his increasing deafness, and was unpopular because of his foreign birth.[111] Her position was further weakened by the intrigues of her nephew Prince Pedro Augusto of Saxe-Coburg, who was maneuvering to be recognized as Pedro II's heir.[112] Pedro Augusto was told bluntly by his younger brother, "the succession does not belong to her [Isabel], nor to the maimed [Isabel's eldest son Pedro], nor to the deaf [Gaston], nor to you either."[112]

On 15 November 1889, Pedro II was deposed in a military coup.[113][114][115] He dismissed all suggestions for quelling the rebellion that politicians and military leaders put forward,[116][117] and simply commented: "If it is so, it will be my retirement. I have worked too hard and I am tired. I will go rest then."[118] Within two days, he and his family were on their way to exile in Europe.[119]

Isabel released a public statement that read:

It is with my heart riven with sorrow that I take leave of my friends, of all Brazilians, and of the country that I have loved and love so much, and to the happiness of which I have striven to contribute and for which I will continue to hold the most ardent hopes.[120]

Later years

Isabel, de jure Empress of Brazil, and the Count of Eu with their son Prince Luís, his wife and children, 1913

The imperial family arrived at Lisbon on 7 December 1889.[121] Three weeks later, Isabel's mother died at Porto, while Isabel and her family were in southern Spain.[122] Back in Portugal, Isabel fainted at her mother's lying in state.[123] Further bad news came from Brazil, as the new government abolished the imperial family's allowances, their only substantial source of income, and declared the family banished.[123] On the back of a large loan from a Portuguese businessman, the imperial family moved into the Hotel Beau Séjour at Cannes.[124]

In early 1890, Isabel and Gaston moved into a private villa, which was far cheaper than the hotel, but their father refused to accompany them and remained at the Beau Séjour. Gaston's father provided them with a monthly allowance.[125] By September, they had taken a villa near Versailles and their sons were enrolled in Parisian schools.[126] Isabel's father died in December 1891, and his property in Brazil was sold with much of the proceeds used to pay off his debts in Europe.[127] Isabel and Gaston purchased a villa in Boulogne-sur-Seine, where they lived an essentially quiet life.[128] Attempts by Brazilian monarchists to restore the crown were unsuccessful, and Isabel lent them only half-hearted support. She thought military action unwise and unwelcome, and correctly assumed that it was unlikely to succeed.[129]

Gaston's father died in 1896, and Gaston's inheritance gave him and Isabel financial security.[130] Their three sons enrolled at a military school in Vienna, and Isabel continued her charitable work associated with the Catholic Church.[130] In 1905, Gaston purchased the château d'Eu in Normandy, the former home of King Louis Philippe I, and the couple furnished it with items received from Brazil in the early 1890s.[131]

By 1908, Isabel's eldest son Pedro wanted to marry an Austro-Hungarian aristocrat Countess Elisabeth Dobržensky de Dobrženicz, but Gaston and Isabel withheld consent because Elizabeth was not a princess. Their consent was only forthcoming when their second son, Luiz, who had travelled to Brazil but had been forbidden to land by the authorities, married Princess Maria Pia of Bourbon-Naples and Pedro renounced his claim to the Brazilian throne in favor of his brother.[132] Luiz and his youngest brother Antônio both served in the British army during World War I (as members of the French royal family they were forbidden to serve in

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